Interview with Mierle Laderman Ukeles

Volume 9, Issue 1

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Interview with Mierle Laderman Ukeles

Mierle Laderman Ukeles is Public Art Dialogue’s Annual Awardee for 2017. A major retrospective of her work is at the Queens Museum of Art until February 19, 2017, and PAD’s ceremony honoring the artist will take place at the Museum on Thursday, February 16 from 5:00pm-7:00pm. This interview was conducted by Renee Piechocki and Norie Sato, members of PAD’s Award Committee, on January 26, 2017. Mierle had just returned from a trip to India.*

Renee: I think we have our guest on the phone. Mierle, hello!

Mierle: Are you both there?

R: We are both here.

Norie: How was your trip to India?

M: It was mind-blowing. It was amazing to see so many people out on the street [and] many, many, many people have motorbikes. People talk about the rising middle class in India, and that’s sort of the evidence of it. And traveling is just a riot. People beep their horns, it’s just incredible soundwork. I asked the driver, “What is going on?” and he said, “We’re communicating.” People walking, stores selling food, carts right out on the street, motorbikes, trucks, cars, all in the same space, moving. It’s fascinating that it sort of works. People were also very tolerant of others, which is nice.

Many religions mingle together-Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians. There is a lot of religious activity there. The mosque had 20,000 people! These are big, big numbers! Bigger than we’re used to. I don’t know how to think about anything; my mind is really full right now.

R: Well, how lucky to have something that changes your worldview, right? That’s what travel is for, to experience something in a different way.
Mierle, congratulations on your award from Public Art Dialogue!

M: Thank you! That’s very, very exciting

N: Let’s begin with a question submitted by one of PAD’s members. How have you seen social practice art evolve over the decades? In your opinion, why has there been such a rise in social practice and ephemeral works?

M: It’s actually stunning to me, the increase in social practice art. Several decades back, I would say that there was not such a large group of people involved in what we’ve come to call social practice art. I was in the show in 1980 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London called “Issue: Women’s Feminist Art.” It was a few American artists who were meeting with European, mostly British and Irish artists for the first time. That was very, very exciting. That kind of work was still really unusual and I think in the 1970s and 1980s, during the time of the Vietnam War and right after, there was a big jump in people that were doing non-commissioned public works. And quite a lot of people doing what would come to be called “social practice art,” but nothing like now.

For example, I’ve been working for the past three years almost exclusively on writing two books and on creating this show at the Queens Museum. I don’t call it a career retrospective, but a show of 50-plus years of work at the Queens Museum. And all along I’ve had the accompaniment and often help from a group called Social Practice Queens, the Queens College graduate program for Social Practice Art. And about two years ago, I was out in California visiting Suzanne Lacy at the Otis College’s Social Practice Art Program. The level of intensity and numbers of young artists that I have met in the last few years, and how they are so ready to go with huge projects has been quite stunning to me.

R: What factors do you think have contributed to people wanting to do this kind of work?

M: I don’t think that the art world has accepted this, by the way. Even though the numbers have jumped, and I think a lot of great works are out there, I still think that the “classical art world” including the main art magazines and museums still have trouble dealing [with], accepting what we’re calling “social practice art.” The main art world is still functioning on highly art-market related work.

N: Except that, you’ve been kind of lucky. Your gallery, Ronald Feldman Gallery Fine Arts, has been supportive of the work that you’ve been doing. You have a long history with them.

M: They have, but they’re about the only ones. There are not oodles of galleries that are being very supportive of this kind of art.

I think the Feldman Gallery shows that you can do both. You’re seeing the taste of gallery directors, and that’s how galleries are run. They choose the curator, they select what they want, but Feldman has for decades represented artists who do not have market value. Actually, I think that the fact that they have used success with artists like Andy Warhol, it’s like taking from Peter to pay Paul. Their ability to support artists like me, like Newton and Helen [Mayer] Harrison, Nancy Chunn- although she’s more of an interior-object oriented artist- but utterly social in her subject matter. It’s a very interesting point, that you can do both. You don’t have to have such strict boxes to stuff people into. I have benefitted from that enormously, I think. Also, I have benefitted from the art organizations who certainly in the early decades of my work have funded my work, like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), who used to give artists fellowships. Remember those days?

N: Right. But no longer.

M: I think to say that out loud right now is good, when there’s a move to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, or the New York State Council of the Arts, or other grants. These are publicly funded grants. I think two things happened. The money was never really big enough to make really huge work, it wasn’t. The level of funding was never big enough to make work that needs big big budgets. But, it was enough to get the artist going and keep the artist going. Also the fact that you could be selected by a jury whom you don’t know personally, so it’s a kind of vote of confidence in you from people whom you don’t know, who feel, “Give her a chance. Help her do her work.” I have always felt that was enormously important for me as an artist. And I feel that it’s really important to say that at this time, when I think that these organizations have already started to become under attack.

