Originally Published in Maintenance Required, Whitney Independent Study Program Curatorial Exhibition Catalogue, 2013


During the 2012 presidential campaign, a heated debate broke out between Republicans and Democrats around the terms by which President Obama qualified the achievements of entrepreneurs and small-business owners. Spurred on by the Republican convention’s choice of the theme “We Built It” as a response to Obama’s comment “You didn’t build that,” the debate centered on the perceived autonomy of entrepreneurs. While Republicans took an individualist stance that cited the ingenuity and perseverance of entrepreneurs, the point that Obama and the Democrats tried to make is that even small, individual ventures still rely on infrastructures, services, and grants from local and federal governments in order to achieve success. (1) By negating the individual’s claim to full and complete credit for the success of the business he or she founded, Obama invoked the myriad social support networks—roads, fire and police services, education, tax breaks and incentives, and so on—that cleared the ground for entrepreneurs to start their businesses. Such a claim angered conservatives because it directly contradicts the fantasy of the self-determining, self-sufficient, liberated subject inherited from Enlightenment thought—it contradicts the claims of individuality so dear to American thought. However, such an argument does not necessarily deny difference and individuality, but reframes the image of society to recognize the interdependence of individual citizens and the political, economic, and cultural systems that we so often describe in ghettoizing terms.

This interdependence is also constantly linked to maintenance, the set of actions and systems that support life. When maintaining those other persons, systems, living things, or objects we need for the continuation of life and livelihood, maintenance can illustrate existing relationships of dependency—after all, that on which we rely for life must be kept in good working order. In “Sanitation Manifesto!” (1984), artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles explores such connections between maintenance and dependency when she claims that “we are, all of us whether we desire it or not, in relation to Sanitation, implicated, dependent—if we want the City, and ourselves, to last more than a few days.” (2) As Ukeles implies, living both hastens the processes of entropy and makes us reliant on maintenance activities and workers to hold those processes at bay. Similarly, Stephen Graham and Nigel Thrift write in their analysis of the place of maintenance in the contemporary social order, “the world is involved in a continuous dying that can only be fended off by constant repair and maintenance.” (3) We depend on the sanitation worker, the office maintenance staff, the nurse, or the mother in order to create a space that can support public discourse, cultural production, commerce, and exchange. In turn, these workers rely on their communities, clients, and social structures to support them as they fulfill their duties. These cycles of need and dependency show the centrality of maintenance workers, and by extension maintenance activities, to our social fabric.

Maintenance is generally characterized as a conservative action, aimed at warding off the entropic forces that would render us immobile, shelterless, unable to communicate, and subject to disease and pestilence. Ukeles herself initially describes maintenance as “direct feedback systems with little room for change.” (4) In fact, Ukeles questions and rethinks this understanding of maintenance tasks: she seeks out the creative potential within the limited terms on which maintenance functions, redefining the creative act to include something less like production and more akin to process. It is in the doing of the task that one can find one’s voice. Graham and Thrift also support this point when they argue that “maintenance and repair can itself be a vital source of variation, improvisation, and innovation.” For example, a repair need not restore something to its original form, but can also alter something to avoid the need for such repairs in the future. They go on to posit that “seen in this light, ‘maintenance is learning.’” (5) This conceptual inversion—the shift from maintenance as enforcer of the status quo to maintenance as generator of knowledge and improvement—resembles Ukeles’s claim that, as opposed to the system of sanitation that is undervalued, disdained, or rigidly subordinated in a hierarchical relationship with the rest of society, sanitation as action implies equality. Society cannot function without the clearing of space and disposal of waste that sanitation provides. And the fact that those who do the work of sanitation must serve all members of that society, regardless of class, means that “sanitation, in democracy, implies the possibility of a public-social-contract operating laterally, not upstairs-downstairs, but equally between the servers and the served.” (6) Seen in this light, maintenance activities can be understood as generative, productive forces that create the space for life and liberty, clearing the ground—in a multiplicity of senses—for a pluralistic and vital public sphere.

