Search View Archive

Upon waking
an homage to Mierle Laderman Ukeles

Upon waking, I brush my teeth, wash my face, cut my finger nails, pluck a few stray eyebrows hairs, take a shower. Quickly glance at the email that has come in overnight, and at Facebook and Twitter—new spaces of maintenance. I wash the breakfast dishes (J. already made breakfast). Take out the recycling. The plants need water, and the flowers on the table are past their prime. I help G. pick out his clothes, put on some music while I tidy the living room. Put away some toys, make my bed.

The routine takes me to school and then to meet a friend for coffee before work. We hug and talk about stuff, kids, necessities, desire, and the incremental shifts in our lives that bring us each closer to something we have no idea how to discuss. We drink our caffeine. She says something about the energy needed to just be and I nod knowing exactly what she means. Maintenance of self, family, friends, work, life, is what we do. We have spikes in activity and variations in routine, but at our core we need to return again and again to these actions, they are our job, our joy, our life, and they provoke myriad conflicting feelings. The rituals make us happy and feel deep love, and also bitterness and anger and despair. We are empowered and degraded.

My friend tells me about her dream:

“I was in a small boat in a fast-moving stream. A kayak really. I have never been in a kayak but it was what I imagined a kayak would be like. The flow of the river took me downstream and as I went along I pulled bits of trash from the water. It was clear that I did this all the time, in the dream. It was my job. My hands were cold, in spite of the thick work gloves I wore. Plastic water bottles, candy wrappers, tampon applicators, bleached-out Mylar balloons, packaging from who-knows-what random food, aluminum cans, and disposable everything. Loads of crap people rejected.

I had been doing the work for a long time. Every day seeing all the junk people threw in the river was tedious and depressing. I took it out, and it told me things about those people. Mostly it told me they were pigs. All this abject material they didn’t want anymore. It was a biography of these people who I rarely saw, or if I saw them, I didn’t see them throwing stuff in the water. They would have been embarrassed to do that. To let me see them discarding the material they didn’t want, that was no longer useful. They knew that it said ugly things about them, how they were obsessed with material objects and products that promised to make life better, easier, lemon-scented. I kept wanting to shout at them to say it would never happen. These things would never satisfy.

In the dream, I occasionally caught glimpses of people on the shore staring at me, or rather, through me. They didn’t want to know I existed because I was dealing with the parts of themselves that they would rather not know, that they got rid of when they tired of them. They didn’t want to think about those parts of themselves, that were no longer useful, and my presence in collecting the detritus was a reminder of their waste.

Is it too much to ‘squeeze meaningfulness out of everyday work, materiality in extremis, death, decay, putrescence!’1 I shouted at them, trying to get them to see what they were doing. To actually care about the impact of their refuse was beyond them. They demanded a cultural separation from human waste objects. For them, the elimination of flotsam and jetsom of “progress” had to be an invisible, daily, practice as they existed within a finite world. This “junk,” in its grossness, was really just material unmoored from its purpose. In this world I was the degraded one for caring for the refuse.

My work made city living possible (imagine no garbage pick up!) Nature here [meant] decay, rot, potential disease from the things unmoored, surrounded forever by taboo, things that can un-glue a limited PLACE.”2

I think my friend’s eyes are tearing up. I know how she feels. I hold her hand. We are two women sitting in a coffee shop. Trying to lift one another’s spirits, and reminding each other of the pleasures of being. Sometimes we agree to make the rituals of life gleeful. Other times we want to start a revolution.

She once said to me, “What I am talking about is a new revolution in the labor movement…questioning the meaning of work͛ altogether.”3

I wasn’t surprised, we often talk about this.

