Artist, Ecology, Feminism, 30 August 2018

Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Re-spect, art, the city, care

Investigation by Julien Zerbone


Sometimes we come across an artist whose work, when we see it for the first time, makes us wonder how we could have missed them. An artist offering insightful responses to questions we can barely formulate. Through her integration of care, institutional critique, the essentials of conceptual art, ecology, and feminism, and in her reflections on and alongside the working class, Mierle Laderman Ukeles is one such artist. Of the very few projects she created outside the USA, only one was made in France: a piece entitled Re-spect, a Work Ballet – an outdoor ballet involving public service employees and their trucks—created in 1993 in Givors, a small industrial city on the banks of the Rhone between Lyon and Saint-Étienne. Following a succinct overview of some of her projects, I would like to retrace the genesis, context and process behind this particular piece.

[ 1 ]

Quoted in French in “Après la révolution, qui descendra les poubelles?”, Vacarme, #57, autumn 2011, pp. 82-94, from an unpublished interview originally in English by Bénédicte Ramade.

[ 2 ]

Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969, cited in Jack Burnham, “Problems of Criticism,” Artforum, January 1971; reprinted by Gregory Battcock, (ed.) IDEA ART, New York, NY: Dutton, 1973; and Lucy R. Lippard, (ed.), Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, New York, NY: Prager, 1973.

[ 3 ]

More on this subject in works by Nancy Fraser, notably Qu’est-ce que la justice sociale ? Reconnaissance et redistribution, La Découverte, Paris, 2011, 178 p.

[ 4 ]

Bénédicte Ramade, op. cit.

[ 5 ]

Alain Charre, Jacques Gleizal, Christian Ruby, Jacky Vieux, “L’institut pour l’art et la ville”, Cahiers, p.2.

[ 6 ]


[ 7 ]

Alain Charre, “RN 86, l’art, la ville, la route, Cahiers de l’Institut pour l’Art et la Ville” #5, Maison du Rhône, Givors, fourth quarter 1993, p.4.

[ 8 ]

In this case, Muntadas, Rémi Zaugg, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles are asked to create something in 1993, and Catherine Baugrand, Simon Patterson and Michel Desvigne in spring 1994.

[ 9 ]

“Les travaux de l’institut”, Cahiers de l’Institut pour l’Art et la Ville, #7, Maison du Rhône, Givors, fourth quarter 1994, p.42.

[ 10 ]

Thomas Finkerpearl (This text was originally a conference given to the « Institut pour l’art et la ville » in 1993). Translation by Amanda Crabtree.

[ 11 ]

Ibid, p.28.

[ 12 ]

The BSN group, which specializes in glass, is at the origin of the global food giant Danone, for which the Givors glass plant produced yogurt jars at the time.

[ 13 ]

Kari Conte (ed.), Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Seven Work Ballets, Kunstverein Publishing, Grazer Kunsteverein, Sternberg Press, 2015, p.125.

[ 14 ]

Ibid, p.126.

[ 15 ]

There exists one visual documentation of the parade: Alain Charre, Jacky Vieux, L’art, la ville, la route : Re-spect, Institut pour l’art et la ville, Givors, 1993, VHS, 22 min.

“After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage?”

Standing at the crossroads of our era’s current issues—urbanism, ecology and feminism—Ukeles makes a precious contribution to how we perceive and analyze the activities of maintenance and repair, especially with regard to their social, symbolic and political impacts. Her process comes from a long-term commitment to people who remain hidden from view as they care for our cities and ensure that the things we take for granted last longer than a lifetime. Raised in a middle class Jewish family in Massachusetts, she studied diplomacy before going into the fine arts in the 1960s. Her life changes profoundly with the birth of her first child as she discovers a new routine of obligations and household duties fundamentally different to what she had known before. In retrospect, it seems this moment of epiphany became a determinating factor:

