In 1977, the feminist group Mother Art staged performances in five laundromats across Los Angeles. Over the course of one wash and dry cycle, Mother Art artists hung their artworks on clotheslines and, against the hum and spin of the washing machines, performed the ritual of folding laundry while wearing paper clothespin masks. “We had hoped to show people that art isn’t just a Van Gogh painting,” Mother Art member Gloria Hajduk told a local newspaper in 1979, “that we can create art from our everyday lives with everyday materials.” In the laundromat, the artists distributed pamphlets protesting the invisibility of what had traditionally been women’s labor: the hidden emotional and domestic work, from familial caregiving to mundane chores, that was often undervalued, underpaid, and unnoticed.
As an archivist, I’m also familiar with working behind the scenes. In recent years, many in the field of library sciences have brought critical attention to the invisible labor of the profession, which skews predominantly female. Archival work, like the work of “mothering” or parenting, is maintenance work: the seemingly unglamorous, repetitive, and often invisible labor that upholds our society and its infrastructure. This is the work of nursing assistants, home health aides, daycare workers, custodians, groundskeepers, servers, social workers, therapists and clergy—all people who keep our world running. Much of this type of care work falls disproportionately to Black and Latina women, many of whom are their family’s sole breadwinners and have fared the worst in the pandemic. While American society valorizes individual “disruptors,” it is the hidden–and often deeply racialized and gendered–work of maintenance, caretaking, and repair that sustains our collective life.
As the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote in her “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!”: “The sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” In addition to the Laundry Works performance, Mother Art staged other public art projects that drew attention to maintenance work. In the late 70s, they created a “clean-up campaign” in which they washed the facades of buildings like the Los Angeles City Hall.
While archivists are not sorting laundry or mopping floors, we are similarly often doing rote, unnoticed maintenance work. The daily work of an archivist includes tasks like rehousing documents, files, and ephemera in acid-free folders; making preservation photocopies of brittle documents like newspapers; unfurling rolled items for flat storage in oversize boxes or flat files; and individually sleeving fragile photographic prints and negatives.
At the center of both parental labor and archival labor is caregiving. Just as parents care for children and families, the everyday work of an archivist is to care for primary source materials and the communities represented within collections. A level of care goes into every decision that archivists make while processing a collection–not only in the choices we make for how best to house collection materials to ensure their long-term preservation but also in the decisions about how to arrange and describe materials so that they are discoverable and accessible. To process archives responsibly requires radical empathy.
There’s an intimacy between an archivist and the materials they process. For the Mother Art collection, Getty Research Institute staff carefully housed, arranged, and described documents, ephemera, and audiovisual materials that might otherwise be inaccessible: fragile photographic negatives and delicate pencil drawings, news clippings, and account books. Many of these materials might be considered ordinary or perhaps unheroic–and yet they help paint an important picture of a group of artists whose prescient vision still reverberates today.
When I look through the Mother Art collection, I am struck by the fact that so many of the issues these artists tackled in their projects are still with us today: reproductive rights, equal pay, and the ways in which so-called “women’s work” often remains hidden within a system that purports to be fair and equitable. The pandemic has exposed the deep importance of “essential work.” And as women lose more jobs than men, and the onus of raising children and managing remote education falls more heavily on women than men, Mother Art’s message about the value of care labor is more important than ever.