The work of waste collection often goes unnoticed, but New York’s Department of Sanitation is becoming harder to ignore. And one of the people most responsible for that fact is Mierle Laderman Ukeles.
For nearly 40 years, DSNY's official artist-in-residence has helped reframe perceptions of the agency’s work through "maintenance art." The term she coined is also the name of a new exhibit at the Queens Museum which celebrates her career and continues DSNY's evolution into one of New York's more surprising cultural forces.
As encapsulated in her 1969 maintenance art manifesto, Ukeles' work is driven by the nature of work itself: "The sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who's going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?"
Inspired by her work as a mother in the 1960s, this manifesto kicked off a series of pieces about various jobs that eventually led her to pitch a collaboration to DSNY in 1977. The agency's reputation had suffered due to service cuts caused by a major fiscal crisis. Public perception of sanitation workers was so low that they even had trash thrown at them during a parade.
"The department was in such bad shape and I was trying to bring other points of view," said former commissioner Norman Steisel, who supported Ukeles on a project to recognize workers. "The public, because they picked up garbage, associated them with garbage."
For the performance piece "Touch Sanitation," Ukeles spent more than a year traveling around the city to shake hands with all 8,500 DSNY employees. She learned about their jobs and told every one of them, "Thank you for keeping New York City alive."
"I thought it was time to say something bigger about the ecological role that they play," she said at the opening of her exhibition.
Photos and videos of these meetings are part of the exhibit, which includes documentation of many decades of art in the service of DSNY. Over the years Ukeles created a mirrored collection truck for a parade, built an arch with gloves and equipment from 13 city agencies, choreographed "work ballets" with mechanical brooms and barges, served meals to workers and began an ongoing project at the former Fresh Kills Landfill.
After the beginning of her fruitful collaboration with Steisel, which is chronicled in a series of letters on display, Ukeles went on to work with six more commissioners who all saw the need for a fresh look at their agency's duties. This has since become a model for artists to collaborate with municipal governments around the country.
"The public tended to confuse the workers with the product," said former commissioner Brendan Sexton, who succeeded Steisel in 1986. "The idea that they should have some respect was in itself revolutionary at the time."
Decades later, Ukeles' work is now being celebrated on a larger scale than ever before and still draws a crowd. To kick off the opening event, her piece "The Social Mirror" was brought out for a special trip. As the mirrored truck made a loop around the iconic Unisphere sculpture - built for a World’s Fair with the theme “Peace Through Understanding” - families and art enthusiasts flocked to see it.
In a speech at the event, DSNY Commissioner Kathryn Garcia said the work that Ukeles does to make New Yorkers think about their garbage and the people who collect it is equally important today.
"Because while many people view us, while the sanitation workers are out doing their job collecting or sweeping, they don't actually see us"
"It changed and continues to change how the department sees itself," she said. "Because while many people view us, while the sanitation workers are out doing their job collecting or sweeping, they don't actually see us."
After her remarks Garcia told Waste Dive that of all the uniformed agencies, DSNY will always have a unique relationship with residents. People get angry when a truck is blocking the street or plowing is behind schedule, but they don't often notice the positive work being done to preserve public health on a more regular basis.
"There is sort of this weird push and pull with the department and the public," she said. "If you actually are involved with police, fire or corrections you're having a really bad day. But we come and see you at least two or three times a week and we make your life better."
To continue pushing the boundaries of this dynamic, DSNY seems more willing than ever to embrace its artistic side. In addition to former commissioners, department chiefs and city staffers the opening event for Ukeles' exhibition was attended by some of the agency’s top cultural figures.
Retired sanitation worker Nelson Molina, curator of the "Treasures in the Trash" collection of items he found along his old route, was there despite an invitation to a film festival in Harlem. Robin Nagle, the department’s anthropologist-in-residence, discussed potential locations for a future trash museum. Michael Anton, DSNY's director of photography, had just wrapped up putting together the agency’s second annual calendar. Designer Heron Preston, whose fashion line of repurposed uniforms helped kicked off the new Foundation for New York’s Strongest, was spotted in the crowd wearing a DSNY shirt.
Ukeles, overwhelmed by this celebration of maintenance, recognized the moment in her remarks.
"Don't we have the coolest sanitation department in the whole world?"