Much like Ukeles’s claim that the networks formed by sanitation create equivalences of need that imply equality, Eva Feder Kittay argues for the idea of an equality based on dependency, rather than one based on individual character and “voluntarily chosen obligations assumed for mutual benefit and self-interest.” This equality is based not on individuals but on the connections between them. While many of these connections are unequal, with one party holding greater power or greater need in the specific relationship between the two, Kittay’s point is that all of us to some degree or another are caught in some form of dependency relationship: dependency is an inescapable state, universal at the same time that it forges social and ethical connections. This is not so when we consider a model based on voluntarily chosen obligations, which assumes that equality is based on the productive contributions of all members of society, inherently leaving out those members who cannot contribute productively. The question shifts from, What my are rights as an equal? to “What are my responsibilities to others with whom I stand in specific relations and what are the responsibilities of others to me, so that I can be well cared for and have my needs addressed even as I care for and respond to the needs of those who depend on me?” (7)

Clearly, Kittay’s rethinking of dependency and equality also involves a shift from the language of rights to that of responsibilities. As Kittay points out in relation to John Rawls’s conception of primary goods, the problem with a discussion of rights is that it presupposes a set of idealized individuals equally capable of both claiming their rights and shouldering the burden of social cooperation, a situation that is applicable to neither those who require extensive care nor those who care for them. Those who require care—whether young, ill, elderly, or disabled— cannot be assumed to be capable of voicing their rights nor of contributing equally to systems of social cooperation. Likewise, care workers must often subordinate their own personal rights and their contributions to greater society to their responsibility both to care for, and to represent the rights of, their charges.8 If we shift instead to a discussion of responsibilities, we open up a space for recognizing the responsibility of the whole of society to the dependent individual, a responsibility to secure our individual rights when we become incapacitated. The recognition of this responsibility also acknowledges the care worker as a standin for the responsibilities of the greater society, which should afford those workers compensation equivalent to this role. In other words, such a shift recognizes that society depends on those who care for the young, has a moral responsibility to care for the elderly and disabled, and should promise access to equality for all citizens. It also recognizes that we all have needs to be met and meeting those needs is not simply a personal responsibility but one that falls on society. In the words of Judith Butler,

We cannot presume the enclosed and well-fed space of the polis, where all the material needs are somehow being taken care of elsewhere by beings whose gender, race, or status render them ineligible for public recognition. Rather, we have to not only bring the material urgencies of the body into the [public] square, but to make those needs central to the demands of politics. (9)

While Kittay’s argument was confined to a consideration of care workers and their charges, Butler’s comments suggest the essential nature of our dependency on others. The pursuit of equality requires responsibility for each other’s needs in all relationships throughout society, even among those who are more able bodied.

The recognition of dependency serves as an underlying, motivating force in Ukeles’s practice, focused as it is on redefining maintenance as art. Her initial impetus for developing a concept of maintenance as art came from her experiences as an artist and new mother. Told by a mentor that she could not be both a mother and an artist, and finding that her labors as a new mother were constantly dismissed in conversation with her friends and colleagues, she felt it necessary to make that work of caring—the work of mothering—into an artistic practice, in order to recognize its value, its conceptual weight, and its creativity. She likened the work of maintenance to process art and first documented it as performance in Maintenance Art Tasks (1973). This photographic album contains a series of snapshots recording the procedures of maintenance activities in all their duration and complexity: washing dishes, sorting and cleaning the laundry, changing diapers, accompanying kids to a doctor’s checkup, washing and polishing a car, filling a dumpster with construction debris, and getting a haircut. By equating her own actions (doing the laundry, changing diapers) with those of paid laborers (washing and polishing cars, moving construction debris), she challenges the status of care work as unworthy of acknowledgement as work and ascribes greater value to those actions. At the same time, by documenting the work in obsessive detail, she conveys a sense of duration, making the process of this often hidden, generally domestic work visible and tangible. She simultaneously claims this work as art through a conceptual turn that bears a striking resemblance to works such as Vito Acconci’s Blinking Piece (1969), in which photo documentation from the performer’s perspective redefines a daily action as a performance. Through her art and writings, including Maintenance Art Tasks, Ukeles argues that the value of maintenance must be acknowledged, and since a key part of its value is its indispensability—in other words, our dependence on it—she makes a case for the recognition of our dependencies.

