How to Keep a City Alive? Mierle Ukeles’ For→Forever… (2020)

The artwork on the façade of the Queens Museum. Photo by author.
From the Queens Museum to Times Square, the installations of Mierle Laderman Ukeles drew attention to the essential workers who kept the “empty” city running during Covid-19. Patricia Ciccone analyzes Ukeles's art and its concern with maintenance in the urban environment.
[This article is part of a dossier on Media In-Between.]
“The city is ongoing because its infrastructure works: the systems that must work, keep working no matter what, or we cannot stay here.” (Mierle Ukeles)1Mierle Ukeles, “For ⟶ forever…: Artist Statement”, Times Square Arts, September 6–7, 2020, http://arts.timessquarenyc.org/times-square-arts/projects/at-the-crossroads/for-forever/for-forever-artist-statement/index.aspx

A sanitation worker is sweeping the empty steps of the TKS ticket stand in Times Square. He is wearing a brightly colored work uniform and a mask. The steps are usually lively and bustling with visitors from all over the world. But in this instance, he is there alone. Behind him, on the giant 17,000-square-foot LED screen at 20 Times Square, the words “Dear Service Worker, Thank you for keeping NYC alive! ForForever…” slowly appear in white before fading away. The message, displayed at the intersection of two significant commercial thoroughfares, on an LED screen typically designated for advertising, appears incongruous. But then again, a near-empty Times Square is not normal either.

This scene is part of a promotional video for ForForever…, a public installation by veteran conceptual artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles.2Queens Museum. “Mierle Laderman Ukeles: ForForever”. September 2020. A collaboration between the Queens Museum, Times Square Arts, and MTA Arts and Design, the installation was unveiled on September 15, 2020, six months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was subsequently displayed on the expressway-facing façade of the Queens Museum, and across digital screens throughout the MTA subway and rail system from the outer boroughs all the way to 20 Times Square.

Taken individually, each display, consisting simply of the previously mentioned message presented in the artist’s own handwriting, can look plain and unassuming, a far cry from the usual flashy billboards in the city. However, when looked at collectively, they acquire a new meaning: they map out a loose coming together of people into Manhattan, aligning with the traditional morning commute of many workers.

ForForever… was conceived as a response to a moment of motionlessness, stillness, a moment governed by the rhetoric of sheltering-in-place, of isolation. A few months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city being “alive” was being debated all over the media. Newspaper articles and news segments all reported on the upper-middle class exodus from the city, calling the pandemic a tipping point of livability.3For example, see, “The richest neighborhoods emptied out most as coronavirus hit New York City; So long, New York: pandemic and protests spark new exodus to suburbs” and “The NYC exodus that De Blasio Refuses to See”. Yet, these same media struggled to capture the invisible threats of the virus, to make it legible to a worried public. New visual arrangements coming out of individualized spatial-centric policies (social distancing, quarantine, limiting the number of people in stores) were hesitantly enforced through stickers on the sidewalks and printed sheets on the doors of establishments. At the same time, the movements of different human and non-human actants were being monitored through a variety of sensors. The collected data was used as “evidence” by state institutions to make important yet opaque decisions about the collective well-being of the public. These data sets were then organized and shared with the public as authoritative forms of mediation. The compiled visuals all emphasized the city’s emptiness, with colored maps, pie charts, and area charts showcasing absence. In their reflection on the use of aerial videos during the early days of the pandemic, scholars Patricia Zimmerman and Caren Kaplan similarly noted how solitary pedestrians and street cleaners disrupted the eerie emptiness of drone footage, emphasizing the anomaly of street life amidst the crisis.4Patricia Zimmerman and Caren Caplan, “Coronavirus Drone Genres: Spectacles of Distance and Melancholia,” Film Quarterly, April 30, 2020. https://filmquarterly.org/2020/04/30/coronavirus-drone-genres-spectacles-of-distance-and-melancholia/

Headlines from various news publications during the early days of the pandemic. Copyright: NYTimes.com; Theguardian.com; NYpost.com.

