Maintaining The Manifesto

Invited to present work at the Whitney Museum in 1976, the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles turned her attention to the Whitney offices, at that time located within a 53 story Skyscraper in downtown Manhattan. ‘Given the site, the abundance of maintenance workers, instead of making a work in the museum, I proposed a work with all the workers in the building’; Ukeles collaborated with the three hundred maintenance staff who were tasked with keeping the building running and secure, the architecture gleaming, for 24 hours a day over three eight hour shifts.[1] Not only is this particular kind of labor invisible — performed early in the morning, late at night, behind closed doors — it is also ceaseless, the same tasks are required to be performed daily, or hourly. Ukeles asked the staff to determine whether they performed ‘maintenance art’ or ‘maintenance work’ for an hour each day, their answers and accompanying polaroid portraits were displayed in a grid formation under the title I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Everyday, as part of the exhibition Art < >World at the Downtown Whitney. Seven years earlier Ukeles wrote, in a single sitting, The Manifesto for Maintenance Art! which claimed acts of personal and household maintenance as art, and refused any distinction between everyday activities and creative practice.

clean your desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor,
wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby’s
diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the
fence, keep the customer happy, throw out the stinking
garbage, watch out don’t put things in your nose, what
shall I wear, I have no sox, pay your bills, don’t
litter, save string, wash your hair, change the sheets,
go to the store, I’m out of perfume, say it again—
he doesn’t understand, seal it again—it leaks, go to
work, this art is dusty, clear the table, call him again,
flush the toilet, stay young.[2]

Ukeles The Manifesto for Maintenance Art! opens with a chant, a protest, a summoning of maintenance workers everywhere. It is the beginnings of a movement, and the declaration of a new time and the end of a previous one. As noted by Mary Ann Caws, ‘the manifesto is by nature a loud genre…is often noisy in its appearance, like a typographical alarm or an implicit rebel yell. It calls for capital letters, loves bigness, demands attention’. [3] ‘MY WORKING WILL BE THE WORK’ exclaimed Ukeles in all capitals on page three of the manifesto. [4] In 1971 her manifesto was published in Artforumin an essay by Jack Burnham. This public platform gave context and institutional legitimacy to Ukeles’ claim that everything she does will now considered art, and redefined the relations between art, work, and labor. [5]

As the unsalaried artist-in-residence with the New York City Department of Sanitation since 1977, Ukeles continues to build long-term collaborations and make maintenance art. The scale and duration of her projects, her methods of prolonged collaboration and strategies for operating from within an external system or infrastructure are antecedent to contemporary ‘socially engaged’ practice. With her first major retrospective opening this year at the Queens Museum, New York, the contributions and influence of Ukeles’ practice are currently being celebrated. New generations of artists informed by feminist and queer methodologies are considering the relations of reproductive and artistic labor within capitalist systems, and drawing linages between the two. The expansive practices of Frances Barrett, Lottie Consalvo and Rafaela Pandolfini are difficult to summerise collectively. Without limiting themselves to any specific medium, they ‘do’ painting, photography, performance, community organisation, cultural production; their work moves between curatorial, artistic, collaborative practices, individual rituals and habits of caregiving. Barrett’s Curator, Consalvo’s Compartmentalise and Pandolfini’s 02-02 are three performance works that share a connection to maintenance art through a sensitivity to the labor of the everyday and through their insertion, and subversion, of the artist themselves within systems of labor and capital, artistic exchange and personal maintenance. Each work articulates a complex relation to duration and temporality.

In her performance Curator (2015) Frances Barrett uses the rhetoric of the manifesto, reframed as the social contract. Curator begins with an emailed proposition, an ‘intimate contract’, from Barrett to the curators of Australian festival Liquid Architecture:

I invite you to ‘care for me’ over a 24-hour period. I will cover my eyes so that I will be unable to see throughout this time.

