In Conversation: Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Caroline Woolard

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Since 1977, when Mierle Laderman Ukeles became the official, unsalaried Artist-in-Residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation a position she still holds — she has created art that deals with the endless maintenance and service work that “keeps the city alive,” urban waste flows, recycling, ecology, urban sustainability and our power to transform degraded land and water into healthy inhabitable public places. Ukeles asks whether we can design modes of survival — for a thriving planet, not an entropic one — that don’t crush our personal and civic freedom and silence the individual’s voice.

Caroline Woolard (CW):

I remember meeting you at Carol Padberg's house with Sherry Buckberrough in 2018 when you visited for the 55th anniversary of your work at the Wadsworth in Connecticut. You said that you already knew my work, and you thanked me for it. I want to thank you for making work like mine possible, and to acknowledge the path that you have made for artists by doing what you know is important work, regardless of what the “art world” around you says is possible. You showed us all that long-term projects and long-term collaborations are possible in the arts, that the line between “art” and “work” must continuously be challenged, and that all art is political. Can we talk about the similarities and differences between 1969, when you wrote the MANIFESTO FOR MAINTENANCE ART and now, the pandemic of COVID-19 in 2020? What has stayed the same, and what work does the next generation need to make possible?

Mierle Laderman Ukeles (MLU):

In my generation, those feminist artists who gathered for discussions and meetings at Lucy Lippard's house didn't talk about their children. I don't think they ever mentioned a child in any of our conversations. And they also didn't talk about money. Wow. Imagine the constraints of that structure.

CW:

Wow.

MLU:

We didn't talk about these things then as feminist artists. So I'm just absolutely so grateful that you have taken on this subject of economy, just like I took on maintenance. I’m saying: Listen, it's not behind the scenes anymore. It’s not just at night. Behind or below, out of sight. Here we are! Deal! And you're saying the same thing about cultural workers, about getting paychecks, about exchange.

CW:

Yes. Here we are!

MLU:

One reason I feel so connected to you, Caroline, and so grateful, is that in the Sanitation Department, every two weeks, people got a paycheck and they left the office. They said, “I have to go to the bank now.” And I thought, “Oh, OK.” But I didn’t get a paycheck as an artist. And every single time that happened, I felt bad. I felt jealous and really bad. And now I think, well, there's Caroline. She's going to take care of it. She's got to go talk about it.

you have taken on this subject of economy, just like I took on maintenance.

CW:

It is a task for all of us, over generations. And we should note that some artists in other countries—Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Germany—do get paychecks, as artists, from the government, to make their art. They don’t rely on the market or philanthropy like we do in the United States. And it is awful that you do not have the support you deserve. And also: you keep going. Can you say something about your persistence?

MLU:

I think this is very important. My persistence. Well, I understood in the depths of my soul then in 1969, with the MANIFESTO FOR MAINTENANCE ART, 1969! that I had realized something profound, and that gave me a sense of calm. It enabled me to keep going. It was about hope, seeing life whole. You know, it could be very discouraging and scary and all that, I have to tell you. I mean, the ongoing challenge of my work at Fresh Kills in Staten Island. I got this commission in 1989 — Were you alive then?

CW:

I was five years old.

MLU:

OK. You were five years old. I got a commission to be the Percent for Art Artist of the Fresh Kills Landfill that was the only operating municipal landfill in NYC at that time, the largest in the world, but many were already planning and dreaming for it to become a park. I had worked to develop around 18 proposals. And eventually it came down to one called LANDING. I conceptualized it and got it dedicated to a particular site in 2008. LANDINGis an environmental public artwork, a daring cantilevered overlook soaring over a tidal inlet, with two earthworks on each side. That was twelve years ago and it's still not complete!

CW:

Persistence, for sure. Whenever you're doing something that seems impossible or rude or not in the norm, it takes a lot of organizing and persistence and time. How do you keep going?

MLU:

People like you make me feel supported. Jack, my life partner, makes me feel supported. I think Leigh Claire, your partner, makes you feel supported. Yeah, you're doing something together. Many workers and public officials have also stuck their own necks out for me along the way. That's very necessary. I think without that support—oh, no—that would be maybe too hard.

CW:

Yes, and that is also where the collective work comes in: shared projects, friendships, chosen family.