Moving across “empty” spaces

Against this background, ForForever… can be read as a refusal to forget about the people who risked their health every day to keep the city running. Ukeles confirmed this assertion in various interviews and discussions, tracing the origins of ForForever… to the nightly applause for healthcare workers during the pandemic. Inspired by this collective act of gratitude, she sought to extend similar recognition to other workers affected by the pandemic. While numerous workers transitioned to remote work, over one million individuals, roughly 25 percent of the city’s workforce, continued to report to their workplaces daily.5New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey, “The lives of NYC’s essential workforce during COVID-19,” https://www.nyc.gov/assets/hpd/downloads/pdfs/about/nyc-home-essential-workers.pdf These workers, spanning various sectors, were deemed essential for maintaining the city’s crucial infrastructure and functions. Among them were nurses, janitors, sanitation workers, grocery clerks, childcare staff, bus drivers, and truck drivers.

However, as these essential workers proved invaluable during these unprecedented times, they also held positions often overlooked during periods of economic and social stability. When asked about her emphasis on service workers, Ukeles promptly highlights this discrepancy, noting that these workers consistently constitute the backbone of the city and contribute to sustaining life in their unique capacities. In the accompanying artist’s statement for the installation, Ukeles suggests that without their labor, the city would quickly deteriorate, making urban life truly unsustainable.6Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “For→Forever…: An Invitation,” https://queensmuseum.org/exhibition/mierle-laderman-ukeles

Ukeles has a history of drawing attention to these conflicting parallels in her work. At the outset of her career, Ukeles confronted a stark disparity between her role as an artist and that of her male peers. Balancing her responsibilities as a mother of two alongside her artistic pursuits, Ukeles recognized the injustice of this divide. In response, she penned an artist’s manifesto, advocating for the recognition of maintenance and manual labor as valuable and creative endeavors deserving of respect.7Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Manifesto! Maintenance Art: Proposal for an Exhibition ‘Care, 1969’,” Ronald Feldman Gallery, September 30, 1969. In the manifesto’s opening section, Ukeles delineates a dichotomy between the death instinct of art, characterized by notions of separation, individuality, and dynamic change, and the life instinct, centered on the perpetuation and maintenance of the species, survival systems, and equilibrium. This dualism also reflects patriarchal and capitalist norms that prioritize development (Death Instinct) over maintenance (Life Instinct).8Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Manifesto! Maintenance Art: Proposal for an Exhibition ‘Care, 1969’,” Ronald Feldman Gallery, September 30, 1969. However, Ukeles refrains from presenting these systems as mutually exclusive; instead, she views them as interdependent, forming a feedback loop where the Life Instinct provides essential support for the progress facilitated by the Death Instinct. For instance, in a 1973 performance titled Washing, Ukeles meticulously scrubbed the outdoor entrance and marble floors of the Wadsworth Atheneum museum in Hartford, Connecticut. This gesture aimed to underscore the frequently overlooked, yet essential, contribution of custodial workers to the museum’s operation. While some have construed Ukeles’s manifesto as a critique of her male peers like Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark, whose artistic pursuits profoundly altered urban and natural environments, it is mostly remembered for starting a dialogue about the inherent creativity and value of maintenance work.

For—>Forever… carries on Ukeles’s lifelong commitment to “maintenance,” but more specifically, it is a direct continuation of her seminal durational piece Touch Sanitation. After a playful suggestion from a journalist that she should turn garbage collection into art so the EAP could fund it, Ukeles turned the city itself into an installation. With Touch Sanitation, Ukeles invited the public to the streets of New York to show them the work performed by sanitation workers. The media portrayed the “sanmen” as dehumanized figures due to their refusal to work under deteriorating conditions during the 1975 fiscal and sanitation crises. They were unfairly scapegoated for broader social and economic issues plaguing New York City at that time. In response to the pervasive false narratives surrounding them, Ukeles spent two years walking and driving around the city, personally meeting all 8,500 sanitation workers. She shook their hands and expressed gratitude for their essential role in “keeping the city alive.” Leveraging television news, documentary films, and photography to extend the reach of her work further, Ukeles redirected the cameras toward the workers and allowed them to demonstrate how vital their labor was for the city.