I will not talk to you or look at you.
I will not ask you for anything.
I will not direct you towards anything.
I will not suggest anything.
I will be in your presence for a continuous 24-hour period.
I will not carry a phone, any identification, or any money.[6]

Like the contract, ‘the manifesto stands alone, does not need to lean on anything else, demands no text other than itself. Its rules are self contained, included in its own body’. [7] In contrast to the loudness of the manifesto, the social contract is reserved, direct, impersonal, and although propositioned as an invitation, or a negotiation, Barrett’s rules are clear: the responsibilities of caretaking are assigned to the Festival curators. They must make sure she is fed, rested, cared-for, for a 24 hour period. Echoing Ukele’s celebrated Touch Sanitation Performance (1979-1980), where she shook the hand of every sanitation worker in New York City, the physical connection between bodies is used as a direct reference to caregiving, and the public site makes a spectacle of touch and care. The act of being blindfolded necessitated a dependency between artist and curators and by refusing self-maintenance, Barrett transforms herself into a material burden, requiring constant touch and care for the duration for the performance. The curators are required to perform care work, anticipating Barrett’s needs of sleeping, shitting, eating, in a way that is not unlike caring for an infant. The etymological roots of the word curate (to care for) is literalised, and the hidden maintenance of carework performed for a public within the context of an art festival. Through the visibility of their caretaking, the curators are cast as co-authors of the work. The contract stipulated that the curators must introduce Barrett to everyone they talk to as follows: ‘This is Frances Barrett, she is an artist who is participating in my program, What Does a Feminist Methodology Sound Like? as part of Liquid Architecture. This is her 24-hour performance, Curator.’[8] Touch Sanitation Performance used the refrain ‘thank you for keeping New York City alive!’, and the gesture of the handshake as catalysts for interaction.[9] In both works the performative utterances name the interaction and mark a moment of transference; from inactive to active, invisible to visible.

Lottie Consalvo’s Compartmentalise (2013-2014) was a one-year performance, also instigated with a formal contract, signed and dated by the artist. Consalvo contractually bound herself to wear only the items stipulated on the following list for 12 months:

1 x dress
1 x skirt
2 x tops
2 x jumpers
1 x jacket
3 x shoes (boots, flats, sandals)
1 x studio outfit (dirty black leggings, black t-shirt, steel-cap work boots)
1 x set of pyjamas
3 x underwear
3 x bras
3 x pairs of socks
1 x belt
1 x hat
1 x silk scarf
1 x pair earrings
1 x necklace
Wedding and engagement rings [10]

Compartmentalise sought to combat the struggle of everyday personal maintenance by reducing Consalvo’s belongs to a few essentials. The contract also stated that in the proceeding year items could be added to the list but not removed, and that the remainder of her belongings would be extensively catalogued and persevered in jars. Over the 12-month period, the contract was broken or amended to accommodate the realities of Consalvo’s life and work. Instead of conserving the material excess of her belongings Consalvo hosted a garage sale at her home in Newcastle, NSW, to sell the remainder of her possessions. In an online advertisement for the sale read: ‘A condition of the sale is that you must justify your need or want for the items’.[11]Consalvo chronicled the reason each item was purchased — was it need or want? —  which lent the exercise in unburdening her material belongings an almost cathartic quality.  What began as an attempt to ‘grain control in my mind by controlling my possessions’ evolved into a yearlong meditation on materiality, consumerism, and self awareness.[12] Consalvo’s project of private maintenance opens up the sphere of interactivity through the transferal of possessions for capital facilitated by the garage sale, and the accompanying dialogue of need versus want, as well as through the Compartmentalise blog where Consalvo detailed the emotional and physical labor of the project. Her writing tracks her oscillating feelings of freedom and restriction, issues of comfort, durability, the physical inadequacies of her clothing and enduring sense of liberation from the burden of materiality. In a post called ‘I Miss’, Consalvo writes:

I miss or I wish I had

·      my sieve for baking cakes
·      2 more dresses
·      sarong
·      dressy pair of shoes
·      pair of old shorts

Things I still want less of
·      Less bathroom cupboard stuff (though I have removed so much already, I only have things in it I know I will need throughout the year)
·      Less pantry stuff
·      Less Vinnie (my baby son) stuff
·      Less stuff on walls
·      James (my husband) to have less clothing[13]

Through the blog, Consalvo documents her revisions to the contracted performance, such as inventing a ‘performance within a performance’ to justify the luxury of wearing shorts for two hours on a hot day, buying a shirt to meet the uniform requirements of a new job, replacing a black dress that turned transparent. The duration of the 12-month performance is marked acutely, and chronicled with each shoe that erodes, each piece of clothing that falls apart. In living with reduced belongings the maintenance of physical possessions becomes hyper visible, shoes are repaired, clothes are mended, the contact is maintained despite the challenges.