MLU:

Yes. But art also has to have room for the destabilizing individual voice. Where's the room for that voice, which can be raw and disruptive, even to the community and the peaceable contracts that are required to make these communities work? You know, breaking a sense of respect because you're exploding with the original insight that comes from artists. Humans have a capability of human creativity that is so powerful that it has no limits. We can create. We can also just destroy: destroy ourselves, destroy the whole world, which we've just about done. We're on our way. So I see the tension between the free individual and sustaining an effort as often in a kind of conflict.

Where's the room for that voice, which can be raw and disruptive, even to the community and the peaceable contracts that are required to make these communities work?

CW:

Between community and this raw and disruptive individual voice? Yes. You also have to balance or hold or consider this tension in your work.

MLU:

I've been thinking about solidarity. Solidarity. Art. Economy. Your Manifesto. What is the genesis of this “solidarity economy”?

CW:

People trace it back to the ’90s and organizing efforts internationally that led to The World Social Forum in Brazil—created in response to the conservative World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, among many other things. The first World Social Forum met in 2001 and connected people working under the umbrella term “solidarity economy,” or economic justice. This term is used in many places—Brazil, Italy, Mexico—and also in Montreal and also in the Basque region in Spain, where there's the Mondragon University, a cooperative university. Some people in the United States would say “cooperative economy” or “people’s economy” because that's easier to understand here, where we think solidarity is connected only with labor unions, or only with socialism.

MLU:

Can you give an example of the solidarity economy in the arts?

CW:

I tried to get into MoMA once without paying. You know, it was twenty dollars to get in, in 2009, but I had no cash. So I tried to barter with them. I told the cashier all the things I could give them, like artwork, you know, or singing, or jam. And the cashier was like, “No, sorry, I'm not in charge.”

MLU:

[Laughs] Hysterical.

CW:

And that's when I realized, oh, this is the problem with this structure, because one on one we can make a decision together; in collectives we can make a decision together; in worker-owned businesses we can make a decision together. We can exchange with each other. We can recognize our resources. But with an institution with a hierarchy like MoMA, it's impossible. And that's how I began to understand the power and the limits of one-to-one action, of barter networks and mutual aid. We need the resources to flow regardless of these structures! And it might seem that barter only works at a very small and grassroots scale, but we can look to other countries where these efforts are connected — barter networks, credit unions, land trusts, co-ops—and have political power. So it seems hard to connect these efforts, but actually, we can learn how to do it.

MLU:

When I sent my Manifesto, whose full title is MANIFESTO FOR MAINTENANCE ART 1969! Proposal for an exhibition “CARE,” to the Whitney in 1969 — a s a proposal for a full exhibition — I wanted the whole building. I needed that whole entire building for my exhibition. Imagine if you would have seen “CARE” in the early 1970s! The whole entire building would be care for the earth, care for the people, care for the society. We could have gotten much further along as a culture if they took it and let me do it. Instead, I got a response back on one-half of a piece of paper, not even a whole piece of paper. They said: “Try your ideas on or in a gallery first before approaching a museum.” I understand that much of the “art world,” as it functions, does not function for you and me and that we are going to have to make our way through.

CW:

Yes, we must acknowledge that this system of art support is not functioning for the majority of really interesting and powerful artists. And so it is our job to remake these systems because they're collapsing all around us. It's a historical moment to do that, you know.

MLU:

Now, there's the conflict that Ed Ruscha, an artist whose work I admire, is getting fifty-two million dollars. He's my age. And I am in so much trouble financially. He's getting fifty-two million dollars for one painting.

CW:

Well he is not getting that money. A collector is. Someone else in the secondary market is going to see that money. But yeah. Continue. You're not getting fifty-two million.

MLU:

Thank God I still have my project, archives, and office as an Artist In Residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation. But I have to give up my private studio, because I can't pay the rent. People might feel this is a little negative. Like, you know, it's rude. Impolite. To talk about money, like it was to talk about children, before. But that's where I'm at. So I'm saying. Caroline, go do it!

CW:

[Laughs] We are up against a lot, but we can talk about money, and about making the art worlds we want to see. Let’s hope this book helps.

MLU:

I mean, I know that you have 570 pages here.