Making Our Space / Documenting Our Place – Building and Maintaining a Better World

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In the traditional capitalist method of production, the finished product is the only element of value to the producer. The production of such products take place between a starting point and finishing point without much reflection on the process that goes into the production (how many of us actually think about the factory our gum was made in while we’re chewing happily away?). Someone comes up with an idea, it gets green-lighted and then it is produced. This system impacts human behavior in that we develop a sense of desire and need for the latest, most trendy thing, which influences our sense of purpose and how we see and judge ourselves and others (“I shop therefore I am”).

Once upon a time, humans lived in self-sustaining communities where various community members contributed a range of skills such as farming, metalwork, woodworking, paper making and weaving. During the Second Industrial Revolution (roughly around 1870-1914), progressive educators and cultural critics including John Ruskin (1819-1900), Jane Addams (1860-1935) and Ellen Gates Starr (1859-1940) promoted an educational system bolstered by the arts, which they argued would lead to a more skilled and autonomous workforce. Their thesis was that learning through the arts would not only result in a more competent workforce (the arts build strong motor skills, critical and creative thinking), but most importantly, it would inspire a group of individuals to share a sense of agency and pride for their labor.

Beginning around the 1860s in the United Kingdom, companies like Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co (later renamed Morris & Co) founded by William Morris in London, produced handcrafted decorative art and design. Morris’ company, which made fine art inspired textiles, was a major counterpoint to the burgeoning aesthetics and principles of mass production. Morris’ company remained in business until the early stages of World War II in 1940.

Today, our society has become largely divorced from the artful process of producing our own goods and services. Many of the old artisan trades have been superseded by giant corporations like Walmart and Monsanto.

While it is arguably easier to drive to the grocery store than to grow and cultivate your own produce, the act of consuming versus producing has put us in a state of dependency for consumer goods. We are less creative as a whole because we’ve given up specific skills and techniques in favor of a convenient readymade object. Social anthropologist, Tim Ingold (2015) states that we ‘think through making’ rather than projecting an idea onto a readymade material. Through improvisation with materials, we web together a series of experiences that lead to the progression of our mindfulness. During that moment of making, we gain insight to phenomena through an exploration of materials and techniques. 

Thinking through making is the crux of Fröbel’s Kindergarten, the Reggio Emilia approach and Montessori education. Each of these early childhood learning methods focus on student-centered endeavors, where relationship driven settings and actions afford the child a path towards self-directed and empirical learning. Students are given a liberal offering of materials and allowed the freedom to explore, discover and make insightful connections that are relevant to their daily lives and environments. Documentation (see: Wein, Guyevsky & Berdoussis, 2011) of the making process is essential, because it provides a continuum of discourse around a student’s experience and provides a visual process for building upon observations in a collaborative environment.

These aforementioned pedagogical frameworks shouldn’t have to exist solely within elementary school environments. Computer science educator Mitchel Resnick argues that the model of imagining, creating, playing, sharing and reflecting, are necessary elements of living a creative, well rounded life. This echoes Ingold’s “thinking through making approach,” as well as Freire’s “problem-posing education” and Dewey’s theory of experiential learning. It is increasingly more and more essential that we as a society become producers rather than being reliant upon consuming mass produced goods and services. Being a producer, whether programming an app for the iPhone, planting a community garden, building a house, or making art, enables us to think via making. We are creating for the world we want to live in. Therefore, an enduring question we can all think about is how can we produce/make as a form of ethical maintenance?

Several contemporary artists have made work that comments on the effects of maintenance work. Vik Muniz and Mierle Laderman Ukeles have paid tribute to the sanitation workers, while bringing to light a poignant visualization of the surplus refuse human beings create. Allan Kaprow, Maren Hassinger and Bryant Holsenbeck have also envisioned trash as a “readymade” and the process of maintenance as the path towards creative discovery and insights on the effects humans have on the environment. 

