Increasingly, cities across the US are embedding artists in municipal agencies ranging from Veterans Affairs to Transportation, Probation to Immigrant Affairs. Purposes have ranged from creatively addressing internal issues like workplace morale, to external goals like making public services more user-friendly. In 2015, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) initiated Public Artists in Residence (PAIR) to create artist-municipal partnerships in New York City.
In June 2018, A Blade of Grass brought together three artists—Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Rad Pereira (at the time known as Rebeca Rad), and A Blade of Grass Fellow Rachel Barnard—to talk about why they chose to be embedded in city government, what artists can contribute there, and what they get from partnering with municipal agency staff. What follows is an edited transcript of that event.
Ukeles, whose forty-plus year residency with the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) made her the city’s first artist in residence, inspired what was to become the PAIR program years later. Rad, as part of The Lost Collective, worked with the Administration for Children’s Services in 2016. Barnard worked with the Department of Probation. Ukeles began the conversation describing her pioneering partnership with DSNY. She had proclaimed herself a “maintenance artist” in 1969 in her MANIFESTO FOR MAINTENANCE ART 1969! Proposal for an Exhibition “CARE,” challenging the low status of women’s work in the household, and connecting it with societal and earth maintenance.
Ukeles, Maintenance Art, and the Department of Sanitation
Mierle Laderman Ukeles: New York City had a dreadful fiscal crisis in the 1970s. The city almost went bankrupt. Many people pressured the city to “sell the Sanitation Department,” to go private. It was a time of hysteria. 60,000 city jobs were cut. Art critic David Bourdon wrote a great review of a performance I did with 300 maintenance workers in the downtown branch of the Whitney Museum in 1976. He suggested that the Sanitation Department call its work performance art and replace its cut budget with a grant from the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts].
I sent a photocopy of the review to “the Commissioner,” not knowing who that was. A woman from Sanitation called me and said, “How would you like to make art with 10,000 people?” I said, “I’ll be right over.” That was 1977. I went because it was perhaps the biggest maintenance system in the world. It was like going to maintenance heaven, to the major leagues. The Commissioner appointed an assistant and also the head of training, Leroy Adolph, who trained new sanitation workers, to drive me all over the city and show me, teach me, where Sanitation was, who they were, what they did: garbage collection, truck garages, mechanical sweeper garages, section offices, incinerators, landfills. I spent one and a half years doing research, learning.
[ . . . ]
Then, from July 1979 to June 1980, I walked the streets with sanitation workers over the eleven months of my Touch Sanitation performance. I faced each worker, asked to shake his hand [then an all-male workforce], and said, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive,” to each individual person in the system—8,500 workers. I would go wherever they were in all fifty-nine districts of the city, and spend at least an eight-hour day with them. Because I felt that message, even though New York is the center of international information systems, got lost. Why do they feel invisible? They are out on the street every day.
[ . . . ]
The opening of Touch Sanitation Show Part I, four years later in 1984, was another performance called Cleansing the Bad Names. I sent a telex from headquarters, asking workers to send the real, bad names that they have been called on the street. Then we painted these bad names all over the seventy-five-foot glass front of the building in SoHo housing the [Ronald] Feldman Gallery and its neighbors. With Sanitation carpenters, we erected two-story scaffolds on either side of a lady’s porch in Brooklyn that we re-created from the best of many, many stories that a sanitation worker had told me. He said, “Seventeen years ago we were picking up in Brooklyn and it was really hot. We loaded this lady’s garbage, and then we sat down on her porch steps to take a little rest. She opened up the door and said, ‘Get away from here, you smelly garbage men. I don’t want you stinking up my porch.’” Then he said to me, “That stuck in my throat for seventeen years. Today you wiped that out.” It was the best thing that ever happened to me as an artist. And then he said to me, “Will you remember that?” As if I could ever forget it. So to remember that, I rebuilt the lady’s porch and we painted these bad names. 190 people from all sectors of society climbed the scaffolds to wipe out the bad names. Mercer Street was closed. Many Sanitation families formed the audience. Many tears were shed that day.
[ . . . ]
Public Artists in Residence
Ukeles: I have two rules for PAIR, NYC’s Public Artists in Residence program. One, the artist who takes on these commissions has to be prepared to learn. You are not entering an empty studio. You have to be prepared to learn the mission of the agency, its physical presence, its locations, and the people who work there. It’s a real pre-existing place that’s different and often quite complicated. The second rule is that the partnering agency must agree up front that they will not tell the PAIR what to do. The artist has to be free to invent what they do. They are not your helper. Maybe they will decide to be your helper, but that is for the artist to decide. Otherwise, it’s not art. So work it out. [Laughter.] And trust the artist.
Rebeca Rad: Thank you, Mierle, for such a beautiful presentation, for paving the way for us. I worked with The Lost Collective along with Josh Adam Ramos, Britton Smith, and Keelay Gipson. We are a collective of playwrights, musicians, composers, producers, and performance artists. We saw the call for PAIR on Facebook. They wanted an artist to work with LGBTQ foster youth. And we were like, “If there’s anyone for it, that’s us.” We had been working on a multimedia dream performance play called The Lost that’s centered around a Harlem foster youth dealing with his sexuality, issues of belonging, and finding his place in the city. This was perfect. So the four of us applied together. And we were chosen.