R: It’s interesting to hear about the emotional support that the grants gave you and the value of the confidence of your colleagues in addition to the money. It’s a vote of confidence, saying, yes, keep going in this direction. There are so many artists working this way now, and obviously, they all recognize they’re not really going to make money through the traditional art market, gallery market, with some exceptions. What other support systems would you advise artists to put in place for themselves to help sustain a career the way you have?

M: Well, there’s this growing trend of artist-in-residence opportunities in municipal agencies. We had six public programs connected to my show at the Queens Museum and the first one was a gathering of these types of programs that now exist in New York City through the Department of Cultural Affairs, in Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis–St. Paul. A lot of public art programs are establishing programs enabling artists to be embedded in a municipal agency for a period of time, like a year, two years. Some are trying to expand the residency for many years, which I think is a great idea, because there’s so much research in dealing with all sorts of people in a municipal agency that it’s hard to get going with just one year. You know, it’s pretty heavy-duty.

N: Mierle, your work has been an important part of laying the groundwork for those kinds of residencies with your relationship with the City of New York Department of Sanitation.

M: The Department of Cultural Affairs has named their program “PAIR,” Public Artists in Residence, and that actually comes directly from my work. The Sanitation Department never paid me and it’s always been actually a very sore point and difficult thing for me personally. But they said to me, “Ukeles, if we pay you, we have to cut a sweeper. Do you want that?” They didn’t have a way to pay me. I felt that the opportunity for being embedded in the Sanitation Department was so important for the kind of work that I wanted to do, that I went along and had to scramble all these years not being paid and having to fund my work in other ways. Now what’s great, I made a proposal in 1983 to the Department of Cultural Affairs that funds should come out of the Mayor’s Office. That way they could pay the Artists in Residence in ten city agencies so money wouldn’t have to come directly out of the budget of the specific agency. It would come out of the general city funds that goes through the Mayor’s Office. It didn’t happen in 1983, but it happened last year. And I hope to God that this program stays alive and keeps going.

R: What advice do you have for artists as they start out on one of those residencies? What can they do to actually engage the people that they’ll be working alongside?

M: Well, I think that there are a few critical things. It’s a wonderful question. I think that the artist who wants to do this kind of work has to be willing to open up to a kind of learning period. Listening a huge amount; listening, and just straight out learning. Now, some artists don’t want to do that, and, fine. I never tell people what to do, really. But if you’re going to do this kind of work, I think you do have to say, “I’m gonna open myself up to meet a lot of people, listen to them.”

Mostly the artists have to learn from [these agencies] what it is that they’re doing. What are they doing here? Also, artists need to learn about the mission and the goals of the agency. I spent a year and a half simply learning about the Sanitation Department before I did anything. And I had done work about maintenance for about ten years before that. So I was very, very invested in this whole subject matter. And then I found the Sanitation Department. For me, it was like getting invited to be in the Major Leagues. You know, I was so interested in maintenance and infrastructure in cities, in what we call “sustainability” now.The Sanitation Department was this advanced and interesting and brilliant system that knows how to make that happen. I felt I had to learn before I could open up my mouth.

Now that’s one thing that I think is important, but I think that there’s another thing. And that is that you are an artist, and that you have to listen to your own needs as an artist, and to be very, very clear about what your work is. You have to have the certain kind of freedom as an artist to do work that’s not owned by anyone else, like the agency. But that gets a little confusing for public agencies and that question has to get worked out a lot. Art is the work of the artist, and there are certain levels of decision-making on each side. Now the agencies can say, “no,” and the Sanitation Department has said “no” to me a lot of times. But since I feel like I learned so much about what they do, I found a path to do things that would be acceptable to them, to the agency, and to their unions as well. We pay a lot of attention to their unions, which I greatly respect.

So I was very interested in the people, and also very interested in their mission. What is it that the Sanitation Department does? And because I’m an artist, I tend to look at what they call their “regular work”, and turn it into questioning: “Does the person have to do this?” “Are there other ways to do it?” “Does this damage a person’s freedom?” “What must be done?” “What could be done differently?” So there’s a level of questioning that belongs to the artist that you never give up on, ever,or on your choices about what you want to do, and your take on possibilities in the agency. I think what was so fascinating [about] this first public program at the Queens Museum on artist residencies from different parts of the country was that people are doing all sorts of different things, and because they’re artists, they come to things in a different way. I think that’s a huge benefit to everyone, to watch a person confront the system, and come up with something that nobody expected. That’s the great gift of an artist being within a huge, huge agency.

