A visit to Queens for Art and Machines

Mierle Laderman Ukeles has a retrospective as the Queens Museum. I motivated to make the journey there when the World Maker Faire was at the New York Hall of Science, just a short walk away. I’m taking up an interest in robotics and art, exploring ways it fits within my practice, thinking about postconsumer water bottles in a post-human robot populated world, with a Dada flair. The Maker Faire was pretty inspiring with a Puppet Phactory, a dinosaur robot, and shared bicycles. I was sorry I didn’t get to see the marching band. It had a pretty great art and music festival vibe, with makers sharing their work and thousands of curious visitors.

I drove into Manhattan with baby and two friends who went off to see a musical while I met up with two friends who live in the city. We chilled out on a Sunday at their apartment for quite some time before motivating to actually go to Queens. We decided to drive since it was only 20 minutes by car vs an hour 20 min by train. $8 to go over the bridge to get to Queens (and $8 again to return to the city) and then $10 to park since we were going to the Queens Museum (another $10 or so) (way better than the Maker Fair $35 for parking). My friends walked us over to the Faire but decided not to go – $45 for a few hours was not worth it unplanned. I had a ticket for free because I attended the Educators Forum on Friday as part of work. Baby and I stayed probably for about an hour walking around outside looking at robots and all the action along that corridor. I really loved the Puppet Phactory, where they take found and obsolete objects and turn them into puppet characters. You could stay and make your own if you liked. I wasn’t really interested in the netted area for the “drone” obstacle course, though it seemed wildly popular. Probably if you were making a day of the event, the $45 made sense, but not for an hour or two. All the makers self-fund to attend. It did feel like if I succeed in the coming year in creating the a robot shell from Plastic Fantastic debris, that the Maker Faire would be super fun to do again next year with it.

While I love visiting New York, it doesn’t happen that frequently, so I was keen to get the Queens Museum too and see Ukeles’ retrospective. The amazing thing Ukeles did, or rather one of, is that she got the barges and the garbage trucks to perform as a ballet, speaking of machine based art! The motion was so graceful and the idea of these large trucks and boats taking on gestures outside of their everyday purpose just made my heart sing with joy. I did try to show baby this visual, conceptual delight (he was 17 months old at the time) and he seemed to watch it for a minute, maybe. He was more interested in the way the video project was displayed in the middle of the room on a giant screen. The room was lined with smaller video monitors and photographs documenting the Maintenance Art Work. The giant screen hung on a diagonal and started about a foot from the ground, perfect to baby’s eye line.

As I have been delving into a body of work documenting my experience of motherhood and making that a way to fit in art with baby (baby started sleeping until 7am and I started writing at 6am, after waking up around 5:15am unable to return to sleep, I fell asleep during the debate last night, and I used to wonder how artists with kids made time when before I had baby the challenge for time for art with full time work was difficult enough…anyway! Here I am a year later blogging!), Ukeles “Maintenance Art Questionnaire: 1973 – 76” hit a nerve and dare I say transformed the possibility of what is art, continuing the conversation of art is life and life is art. Selections from my life experiences become shared experience and art performance through video documentation. Below I’ll post the “Questions about Maintenance Tasks” and my answers.

  1. What is your main job(s)? artist, lab coordinator, mother, wife, friend, family member, not sure these are all jobs but things I do, home owner
  2. How much of your time do you spend on maintenance tasks? Not enough! Not enough. A lot. Depends on the day. My day job is 30%+ maintenance. Evenings I mean is meal prep maintenance? Keeping us fed and cared for.
  3. How do you feel about doing them? I like folding the napkins and putting them away. Sometimes it feels meditative. Mostly it feels like not enough time. There’s a bunch sitting in a laundry basket waiting to be folded and put away.
  4. How do you feel about other people doing them for you? –Is that a possibility? My husband (! We just got married in September) does some of them for me. We split some tasks. I’m ok with it. In fact I’m grateful.
  5. What do you think would happen if you didn’t do them? bugs and mice would take over if I never cleaned up after making meals. So that wouldn’t be cool. The messes would get to me, they already do.
  6. What would happen to you if you didn’t do them? I’d be disappointed and frustrated at the mess. I would have to let that frustration go. I’d have less control. Or maybe I’d have more time.
  7. How do you feel about repetition? Love it when it is the same over and over, becomes meditative, or maybe boring, depends
  8. Is there any inherent value in doing maintenance? It can start to feel like self-care.
  9. Are some maintenance tasks more important than others? Is there a hierarchy of values in maintenance? Not sure it’s a hierarchy but I always clean the kitchen up before say vacuuming. I’d put laundry away before cleaning. Bathroom is last. Kitchen has an urgency that other spaces don’t. But those spaces get neglected and then that accumulation of neglect creates its own urgency.
  10. Does the energy used on maintenance affect how you spend time on development (non maintenance ) – free you, drain you , dull you?
  11. Do you get involved in doing maintenance well – “beautifully”; is there an esthetic to maintenance? I love the idea of taking pride in maintenance work, mostly I’m just trying to get it done and out of the way. To slow down and aestheticize it turns it from something often avoided to something I’d want to do. And if it is incorporated into artist practice, then it becomes part of my work. I wish I could organize video files and media with aesthetics in mind. I guess this question makes me realize that it could be beautifully done and that inspires me. This is the best question on here.
  12. What is the relationship in your life between maintenance and freedom? I’m interested in the left overs, the discarded, the evidence of something that was, that something happened. But I don’t want to see that evidence in my home. I appreciate that I have a home and that is exciting to me, this beautiful place to live. I want to respect the space with the care and maintenance and bogged down by not doing it all. It’s a constant struggle and friction. Time for maintenance. Is it free time? How else would you spend it? Is it a practice of my freedom to be able to take care of myself, my family and my home? Must it be considered an act of liberation in order for it not to seem like a burden, chore, and obstacle? It must. Maintenance is liberation, the highest self-care and creates the space needed for thinking and making art.

Other thoughts visiting the exhibition raised: consider shaking every sanitation workers hand as social practice art. By participating in the survey, it feels like another layer of experience of Ukeles’ art.