“I wanted to be an artist to have complete freedom. My heroes were all male: Jackson Pollock for his bodily freedom, Marcel Duchamp for his freedom to name things ‘art’, Mark Rothko for his freedom to move from one dimension to another… Then, we had a baby. I felt out of a certain picture because of the repetitive tasks I had to do to keep that baby alive. I had this huge education in art and international relations, but nobody had ever taught me any culture of maintenance. Because it was excluded from the culture.(…)I felt out of this picture, which is really one of the most radical versions of western culture. It was the time of the Vietnam war – and the American lust for progress had this horrible underbelly because we were playing out our fantasies about power and freedom on the backs of people in other parts of the world, and these issues of dependency and independence and interdependence ended up being this big subject matter for me. The western culture that I’d received was about independence, which 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 at the beginning of the feminist movement and of the feminist art movement that I cared about.1

Close in this way to other feminist artists of her generation like Mary Kelly or Martha Rossler, she exhibits her life of household chores and child rearing in Maintenance Art: Personal Time Studies: Log (1971), using the cold and statistical style of a time clock. She then critiques the situation in “Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969 !2” which remains the bedrock of her work process to this day:

“A.          The Death Instinct and the Life Instinct:
The Death Instinct:  separation; individuality; Avant-Garde par excellence; to follow one’s own path to death—do your own thing; dynamic change.
The Life Instinct:  unification; the eternal return; the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species; survival systems and operations; equilibrium.

B.           Two basic systems: Development and Maintenance. The sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?
Development: pure individual creation; the new; change; progress; advance; excitement; flight or fleeing.
Maintenance: keep the dust off the pure individual creation; preserve the new; sustain the change; protect progress; defend and prolong the advance; renew the excitement; repeat the flight;”

Mierle Laderman Ukeles : Re-spect - Givors - 28 octobre 1993 / Photo : anonyme

Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Re-spect – Givors – October, 28, 1993. (All rights reserved)

Rather than abandon this maintenance work, which she regards as essential, the artist chooses to help recognize its omnipresence in spaces dedicated to art, and by doing so, recognize its dignity. To this end, the Manifesto includes a description of an exhibition entitled The Maintenance Art exhibition: care, which outlines the performance of all the maintenance work typically executed once the public has left the building. It all coalesces in 1971 when Lucy Lippard, a pioneer of conceptual feminist and activist art, invites her to exhibit in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford (Connecticut) as part of a touring exhibition dedicated exclusively to female artists. There the artist performs four emblematic tasks, each illustrating and applying the manifesto in its own way. In Hartford Wash: Washing Tracks, Maintenance Inside, she mops the museum floor for four hours, in front of the public, while in Hartford Wash: Washing Tracks, Maintenance Outside, she splashes buckets of water down the front steps and sidewalk outside the museum entrance. Aside from eliciting a certain irony, these processes also reveal, in her view, “floor paintings” that illustrate perfectly the idea behind Maintenance Art.

In Transfer: The Maintenance of the Art Object, she dutifully dusts the display case of a mummified woman, a major piece in the Wadsworth Atheneum collection. She describes her action as “dust painting”, in explicit reference to Marcel Duchamp’s Dust Breeding (1920). As she dusts, she reveals the institutionality of the museum: through her function as an artist, she transforms an act of cleaning into an act of creation, one that subtracts (dust) into one that adds (an artistic dimension to the dust), a surplus material that we seek to get rid of (dirt) into something we seek to conserve (an artwork). Consequently, the dust no longer belongs to the act of cleaning, and therefore to the cleaning staff’s responsibilities, rather it is the stuff of art, which must be conserved in its integrity by the museum conservationist. Finally, in The Keeping of the Keys, she asks for the keys to the museum and amuses herself with opening and closing doors as she pleases, humorously unlocking the public and private nature of the spaces, tasks or objects. By making a deliberate show of operations that are usually performed discretely, she underscores the elements that make a museum institution function, such as assigning roles, tasks, status, and their hierarchies, and the radical allocation of public and private spaces. With this in mind, she could also be regarded as a pioneer of institutional criticism3. Indeed, her work reveals the conditions common to both women and cleaning staff, whose skills and tasks are denigrated or unseen:

