Mierle Laderman Ukeles pioneered art that addressed urban infrastructures and labor conditions in ways that have since become common but were unheard of when she became the artist-in-residence at New York’s Department of Sanitation in 1978. In 1989, Patricia C. Phillips, co-curator of the Queens Museum’s 2016 Ukeles retrospective, wrote this article for A.i.A. about an ambitious public installation that Ukeles devised to put the operations of garbage trucks and barges on display. —Eds.
Just south of the site where developer Donald Trump plans to build his greatest gift to New York—Television City—the Department of Sanitation of the city of New York is putting the finishing touches on a new Marine Transfer Facility. Located at 59th Street and the shoreline of the Hudson, this enormous shedlike extension over the river replaces an earlier depot that was torn down several years ago. Of course, “marine transfer facility” is a euphemism: here garbage trucks file in 24 hours a day, seven days a week to dump their loads of household and office refuse, sewage and every imaginable castoff into cavernous barges. As each truck approaches the facility it is weighed to measure “productivity” (the more garbage collected, the better). It then proceeds up a ramp to the tipping floor where it backs into a narrow lane to deposit its load. The whole garbage transfer process is a noisy, madcap activity that occurs every day with surprising efficiency.
Each truck rumbles in and out, and within a matter of moments it has spilled up to three tons of garbage into a barge. The barges sit on the side of the tipping floor. When one is filled, it is towed by tugboat to the landfill site in Staten Island. Manhattan’s garbage is relocated to another borough but never beyond city limits; New York City’s solid waste must stay at home. Most large cities do not have this restriction. As a result, New Yorkers may be forced to face the crisis of garbage disposal far sooner than residents of most cities. The disposal of garbage is a growing problem that still occurs largely out of sight; the reality is that it cannot be out of mind for much longer.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles is an artist who is fascinated by this vast, cumbersome and generally repugnant system. Her work is an effort to make the tasks of the Sanitation Department more visible and to show that the disposal of garbage is a question of great public significance. She does not believe that garbage should be out of sight or out of mind. Ukeles became an unsalaried artist-in-residence with the Department of Sanitation in 1979, over ten years after completing a project/performance at the Downtown Whitney, collaborating with and documenting the city’s maintenance system. Since then she has generated a wide range of projects involving the community of sanitation workers, as well as the garbage itself and the collection process. By studying the municipal department engaged in this entropic cycle of waste disposal, Ukeles has developed a forum for creative intervention and a way to increase the public’s awareness of the connectedness of all urban and natural systems. Within the banal and the maligned, she recovers significant ideas about cities, circulation and public perception.
Ukeles’s newest project is her most ambitious. Within the new Marine Transfer Facility, she is installing a work called Flow City; this will be a series of sequential, participatory environments and observation points for the public. Planning and development began over four and a half years ago, and Ukeles worked with the project architects Greeley and Hanson, subcontractor/architect Richard Dattner and engineers from the Sanitation Department to plan the installation. Now the project is in the construction phase, and the major public-access areas that Ukeles designated have been built. The Department of Sanitation, which has supported her project from the start, has absorbed the additional construction costs for the architectural spaces designed by Ukeles, but she must continue to raise money on her own to complete the sculptural aspects of the piece.
When completed, Flow City will have three connected components: the Passage Ramp, a long corridor made of recyclables; the Glass Bridge, a clear-glass platform from which to view the dumping operations; and the Media Flow Wall, a bank of video monitors that will provide views and information regarding waste disposal and other environmental issues. Sited at the dynamic intersection of natural and man-made regenerative systems (i.e., the river and the garbage removal operation), Flow City will be both didactic and revelatory. By bringing people closer to the locus of garbage disposal in a large metropolitan area, Ukeles hopes to raise questions about the process of waste removal (especially relocation), about the nation’s rivers as natural but fragile circulatory systems that cleanse the cities and about the relationship between work and individual identity. For the first time, the public will have an opportunity and a compelling incentive to visit a marine transfer facility-a tough and normally hidden work environment.
Beginning at the entrance to the Marine Transfer Facility and running parallel to the approach ramp where vehicles both enter and exit, Ukeles is constructing a 248-foot pedestrian corridor called the Passage Ramp. Separated from the vehicular area by a wall of clear glass, the Passage Ramp will provide a view of the constant activity of lumbering collection trucks. The public will walk through a corridor whose walls and floor will be composed of crushed and recycled waste materials-glass, aluminum, newspaper, heavy metals, rubber, toxic materials-suspended between expendability and creative reuse. In addition to the sounds that occur on site, Ukeles will provide a taped sound track of industrial noises and soothing river sounds. (To test this particular section of the Flow City proposal, Ukeles built one module of Passage Ramp at P.S. 1 in spring 1987. Installed in the center of a large room lined with bundles of old newspapers, the ramp was a long hallway made up of a dense filigree of steel gratings and crushed glass, aluminum cans, rubber tubing and other castoffs. Though removed to a museumlike context, this installation gave a clear dense of Passage Ramp as a grand, obsessive environment.)
