One thing I left out of my profile of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the artist in residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation, is her short, though rather esteemed, past in the field of politics. She majored in international relations at Barnard, where she wrote her senior thesis about checks and balances in the history of the Tanganyika Territory, which would later form part of the United Republic of Tanzania (it was still a British United Nations Trust at the time). After graduating, she went back home to Denver and found that one of her sources for the thesis was a professor at the University of Colorado. She got in touch and he asked if he could use her thesis as a textbook in his classes.
Last week, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who is the first and, to date, only artist in residence in the history of the New York City Department of Sanitation (a title she has held since 1977), was speaking at the Brooklyn Museum’s daily staff roll call. She told the museum’s crew of maintenance workers—among them window washers, security guards and floor sweepers—that even though their work can seem boring and repetitive, what they do is “the first kind of culture.”
The Observer met with her at the museum later that day. “Here’s the museum with all this stuff,” she recalled telling the workers, “and then there’s what you do. You are culture, and your work is culture. And the endless hours that will never be done, that’s what enables us to be in an institution like this. Mopping up the garbage from yesterday. It’s safe. And the things in here are taken care of. That’s culture. What I’ve been trying to do all these years is take those things that have been behind the scenes, downstairs, things no one will talk about it, and pull them into the zone of things to look at. I’m not just saying, ‘Oh, you poor things, you’re having such a hard time, here’s a chance to let it all hang out.’ I’m saying these are important subjects.”
Found art is all the rage these days. It’s even made its way into the Sanitation Department, according to The New York Times. Nelson Molina, a sanitation worker, has plucked some 1,000 objects, paintings and posters from the streets of New York and put them on meticulous display in the garage. Is this an act of institutional critique?