manuel arturo abreu
Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Curated by Asha Bukojemsky
September 3 – October 18, 2017
In the United Sates, the first Monday in September marks the national holiday of Labor Day. Created in 1882 and first passed in Oregon in 1887, the labor movement celebrated the economic achievements of American workers and their contributions to “the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” Labor is inherently part of a political economy, and as far back as 1844 Marx discussed the distinctions between concrete and abstract labor as determinations of value. Rather to the point, the United States Department of Labor clarifies the capitalist connection by stating “The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living…. and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy.”
In 1969, Mierle Laderman Ukeles produced her Maintenance Art Manifesto! as a protest and proclamation to the divisional boundaries that separate creative production and everyday labor. In it, the artist stated that her creative work and daily “maintenance” work were no longer separate but united as one ART. This act elevated the status of maintenance work to that of a creative pursuit. In calling attention to the mundane rituals of maintenance, Ukeles challenged the perception of use-value determined by societal structures while simultaneously demanding the recognition of emotional labor.
In 1996, just five years after her infamous testimony against Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill wrote in Working Women magazine “Whether we call it a job or a career, work is more than just something we do. It is a part of who we are.” For Hill, as with Ukeles, there is no distinction between being a woman and a workingwoman. Those perceptions have historically been determined by outside sources that stem from a belief of traditional ideals perceived and upheld by men.
Carmen Winant’s work Women Who Die (Have Strong Faces) highlights the ongoing systemic humiliation that working women still face today. Winant was only eight years old when she watched part of Hill’s testimony on television, and even then it resonated. In order to tell the truth Hill had to cross several lines that were determined for her based on her sex, class and the color of her skin. Fast-forward two and a half decades and one still finds the complexities of female powerlessness are an intrinsic part of a woman’s economic destiny. In juxtaposing found images of Hill’s testimony with sexualized portrayals of female bodies, Winnant exposes the complicated and convoluted narratives women carry throughout their lives.
In playing to both reality and fiction, Rodrigo Valenzuela’s Maria TV further reveals the problematic expectations between race, class and sex. For the film, Valenzuela hired Seattle-based immigrant Latina maids to recite monologues from Telemundo soap operas, while weaving in their own personal histories. The contradiction both highlights and characterizes the real and stereotypical roles these women are meant to play, as Latina immigrant workers. As they share personal stories, these women reveal the constructions that determine their identity and placement within a political economy. Their labor is determined for them.
In Notebook/ Workbook, Carmen Argote elevates the value of unseen work by retracing the written exercises her grandmother produced while learning English. Faced by most immigrants who arrive to the US, these routine exercises demonstrate the first steps one must make in order to obtain paid work. The Notebook reveals personal experience displaying the emotional, inner process that individuals encounter when integrating into a new community. It is the notes, birthdays and phone numbers that provide Argote with inspiration, and the desire to elevate such writing to art, as seen in the Workbook. By poetically positioning the process over the product, Argote makes the invisible visible.
In the work Will’s Windows, manuel arturo abreu reduces the notion of labor down to it’s most integral form, the willingness to work. Referencing the culture and practice of do-it-yourself production, abreu highlights the politics surrounding New Age, hippie ideology as tied to race and class. These reused, hung windows present a picture of privilege, and the ideological distinctions between labor that is willingly performed versus that which is paid, monitored and expected. In listing ‘white unwaged labor’ as a medium alongside glass, hardware and debris, abreu strips whiteness of it’s privilege and democratizes labor itself. Through this process, abreu positions a loss of power to white capital, while distinguishing the privilege of choice and entitlement.
In speaking truth to power, the labor that contributes to the highest standard of living is that which has no determined value. It is neither taught in school, nor privy to a particular social class or race. While most Americans will enjoy an extended weekend due to Labor Day, there will continue to be laborers who work unseen, unvalued and unrecognized. They are mothers, artists and non-unionized workers. It is these individuals who build the backbone of American culture and society, and who provide “highest standard of living”. Perhaps in true democratic form, it is their unseen labor that unites individuals while building families, communities, and culture.  United States Department of Labor website, https://www.dol.gov/general/laborday/history