Our initial proposal was to work with the youth on the play and its different elements: hip-hop, spoken word, poetry, and rap music. We worked in three stages. First was research, to get to know the thirty youth in five foster homes spread throughout Brooklyn. The homes are really far apart and a few of them are pretty tough to get to. During the research stage, we took them to different cultural programming. Luckily it was during Pride Week so we brought them into a lot of related cultural events happening around the city. We got to know about ten of them from the beginning who stayed with us for a lot of the programming.
When we talked about theater with them they were like, “Nah. We don’t want to do that at all.” So we said, “OK. Cool,” and we shifted our proposal. That was interesting to navigate. One of the biggest learning lessons working with the government was that they want deliverables and to know upfront exactly what we are going to do at the end of the year. We didn’t know because we didn’t know what the youth wanted to do yet. The staff was really flexible with us in making a program that was structured but that left room for us to build throughout the year. We knew that we were going to end with a public performance or something public.
The second stage began when we decided to make films with the youth that we generated through exercises about their past, present, and future. We worked a lot on film production and using their phones so that they could do it even without us there. We taught them about film structure, framing, scouting locations, and figuring out how to make anything with their friends. That was really exciting. We had them keep a notebook about their project next to their beds so if they woke up from a dream or a nightmare they could write what their visions were telling them. A few of them were really interested in music production as well. So Britton, who is a composer and songwriter, developed music with them for their videos. They went to a studio and got to develop brand new songs with a half dozen live instrumentalists. It was really exciting for them.
Then we thought, “Let’s have a sampler platter.” We brought in dance hall artists, hip-hop artists, chefs, martial artists. We were conscious to bring people that looked and talked like them to build trust more quickly. We gathered material for the Big Bang, which happened at the end of the year’s residency, at the Nuyorican Poets’ Café. We displayed their drawings and photography, screened their films, and played their music. In the beginning they kept to themselves in a corner of the room and people from the city agencies were taking up space. But by the end, the youth owned the space and were being loud and fully themselves. I think my favorite exchange was when one of them said, “I’m hungry.” And we were like, “There’s food right there.” And they were, “No, no. I’m hungry to keep doing more of this work.”
[ . . . ]
Rachel Barnard: I’m only six weeks into PAIR, working with the Department of Probation. Their stated goal is to create better relationships between clients and officers to lead to better case outcomes. If the relationship is good with your officer, you are far less likely to have your parole violated and be incarcerated. So this is a great project. What I have learned so far is to spend the time to deeply engage. I thought I was great at engagement but the leadership has asked me to really slow down. Since then, I’ve been in every office and touched about 600 people, shaking their hands or hugging, following the brilliant precedent that Mierle set.
We are creating “Wisdom Pavilions” in the lobbies of probation offices where I will sit one-on-one with a client or officer and listen and map out their stories. We’ll also create shrines in the client bathroom where you can deposit your wishes in exchange for hand lotion or incense or whatever. So for staff to engage, they will have to share the client bathrooms. From there we hope to create new artful interventions where clients and officers will have an opportunity to engage in new ways beyond the formal interview process that they have each week. I’m excited and feel very lucky.
Rad: I know a lot of artists distrust or mistrust the government. I was curious about how you both kept a guerrilla or gung-ho artist spirit alive within your work while doing projects within the establishment.
Barnard: I think when you are embedded in a community, let’s say the Department of Probation, you see that the national dialogue is very limited and often pits two very traumatized communities against each other. In this case, officers and clients. One of the questions in the “Wisdom Pavilion” will be, “How old were you when you first knew there was a criminal justice system?” It is to show that clients and probation officers often have similar life stories.
I’ve seen clients lose it. Maybe they are hungry and their children are being taken away from them. Maybe something terrible has happened, like violence within the family and they are screaming in the waiting room. I’ve seen officers remain really calm and say, “Are you ready for your meeting now?” They want to get the meeting done because it is required for clients to fulfill on their probation.
And I have seen cases not like that. I am so moved by our shared humanity and how generous everyone is in working with me and creating a space where we can appreciate each other’s humanity through art. I think it is very healing and transformative. Of course transformative for the lives of the people, like clients and officers, but also transformative for the systems that are supporting them, or meant to be supporting them. They become the authors of that system. So I don’t feel very guerrilla, though sometimes I’m not transparent with criminal justice professionals at a high level that this is my way of thinking.
But in the courtrooms [in Barnard’s work with arts-based diversion program Young New Yorkers], I really care for everyone . . . for the young people and the prosecutors, too, because if they are being looked after, they are going to have the space to make generous choices. They are going to have the space to see the young people. One partnering judge calls court a “churn” with how dehumanizing it is for young people to be collapsed into their rap sheet, one after the other. But that churn is also the environment in which prosecutors work. If we create celebratory spaces, prosecutors say, “Oh wow. I helped that young person.” Just introducing the words “young person” rather than “defendant” makes a huge difference. So I find it an honor and almost a spiritual practice. I guess I often am subversive. Like the installation where kids chose to give roses to the NYPD because they wanted to talk about police brutality.
