Artist-in-Residence, NYC Department of Sanitation, 51 Chambers Street (original residency location), 1977–present

This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ residency with the New York City Department of Sanitation stands as one of the most involved and sustained projects in the history of art production in Lower Manhattan. Since 1977, Ukeles has occupied space in the offices of the Department of Sanitation, utilizing the Department’s facilities as a platform and its staff as collaborators for her community-based artworks and actions engaging the public sphere. Ukeles’ practice aestheticizes the central yet under-recognized role of labor and maintenance in our lives. During her decades-long residency with the Department of Sanitation, Ukeles has produced work that humanizes and highlights the necessary yet seemingly invisible role of sanitation workers in societal preservation and protection. In her oft-quoted Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969!, Ukeles provocatively stated, ”After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?”

Ukeles’ long-term engagement with the Department of Sanitation initially developed as a result of an early work and exhibition in 1976 at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s downtown branch at 55 Water Street. For the exhibition Artworld, curated by the Whitney Independent Study Program, Ukeles created the piece I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day (1976). Ukeles worked with the approximately 300 maintenance employees in the 3.5-million-square-foot building, asking them to conceptualize their labor as art for one hour each day. Ukeles’ then took polaroid photographs of their cleaning process throughout the building, which accumulated into a display of nearly seven hundred images over the duration of the exhibition, labeled as either “maintenance art” or “maintenance work” depending on how the maintenance worker conceived of their actions during the moment the photo was taken. David Bourdon of the Village Voice reviewed Artworld, responding favorably to Ukeles’ piece by rhetorically suggesting that the Department of Sanitation offset recent budget cuts by applying to the National Endowment for the Arts on the grounds of maintenance labor as performance art; Ukeles ran with the tongue-in-cheek proposition, and contacted the Department of Sanitation about the idea. Shortly thereafter, the assistant to the Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation reached out to Ukeles and invited her to collaborate with the Department, asking “How would you like to make art with 10,000 people?”

Indeed, within a few short years, Ukeles’ engaged the thousands of laborers in the Department of Sanitation Workers’ staff directly with her landmark performance Touch Sanitation Performance (1977–1980). For the piece, Ukeles traversed New York City and visited each of the Department of Sanitation’s facilities, shaking hands with all of the city’s over 8,500 sanitation workers and greeting them by saying “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” Another noteworthy work by Ukeles, which acted as the Grand Finale of the New York City Art Parade in 1983, was Ceremonial Sweep, during which sanitation bosses and members of the city council, among many others, took on the role they typically supervised to sweep a 32-block Manhattan route.

Through her residency with the Department of Sanitation, Ukeles has performed the artist-in-residence role of locating one’s studio and practice in a physical site, while also expanding the notion of an artist-in-residence by deeply embedding herself within an institution otherwise considered more bureaucratic than creative. As such, Ukeles’ (unsalaried) residency can also be considered a conceptual gesture of deep affiliation with the work and workers of the Department of Sanitation, whose collaboration and cooperation as a government agency with Ukeles throughout her career has been deeply progressive.

Ukeles is currently finalizing a monograph focusing on her Work Ballets; collaborative choreographic performances involving workers that took place in Givors, Echigo-Tsumari, New York, Pittsburgh, and Rotterdam between 1983 and 2012, while also proposing her first permanent public artwork at Fresh Kills in Staten Island. She is also actively archiving her visionary, community-focused, boundary-defying practice, which will serve as a model for like-minded endeavors in the future.

– Alex Fialho


Photo Credit (in order of appearance):

Ceremonial Sweep, 1983
Part of Sanitation Celebrations, NYC
Executive Committee and Labor Leaders and Media Work Hierarchy Ritual Turned Upside Down
Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

Touch Sanitation Performance, 1977-1980
“Handshake Ritual” with workers of New York City Department of Sanitation
Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York