Monday, January 14, 2013

Mierle Ukeles at the Brooklyn Museum on maintenance

In developing Fish Story, I am often reminded of the work of artists such as Mierle Ukeles, known for her work on Fresh Kills wetlands and as the artist in residence for the NYC maintenance department.

Mierle Ukeles is remarkable to me not just for her work but for her thoughtfulness, modesty and generosity to others. I think she lets the work speak for itself without languaging or keywording at all. In this case, the work was all about framing her questions about the meaning of maintenance and the implications of Sandy with peoples experiences, letting the context frame the content.

Mierle began the event with some opening remarks, most of which I missed. Mierle referenced an earlier performance, in the 60's and that now was a good time to revisit the meaning of maintenance. She was seated to the audience's right, on a raised platform podium, at a table and each person sat across from her, like Marina Abramovich at MOMA last year.  She was in a relaxed posture but didn't break till everyone was done, about 6:PM. 

She had sent us questions- how do you survive, how will NYC survive (after Sandy):

What keeps you alive?
What do you need to keep going?
What keeps NYC alive?
What does the city need to survive?
in the short run
in the long run
She also asked us each for an intro.

Each participant was weighed before they ascended & then after they descended the platform.
The entire event was taped and will be available on disk.
A questionnaire was distributed inviting people to list their maintenance activities.

The day interspersed artists, a few scientists with maintenance workers who each spoke precisely 15 minutes. I stayed till the end.

There were several of us present from the ecodialog. Jackie Brookner, Betsy Damon & myself spoke about our current work, respectively in Fargo, China and Memphis. Lillian Ball & Ruth Hardinger were also there. 

Betsy Damon talking with Mierle Ukeles

One account was from a museum window washer, who had had cancer, was a former model. She could be seen washing the windows behind Mierle earlier in the performance. 

The window washer

The maintenance people fascinated me. They were modest, humble & competent. Very smart people and as Mierle said, what keeps us going. They were the people  one Parks dept cleaner said & Mierle agreed, who could just as easily be CEOs.

One particularly riveting speaker was a maintenance man from the Rockaways, who described his experiences with Sandy. His time went double everyone else's. 

Describing the clean-up after Sandy

Mierle listening

These were some of the quotes I wrote down:
What are we going to sacrifice to survive?
I'm proud to be an American and a New Yorker ... there's worse out there
We cried the whole night about Stage 4 cancer and then we were OK
It was magnificent (about people helping with Sandy) ... I wanted to be helpful. I grew to hate the storm.' I'm reporting for duty.' They put me to work and I felt useful. People have to shred more. You could only operate while the sun is shining.
Methane harvesting (at Fresh Kills) for 100 000 homes and generating $1 million for the city
make people biological by connecting them to the land
"You don't know who you are until you know WHERE you are" (Wendell Berry)
How the story will end?  "You (Mierle)" remind us we are all stardust.
Emptying out art

Earlier in the day, I had passed a homeless person, asleep in a  church doorway and wondered what their maintenance was like.

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