Audience member: Thank you all for great presentations. I’m really interested in something that you just said and that Mierle was saying about the everyday. You are in these places, and you are bound with people, and you are saying that it is very emotional, but I can also imagine that it is anxiety-producing. You have to defend yourself against feeling anxiety for eight hours so maybe you glaze over or something. How do you maintain your attention and the kind of attention that you want to maintain? What is your psychic process, if that’s not too personal?
Rad: That is an amazing question. I have worked with care workers on how to deal with secondhand trauma and use the arts as sort of an exorcism of the leftover energy that hangs on to you so that you can go home and renew. So you are ready the next day to do it again. I have some tools and I get comfort in the mundane as well. Finding how to bring more colors into the day-to-day routines of the staff at the homes, and do the project with them, let them breathe and follow along and infuse it with the creativity and light, when in so many situations there was a lot of darkness. As an artist, I have the discipline and the stamina to maintain that deep well of hope. To me it was in how we find the pathway of light through all the routines and not let [the trauma] stick.
Barnard: I love talking about secondhand trauma. Because we need to be way more open about it so we can be fully human in our difficult jobs. Personally, I’ve learned to be grateful as a way to stay present. Then I have weird personal practices. On the weekend I will go on a “weeping walk,” and I will give myself permission to walk for a couple of hours and collect all of the beautiful things that I see. Not literally in a handbag, but as a list in my head. And feel things. Then sometimes you need to grieve. There are losses. Human losses. I do weird, kooky things like write letters or make drawings and then walk them up to a park in the evening to let them go. Personal practices that you’ve got to find out for yourself. But it is helpful to be open about it. And I feel like I could change the world if I could just become a morning person. When I do things in the morning for myself I am infinitely more effective. The everyday, daily stuff.
Ukeles: There are two things when you talk about keeping attention up. There is putting out a proposal and then having it rejected, and then the tension is problematic. Nerve-racking. A lot of things happen but a lot of things don’t. And dealing with things that don’t happen is very difficult. I find dealing with government that sometimes takes way too long the hardest. Things that could get done quicker, don’t. There are some people who don’t have the courage to say yes and take a chance with an artist. We are used to taking risks, but we need people to do that with us. A lot of people won’t; they say no or don’t let something go past a certain point. That is tough.
You need help. You need partners. Rachel says that she honors the prosecutors. She is not breaking the system up to find people that she honors. She is honoring everybody in the system. You need people to help you and to take risks with you. I think that is kind of nice. I wish that artists would say that more out loud. I have also found a lot of people say in the Sanitation Department, when we are working on a big project, that it’s such a cool thing for them. They have had so many thoughts about doing things and the artwork has a kind of opening to it that they can enter. They have been waiting to do that, and they are ready.
I’m nobody’s social worker. They don’t need my help—they need the society to change.
[ . . . ]
Audience member: Making art in these nontraditional venues and working with nontraditional populations, I’m wondering how the people you work with experience what you do with them. Do they consider what they do as art? Or do they think of you as social workers or people doing a kind of therapy with them? These aren’t groups that are traditionally exposed to art, so what do they think they are doing? What is their understanding of the art? How do they come to understand, if they do, what they are doing as art?
Ukeles: First of all, I wasn’t asking sanitation workers to think of their work as art. It is their work. When I would come I would say, “I am an artist, and I invite you to participate with me in this performance. I would like to shake your hand and thank you.” Then I would hear what happened to them out on the street. Like, “People think I am part of the garbage.” It was just stupid, and I would say that this is feminist artwork. Here I am in a garage standing there with my Canal Jeans outfits. Cheap painters shirts and pants. Anybody remember [the store] Canal Jeans? Pink, green, lavender, like work uniforms. I would say why I thought this was an artwork and what it was about. I wanted to be very clear: I invite you, you are free to respond and to participate or not, as you wish. I asked them to participate, to enter the artwork and be part of it. I really always resisted and don’t accept any notion that I am there to be a social worker, to help them. Because my motivation—where I came after almost ten years of making work about maintenance, that started off with a manifesto about invisibility as a feminist artist—I was trying to build a coalition between those who do invisible work in the home and the caretakers of the exterior city as home, which is how I saw the city, as home, living like your own home. I wanted to collapse and destroy and explode that invisibility of what is right in front of your fucking face. That it is time to destroy that, and we have to do it. I can’t do it myself, and my bunch of feminist artist friends can’t do it themselves either. We have to make big coalitions with a lot of people that are feeling pretty invisible. That is what I was trying to do.
I’m nobody’s social worker. They don’t need my help—they need the society to change.
Rachel Barnard is an A Blade of Grass Fellow and PAIR artist working within the Department of Probation.
Rad Pereira (formerly Rebeca Rad) was a PAIR artist in 2017 with the Administration for Children’s Services as part of The Lost Collective.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles began working with the New York City Department of Sanitation in 1977 as the city’s first artist in residence, inspiring what was to become the PAIR program years later.