ForForever… reuses the ethos of gratitude found in Touch Sanitation. This time around, Ukeles utilizes public screens and building facades across the city, rather than more traditional media, as a means to connect with workers and increase the visibility of their work.

Rethinking the city at a human scale

With For—>Forever…,  Ukeles refuses to let the screens and billboards become mere transitional and transactional spaces for a distracted public.9Margaret Morse, “An Ontology of Everyday Distraction: The Freeway, The Mall and Television,” in Virtualities: Television, Media, Art, and CyberCulture (Indiana University Press, Indiana, 1998). Instead, she imbues them with political significance, using them to reposition essential workers as active components of a dynamic urban composite. The artwork emphasizes the importance of each commuter, and highlights their presence, effectively proposing an urban mediascape reframed at a human scale.

Displayed across a 200-foot-long glass facade, the Queens Museum section of the artwork is made of three neon green stripes with the artist’s message handwritten in black. It faces the Grand Central Parkway and is big enough so that drivers can read it from afar. The Grand Central Parkway provides an essential gateway into the city, traveled by many commuters from the outer boroughs or the suburbs. The bold façade, in some ways, welcomes them and makes their presence known. It is both a symbol of recognition (“I see you coming into the city”) and of communion (“All of us on this parkway are heading into the city”). Instead of delineating the boundaries of the city, the artwork reconceptualizes the liminal space of the parkway into a space of inclusivity.

Sanitation worker cleaning the steps of the TKS Ticket Booth in Times Square. Copyright: Queens Museum (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJTDR7VYh6Q)

At the other end of the itinerary is 200 Times Square. The large-scale video appears every fifteen minutes on the screen and is framed between two swells of color: an emergency orange and a safety green. As a visual metaphor, the two swells of color arguably prompt reflection on the transition from crisis to safety as a gradual process. The written component of the artwork reinforces this assertion: while the address (“Dear Service Worker”) and the message (“Thank you for keeping NYC alive”) affix a certain feeling of immediacy to the work, the sign-off (“ForForever…”) suggests a future-oriented perspective. This last sentence, the ellipsis, and the positioning of the sentence in an upward direction all emphasize the enduring importance of service workers. In interviews, the artist often implied that beyond the pandemic, the essential tasks that keep the city running will still need to be performed.

In between these two large-scale displays, the artwork found its way onto 2,000 digital screens dispersed throughout the MTA network. In an interview, Sandra Bloodworth, the director of MTA Arts and Design, revealed that this extensive distribution was made possible due to a decline in revenue suffered by Outfront Media, the primary owner of these screens. In an effort to mitigate their losses, Outfront Media offered a discounted rate to MTA Arts and Design. This development aligns with Zach Melzer’s research on public screens, which suggests that their profitability fluctuates in accordance with the perceived patterns of social activity.10Zach Melzer, “Understanding Urban Screen Media and Cultures,” in The Routledge Companion to Urban Media and Communication (1st ed.), ed. Zlatan Krajina and Deborah Stevenson (New York: Routledge, 2019), 36–45. During the peak of the pandemic, when movement was severely restricted, digital displays lost their typical commercial appeal. Advertisers withdrew their advertisements as “desirable” consumers departed en masse, resulting in vacant screens across the MTA network.

However, to witness and engage with the artwork presented in metro stations and along railway lines, individuals inevitably relied on the very infrastructures that advertisers had dismissed as deserted. Amidst discussions of urban stagnation, the metro system continued its operations, and workers continued their duties. By highlighting these aspects, ForForever… challenges the notion of solely interpreting the city through data points. Instead, it suggests a reevaluation of the economic landscape, emphasizing the intrinsic value of essential services and the resilience of urban systems beyond mere statistical analysis.

