Last week four mothers, Tina, Bibo, Judy and myself, and some of our children, gathered together. We played with the kids, cooked sausages and cleaned up. No one got paid for any of the work they did. Nothing special, there.
Except that the cleaning up we did was cleaning up after others. Oh, come to think of it, nothing special there, either. In a society that places no little or monetary value on the role of women as mothers and homemakers, “women’s work”, whether in the home or out of it, and whether done by women or by men, is still undervalued: There is nothing glamourous or enviable about a cleaning job.
Oh, I know, we cleaned up at the beach! That’s special isn’t it? Well, considering we were the only people doing it I’d have to say yes, it is.
Here’s Tina putting a piece of rubbish Tom picked up in her bag, whilst Otis and Bibo look for more. Tom looks pretty pleased with himself, and so he should – he and his brother picked up a lot of rubbish that day. Here’s Otis and Bibo, with a little something Otis found:
And in case you’re wondering, my child is grown up, Tina’s two girls were on their way with one of their grannies, and Judy is Tina’s mum (and the other other granny.) Three generations working together. I like that.
You’ll notice Tina’s attire is, shall we say, special? Red superhero pants, worn over your clothes, thank you very much! Bibo and Judy and I also wore them, but a combination of dead camera batteries, clothing choices and childcare responsibilities mean that I got to take all the pictures, and Tina’s pants came out the best.
The superhero pants were Tina’s idea: a way of having fun and drawing attention to what we are doing. Imagine if everyone who went to the beach put on red superhero pants and cleaned up, even for five minutes? We’d have a revolution on our hands. And we’d be having fun, too. Hey! We could call it art.
In 1969, artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote, in her Manifesto for Maintenance Art, “the sourball of every revolution: After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” She decided that she would no longer separate the cleaning up, or maintenance, work she did at home from her art work. Since 1977, she has been artist-in-residence with the New York City Sanitation Department, where her work aims to make clear the social and environmental implications of waste management. By personally thanking each of the 8,500 New York City sanitation workers, and creating a visitor centre at a garbage depot that allows people to actually see their trash being processed, she brought New Yorkers face to face with their own trash, and to the people who clean up after them.
By putting on red superhero pants on a beach in North Cornwall and picking up rubbish, perhaps we can do something similar, if on a somewhat smaller scale, to Ukeles: Perhaps the other people on the beach will wonder about the crazy women with red pants on over their clothes. Perhaps when we do it again, more people will join us. Perhaps someone reading this post will decide to put on a pair of red superhero pants and go clean their local beach, or park. Remember, you can do anything if you call it art!
And it is art: it is art because we are challenging norms about acceptable behaviour. It is art because by cleaning up the beach we leave it transformed, if only for a short while. It is art because we are wearing red superhero pants, and having fun, and getting our children involved. It is art because we have decided to make art a reflection of our daily life, not something we do “on the side.” It is art because we say so.
So, yes, I want a revolution. I want a world in which the job of caring for the next generation and cleaning up after others is valued, in which “women’s work” is no longer a pejorative phrase. I want a world in which everyone cleans up, even after others. I want a world in which individuals don’t litter and manufacturers don’t dump, and plastic doesn’t end up in the ocean or on the beach.
I want a world in which life and art are one and the same.