“You do all these repetitive works, not for yourself but for others. You are not pursuing your own freedom. When you’re a maintenance worker, what matters is the person, the city, the building, the anything, the institution, even the planet itself.4

From Touch Sanitation to the Work Ballets, creation through cooperation

The same thought processes resurface in Touch Sanitation (1977-1980), created during a residency within the New York City sanitation department. Of the many actions she performs during that time, one of the most emblematic is Handshake Ritual (1979): for eleven months, she tries to shake hands with every single one of the 8 500 department employees in order to thank them for “keeping the city alive”. The gesture serves as a symbolic attempt to restore dignity to an entire category of public employees often rejected or subject to grievance by simple virtue of their duty to dispose of waste, and to do so in the midst of a budget crisis. While making Touch Sanitation, the artist started each day at 6 a.m. in a new service location or depot, explaining her project to create a sculpture in the “belly of the city”. As the project advances, she begins to accompany trash collectors on their routes, observing how they move and trying to reproduce what she sees as a daily choreography, in a sincere attempt at performing the task credibly herself. And so Follow your footsteps is born, an analogy between the gestures of the profession and dance, a piece that places the artist amidst the “public performance” of trash collecting, for an audience of passers-by. In this context, she also creates The Social Mirror in 1983, a trash truck whose side panels are covered in mirrors.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles : Re-spect - Givors - 28 octobre 1993 / Photo : anonyme

Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Re-spect – Givors – October, 28, 1993. (All rights reserved)

Driven by an unwavering interest in people’s work-related activity, and with a talent for communication and coordination, Ukeles nourishes and adapts her practice as she gets involved with different contexts and systems. Her project integrates itself into each structure’s mode of working, inciting staff and personnel to actively participate, no matter what their place in the hierarchy. Because she introduces an artistic dimension to work through the creation of completely new projects directly involving employees, her work opens up a window of freedom that can inspire lasting change in how we think about work, and how the greater public views the work we do. She also inspires a collective rethinking of our relationship to the world and the environment, and to honestly look at the fragility and interdependency that define them. The Work Ballets are certainly her most significant pieces in this regard.

The first two ballets took place in 1983 and 1984 in New York during her residency with the city’s sanitation services. One day, while watching a parade organized by the city, it occurred to her that the real signal that the festivities were over was when cleaning trucks came out. And so she devised a project that would inverse this perspective, by having cleaning crews open the parade, followed immediately by elected representatives and then the various department directors. A project of this scale required many rehearsals. The artist asked the vehicle drivers, trash collectors and street sweepers to show off their skills and their aesthetic tastes. The ballets were real crowd-pleasers and led to five more Work Ballets created throughout the artist’s career: in 1984 in Rotterdam as part of the festival Perfo 3; in 1991 in Pittsburgh for the “Sculpture at the point” exhibition; in 1993 in Givors, France, and in 2003 and then 2012 during the Eghigo-Tsumari triennial in Tokamachi, Japan. These Work Ballets are large-scale collaborations involving workers, trucks, barges and several hundred tons of “recyclables” and steel, using the urban landscape as a site and context, and requiring that services become agents and workers’ skills, imaginations and commitment become a resource. Every Work Ballet took one year or longer to research and develop, leading to choreographed parades involving drivers and their vehicles in order to materialize the deep and fundamental connection between a city, its inhabitants and its workers. This is particularly strong in Re-spect, a parade that Ukeles devised for the municipality of Givors in 1993.

The Institute for Art and the City of Givors

Givors is by far the smallest city where the artist worked. Located on the banks of the Rhône south of Lyon, at the time, the municipality was in a deep economic downturn, hit hard by closing industries and widespread unemployment. And yet, it was also host to an Institute for Art and the City, an original initiative launched by the communist mayor, Camille Vallin. Co-directed by Jacky Vieux, former elected representative and director of the city’s cultural programs, and Alain Charre, professor of art history and architecture, the Institute sought to be a place for reflection and debate, whose mission was “to activate a critical process about art and the city. In this sense, the Institute is not concerned with art ‘in’ the city, which would serve no other purpose than to repair, to the extent that it’s possible, the damages caused by urbanism. Rather, the Institute is concerned with the question of art ‘and’ the city: art, more specifically the work of artists as a site for questioning and investigating not only the city, but politics, social relations, and history as well5.”

