Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979-1980

Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979-1980
30 color photography 35.6×27.9 cms each
Courtesy Ronald Feldman, Fine Arts
Installation view


I am wild about the public domain because we all own it; it is ours. Open up the streets, the parks, the infrastructure for urban energy systems and for the flow of urban material, the recycling plants, the airwaves. We need to stake our claim and to take our place.

Each person is unique. Period. Each person is an entire world and has infinite value.

Each person is different from all the people who ever lived. Each person owns her/his freedom. Each person is sacred.

Each person is inside the picture. This has never happened before in the history of the world. Before this time, it was only the special few, the owners, who were IN the picture: those to be pictured. They were held up by everybody else, the behind-the-scenes enablers and maintainers. But now that’s all different. We are in a period of stupefying geometry whose scale of everyone-in-the-picture is only now beginning to dawn and unfold.

Art is freedom; freedom of unique human expression. Period. Its form, infrastructure, process, system, duration, location, its any material whatsoever is the choice of the creating artist.

Is there an automatic conflict between the innate spirit of freedom owned by each person and the resource limits of all of us living together on this planet? Of course. Can our powers of creation turn this into something workable, even something brilliantly workable? Our whole Earth is sacred. Living together on the Earth is sacred.

I focus on the city. The city is a living entity, our ecological home – or it could be. I aim for an art of mass urban scale, our scale today; yet, at the same time, where the limitless value of each individual human creature can become articulated, where the voice of an individual can be heard forever.

We have unlimited power to create transformation. The artist and the art manifest this power and bring it into reality.

I am showing you two works of mine: Touch Sanitation Performance (1977-1980), an early work with 8,500 sanitation workers; and current work – some of my proposals as Artist of the Fresh Kills Parkland (1989–2014), formerly the largest municipal landfill on earth; some involve up to a million people. Both works are for New York City. Both are an attempt to deal with what I see as a prime challenge of our age: to create a public picture at mass urban scale with the individual perceptible.

This project was part of Sharjah Biennial 8.