Trash Talk: The Department of Sanitation’s Artist in Residence Is a Real Survivor

How Mierle Laderman Ukeles turned maintenance into art

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.”
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