Image: Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979-1980. Citywide performance with 8,500 Sanitation workers across all 59 New York City Sanitation districts. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, photo: Robin Holland.

Maintenance is perpetually on my mind while thinking about design and the landscape practice. Not necessarily in the ways one might imagine initially, like the performative aspects of a landscape. Instead, I often think about the ways design and the labor of maintenance are divided. This division has a long chronic history, and informs how we design and what we value in work.

My Working Will be the Work:” Maintenance Art and Technologies of Change by Anna Reser recently inspired contemplation about some of the underpinning systems supporting this division in contemporary culture. It argues there is a prevailing preoccupation with innovation, a cultural obsession which leaves preservation and the hands that labor in service of maintenance in the shadows.

“Maintenance has been long overlooked in favor of a focus on innovation and design practices; the very beginnings of technology have always been more appealing than their often messy or disappointing longer lives.” -Anna Reser

The article focuses on subversive art practices that reveal the invisible labor of marginalized people whose efforts allow privileged – historically “white able-bodied men” – to focus on fetishized “sexy” innovation (my favorite adjective in the design world).

Mierle Laderman Ukles’s “Transfer: The Maintenance of the Art Object” involved performing the duties of a museum janitor; her decision to call the tools of the trade “Maintenance Art Works” made visible the hidden labor required to maintain the various indispensable urban systems we often take for granted. This disruption was political.

“One important aspect of this ‘turn’ to maintenance histories is that the un-and-underpaid labor of women and marginalized people, who are disproportionately relegated to maintenance work, has again become an important site for articulating the history of technology.”

This discourse investigates maintenance and other forms of hidden labor, which I believe could influence and inform a more sensitive, responsive, and empathetic design practice. What kind of design culture will drive solutions to improve our planet? Perhaps, with enough time, a culture with a deep affection for practices continually shaping, sustaining, and fundamentally changing our design objects, sites, and systems.

What would our practice look like as a culture of maintenance rather than a culture of innovation technology? Reser explains the radical nature of Ukles’ art practice, bringing attention to “this invisible work of cleaning, repairing, cooking, and mending Maintenance Art”, forcing our attention into “spaces that had always privileged the result, not the work that sustains it”. I would add that beyond privileging the result over the work that sustains it, a culture of innovation cannot perform as opportunistically in real time. It does not prioritize the response and actual needs of unforeseen forces in a design’s use and performance over time.

Reser’s critique ultimately invites discussion about the design process and social justice. Who innovates? Who maintains? And what actions will promote positive change, as well as preserve it? It’s all up for negotiation. The potential for influence in technologies and labors of maintenance is as much about change as it is about preservation, whether we chose to value it or not.



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