However, this attempt to alter the view of care work remains within the realm of advocacy, situated as it is within a feminist context seeking to reposition care workers, who are predominantly women, within the social hierarchy and thereby to claim agency for women. The goal of providing the maintenance worker, including the domestic worker, with greater recognition, appreciation, and equality, while laudable, does not question the power dynamics implicit within care work or the problematics in the activity of maintaining something. Maintaining a system or body is not inherently selfless and can become restrictive and manipulative when applied as an oppressive system or to a body in pain. (10) The often unequal relationships of dependency created in care work also contain the potential for abuse. Artist Park McArthur disturbs Ukeles’s positive spin on dependency in her largely autobiographical text, video, and performance works. Through her work, McArthur grapples with the realities of being a disabled or differently-abled individual in a society that does not recognize the essential nature of dependency. Such a society creates a health-care and welfare system that assumes and plans for the temporary needs of the generally mobile and independent individual, leaving little space and insufficient resources to deal with those who need longer-term care. Faced with the financial realities of longterm assistance and care, McArthur has looked to an alternative in the form of a care collective, and her work revolves around the relationships engendered by her physical, financial, and emotional indebtedness. In her wall label works Carried & Held and Abstraction (both 2012–13), she lists the support systems that have allowed her to function in a productive way. As the title implies, Carried & Held lists the various people who have held her or picked her up throughout her life—both those she knows and those she does not—with a description of who they were. Interrupted by a random grouping of emoticons and including certain vague descriptions such as “Unknown Taiwanese Businessman” or “middle school history teacher David somebody,” the list provides a sense of the personal, affective nature of these relationships, some of which last only through one encounter while others occur again and again. This affective component in combination with the impersonal descriptions of certain individuals reveals the sense of vulnerability implicit in dependency relationships. McArthur’s vulnerability is further illustrated in her video and performance work, including It’s Sorta Like a Big Hug (2012). The video, shot at close range without sound, focuses on the bodily movements and negotiations necessary to move McArthur from her wheelchair to her bed. Exposing the intimacy of these movements, and the degree to which McArthur must rely on her caregiver to place and care for her body, the work gives us a clear physical sense of vulnerability and responsibility. As seen in this work, dependency implicitly creates an inequality between people that can be reciprocated only partly, often in the form of affective bonds, and this inequality is where the vulnerabilities of both charge and caretaker lie. In Kittay’s words,

The relationship between the dependency worker and her charge is importantly a relation of trust. The charge must trust that the dependency worker will be responsible to and respectful of her vulnerability and will not abuse whatever authority and power has been vested in her to carry out these responsibilities. The dependency worker must, in turn, trust the charge neither to make demands that go beyond her true needs, to exploit the attachments that are formed through the work of care, nor exploit the vulnerabilities that either result from the dependency work, or that have resulted in the caregiver engaging in dependency work. (11)

But the personal, affective side of this labor is not the only aspect of care McArthur’s work touches on. Another wall label work describes the various financial resources, from grants and re-grants to gifts and loans, that have allowed McArthur to live a somewhat independent and productive life despite the pressing financial burden of her bodily care. In Nirmala Erevelles’s materialist analysis of the disabled subject, she speaks of how capitalism, in its need for efficiency, productivity, and a market of surplus labor has “effectively excluded disabled people from participating as wage workers and therefore rendered them dependent on the state.” (12) Similarly, she describes how the globalization of transnational capitalism has lead to the shifting of jobs overseas, creating economic crises that lead to cuts in public spending and the slashing of budgets for government programs that support the disabled, which range from financial support to public health care, job training and placement programs, and meal delivery services, to name a few. (13) As the needs of the disabled may be in excess of what either they themselves can earn or beyond what their families can afford, the loss of state support forces individuals to spend much time and energy simply seeking the financial resources to continue living, a state of affairs that further alienates them from “productive” society and points to a general devaluing of the disabled subject. Such a devaluing of a select group of citizens, as of any minority group, calls into question the ethical priorities of our society; once it is considered permissible to leave one group unconsidered and uncared for, everyone else is at risk of the same discrimination once they are considered unproductive. We must remember that the able-bodied state we take for granted as the basis for a “normal” life is actually just a temporary state, for as children and elderly persons, or when faced with unforeseen medical conditions, we are rendered vulnerable and in need of care. Thus the risks she points out for the disabled body have real effects for all of us.

