06: Mierle Laderman Ukeles

How do we move past judging the processes of social practice and talk about the reception of the work by audiences and its effects?


There are “audiences” and “audiences.” People used to ask me, “Who’s your audience?” I never understood that question, and I never knew what to say. What are you talking about? Everyone and anyone is my audience. Especially if you locate yourself in the public domain, the ESSENCE of the public domain is that it belongs to everyone. Everyone is already there and is an owner. The audience is present. That’s what I like about it. That’s its value.

Now, of course between you and me, while they could, yet they often don’t show up, right? That’s a problem. And also some of them ask the dumbest questions too, right? So infuriating. I actually wish that the “effects” of public works became a central concern to critics and curators. So we would have responses to public work with highly articulated thinking, writing, talking. That’s a big after-effect with a lot of public work: bland, uncritical responses to the artist’s strategy and strategic thinking, quality of concept, justice sensitivity, impact, aesthetics, methods, meanings. And often not careful enough paying deep attention to what the artist is doing or what the art is aiming to do. Also responding midway through a work then all along the work’s spooling out––that’s critical too.

Are you expecting me to say we can change peoples’ lives and change the world? Yes! Though pretty battle scarred, there are zones where a lot of fundamental shifts can occur. I personally think I have had an impact on wedging Western culture open to think about, see, worry about maintenance, service work and workers, infrastructure, continuity, sustainability, human worth, wrecking the planet.

Let’s shift gears. Let’s talk about the future. We are creating a force field of social _____ art. You fill in the blank. I often call this wave that is certainly becoming / is already an art movement: “social shmocial art.” It is here and it is powerful. And most important, a lot of artists are creating these works like crazy. This kind of work is painfully heavy in paper and plotting and planning and talking, hoping, proposing, projecting, strategizing––although not enough strategizing. A lot of the creativity in the work is sitting inside all this stuff. Then there’s the work that happens. And then there’s cleaning up and then there’s after effects. Often the whole overall “work” has multiple shapes and forms and can take even years to come about. What will happen to all this knowledge, effort, accomplishment, failure, sinking, trying, lifting up, trying again, giving up and then trying again?

Where will it reside?

So I want to encourage all of us to create an ARCHIVES! We need an ARCHIVES! Many artists, certainly of my generation, who are “public domain lifers” lay awake at night worrying about this. What’s in these archives? Where is it housed? Who will have access to it? And who will maintain it?

Will all this gorgeous gracious generous human effort and accomplishment blow away? Become compost?

About the contributor: Mierle Laderman Ukeles is a defining artist in the history of performance, feminist, and socially engaged art and has been the official artist in residence with New York City’s Department of Sanitation for over three decades. Her work models possibilities of how an artist can create long-term, sustainable alternative contexts within which to situate and create their work.