At the far end of the gradually inclined passageway (set perpendicular to the entrance ramps and parallel to the shoreline) will be the Glass Bridge, a spacious section between the dumping activities to the west and the view of the city skyline to the east. For the visitor, the experience should be puzzling: on the one side, the violent, clangorous activities of dumping, and the sounds of tons of garbage hitting steel barges, and on the other side a series of framed views of the hieratic skyline. The rough mechanical frenzy of the disposal systems will constantly jostle the frozen image of the purified city. When one of the barges flanking the 350-foot tipping floor (three can be accommodated at one time) is finally heaped high with garbage, it will pass beneath Ukeles’s observation bridge to make the dramatic pivot out into the river’s channel. The bridge is constructed specifically to allow a new kind of access to this vital but maligned process. Ukeles’s project will frame and interpret these activities.
At the south end of the Glass Bridge the artist will install the third part of the project-the Media Flow Wall. This ten-foot-by-ten-foot wall installation will consist of 35 video monitors programmed to communicate data from various sites in the Marine Transfer Facility as well as more general information about environmental phenomena and ecological issues. Some of the monitors will be connected to cameras situated at the far west end of the facility. The cameras will register the tidal movement of the river, and provide views up, down, and across it, as well as a long view back through the facility towards the Glass Bridge. Other monitors will be made available from time to time to artists, filmmakers, ecologists or groups interested in producing video programs of public and environmental significance. This wall will be a media blitz-mutable and adjustable.
Flow City is the denouement of Ukeles’s ongoing investigation of the sanitation system as an actual process and as a metaphor for urban vitality. Throughout her ten-year residency with the Department of Sanitation, Ukeles has shifted focus between ideas about circulation, the work-place and the public. Her first project as artist-in-residence was a performance in 1979 called “Touch Sanitation.” For eleven months she walked through the boroughs of New York in order to shake the hand of every sanitation worker in the city [see A.i.A., Feb, ’85]. In subsequent projects, such as The Social Mirror (1983), a sanitation truck clad in tempered glass mirrors, Ukeles began to structure her work as a series of ongoing public events based on movement and distribution. Over the past decade, the scope of Ukeles’s community has expanded not only to include a different audience, but to posit a much broader concept of “the public” and of public art.
In the past 15 years there has been a substantial rejuvenation of interest in public- art. But there has not been a commensurate rethinking of what public art is and how it has changed-or how it must change to remain relevant. A lot of public art either appeals to some functional agenda (if you can sit on it, you don’t need to think about it) or is private art enlarged in scale and arbitrarily recontextualized to a different, more open setting. Ukeles is one of the few contemporary artists who believes that public art really is something different-that it affords extraordinary possibilities to examine cultural issues, but that it also involves clear responsibilities. For Ukeles, public art is a unique forum to examine the relationship of public life, civic action and the modern systems that shape our collective culture.
There is no question that Ukeles’s work has been provocative, both in the art world and in public. Some critics and observers feel that it is a bad joke; others are offended by its grim, real-life directness; still others are simply bewildered. Many viewers seem skeptical (or squeamish) about garbage or maintenance work as the subject of or as a context for art. Yet, Claes Oldenburg displayed his neighbors’ garbage in transparent plastic bags as residual evidence of personal identity, Arman enclosed refuse in Plexiglas and Robert Smithson and other earthwork artists sought degraded, banal sites for intervention or reclamation. Still, in spite of such precedents, there is resistance to Ukeles’s projects. Partly this is because her works involve sites of tension: the edges between land and sea, the ambiguous areas between natural and artificial systems and the intersections between art and life. Her iconoclastic approach demonstrates that contemporary theory has not expended all the possibilities for the location, composition or significance of art. And finally it seems that Ukeles is exposing a cultural vulnerability. She is not just revealing the consequences of consumerist society run rampant, she also seems to be pointing to the city’s flagrant inattention to the municipal infrastructure at the very moment that its systems appear to be on the verge of total breakdown.
Ukeles’s projects involving maintenance and sanitation shift our conception of the city from a static model to a dynamic one. Waste disposal provides a key to addressing and understanding other issues concerning urbanism and circulation. As Ukeles makes clear, for any city to flourish, movement must be constant. Although today-in the late 20th century-the greatest interest is focused on circulation systems that speed the flow of information or facilitate travel and transportation or bridge time zones, the high visibility of these networks obscures the quotidian operations of other less glamorous circulatory activities. Systems that span great distances excite almost everyone with their (often exaggerated) efficiency. They reputedly improve life rather than just maintaining it. But Ukeles shows that maintenance is not the opposite of creativity. In fact, as in works like Flow City, maintenance can be a reinterpretation of creativity.
Ukeles has radically redefined public art, but not simply in order to expand the realm of the esthetic. For her, public art provides a unique position from which to forge connections between the public sphere and the private, and to show that public life is more a matter of routine activities than dramatic events. What her work does best is to challenge the whole notion of public art, to contest our limited conception of art’s place in the world. In this way, Ukeles uses art as a critical, constructive resource.