In a recent interview for The Brooklyn Rail, asked to distinguish between maintenance and labor, Ukeles’ answered:

Maintenance is always circular and repetitive. Labor could be like building a highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific: once it’s built, it’s done. There’s labor in maintenance, but not all labor has to be repetitive. [14]

Caretaking is perhaps the clearest manifestation of the circular and repetitive aspects of maintenance, as Ukeles asserts in the same interview: ‘I became a maintenance worker because I became a mother’.[15] Rafaela Pandolfini’s private performance 02-02 (2014-15) and resulting video tracked the nine-month gestation of pregnancy through a ritualized, repetitive dance. Pandolfini danced nightly in her living room or bedroom after Rozsa, her eldest child, was asleep. Pandolfini’s performance stemmed from a verbal commitment to her partner. There was no formal contract or manifesto, but a private promise. Through the process of creating 02-02, the record was incidental; Pandolfini danced for herself and for a sense of accomplishment that commitment to a task or a project can bring: ‘I … loved the whole thing for the movement, the sound and mapping my moods. And for giving me the sense that I had something on’.[16] Like the durational practices of Barrett and Consalvo, the performance derives from an intensity of labor: a nine-month project, rendered over eight hours of video footage, but despite this epic temporality, there is an un-monumental element to this private performance. It is situated deeper within the domestic than Curator or Compartmentalise, who position their maintenance performances within public exchanges. 02-02 has close ties to Ukeles’ early private performances of maintenance, specifically the caretaking tasks associated with her small children. 02-02 was performed and filmed in the deeply private space of the living room and bedroom, and the documentation often captures her partner as implicit participant — crossing in front of the camera, getting into bed — whilst Pandolfini dances and grows. The video functions as a self-portrait in transition, Pandolfini’s body changes as she dances through the exhaustion of the day, the months, the effort of pregnancy. In 02-02 maintaining the task of the dance is also the maintenance of motherhood. We see the body as burden, the task as burden, and the effort in maintaining both. In relation to her second pregnancy, Pandolfini states ‘there was a much stronger sense from the greater community that I was dropping off the face of the earth, like having another baby really cemented my commitment to having a family and that meant I wasn't as committed to being an artist.’[17] 02-02 existed as both personal ritual and public reclamation, and challenges assumptions of productivity, creativity, artistic value and labor.

Ukeles’ practice provides a radical reframing of waste, the abject, caregiving, and the environment. Close to five decades on, contemporary artists are still redefining and redrawing the relations between art, work, and labor. The legacy of maintenance art can be traced through the temporal and durational practices of Barrett, Consalvo and Pandolfini, specifically their performances Curator, Compartmentalise and 02-02. With a hyper awareness of the passing of time, these performances make visible maintenance and carework to consider the individual’s agency within systems of labor and capitalism in the artistic and domestic spheres. In ‘a note on being a women maintenance artist’ (1970), Ukeles’ writes: ‘I operate both from an acute ambivalence and ecstasy of being, tied to other people and bound to the earth.’[18] Like Ukeles, Barrett, Consalvo and Pandolfini embrace and call attention to the abject burden of living, and the messy, enduring, necessity of maintenance that sustains us all.

Mantaining The Manifesto was published in Runway Issue #32 Re/Production

[1] ‘In Conversation: Mierle Laderman Ukeles with Maya Harakawa’, The Brooklyn Rail, Oct 4 2016, accessed Oct 5 2016,
[2] Ukeles ’Manifesto For Maintenance Art 1969!’, p2, accessed Sept 15 2016
[3] Mary Ann Caws, ‘The Politics of the Manifesto: Nowness and Newness’, Manifesto: A Century of ISMS, ed. Mary Ann Caws, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001, p28
[4] Op cit., Ukeles p3
[5] Patricia C. Phillips, ‘Making Necessary Art’, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, New York: Prestel, 2016, p40
[6] Frances Barrett, public email correspondence, Artist webpage, accessed September 25 2016
[7] Op cit., Caw p25
[8] Op Cit., Barrett
[9] Op Cit.,  Phillips p42
[10] Lottie Consalvo, ‘Compartmentalise’, August 2013 - September 2014, accessed September 30 2016
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Op cit., Brooklyn Rail
[15] Ibid.
[16] Private correspondence between Rafaela Pandolfini and the author, September 17, 2016
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ukeles, ‘Notes on being a Woman Maintenance Artist, CA. 1970’, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, New York: Prestel, 2016, p212