Ukeles, the founder of “Maintenance Art,” focuses her artistic practice on the connections between the art world, the natural world and human labor. She explained her artistic philosophy and practice in her manifesto Maintenance Art Manifesto 1969! Proposal for an exhibition “CARE. Ukeles states that a “maintenance artist” is one that performs a variety of domestic and civic tasks. She declared: “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 everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art […] MY WORKING WILL BE THE WORK.” As a result of this ideology, she blurred the line between her artistic practice and quotidian experience. Instead of traditional displays of her art, she performed the domestic tasks she carried out in her personal life, as well as physically maintaining the art spaces where she was exhibiting. A 1972 performance called Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Outside, included cleaning the large stone steps in front of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Beginning in 1977, Ukeles became the first (unpaid) artist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation where she performed one of her most notable artworks, Touch Sanitation (1979-1980), in collaboration with more than 8,000 sanitation workers across the city.

Ukeles’ practice alludes to how just as important works of art are painstakingly preserved, so too must we take similar concern in nurturing our natural and built environments. The care of fine art is given great precedence, whether it is in a museum collection, a private custodian (i.e art collectors), or in an art storage facility. Additionally, restoring a work of art (which is inevitable for any work of art that has been created) takes countless hours and is a great financial undertaking. Ukeles suggests that maintenance of our ecosystems (both the natural and the planned environment) must also be given the same priority. Her big question is whether an expression or the application of ecological maintenance (i.e. sanitation) processes can create a sense of responsibility and affirmation among community residents.

Thinking of maintenance as an artistic process and the result (refuse) as an art object, isn’t it therefore our cultural responsibility to care for, repair and archive our ecological system with the same care and attention that ‘priceless’ works of art receive? Ukeles’ work echoes Ingold’s ‘think through making’ approach to being mindful producers. In this case, the readymade already exists in the form of refuse so the creative process, which is maintenance work realizes the human potential to maintain our shared environment. Furthermore, Ukeles is celebrating the work of contemporary laborers by equating their work preserving our urban ecosystem to the work of a visual artist, curator, or art restorer.

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Maren Hassinger, “Performance of Pink Trash” (1982) (performance documentation courtesy Horace Brockington)

We typically associate negative thoughts with the garbage. The unsightly vision of litter tarnishing our shared environment was elevated through a maintenance based performance by Maren Hassinger called Pink Trash (1982).

Hassinger’s Pink Trash (1982) performance used garbage –which the artist made stand out by painting pink– as a material and arranged it aesthetically throughout three New York City park’s (Central Park, Prospect Park and Van Cortland Park) in order to critically question the civic and ethical role we have with regards to our shared public spaces.

Hassinger, Muniz and Ukeles each show us ways in which our sanitation workers are incredibly hard at work cleaning up and maintaining our city. However, the burden of maintenance falls on every single one of us too. We can take major steps by volunteering to clean our parks and public spaces. By working alongside the city’s laborers, we can better understand what is at task and how we can offer our services to prevent our city from being over polluted. If we see something that strikes us as being in contrast with our urban ecology (cigarette butts, empty food wrappers, plastic bags, etc), we should act accordingly and dispose of it properly. 

During the 1960’s, Allan Kaprow’s installations and social sculptures (Kaprow called them “Happenings“) such as Yard (1961) and Fluids (1967) addressed the effects of consumerism and labor within a capitalist society through the use of unconventional materials (tires in Yard and ice in Fluids). The crux of Kaprow’s “Happenings” was the interrelational connection between performers and materials. For Kaprow, these events had no preconceived outcome. The process was largely improvisational and viewers often became participants in the playful arena, which established inter-disciplinary relationships between art and the natural environment. Kaprow stated: 

“happenings invite us to cast aside for a moment these proper manners and partake wholly in the real nature of the art and life. It is a rough and sudden act, where one often feels “dirty”, and dirt, we might begin to realize, is also organic and fertile, and everything including the visitors can grow a little into such circumstances.”

The Happenings movement is a good example of the symbiotic relationship between art and education. is implemented outside of the classroom and how contemporary art has profound implications for the playful, creative, collaborative and reflective habits of mind that are necessary for achieving success and good well-being throughout life.

Another artist who makes strong connections between art and the natural world is Bryant Holsenbeck. Holsenbeck’s installations frequently use everyday objects collected from public spaces like parks, beaches and city streets. Her sculptures allude to mass production and its effect on the environment. Her artistic practice is multifaceted, she is partaking in the act of maintenance by removing litter from the environment, engaging in play through her creative use of these upcycled materials and reflecting on the ways that humans can increase their environmental awareness.  

