“Development: pure, individual creation; the new; change; progress, advance, excitement, flight or fleeting
Maintenance: keep the dust of the pure, individual creation; preserve the new; sustain the change; protect progress; defend and prolong the advance; renew the excitement; repeat the flight.”
Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art1
Sustainability requires maintenance. Maintenance requires commitment, and maybe a shift away from wanting to be the hero, the innovator, the main character, a shift towards the sidelines, maybe even into the background, to the tedious, boring, repetitious, repetitive. As Ursula K le Guin describes in her Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, those who maintain, those who used to nourish us in prehistoric times and still do so today, are the gatherers that collect food in baskets and bags, not the hunters that occasionally thrust spears into wild animals. But the stories we tell are too often centred around glorious heroes, around pioneers and innovators with all their axes, spears, and knives, not around those who actually sustain us, who transport their findings in bags and containers so it can be brought home and shared. Le Guin proposes that a story can be shaped like a recipient too, one that gathers a wide array of things next to each other, transporting them for nourishment and medicine rather than telling a hero-epos that is shaped like a spear, from one point to another in a linear fashion.2
The capitalist economy celebrates innovation, development and progress, concealing the maintenance work that goes into sustaining this progress, maintenance work that is still mostly gendered, unpaid or precarised, and invisibilized. If we prioritise sustainability, we need to put maintenance and development on equal footing, we need to understand that there is no development without maintenance, that maintenance also requires creativity and knowledge, that it deserves equal pay and respect.3 The hardest part in cultivating different ways of being together is to not see them as a one-time experiment, but as a sustained process that needs to be cared for and tended to continuously, which is at odds with the short-term thinking that prevails in the artworld and the exhaustion we all experience due to the high performance that is expected from us.
1 Laderman Ukeles, Mierle. MANIFESTO FOR MAINTENANCE ART, 1969! 1969.
2 Le Guin, Ursula K. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, 1986. The Anarchist Library, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/ursula-k-le-guin-the-carrier-bag-theory-of-fiction . Accessed 22 May 2022.
3 Salih, Yusser. “Kom, behoor ook tot ons huishouden.” nY tijdschrift voor literatuur, kunst & kritiek, studY, no. 47, March 2022.