Ukeles confesses that she was worried that For ——> forever… might come off as hollow, in the same way that some Covid-19 front-liners came to disdain the nightly applause meant to honor them. “When I saw the piece splashed across 200 feet at the Queens Museum, I thought to myself, is this a shallow gesture? But I want people to have a sense of the people who are keeping New York alive. I hope the work comes across as that.”

For ——> forever… at the Queens Museum.
For ——> forever… at the Queens Museum.
Image: Queens Museum

Sally Tallant, president and executive director of the Queens Museum, says Ukeles had been on her mind from the start of the quarantine. “When we closed the museum doors in March, we immediately thought of Mierle,” she says. “She’s an important artist who really committed her life and her practice to making visible the labor of maintenance and infrastructure workers.”

Tallant had become deeply familiar with Ukeles’s art when the museum mounted a major exhibition of her work in 2016. It was she who suggested forging a partnership with the cultural programming arm of the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Times Square to get more visibility for Ukeles’s latest piece.

“It makes it more important because we get to use the city’s infrastructure,” Tallant says. “Hopefully, the message will reach the people it’s addressing.” For ——> forever… currently plays on loop at 2,000 digital displays throughout the subway and rail system and pops up every 15 minutes on the large-scale digital billboard in the heart of Times Square.

The job of an artist in residence

Ukeles’s work as artist-in-residence at the New York City Sanitation Department, an unsalaried position, not only illuminates the unheralded heroism of maintenance workers but also their technical acuity. Seen through an artist’s eyes, a worker operating a mechanical sweeper can look like a ballet dancer; a landfill can be a venue for an urban earthworks installation. “In the sanitation department are people trained in mechanical skills like electricians, painter, carpenters,” she explains.  Over the 40-plus years she has been involved, “the position has been a great opportunity to do many different kinds of work,” she says.

In 1983, Ukeles pitched to the mayor’s offie a program called Public Artists in Residence (PAIR), allowing each department to earmark a budget for artists to participate in their work. The city adopted the program in 2015 and now has opportunities for artists to “propose and implement creative solutions to pressing civic challenges,” as explained in the program’s call for applications.

“Why did I propose it? Because I wanted to get paid at the sanitation department, which was opening itself up to me in the middle of a fiscal crisis where their budget was getting cut all the time,” she explains. “They said to me, well, Ukeles, if we pay, you we’d have to cut a sanitation worker. You don’t want that do you?”

Her position is unpaid. But Ukeles says artists who want to do work at grand scales should still consider working with government bodies. “All these municipal systems are fabulous—fabulous materials, people, spaces. If you want to work big and you want to work in the public realm, this is a great opportunity.”

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