By bringing together experts, researchers, and practitioners in the fields of art, philosophy, social sciences, urbanism and architecture, the Institute aims to “encourage disciplines to play against one another, find correlations… By respecting the autonomy of each discipline, it is possible for them to activate a common space to foster understanding about our time and the urgency of thinking about cities in terms other than just their setbacks.6” It aims to see through the prism of art in order to create a toolbox that public authorities and figureheads might rely on in the urban field. André Vincent, today the director of cultural affairs for the City of Givors, remembers a time of intellectual and artistic excitement, a time when Givors was a rite of passage for many international artists, thinkers and practitioners. From his perspective, the Institute for Art and the City was a direct extension of Jean Renaudie’s invitation to renovate the old city. The Institute was born from Camille Vallin’s conviction that the municipality’s future lies in infrastructure, culture and renewing its image.

In the early 1990s, the municipality launches a plan to invest and renew the areas along the national highway (RN 86), which until the 1960s, had been a major transit route. The Institute decides to join the initiative in 1993, following the 5th Givors conference, which met to assess public commissions, and hopes to use the occasion to test certain hypotheses. As Alan Charre describes, “art will be preserved in both its capacity to produce unprecedented readings and assessments of the complexities of urban life and in its purely formal character.7” A pilot committee made up of representatives from the city’s public works, from the state, and the Institute, elaborates the project’s budget and scope. The Institute invites three exhibition curators, one from New York, London and Hamburg, who are interested in urban transformation. Each curator is asked to propose two artistic interventions for the space8: “the originality of the six proposals will demonstrate another logistics for art, one that relates to the city’s inhabitants and is integrated to the city’s renewal efforts as well as to the advent of a megapolis that is both local and international.9

Mierle Laderman Ukeles : Re-spect - Givors - 28 octobre 1993 / Photo : anonyme

Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Re-spect – Givors – October, 28, 1993. (All rights reserved)

Tom Finkelpearl, the American curator from New York, suggests Mierle Laderman Ukeles in December 1992. As he explains it, to echo Alain Charre’s remark cited above: “Public art is often invited to humanize a space, to bring it an ‘artistic touch’.10” However, Tom Finkelpearl considers that, on the contrary, artists should be included in any and all urban infrastructure, since they put into place a sense of responsibility that is only possible through art and public curating. For him, an artist defines the principles governing the space, and their artwork bears witness to the realities of the community involved.11

Re-spect Givors

Re-spect Givors is a direct outcome of this desire: during her first trip there as part of the planning phase, Ukeles discovers the terrain, street sweepers, fire fighters, inhabitants, and visits the BSN glass manufacturing plant (which closed in 2003), a major producer at the time of yogurt jars12, and very quickly develops several ideas that involve collaborating with workers from various public services. Despite the doubts expressed by some of elected officials, the mayor supports the initiative and in September 1993, the New York artist finds herself face to face with city staff and personnel. Amanda Crabtree, the Institute’s project manager at the time, describes that first meeting between a very pretty American woman and the predominantly male staff, which did not make for an easy introduction. But Ukeles had encountered this kind of public before, and knew what was in store for her work and the challenges she might face. She asked about their skills and expertise, demonstrated her sincere desire to observe their work, knowing that they never get the chance to show off their skills and talents:

“I asked, ‘Is this true? Do you feel your work is honored?’ They answered with great vehemence: ‘Nah!’ People say that we are goof-offs, that we’re lazy and don’t really earn all the money that we are paid. We are invisible!’ These were the same statements I had heard for two decades from matinenance workers inside and outside of municipal governments. I was shocked and very disappointed. Then at the back of this large room, a deep voice boomed out: ‘My name is Francois. If we work with you, do something with you, make something with you, will that get us respect?’ He said it in such a hard, surly, and aggressive way, that it scared me. He put me on the line, and from that one person, the piece was initiated. I felt as if he was saying, ‘I’m stuck with this reality; do you really have anything to offer or are you just weaving a fantasy?13

