Margins and Maintenance Art
Mierle Ukeles’ Washing/Tracks/Maintenance. (Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts)
Every seven minutes, a new dystopic serial is released on a streaming service.
Or so it seems. From Netflix' Squid Games to Prime Video's Utopia (a remake of a British series from a couple of years ago), the public imagination seems obsessed with how bad things could get, and what particular flavor of bad might be the most fascinating, unusual, or sometimes, probable.
I've long felt ambivalent about TV's tendency to creep into the margins of my life, to seep under window sills and cram every crevice. The most rewarding and full periods of my life have always, easily been away from the television: artist residencies and traveling. I don't know if it's a 1:1 correlation. I'm not convinced it is. It's more like the doctor who insisted his method for detecting tuberculosis was the most accurate. As it turns out, his method was putting his hands into patients' mouths. His method was 100% accurate because it was also 100% effective at spreading tuberculosis.
Correlatives aside, when the margins of so many peoples' lives have crept inward--physical margins, financial margins, mental margins--when everything is close TV offers a ride and a journey and a change of scenery, all with scarcely lifting a finger. So, like many of us in the pandemic, I've found myself glued to the television nearly every weekday and some Saturday mornings, grateful for a moment in which my body can totally, utterly loosen and not give a crap.
But the recent uptick of dystopic shows has worn on my ability to drop out of my life, because they rub up against my anxieties of the present. They don't "hit close to home" exactly, because none of them really attempts to deal earnestly or concretely with the issues of climate change, political division, or rampant inequality. They treat these things as input into an abstracted fiction, and as far as I can tell don't seriously intend to reckon with what's to be done today.
That's not necessarily fiction's job, and I'm not saying it should be. But while watching something like "Utopia," a series about a secret network of scientists who stage a pandemic in order to surreptitiously sterilize 90% of the human race through the vaccine, this situation is framed through what I would call "Hollywood philosophy class" or "board game ethics": if you knew there was a way to sterilize the human race and bring the population down to a number more compatible with earth's limited resources, but it involved sterilizing people without their knowledge, what would you do?
This is a bollocks choose your own adventure, and it's even greater bollocks for the ways in which it misappropriates precisely why the earth's resources are currently so strapped. They are not strapped because humans got too smart and suddenly could make more babies that live longer (though of course larger population sizes do mean the consumption of more resources) but instead that sustainable sources of energy that do not pillage the planet or alter its climate have not been adopted because of the incredible political power of fossil fuel companies and the greed and corruption of our politicians.
It pains me to watch a show like Utopia because it reveals how ravenous our imaginational appetite is for images of what our own future could look like, while it shows a genuine paucity in the ability of TV writers and producers to picture something altogether radical, a different distribution of power. But in shows like Utopia, there are only a handful of random civilians who fall into resistance against the larger plot, and a complex, unaffiliated underground network of government agents.
If we are to spend our imaginational energies anywhere, it feels especially foolish to waste them on cookie cutter depictions of the end of civilization while something very similar unfolds outside. It's neither escapism, nor propaganda, nor satire, nor provocation. It's ersatz, comic-book life today.
I struggle, even more broadly, to understand what a dystopia serves us now. I really do. I'm not saying I want a bunch of utopic novels or projects. But I see the sky turn red from wildfires thousands of miles away, the air so opaque I can now look directly at the sun at high noon, and I wonder what is to be gained by imagining ghettos of trash next to sleek board rooms of gold. How moody, how dark. How boring.
But clearly, it is somehow pleasurable, or all too easy, to imagine our own demise rather than connect with the one we are actually in. To continue to think that a small group of people learning to shoot guns and break into government offices are an easier to imagine version of heroism than an entire electorate organizing together and refuse to compromise.
I rant and rave against shows like Utopia, but I do watch them. Sometimes when I finish work in the evening my body has the shakes from adrenaline. Not because anyone's life is at stake with my job, but because I don't always have control over my schedule, over whether or not our clients like what I do, over whether any of the work I do is good enough. There's no guarantee. And I am one of the most privileged workers perhaps on the planet. So I sit down and I watch a show about a serial killer in a small English coastal town, or about a secret plot to neuter humanity.
