Written by a Hell-raiser with a heart of gold.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles dreams of a culture where no one is forgotten and no one is left out. She turned this dream into her life’s work honoring American workers.
Ukeles was an OG rule-breaker in the 60’s. She even got kicked out of Pratt for her controversial art. After Pratt she wrote Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969 which has one main philosophy: cherish the maintenance of society, not just innovation and new ideas. It was pretty directly a jab at capitalism, and during the Cold War no less.
“The people who were taking care and keeping the wheels of society turning were mute, and I didn’t like it!”
Ukeles wasn’t afraid to raise a lil’ Hell when it’s called for.
“[Maintenance] is trying to listen to the hum of living. A feeling of being alive, breath to breath. And I know that that has to be a part of culture. Because if isn’t, then you don’t have a culture that welcomes in everybody. And, I mean everybody.”
A project she did in the late-70s, called Touch Sanitation, reflects this verve to give voice to the silenced. For part of it she visited the 59 sanitation districts of New York to shake hands with every single sanitation worker—more than 8,500 of them. Why? Because Ukeles knew each one deserved honor and acknowledgement but didn’t get enough of either.
Ukeles’ manifesto is timeless – there will never be a time when listening more and believing in our power to change the world ourselves is anything less than essential.