However, dependency is not confined only to social relations between individuals. In addition to certain economic aspects of dependency I have already touched on, the body also depends on the physical world, including architecture, urban space, and communications. As Butler writes, bodies “can persist and act only when they are supported, by environments, by nutrition, by work, by modes of sociality and belonging.” (14) Ukeles begins to address issues of dependence on the physical world through her work with the New York City Department of Sanitation, most specifically in the multi-part Touch Sanitation (1979–84). Over the course of the project, she met and spoke with many “Sanmen,” learning not only about their interactions with the public but also about the system and labor conditions of waste management. In two later video components of the work, Sanman Speaks and Waste Flow (both 1979–84), she reveals the physical conditions of sanitation work: the sheer volume of material being transported, the bodily manipulations required and the ensuing damage that can be caused by such work, and the unbelievable variety of the refuse. By exposing the quantity of waste and the complexity of waste management systems through narrative interviews, shadowing waste workers, and documenting the movement of waste from residences to landfills—in word, movement, and image—she attempts to show how “productive” consumer cycles make us dependent on the unseemly and unacknowledged work of the waste management system. As she writes in her “Sanitation Manifesto,”

Sanitation, as an environmental energy system, is trapped in a miasma of essentially pre-democratic perceptions. The public generally doesn’t “see” beyond the tip of its nose—or see where we put our waste, or see what we do or should do with it, or see what choices we have about managing our waste . . . . To begin to accept as “ours” the difficult social task of dealing with “our” waste at the highest, not the most mediocre, level of intelligence and creativity in reality, in all its effulgent scale here, people need to understand how they connect one to the other across our society, in all its scale. We need holistic inter-connected perceptual models of how we connect and how we add up. (15)

Of course, sanitation and waste management are not the only systems that illuminate our dependence on the physical world. Yve Laris Cohen, a trained dancer and artist, creates sited performances that expose the individual’s various dependencies on physical space. His performances, designed in response to the architecture of the nontraditional spaces in which he usually works—hallways, galleries, closets, and storage spaces—place the body in direct opposition to the architecture while still remaining subject to its structures. In Coda (2012) he repeatedly performed a series of chaîné turns down the length of an eighty-feetlong by three-feet-wide hallway, after using his T-shirt as a rag to wipe down the hallway’s wall (to which a sprung floor had been attached). In conflating the repetition of rehearsal—a form of bodily maintenance— and the labor of cleaning with formal performance, Laris Cohen equates aesthetic production with maintenance work. In pushing the limits of his body to maintain the spin down the narrow space, he also simultaneously illustrates how the movements of our bodies through space are necessarily circumscribed by architecture. Architecture, while not restricting us entirely, still delimits our movements through both private and public spaces in countless unseen and unacknowledged ways, structuring the way we see and understand our world. Our ability to live is heavily determined by the public, commercial, corporate, and private architectures we find ourselves in, and we become dependent on them to facilitate our productivity, our efficient movement through public space, and our nightly recovery.

Laris Cohen also points to the way the supposedly independent creative act depends on other structures beyond architecture, contradicting our understanding of self-sufficiency and the myth of the lone genius artist. Toward the end of many of his performances, he recites a text listing in an almost confessional manner all of the materials, time, assistance, and production necessary to realize the work. By revealing this material, the statement exposes how creative practice necessarily depends on development and maintenance mechanisms such as funding, grants, and other economic systems; the material production of manufacturing; and social systems of support, among others. By calling attention to these larger systems, Laris Cohen shows how a creative practice is always constituted and maintained in relation to both human and nonhuman others.

While Laris Cohen’s work touches on infrastructure in the form of architecture and economic systems, there is another ubiquitous system we find ourselves dependent on in the contemporary world: communications technology. With regard to the disabled body, Erevelles claims that “the very viability of this disabled body is often sustained and rendered ‘livable’ through a network of communication technologies and biotechnologies.” (16) While this dependence on communications technologies may be especially conspicuous for a body that has limited ability to move, even those of us who are more mobile can find ourselves helpless when faced with a problem in a communications system. These technologies, from the landline and mobile phone to the internet and even to satellite communications, have become integral to the exchange of information that drives our economy and by extension our living bodies. Although this technology makes up the infrastructure of our contemporary world, we often forget about our vulnerability to its failure. We take its functioning for granted, imagining such infrastructures as solid and fixed, designed to function smoothly rather than improvised from a variety of components developed independently and fit together imperfectly. In the case of communications technology, this impression of perfect order is further exacerbated by our interfaces with these system —computers, mobile phones, and tablets—that lead us to imagine them as “virtual,” non-physical networks, distancing us from an understanding of the ways in which such systems are vulnerable to the vagaries of time, weather, and human error.

