Last night Philip Glass told this story about how John Cage once emptied the house during a performance. Cage had gotten it into his head to do a spoken performance where he made a cut-up poem out of syllables or something? Man, it sounds like the worst thing ever, just being trapped in a room with John Cage endlessly making vowel noises at you, and so he achieved a 100% audience walkout. Glass’ point was that there has to be a place to try and make things and achieve failure along the way (typical Buddhist!) and he was telling this story because this was at the 40th anniversary dinner for The Kitchen, which to its great credit still provides a space for young creative people in New York City to experience flop sweats. Then Sina Najafi, the editor of Cabinet magazine, told me a related story about Mierle Ukeles, which is at this point, with me telling you, really is something of a game of telephone and may range in accuracy anywhere from “apocryphal” to “entirely accurate,” the failures being mine.
Ukeles wrote the Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969 in, yes, 1969. (“Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time.”) And her work became about, well, work: cleaning up, taking care of things, garbage and the performance of often invisible labor. If you’ve heard of her, it’s because of her project of shaking the hands of all of New York City’s 8,500 sanitation workers and thanking them. (It took 11 months.)
Ukeles had proposed a series of projects to the Wadsworth Atheneum, one of which was cleaning out a mummy case, and one of which was cleaning the galleries.
So she shows up on the appointed night to clean. The museum has closed. She has the keys and gets her mop and bucket and whatnot and she realizes… that there really is no one there. Not even the curator is there to see her show. She’s not sure if she should be miffed or what. Like she’s actually doing a performance for literally nobody — just like the janitors would do. (I mean obviously there are questions here about performance that emulates work and actual work. It’s not like the janitors would be performing for an audience!)
Anyway, she’s like, okay, well, this is the point, right? I guess I’ll start cleaning. So she’s like mopping this big old museum. And finally, after a while, some art handler comes downstairs from where he’d been up late, packing art or messing around or something.
And so this lone guy is watching her perform/work, following her around, while she’s getting down in the corners with a rag or whatever. This goes on for ages. I imagine this being just like Night at the Museum but extremely boring. Finally, the place is clean, and he bursts into applause.
Then I imagine their parting as being awkward, as it usually is when the ratio of performers to audience is 1:1.
Year later she runs into him at a party, and he’s Mike Kelley, now a famous artist, and he tells her it was the greatest thing ever.
And as with all good stories, there’s both more and also far less to the tale.