You also need luck. You need luck because there are some people in public agencies who are willing to take a chance, and even a risk, and then there are a lot of other people who don’t have the power to take a risk, but they have the ability to say, “No.” And you have to really be careful about that. I have been really lucky in the work that I’ve done with all of the Sanitation Department itself, and with the representatives of their unions, having people who say, “What the hell? Give it a chance! Give her a chance!” Like that.

R: One of the things that I think that I’m hearing from you is that getting to learn what the agency does builds respect and trust that helps the agency take a risk.

M: There was a lot of checking me out on all levels of the Sanitation Department: what is she really doing; what is she trying to do here?. A level of trust has to grow. There needs to be a time period for that. That’s why you can’t have these residencies be short-term. They’re not short-term. Project commissions in public spaces can be short-term or different kinds of terms, but being embedded gives time for building trust.

N: That is so correct and so important. Time is necessary.

R: We’ve talked about the trust building, and we’ve talked about being in residence. How do you know when it’s over? And how have you departed? Obviously, with Sanitation, that’s a very long term residency, almost a marriage, right? How do you recommend that artists depart a relationship like that?

M: That’s a great question because I have an answer. At Sanitation, for the past several years, I have shifted from work focusing on people to the landfill. Land Art has been an equally early love of mine. I’ve been working at a landfill, on I don’t know what I’d call it, a Percent for -Art commission that I got in 1989, which is the longest lasting commission that anyone has dealt with in the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, to do work at Fresh Kills Landfill [in Staten Island]. The largest municipal landfill in the world, that’s now slowly, slowly becoming a public park.

I’ve done many works but now, my work has shifted toward the transformation of that landfill into safe, public space. That has focused, after all these years, on a project called, Landing. There is a whole section of my show at the Queens Museum that deals with works at Fresh Kills, and also other countries and other places dealing with the power of art to transform the land. This project now has a contract that’s been funded. It’s going to be turned into documents and into a construction project. And you know, I have come to feel that that will be the conclusion of my work at the Sanitation Department. I actually feel very good about that. I’m ready for the end of my relationship. I’ve gone through I think seven or eight Sanitation Commissioners. I mean I actually feel very good that we’ve worked out a way for this to turn into a permanent work. It’ll be the first permanent artwork at this park, which won’t be ready to be completely open for the next 20-30 years, so it’ll be like a first piece there.

And that’s enough, I’m really ready. I’m really ready for this to be concluded. And the Sanitation Department feels the same way. We’ve spoken about it. I hope they continue to bring in many artists, it’s just a great place. I love them, but that’s it for me. It’s ready to be finished. I feel it’s ready to be over, and they feel that way also. But the support that I’ve had from the department for this exhibition is tremendous. The Commissioner of Sanitation (Kathryn Garcia) has been at public events at this exhibition I’d say 4-5 times. Many other members of the department have come to the [Queens] Museum. And the Museum has invited the sanitation workers and their families to have free admission to the museum straight through the whole exhibition. But it’s going to be over within the next year. This year, 2017, I hope the construction will be completed, maybe a little into 2018 because it’s pretty heavy construction, but that’s it, and that’s just fine with me.

N: Congratulations. What a huge, great, public accomplishment to happen at the end.

M: Norie, I met you, in 1980 at and/or [an artist run gallery space in Seattle], and you gave me this wonderful show; it was just wonderful. It gave me a chance to try to think about this work I had done about sanitation, and earlier performances, and now that has bloomed into the show at the Queens Museum, but that show was the beginning of it. At the same time, besides just knocking yourself out to turn the whole place into a show for me, it enabled me to be very located in New York, but also be in the world. That’s what you gave me by giving me that show. Here, this work was in Seattle. And there are so many relationships between the work that was in New York, but here I was talking in Seattle, the work was speaking in Seattle, which opened up a whole world for me. So I’m always very grateful for that. Also, you and I met several fabulous artists there at that time, who were doing commissioned works by the federal government at National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) campus in Seattle. George Trakas and Scott Burton and Siah Armajani, andMartin Puryear…

Spectacular artists, who were all dealing with the national public art system. They were all making very, very different work. You know, what’s fabulous about art is that it comes out in ways that you do not expect. That’s really one of the best things about it, I have to say. You give an artist a chance, you get richness in life of things that you never even dreamt about.

R: That’s a great concluding thought. Women helping each other. And artists really helping other artists.

*Special thanks to Anna Heineman for her transcription of this interview.

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