Mierle Laderman Ukeles with Bénédicte Ramade
Bénédicte Ramade: When you wrote the manifesto in 1969, was it in reaction against the modernist cult of the artist as a lonesome genius?
Mierle Laderman Ukeles: It was a year and a few months after my first child was born. I had struggle for many years to be an artist before I have a child. I actually became an artiste because I wanted to be free. My heroes were all male: Jackson Pollock because of his bodily freedom, Marcel Duchamp because he had the freedom to name the things, art, and Mark Rothko, because I felt that he had the freedom to move from one dimension into an other dimension. That really is the reason that I became an artist.
My paintings were very expressionistic works. Then, I had a baby. We wanted this baby. I felt out a certain picture. Because the repetitive task works I had to do to keep that baby alive. I had a huge long education in art, in international relation, very the best cause that you can find, but nobody, NOBODY, ever, taught any culture, of maintenance. Because it was not in the culture, it was excluded from the culture. You do all these repetitive works, not for yourself but works for the others. It has to do with not pursuing your own freedom but when you’re a maintenance worker, it doesn’t matter about your freedom, it matters with the person, or the city, or the building, or the anything, that the institution, or even the planet itself. The value system shifted. All those things that my all my life had been like a damn one road, it’s like a fell-off the path. And the path was western culture. I felt off, I felt out of that picture. On one hand, I , with my fancy western education, was in agony.
It also occurred to me that – it was the time of the Vietnam war – and the American lust/lost for progress. We were playing out a lot of our fantasies about power and freedom on the backs of people in other parts of the world. These issues of dependency, independence, and interdepence, those really had ended up being this big subject matter for me. And western culture that I received is about independence, that meant a male culture of autonomy where you don’t talk about all those structures that you’re dependent upon. You don’t talk about what enables you to be powerful. Because then, you sound weak.
This was of the time of the beginning of the feminist movement and the beginning of the feminist art movement which I cared about. The feminist movement was like too big for me, I did not have time, but the feminist art movement was my life, I mean it was my life like I discovered some people who were sort of in the same boat as me and who were angry as I was. I was just furious that my education let me down. I felt I was falling. And then it took like a year and a few months, I just sat down and I wrote this manifesto. I named necessity freedom.
BR: What was written in this Manifesto?
MLU: I had a few drafts. I was two pages of ideas about maintenance, about development and maintenance. And then, I made a proposal for an exhibition. The first part/floor is personal : that I would live in the museum, and the artwork would be my taking care of the museum, like washing, feeding people, sweeping, dusting. And that was art. I was saw this in the Whitney Museum. So one floor would be focusing on his personal dusting, feeding, washing the dishes. Then the second part/floor would be general : I would have interview many people : what do you do to stay alive ? Those will be posted up all over the museum. Also visitors who came to the museum, they would be interviewed. And then, the third floor, I saw, was taking care of the earth. That everyday, different kind of pollution would come into the museum. A container of one garbage truck, container of polluted air, container of polluted water. And they would be transformed by what I said were scientists and pseudo scientists by who I meant ‘artists’. What I was really saying that the museum is a place for transformation itself, that active transformation can occur in the museum itself. That’s where the culture reinvents itself. And actually, in my case, with what I was talking about, it is the culture that is going invent how we’re going to stay alive on the earth. People have misunderstood. They thought that maintenance art is about cleaning. But it was never just about that, it was about the personal, the social and taking care of the all planet.
BR: You faced the moral system?
MLU: Absolutely. That was what this revolution that I was trying to set out was about “what do you need to stay alive”. I wrote this, then I sent it to Jack Burnham who was a writer about Duchamp. So I thought “that’s the guy, he would understand what I am talking about”. I sent it to him and I got a letter back from Jack Burnham who said he was writing an article about the end of the avant-garde, he wanted to publish extra part of my manifesto in Artforum. It was 1971. He said “do you have any pictures ? ”, so I said yes. Then I hang up the phone and I said to my husband Jack “take some pictures !”. Lucy Lippart called me up. She said “are you real or did Jack Burnham make you up for that article ?” I said “I am real, it’s me !”. We met, she invited me to become part of feminist art group, that saved my life. It really did. And then she invited me to be in a show, and I started like this.