This past fall has been better, stress-wise, than the spring and summer. During those months I patched together dinner from the Trader Joe's freezer section and let my new puppy romp around the yard. I ate chocolate in front of the television because I was just so tired of meeting expectations or falling short of them I didn't want to impose anymore. I stopped exercising. I stopped menstruating. In the words of Bartleby, I just preferred not to.
But unlike Bartleby I was only Bartleby at home, never at work. At work, I was the anti-Bartleby, not just "I'd prefer to," but "I'd love to!" "I'd love to take on that extra project, I'd love another opportunity to work with this client, I'd love more responsibility."
But puppies need training. Bodies need healthy food. And exercise. Houses need upkeep. Gardens need tending. Clothes need washing. So do hair and faces. Teeth need brushing (and flossing!). Our lives require maintenance, daily maintenance.
In my first year in New York, a friend was staying with me while he was in town for an academic conference, and invited me to go with him to a new exhibit at the Queens Museum. It was an artist I had never heard of: Mierle Laderman Ukeles. This was one of the first retrospectives of her entire career, and my friend invited me to the opening, where Ukeles would speak.
I wish I could go back to that night, to appreciate exactly what I was seeing. Ukeles is most famous for her Touch Sanitation project, in which she met and shook the hands of every single one of the 8,500 sanitation workers in New York City. This performance art piece took over a year to complete, and Ukeles documented every meeting with photographs, notes, and a comprehensive map of her encounters.
She also wrote a manifesto for Maintenance Art, in which she insisted that all the work she does as a mother, and that so many do for their professions--the cleaning, cooking, the washing, the folding, the caring, and the endlessly cleaning--was art. When Ukeles became a mother, she found she had very little time to make art, and so decided to elevate what she was doing to the status of art.
Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time (lit.).
The mind boggles and chafes at the boredom. The culture confers lousy status on maintenance jobs=minimum wage, housewife jobs=no pay.
clean your desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor, wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby's diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the fence, keep the customer happy, throw out the stinking garbage, watch out don't put things in your nose, what shall I wear, I have no sox, pay your bills, don't litter, save string, wash your hair, change the sheets, go to the store, I'm out of perfume, say it again--he doesn't understand, seal it again--it leaks, go to work, this art is dusty, clear the table, call him again, flush the toilet, stay young...
Now, I will simply do these maintenance everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them as Art.
While not captured in this excerpt, Ukeles' goal was not merely to elevate the work of white housewives to the status of Art, but all maintenance art: sanitation workers, care workers, custodial staff, and laborers of many kinds, paid and unpaid. In the years since Ukeles first published her manifesto, many have commented on the imperfections of her politics: on the ways in which her art career profited from calling attention to marginal workers whose conditions she didn't necessarily improve. Were her performances truly radical for making the labor of so many visible? Or were these more superficial gestures, many wonder. But I think like a lot of art, the significance of what she was doing and writing has only grown, and is also reinforced by political groups like the National Domestic Workers' Alliance or sanitation workers' unions in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere. It has been brought home during the pandemic when we understood who among us were essential to the maintenance of life on this planet, and how far their compensation was and is from reflecting that.
I agree with Ukeles: maintenance does take all the fucking time. And as humans have found ways to outsource maintenance to machines, we've usually jumped at the opportunity. Washing machines beat washboards any day, right? Baby carrots are so much easier (and cuter!) than a carrot from the ground. And what precisely, is to be done with all of this trash?!
But I actually don't think all maintenance is a drag. Nor do I think we embraced all these cheaper, quicker options because washing clothes or dishes by default sucks. I actually love washing dishes, always have. But washing dishes is a drag when you work 70 hour weeks, or when you have to wash dishes for 70 hours a week for $7.85 an hour. There's a big difference between buying one frozen pizza for dinner because what the hell it's Friday, and buying seven because it's cheap, fast, and the nearest grocery store is too far.