She says, “I’ll be damned if I don’t want to set myself the challenge of finding out if the basic maintenance concept about place in society from service work—feminist in that that confers low status on anyone, regardless of gender, wherever it occurs, and also at the same time confers invisibility…[--] providing women as a political class, if we don’t pretend otherwise, a readymade set of allies across all racial and sex lines for reorganizing this world.”4

She is getting all worked up for a Tuesday morning. I say, “C’mon honey look how beautiful it is outside. Cool it.”5

Sometimes go deep into that place, but other times we let it flow over us. Simultaneously, we say our favorite line, the reality, the sourball of every revolution, “After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?”6 We laugh until tears run.

A week later, we meet again. She tells me that she sometimes thinks the only earth in cities is landfill. It is a simultaneously depressing and ecstatic thought. Could we really use the material left-overs of life to make new “earth” or is it just a mass of toxic rot? Talk about seeing a glass half full or half empty. But we have other things to talk about.

We talk about art. I ask her how she is feeling about her work, knowing how crucial it is that she keeps going. I wonder if she feels it could have an impact. She says, “You bet! Right now, art has a Real Job. Everything that touches or moves or receives the degraded is to be transformed into that which saves the planet/home. Art is the arena and the table of transformation.” 7

Of course, I agree. We keep each other going, but we both know we have to be tough to see it through.

There was so much to do. And we have to keep doing it, over and over. She reminds me.

She talks about art growing inside a real work system and that making art would make freedom and also interdependence.

And there are the money issues. Her finances are a mess. Two big grants didn’t come through. We discuss some options, a few are far less distasteful than others. She knows I’ll help in any way I can.

“Whatever…”8 she says. That part of the chat is over. We both have to go.

Later she texts me: “No $$$—will have to steal.”9 I chuckle to myself sliding the Metrocard through the reader and noting it is the last day on my monthly.

Sometimes our conversations turn to the esoteric. Intersections of energies, potential and spent. The relationship between free will and necessity. We argue about the most primary pungent scents. Cycles of life. One day, she takes the paper napkin between us and writes out the following formula:

Energy + Content + Esthetics = Work10

Then, she tells me about her recurring dream again. She says, “I can see human vibrations silently shimmying off the tasks.”11

She sees this in her recurring dream too. In the dream she returns, over and over, to collect what has been discarded. I tell her she is a maintainer. She says, “I keep coming back just like they do.”12 We all keep coming back. Maintenance required.

Last week, I complained about that fine silt, that black city dust, that seems to accumulate daily on my windowsills. In her infinite wisdom she said, “Dust to star dust.”13 It will never look the same to me again. I have started leaving the windows open at night to gather brilliant, black star dust. BLISTER…GLITTER…POP…14


  1. MLU letter to Linda Montano, 9/12/85


  3. MLU letter to Lucy Lippard, March 18, 1981

  4. MLU letter to Lucy Lippard, Dec 15, 1980

  5. MLU letter to Linda Montano, 9/12/85

  6. MLU Manifesto for Maintenance Art!, 1969

  7. MLU, Precis, October 2, 1990.  

  8. MLU letter to Linda Montano, September 12, 1985, p. 2.

  9. MLU letter to Lucy Lippard, March 30, 1982, handwritten note

  10. Based on MLU letter to Donald Kuspit, September 13, 1982

  11. MLU Heresies No. 2, Section 3 Requested by Lucy Lippard “Me and the Cleaning Women” p. 2 (DRAFT)

  12. MLU from Touch Sanitation © 1977-1980 LOOKING BACK

  13. MLU Heresies No. 2, Section 3 Requested by Lucy Lippard “Me and the Cleaning Women” p. 9 (DRAFT)

  14. MLU Heresies No. 2, Section 3 Requested by Lucy Lippard “Me and the Cleaning Women” p. 3 (DRAFT)


Laura Raicovich

Laura Raicovich works as president and executive director of the Queens Museum. Her book At the Lightning Field is out this April from Coffee House Press. She is the author of A Diary of Mysterious Difficulties (Publication Studio), a book based on Viagra and Cialis spam, and is an editor of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books)


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2017

All Issues