The title of the ballet has a double meaning: an invitation to respect the city and its population, obviously, but also an invitation, through the word spectare, to see something anew. The project’s originality resides in what are, for the artist, the very unpredictable and novel intricacies of the city itself: aside from working with the usual gamut of public figures and making parades with the street and parks services, the artist also invites non-profit and community organizations, businesses, fire fighters, inhabitants, the entire range of people who, for her, keep the city alive. The narrowness of the streets reinforces the proximity between performers and the general public, lending the parade a more festive, block-party feel, set against the backdrop of the city itself.

“I wanted to create a public ritual that enacted the continuing necessity of town services no matter what new redevelopment might occur. Old municipal organizational structures are key shapers of a city’s infrastructure that will continue even as the city morphs into the future—the sanitation department equals cleanliness, health, and the most sustainable flow of materials into and out of the city; parks equaly nature’s ecological systems embedded as part of the city; fire equals safety and trust—all in the hands of human workers. These needs will always remain critical, and the workers will always need to be honored.14

Amanda Crabtree explains that Ukeles was immediately sensitive to the industrial and working culture of the city, and to the crisis it was facing. She sought to rekindle a link between Givors, its past, and its territory, through a conception of the city as something organic and holistic. This is why she insisted that the parade take place not only on the RN 86 highway, as planned, but also between the road and the Rhône, another major transport route. The ‘Voies Navigables de France’ navigation and management of water traffic, enters the fold and becomes a major partner for the project. By the same token, the artist also includes the glass manufacturer BSN, an essential economic driver at that time. There she is able to collect used gloves to distribute to children in different working class neighborhoods so they might embody, on the day of the parade, the workers of tomorrow. Amanda Crabtree also brings up, with a hint of nostalgia, the excitement throughout the city, the enthusiasm for the project amongst public service workers and their competitive desire to best meet the artist’s needs and expectations. She also emphasizes how Camille Vallin pledged his unwavering support by even calling for a paid, citywide half-day of leave so that everybody could attend the parade. Amada Crabtree, who later became the mediator for new commissions at Fondation de France, emphasizes the political courage necessary to see these kinds of experiments through: courage that she has not encountered since. She also describes the anticipation that increased amongst Givors’ inhabitants as the event approached, an event to which everyone, near and far, had contributed. From one department to the next, Ukeles rehearses with vehicle drivers, then barges, and finally on October 28, 1993, the performance is ready. It has three sections: a parade, a ballet and a water show.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles : Re-spect - Givors - 28 octobre 1993 / Photo : anonyme

Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Re-spect – Givors – October, 28, 1993. (All rights reserved)

The parade begins at 4:30 pm with about thirty vehicles belonging to three city services—sanitation, parks and fire—and about a hundred children from the neighborhood Vernes, some of whom are disguised, others who show off their hand-made trucks built at school, while a group of young people perform tricks on BMX bikes, dancing alongside the adults’ vehicles. A local band joyfully guides the procession, which gradually incorporates more and more spectators who are eager to walk alongside their children, friends and spouses. The crowd is rather impressive when, at 5:30 pm, it turns onto Maurice-Thorez promenade, overlooking the river and the barge lane where the ballet in three movements is about to begin. The first movement, Sanitation, is performed by eleven different kinds of sanitation vehicles, including some antiques. The trucks slowly descend the ramp toward the northern end of the pier, creating a long snake in which each vehicle is a node, sinewing with surprising grace. Once on the pier, the vehicles turn in place, one after the other, performing solos that show off the dexterity of the drivers. The side panels on one of the larger trash trucks are open so that spectators can admire the powerful hydraulic machines that activate the shaft from up to down. The first movement ends with an amorous duo between two lifts that seem to join in an embrace.