I sent also a letter to the Whitney where I wanted to do my show, I got a letter from the museum on a half piece of paper, they did not sent me a whole piece of paper, saying “try your idea on or in an art gallery first, before approaching a museum”, like slap.
BR: How did you begin to perform?
MLU: I, in New York, in this very repetitive life, trying to figure out how I am gonna do all this, I got very jealous of my work traveling. I started contacting the curators at some of the stops, “would you like me to come do a maintenance performance work ?”, they said yes, and then I started like that. Then I did about fifty/fifteen performances.
BR: Acting directly within the museum was about sincerity, the deep sincerity of your involvement ?
MLU: Absolutely. Performance as opposed to theater wants to grapple reality, or changing reality. The first work I did at the Whatsworth Museum, so I looked back now and that’s just amazing to me that they allowed me to those things. I made four works there and the idea of the four was a kind of analysis of the art institution. Also looking back now, I never pulled away from trying to reinvent the meaning of that art institution, that the first exhibition in the proposal in the manifesto would be played out in a museum, it would radically restructure the meaning of the museum.
Those are like dynamite, dangerous subjects that maintenance reveals.
BR: It was less a question of gender at least ? rather than power, and hierarchy of power in art institution ?
MLU: As a woman, I felt, specially when I became a mother, that I entered the maintenance class of women which is thousands of years old, the problem with it is that nobody invited the women class to be maintainers. No one said to these women other ten thousands years “would you like to take care of the home ?”.
For Touch Sanitation, I consciously selected those sanitation workers who at that point were all male because they were doing the female jobs for the city that the females were told “this is who you are inside”. They would say to me “you know why people hate us : because they think we are their mother !, because they think we’re their made”. I was looking at them and saying to myself “who are you telling this story to ?”. This would saying to me : if I were a woman this would be OK if the hated me.
The first performance dealt with worker and value, then the second performance dealt with “who has the key ?”, and really the keys, the guard, you don’t think of the guard so much is a maintenance worker but they are maintaining the system of power of the institution. They are guarding all these valuable things, the cultural artefacts. They are the people who are guarding them, protecting them.
Like the culture says, WE decide that this is important, this valuable, and then these people are the guardians of these objects. They are not the decision makers but they represent the decision makers. They are the visible manifestation of that power to decide and also to decide when you get in, when you stay out. What I did is that I moved to the all entire museum, room by room, gallery by gallery and I simply did what the guard could do, usually do during open hours, access hours, when anyone could come in, I locked the door. I locked people in and I also locked them out. So people got pretty upset you can imagine. They got scared.
I was invited back to the Wadsworth, they also gave me a show on the 25th anniversary of this performance work. I came, they had a lunch for me and the head of security was there and he looked at me and he says : “don’t even think about it. I don’t know why we ever let you do that before.” I just slipped through the crack. It just terrified them.
There were two other works which were much more simple maintenance works of cleaning outside, which is also has this reference to the edge between the institution and the world outside, and then cleaning inside.
BR: And the other performance was this one where you are sweeping at the entrance of the museum ?
MLU: I did it first in fact.
BR: The picture showing you cleaning with a broom became of the icon of feminist art. How do you react today about this particular picture ?
BR: Isn’t it a reductive way to consider this performance ?
MLU: I am just not this happy cleaner. That is reduction. My intention was far, quite revolutionary. You think people read it as I am happy to do this?
BR: There is a confusion…
MLU: That’s terrible ! Why did I do for ? That is not what I am talking about.
BR: This misunderstanding about this famous picture of sweeping is amazing. People in Europe think that it is only a feminist subject.
MLU: No way ! Touch sanitation was because the female cleaners are all men ! It’s really much more critical and more revolutionary. I was talking about reorganizing the world. Not being happy with your broom. That’s a joke.
In that sense, what I was trying to deal with there was about the decision, their freedom to make a decision. This notion that people think of my work like the “happy cleaner”. I am talking about a world revolution!
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