The writer Robin Wall Kimmerer has made the rounds over the past couple of years for her book Braiding Sweetgrass, and I see in her essays on Indigenous knowledge, nature, ecosystems, interdependence, and care a similar strain to Ukeles' maintenance manifesto, to the way that Ai-Jen Poo talks about care work. The care and maintenance of our environment is part and parcel of being here. And it can be one of the most meaningful and joyful things we do. In one passage, Kimmerer describes the first time she made maple syrup with her daughters, tapped from the maples in the woods by their house. To boil the sap down into maple sugar, Kimmerer stayed up all night, in the cold, in her lawn chair, stoking the fire pit every hour. It was tiring, it was longer than she had anticipated. But the single gallon of syrup she tasted in the morning was oh so sweet.
Kimmerer's book enjoyed well-earned, incredible success over the past year, and I think for good reason. Not only is indigenous knowledge long overdue for recognition and respect (not to mention recompense for the land and lives that were stolen), not only are we in a moment of ecological crisis when we have lost faith in our ability to contribute positively to our ecosystems, not only is Kimmerer an astute and moving writer, but she has rightfully honors the small and intimate moments of maintenance that can be just as rewarding and enriching as our acts of creation and destruction.
If we were to invest our imaginative powers into projecting a vision of our future, a vision of what is possible, I wish we invested it in imagining a life full of margin and maintenance: a life not necessarily total ease or relaxation, but a life in which maintenance and leisure, maintenance and pleasure are intertwined, and in which those duties (because I really believe they are duties: duties to ourselves, our families, our neighbors and co-habitants of all species) are spread evenly across our communities, and do not simply fall to those who are given little choice over how to spend their time.
In the middle of this newsletter I was interrupted by my neighbor, who needed my help loading a dead doe into his truck. He had shot her this morning, and needed to pull her out of the bramble behind our house where she went to die in shelter and in privacy. I wasn't much help, but I assisted in tromping a path through the prickers back to where the doe lay. Her eyes were open, her tongue hanging out slightly. I was worried I wouldn't be able to stomach seeing her or lugging her out of there, but I found the reality different. Both softer and more ordinary than I had expected. Seeing this doe didn't make me want to go back to being a vegetarian, nor did the weight of her body as it was dragged along the grass make me want to eat meat. It just made me want to move a little slower, pay careful attention.
I suspect people avoid maintenance not because we're lazy, but because maintenance does not actively refute death: it merely insists on living as best and long as possible. It's not like writing a song, or a house party with good wine, or losing yourself on the dance floor. You can't forget where you are when you're cleaning the toilet, or frying an egg, though you may whistle or hum to pass the time. People avoid maintenance because it reminds us we're just like everyone else. I think we avoid margins for the same reason: without TV or food or concerts or shopping, when we let the margins of our life open up we can feel I am sure the matter-of-factness of our fingers, which contain bones, of our chests which pump blood and air. We can sense in the way the cat curls up on the sofa and the tree branch taps on our the window the utter insignificance of an email we forgot to send or a phone call we really should return.
But I really do think the way through this current crisis--for I think we've long pas the point of getting out of it, we may only pass through--is to double down on this drag we call maintenance. To drag out these small concrete moments of cleaning a countertop or sweeping a floor or making a bed. To drag them out and by doing so extend our margins a little more each day. Most people who read this can't suddenly quit their jobs and instantly grow their margins by eight hours a day. But we can quietly grow our psychic margins by showing up for our own maintenance and the maintenance of those we love, of giving our attention more fully to the up-keep, the cleaning, the tending and caring.
There are so many political movements that have articulated much sounder theories and philosophies around maintenance and labor than I have here. These include the Wages for Housework campaign in the 1970s, as well as a wealth of work by scholars, historians, and activists on the history of wealthy white families outsourcing care and maintenance work to working class people of color. I highly recommend leading your own learning journey into those various labor movements and histories, but I will share two inspiring sources that gave me a lot to think about in the meantime:
Ai-jen Poo, On Being interview - National Domestic Workers' Alliance has some great materials, but I love this interview with Poo because she touches on the spiritual and societal significance of care work in a way that goes beyond the political without dismissing the very politicized nature of care work today.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto - Quoted briefly in this essay, the full manifesto is worth a read and re-read, even with the very heavy mid-century white feminist vibes.
Take care and till December, G.