On social media and in national publications, a debate has been raging over a provocative question: Is New York dead? The artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who has made New York City and its denizens a part of her art for decades, doesn’t think so. “Well,” she said in a recent Zoom call, speaking from Jerusalem, where she has been quarantining, “it could die, but I’m not talking about if the rich people go away. I’m not so worried about them. I think maybe if they went away, artists could stick around New York and not have to leave.”
Since the 1960s, Ukeles has made touching, tender artworks about maintenance, often focusing her attention on New York City’s Department of Sanitation. In the iconic work Touch Sanitation Performance (1979–80), for example, she made a year-long project out of shaking hands with all 8,500 sanitation workers in the city, as a way of thanking them for their efforts, which many don’t think much about. So it wasn’t surprising that Ukeles followed up her thoughts on New York’s potential demise with some ideas about the invisible networks and city-run departments that bring it to life. “You wanna have a city?” she asked. “You wanna stay here? You have to deal with these infrastructure flow systems.”
Her latest project is yet another attempt to highlight those systems. Starting on Tuesday, Ukeles will exhibit a new artwork, For ——> forever…. (2020), which will appear in subway stations, on screens in Times Square, and on the façade of the Queens Museum, which will reopen to the public on September 16 bearing a 200-foot-long banner version of the piece. Working with Queens Museum curator Larissa Harris (who curated the 80-year-old artist’s 2016 survey there), Times Square Arts director Jean Cooney, and MTA Arts & Design, an organization that oversees art in the subway system, Ukeles has found a way to thank city employees once again, this time in an era when essential workers and the labor they contribute on a daily basis is the subject of regular household discussions.
The video appearing on screens around the subway, as well as on ones that typically display ads in Times Square, is short but powerful. At just 15 seconds, it will be shown throughout the day, 24 hours 7 days a week, and it offers a message addressed to workers written in Ukeles’s handwriting. “Dear Service Workers,” it reads, “‘Thank you for keeping NYC alive!’ for ——> forever….” Alongside that phrase are frames filled with colors that will be instantly recognizable to city workers—hues that she called emergency red-orange (à la the plows used to move snow in the winter) and safety fluorescent green (in reference to the jackets workers don while on the job).
“I didn’t say ‘Thank you for keeping New York City clean,’ because that’s their job,” Ukeles said in the Zoom call last week. “I said ‘alive,’ because the city, I felt, was in peril, and what they’re about is beyond that, way beyond that. It’s about this flow, keeping, maintaining. It’s never-ending.”
“Thank you for keeping NYC alive!” is presented in quotes within the work because it was the same phrase she said to sanitation workers during the 1970s as she enacted Touch Sanitation Performance. That piece, she said, was staged with a different crisis in mind. At the time, the city was on the brink of financial collapse, and people were urging New York to privatize the Department of Sanitation. Ukeles, who remains the only artist-in-residence ever at the department, accompanied sanitation workers as they did their jobs and was appalled by the scorn they often faced.
“I rode around in mechanical sweepers with people, and I saw the conditions on the street,” she said. “[The workers] are expected to get up to the curb, but there’s double-parked cars, and then people yell at you because you didn’t do your job.”
To spotlight just how difficult this form of labor was, Ukeles began creating art about it. “It was a public act of culture that you never see, even though it’s right in front of your face,” she said of the sanitation workers’ labor.
Still today, Ukeles remains keenly aware of how hard these workers work. She is fascinated by their readiness to clean up the confetti that falls in Times Square on New Year’s Eve and hopes the new work’s presentation there reminds people of that. She also knows the risk that many are facing by coming to work each day as Covid-19 continues spreading. (Within the first month of the pandemic in New York, hundreds of sanitation workers tested positive, and four died from the virus.) “This is big—this is life and death, and everyone knows this,” Ukeles said. “We’re all in this. It’s not only until the vaccine, all this service work.”
And, Ukeles continued, we would do well to remember just how much work takes places behind the scenes to allow many of us to continue living safely in quarantine. Throughout her own six-month-long quarantine, she has been reminded of her own mortality—several of her friends and loved ones, including the artist Helène Aylon, have died of the coronavirus.
“That notion of our familiar world isn’t linked to us anymore,” Ukeles said, explaining that she looks outside her window every day and sees plants, the sun, blooming flowers, but that her life is profoundly different otherwise. “We’re aliens—we have this alien quality now. Everything’s OK, except us. This vulnerability will open people to seeing.”