‘After the revolution, who is going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?
— Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Perhaps the most complex character in the list of roles is the maintainer. This role is at the centre of the grid, but in reality she might just be the least visible of all. As she is the embodiment of anti-heroism, her entire goal is to remain hidden and therefore irrecuperable. While all other roles carry some potential for heroism, the maintainer actively attempts to avoid it. Although it is impossible to fully negate heroism, the maintainer tries to disassociate from the torrent of transcendent thought that incites the desire for epic behaviour. This places her opposite from both the avant-gardist and the demolisher, but in a way also from the artisan and the saboteur.
The maintainer is imbued by the dream of repair. This dream is ambiguous, for it implies conservatism—upholding a status quo—and progressivism—renovation and renewal. To replace a part means to keep the whole intact, but also to introduce the new. The maintenance of a building epitomises this dichotomy: by renovating the building, preservation is enacted. It is renewed to its original state, perpetuated, but only by adding new and removing old. The maintainer initiates renewal under the guise of sustentation, or vice versa. It is this ambiguity that makes the maintainer so powerful. She can be completely submerged in the realms of computation, and yet she can always stay out of the way from recuperation.
Wim Cuyvers, the Belgian architect-forester, has devoted his life to the role of maintainer. Although preferring the title of “janitor,” after Nico’s Janitor of Lunacy, Cuyvers decided to embody maintenance as a principal role when he bought a piece of forest in the middle of the Jura Mountains, close to the French-Swiss border. From his refuge on the Montavoix, the mountain with a voice, he takes care of the forest and all the buildings and roads in it. His mission, as he states himself, is to “maintain and only to maintain, there is no goal after.” To maintain is not to keep something fixed in place, but to acknowledge its indefinite nature and the temporality of things and to move with it instead. Maintenance—from the French word maintenir, literally “to hold in hands”—completely blurs the lines between art and life, as Kaprow proposed. Clearing the roads after a storm, cutting dead trees, repairing a rickety shack just to prevent it from collapsing entirely, putting rocks back after the rains wash them away—these are the acts of the maintainer, according to Cuyvers.
For performance artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who wrote the Maintenance Art Manifesto in 1969, maintenance can be considered an auxiliary mode of actions, one that negates the expectations of progress. It is not a time of progress or progression, but of continuation, day in and day out. “Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time (lit.),” she writes. Ukeles produced the manifesto in the time after the birth of her first child, when her time was split between being an artist and being a mother, a creator and a caretaker. Displeased with others’ perception of her artist work as productive and her maintenance work as unproductive, she drafted the manifesto in “a cold fury.”
I am an artist. I am a woman. I am a wife.
I am a mother. (Random order).
I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking,
renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also,
(up to now separately I “do” Art.
Now, I will simply do these maintenance everyday things,
and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art.
I will live in the museum and I customarily do at home with
my husband and my baby, for the duration of the exhibition.
(Right? or if you don’t want me around at night I would
come in every day) and do all these things as public Art
activities: I will sweep and wax the floors, dust everything,
wash the walls (i.e. “floor paintings, dust works, soap-
sculpture, wall-paintings”) cook, invite people to eat,
make agglomerations and dispositions of all functional
The exhibition area might look “empty” of art, but it will be
maintained in full public view.
MY WORKING WILL BE THE WORK
The maintainer negates the demands of computation as much as she complies with them. For instance, the architectural renders of buildings always incorporate moments of of families walking about, of businessmen rushing to their jobs, and of children frolicking, but never the moments of maintenance—embodied by janitors, repairmen, window washers—nor roadwork or sewage drainage, scaffolding or construction signage. The ideal incorporates no maintenance. Yet in reality, these buildings need repair like any other. The maintainer performs her tasks of maintenance despite being excluded. She is ignored and praised simultaneously, and that is precisely her strength.
Yet the maintainer is an extremely difficult role to adopt. Firstly, because it requires a complete endorsement of the motives of maintenance. To maintain is to truly repair, and not to pretend to repair. A maintainer cannot impersonate. Secondly, because the necessary banality of maintenance makes it complicated to present as art. To document or report on the actions of maintenance, as is expected of artists, shifts the position towards other roles, like the avant-gardist. The entire idea of maintenance is that it stays undocumented and unpresented, unappreciated yet indispensable. To communicate the acts of maintenance seem to undo the entire intention, making anti-heroic deeds heroic again.
The constructivist movement of the early Soviet Republic, which explored the use of architecture, art, and design to reflect modern industrial society, had a great deal of experience with this tendency of maintenance to drift off towards avant-gardism. Although their intentions were initially to spearhead a progressive movement in the spirit of Bolshevism and its communist ideology, they quickly surmised that in order to fully embrace the modes of production, so centrally placed in all their endeavours, the final step in this exploration would be to become producer instead of artist. In her book on The Artist as Producer, art historian Maria Gough asks the following question:
What happens when a Constructivist finally reaches the place of his or her aspirations? What happens, that is to say, when a Constructivist manages to enter the industrial environment, rather than simply express a utopian desire to do so?
Gough uses the example of Latvian-Soviet artist Karl Ioganson, who went as far as to assume a job as factory worker in a metal manufactory, from 1923 to 1926, to respond. She frames him as one of the only Constructivist konstructors who was actually able to penetrate the industrial due to his ability “of avoiding being defined by management as an artist.” Others, like, for instance, Osip Brik,were less successful. Brik wrote that:
Indeed, artistic labor and factory work are still disunited. The artist is still an alien in the factory. People treat him with suspicion….They cannot understand why he needs to know technological processes, why he needs information of a purely industrial nature. His job is to draw, to make drawings—and the factory’s job is to select suitable ones and to stick them onto a ready-made, finished product.
The basic idea of production art—that the outer appearance of an object is determined by the object’s economic purpose and not by abstract, aesthetic considerations—has still not met with sufficient acceptance among our industrial executives: they think that the artist who aspires to penetrate the “economic secret” of an object is poking his nose into somebody else’s business.
Ioganson does not make the tactical mistake of arriving at the factory with the proposal to establish a production laboratory or to introduce avant-garde notions of production art. Instead, he hides by becoming a worker, simply and wholly.
Gough points out the irony of the fact that Ioganson, the constructivist who has spent the most time in the industrial environment, is precisely the one about whom published historical records have been the most silent. About his work as a konstruktor, little is known, and the entire, lengthy story of the episode had to be reconstructed from defunct Soviet labour archives because his work was industrial labour, rather than artistic in the traditional sense. This in itself answers Gough’s original question about what happens to the artist who enters the industrial environment: he or she disappears or he or she does not enter at all.
The maintainer fades away into the processes of normalisation, and more specifically into the processes of computational normalisation: below layers of management, statistics, and archives. She dissolves into the records.
Can the maintainer, then, still claim the position of the artist? In other words, can an artist be an artist without claiming to be one, and without making the work part of public record? As for presentation, I believe that it is the only way to frame maintenance as art, yet it is only in combination with the narrator—and not the avant-gardist—that this can be done in a sensible manner. The maintainer must remain maintainer. In this sense, Gough is Ioganson’s narrator. But as artists’ roles are interchangeable at all instances, the artist of the future can embody both roles simultaneously. And this will be a matter of necessity. Because when the world is completely automated, governed by computation, we will have narration to account for the interactions between humans. But in our interaction with computation, there will be only maintenance.