The second movement, Parks, involves smaller vehicles, lending the piece a more intimate feel. The vehicles, typically used to lift piles of fallen leaves in autumn, are attached by park services employees to their tractors, forklifts, lawnmowers, seed drills, etc. This movement repeats the sinewing pathways from the first movement, followed by a series of crossing trajectories and then duets where, much like birds in a nuptial parade, they show off their floral decorations. As night falls, the Fire movement closes the ballet with two emergency trucks. Firefighters decked in silver protective gear and fire hoses at the ready extend giant ladders above the river and, at twenty meters high, let loose jets of water in red and blue, lit by powerful spotlights. Then comes the signal for the final show: on the water, a trio of unsuspecting barges moored one alongside the other appears at the northern end of the pier and advances toward the public. The two narrower barges throw their ropes, and then depart in a zigzag from the middle barge, which drifts menacingly along. Suddenly, it is caught in the spotlights, revealing a mysterious pyramid in cobalt blue, made up of a hundred tons of recycled glass and created especially for the ballet by the glass plant. Pushed by a tugboat, the barge begins to snake through the water, brushing against the pier before making its way to the Institute where a closing celebration awaits15.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles : Re-spect - Givors - 28 octobre 1993 / Photo : anonyme

Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Re-spect – Givors – October, 28, 1993. (All rights reserved)

Caring for context and performers

Despite the recent trend in participative projects over the past years, Ukeles’ process is still seems entirely original. Her work sets itself apart by taking enormous risks and continually coming back to negotiation, collaboration and communication, and through the transparency of the creative process which hides nothing from the public—neither doubts, nor compromises, not even the failures that come up along the way. Indeed, the artist adheres in her own way to one of Lucy Lippard’s most important maxims: the process makes the artwork, and that process defines how a work is critical and successful.

Another original aspect of Re-spect lies in the artist’s very specific role. Unlike the stance of autonomous critique that provides the artist-activist with financial, material and distribution independence in order to remain critical about the society where his or her intervention is taking place, and unlike the stance of acritical involvement that turns the artist into a service provider who brings added value to the structure that finances and hosts him or her, Ukeles practices a critical involvement that penetrates the very heart of a structure in order to have an even stronger experience of discourse and sincerity, to emphasize their very limits through guided action. From this perspective, reawakening a parade of young people from the working class neighborhoods of Givors, under the banner of a public celebration, restores a debate that had been left suspended, which is, the capacity for art and urban policy to make space for the populations affected by endemic unemployment. The artist manages to strike a fragile balance thanks to her sincere and constant care for the context and the people involved.

Her extremely demanding process generates projects that are rare in frequency because they are so complex and require a real commitment on behalf of the commissioning party. Very little remains of Re-spect Givors: a VHS video, a few texts, a recent publication by Kari Conte about the Work Ballets including memories and archives from the artist. I find this a real pity, just as I find it a shame that there are so few references made to the Institute for Art and the City of Givors. The pioneering spirit of this Institute is an inspiring model for both the fields of curating for the public and urbanism and local cultural policy. Perhaps this text will incite others to learn more…

Translation by Maya Dalinsky

Thanks to Amanda Crabtree, André Vincent et Vanina Andréani

Cover: Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Re-spect – Givors – October, 28, 1993. (All rights reserved)

[wp-faq-schema accordion="1"]
Do you want to react?
[wpforms id="17437"]

Read also...

Jean Dupuy par Renaud Monfourny pour la galerie Loevenbruck

Hommage à Jean Dupuy

Discover the edition
Beaucoup plus de moins

Beaucoup plus de moins

Discover the edition
Encyclopédie des guerres

L’Encyclopédie des guerres (Aluminium-Tigre)

Discover the edition
O. Loys, bal des Incohérents

Décembre 2021

Discover the edition
Younes Baba Ali, art et activisme en Belgique

Art et engagement Enquête en Belgique

Discover the edition

Parcourir nos collections