A poignant reminder of the precarious and adamantly physical nature of this system we like to fantasize as immaterial can be found in Taryn Simon’s eloquent image Transatlantic Sub-Marine Cables Reaching Land (2007). A mundane, nondescript, office-like space complete with off-white walls and a vinyl tile floor is transected by five thick orange and yellow cables running up  the wall like a ladder, protected only by a short metal barrier that resembles a railing. The presence of this conduit, so essential for our ability to communicate with Europe, Western Asia, and Africa, in the context of a familiar utilitarian office space void of any spectacular protections and so similar in appearance to the Ethernet cables we use and discard freely when they are worn out, shows the fragile and essentially material nature of the networks we rely on to sustain the supposedly virtual worlds of email, the internet, financial markets, and the like. In exposing the vulnerability of the infrastructure of wires and cables that creates the internet, Simon’s work reminds us that virtual communication is also an embodied experience, different but no less risky than face-to-face conversation or protest. Communications technologies may goad us into a perception of ourselves as free and unfettered by our physical forms, but in fact “the use of the technology effectively implicates the body. Not only must someone’s hand tap and send, but someone’s body is on the line if that tapping and sending gets traced.” (17) Just as we are physically dependent on this system, we are also implicated in it, physically, socially, and politically. Our embodied nature makes us reliant upon these systems of communication, architecture, sanitation, and care, thereby implicating us in a set of connections that constitutes us as essentially social beings.

Maintenance and dependency are not equivalent; there are things we maintain simply because we value them and not out of any need. Nonetheless, maintenance illuminates dependency because those relationships and things on which we depend must be maintained. As Butler reminds us, “we cannot exist without addressing the Other and without being addressed by the Other . . . there is no wishing away our fundamental sociality.” At the same time, this interdependence does not contradict our independence or our difference, for “no matter how much we each desire recognition and require it, we are not therefore the same as the Other, and not everything counts as recognition in the same way.” (18) While dependence and liberty are not incompatible, they are always in tension. The desires and needs of individuals, including their rights, are not always compatible with those of other members of society, and the conflicts caused by these incompatibilities must be regulated by our social and political systems. Recognizing our dependency on others is a necessary step toward a more egalitarian society because it provides us with an appreciation of the primacy of responsibility over rights, creating a more inclusive way to define social and political justice. At the same time, examining dependency uncovers our reliance on the nonhuman, physical world, reminding us of our embodied existence. It is in the process of acknowledging our interconnectedness that we come to terms with the complexities and pitfalls—physical, emotional, social, political—of our already existent dependencies. By extension, acknowledging this interconnectedness also repositions maintenance as both an indispensible activity and essential value for our long-term health and that of our society.


(1) See Andrew Rosenthal, “You Didn’t Build That,” New York Times, Taking
Note blog, February 27, 2012, http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/20.12/07/27/
(2) Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Sanitation Manifesto!” (1984), The Act 2, no. 1,
1990, 84–85.
(3) S tephen Graham and Nigel Thrift, “Out of Order: Understanding
Repair and Maintenance,” Theory, Culture & Society 24, no. 3, May 2007, 6;
available online at http://tcs.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/24/3/1.
(4) Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969!
Proposal for an Exhibition, ‘Care,’” reproduced in this catalogue, p. 118.
(5) Graham and Thrift, 6.
(6) Ukeles, “Sanitation Manifesto!” 85.
(7) Eva Feder Kittay, Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality and
Dependency (New York: Routledge, 1999), 25.
(8) Kittay, 100–146. For a full discussion of the differences between Rawls’s
social-contract formulation of equality and Kittay’s dependency argument, see
Kittay, chps. 2–4.
(9) Judith Butler, “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street,” in
Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism, ed. Meg
McLagan and Yates McKee (New York: Zone Books, 2012), 135.
(10) For more on the ways artists have take up the complexities of care relationships,
see the catalogue of the 2004–05 Independent Study Program exhibition,
curated by Sasha Archibald, Sarah Lookofsky, Cira Pascual Marquina,
and Elena Sorokina: Archibald et al., At the Mercy of Others: The Politics of Care
(exhibition catalogue) (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2005).
(11) Kittay, 35.
(12) Nirmala Erevelles, “In Search of the Disabled Subject,” in Embodied
Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture, ed. James C. Wilson and Cynthia
Lewiecki-Wilson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001), 100.
(13) Ibid., 93.
(14) Butler, “Bodies in Alliance,” 124.
(15) U keles, “Sanitation Manifesto!” 85.
(16) Erevelles, 97.
(17) Butler, “Bodies in Alliance,” 131.
(18) Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham
University Press, 2005), 33.