In addition to environmental concerns, there are other forms of labor that contemporary artists like Cinthia Marcelle, Chloë Bass and Santiago Sierra engage with in their artworks. Marcelle, a Brazilian artist, investigates the effects of labor on an economic system, as well as its role in the process of making a work of art. Through symbolic use of materials such as the chalk she used in her site specific installation Education by Stone (2016), Marcelle symbolically depicts the material through the lens of history. Chalk is a stone, which has become a traditional tool with a pedagogical function. Chalk and chalkboards are archetypes for education (although interactive whiteboards (SMART boards, etc have started to replace them). Chalk’s frequent use in classrooms is an expression of language, literacy, communication and learning. Education by Stone‘s symbolic message came largely through its placement within MoMA’s Ps1, a contemporary art museum inside a former New York City public school. The museum is also a major pedagogical institution, which promotes visual literacy and expression through displaying works of art for the public. The chalk was affixed inside cracks within the museum’s brick wall by a team of laborers who worked to install the artwork to fulfill Marcelle’s specifics. The chalk crumbled, cracked and fell to the floor, poetically expressing the fragility of the education and labor systems, which are significantly undervalued in relationship to capital gains and finance.

Overall, Marcelle’s body of work portrays the absurdity and the disconnect between labor and capital. She has experienced the widening economic gap between the financial class and the working class in her homeland of Brazil, and depicts the surreal nature and the impossibility of these systems ever becoming equitable for lower income workers who are marginalized by the current economic system (see: de Sousa Santos, 2007).

Santiago Sierra‘s frequently controversial works, examine the exploitation of laborers by the wealthy class. Through having performers, who are actual laborers, perform menial and physically exerting tasks, Sierra addresses issues of immigration, the relationship between poverty and capitalism, and the widening economic gap in capitalist society.

Chloë Bass’ conceptual artworks examine the intimacies of social and professional relationships and the effect they have on daily life and the environments we live in. Her  process includes interviewing others, engaging in daily activities with a diverse range people and investigating the intricacies of specific localities. For example, The Department of Local Affairs was an investigative project maintained by Bass that developed an interactive, locally crowd sourced guidebook for a geographical location, based upon the expertise of local residents and laborers. The contributions included designing a pamphlet, making a map, writing a review, or leaving advice. The project began in Omaha, Nebraska, and then took place in the neighborhood of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, New York. The result was an alternative travel guide that focused on people, places and activities that were important and relevant to the local community, rather than a commercial/generic pamphlet for tourists. The process of residents expressing, reflecting and presenting their personal and collective experiences within their neighborhood is efficacious in maintaining a sense of pride and belonging to a place.

Having students explore their communities and the many facets that make up the environment they live in can open the door to engaging projects. They could take the role of an urban planner and work with local communities to convert empty spaces into public places, or design a campaign that raises awareness regarding the litter in city parks. Students should have the autonomy to develop these projects, while the teacher can facilitate by showing them examples from the aforementioned artists (and others). The teacher might also initiate contact with advocacy groups in the community in order to form an ongoing collaboration with the students. Throughout the project, students should document their process through photographs, sketches, mapping, journals/blogs and field notes (such as interviews of community advocates or the population they have chosen to work with). Students will become absorbed in a creative and collaborative process, while gaining understanding about a social, cultural or environmental topic, and have an opportunity to creatively solve a problem. By becoming producers of valuable shared experiences, students will hopefully be motivated to continue shaping and maintaining the world they want to live in. They are the future planners, leaders and activists in a world that needs creative solutions to a myriad of societal and environmental issues.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

de Sousa Santos, Boaventura (ed.). 2007. Another Production is Possible Beyond the Capitalist Canon. New York: Verso Books.

Ingold, Tim. 2015.Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. United Kingdom: Routledge.

Resnick, Mitchel. 2017. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers and Play. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Wien, Carol Anne, et al. 2011. Learning to Document in Reggio Inspired Education. ECRP, 13 (2).

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