Living together again

Although some critics may contend that Ukeles’s recognition of workers was temporary and superficial, lacking the transformative elements needed for genuine systemic change, her unwavering artistic commitment to labor’s value still encourages us to ponder the profound significance of maintenance in the long run. By proposing a multi-faceted artwork that centers on the reimagining of the urban landscape, encompassing both its formal structures and its underlying essence, Ukeles initiates a process akin to what French philosopher Jacques Rancière terms the “redistribution of the sensible.” Rancière’s concept encapsulates both the establishment of shared conditions that define collective experiences (i.e., redistribution as sharing) and the recognition of sources of disruption or dissent within that shared framework (i.e., redistribution as separating).11In French, “partage” means both sharing and separating. See Davide Panagia, “Partage du sensible: The distribution of the sensible,” in Jacques Rancière: Key Concepts, ed. Jean-Philippe Deranty (Stocksfield: Acumen Publishing, 2010). It represents a simultaneous rejection of the prevailing order and a yearning to engage in collective participation.12Christine Palmiéri, “Compte Rendu de Jacques Rancière: ‘Le Partage du Sensible’,” ETC 59 (2002): 34–40. Ranciere underscores art’s role in rendering these processes visible and shaping spatial configurations, thus influencing our common world. Through this lens, delving into Mierle Ukeles’s work offers an avenue to explore the expansive and unpredictable dynamics of urban life, suggesting a perspective where aesthetic experiences serve as catalysts for new modes of perception and political engagement.13Palmiéri, 43.

Notes

Notes
1 Mierle Ukeles, “For ⟶ forever…: Artist Statement”, Times Square Arts, September 6–7, 2020, http://arts.timessquarenyc.org/times-square-arts/projects/at-the-crossroads/for-forever/for-forever-artist-statement/index.aspx
2 Queens Museum. “Mierle Laderman Ukeles: ForForever”. September 2020.
3 For example, see, “The richest neighborhoods emptied out most as coronavirus hit New York City; So long, New York: pandemic and protests spark new exodus to suburbs” and “The NYC exodus that De Blasio Refuses to See”.
4 Patricia Zimmerman and Caren Caplan, “Coronavirus Drone Genres: Spectacles of Distance and Melancholia,” Film Quarterly, April 30, 2020. https://filmquarterly.org/2020/04/30/coronavirus-drone-genres-spectacles-of-distance-and-melancholia/
5 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey, “The lives of NYC’s essential workforce during COVID-19,” https://www.nyc.gov/assets/hpd/downloads/pdfs/about/nyc-home-essential-workers.pdf
6 Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “For→Forever…: An Invitation,” https://queensmuseum.org/exhibition/mierle-laderman-ukeles
7, 8 Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Manifesto! Maintenance Art: Proposal for an Exhibition ‘Care, 1969’,” Ronald Feldman Gallery, September 30, 1969.
9 Margaret Morse, “An Ontology of Everyday Distraction: The Freeway, The Mall and Television,” in Virtualities: Television, Media, Art, and CyberCulture (Indiana University Press, Indiana, 1998).
10 Zach Melzer, “Understanding Urban Screen Media and Cultures,” in The Routledge Companion to Urban Media and Communication (1st ed.), ed. Zlatan Krajina and Deborah Stevenson (New York: Routledge, 2019), 36–45.
11 In French, “partage” means both sharing and separating. See Davide Panagia, “Partage du sensible: The distribution of the sensible,” in Jacques Rancière: Key Concepts, ed. Jean-Philippe Deranty (Stocksfield: Acumen Publishing, 2010).
12 Christine Palmiéri, “Compte Rendu de Jacques Rancière: ‘Le Partage du Sensible’,” ETC 59 (2002): 34–40.
13 Palmiéri, 43.
Ciccone, Patricia. "How to Keep a City Alive? Mierle Ukeles’ For→Forever (2020)." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 9, no. 2 (June 2024)
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