In 1977, the 38-year-old artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles convinced an administrator at the New York City Department of Sanitation to name her its Artist in Residence. Ukeles’s resulting projects built previously unimaginable bridges around public perceptions of the sanitation workers who maintained the city. One such effort, Touch Sanitation, involved shaking hands with every one of the 8,500 Department of Sanitation workers who would accept the gesture, thanking them for “keeping the city alive.” This project feels particularly poignant now, as Sanitation workers continue to keep our cities functioning while simultaneously risking their own health. It also evokes exactly the type of intimacy between strangers that is so fundamental to city life and so hazardous in the current moment.
I’ve been thinking about Ukeles a lot lately, now that I haven’t touched anyone outside of my family in weeks. Like so many people, I find myself craving interactions with strangers, the very reason so many of us come to New York in the first place. I was two weeks away from launching my own public artwork for the City of New York when the shelter in place order began. Like countless others, my work would be put on hold until public space was no longer dangerous.
On a phone call with the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Department of Records and Information Services, who co-sponsored the artwork, we decided that the project’s roll-out should be postponed indefinitely, even though we’d been working toward this milestone for fifty weeks. Background noise—from children, partners, and pets—was plentiful as everyone tried to adjust to new configurations. One administrator from Cultural Affairs admitted she was trying to re-learn and coordinate her young children’s weekday routines while remotely managing a government agency with a $200 million budget. The Director of the Municipal Archive said she was feeding her kids sardines and potato chips for lunch while trying to move her agency staff offsite. Many of the civil servants in her department didn’t have home computers or internet connections and couldn’t do their work without access to the material in the City’s storage. I shared that my husband had all of his freelance work cancelled for the foreseeable future in the span of two days. We promised to keep our schedule of regular bi-weekly check-ins, but it looked unlikely that we’d have anything to discuss beyond the logistical challenges constantly emerging as the crisis developed.
For days I tried to move on. I spent most of my time eating junk food and working with other artists to organize donations of protective gear from our studios to health care workers. I got all the way through a freezer-aisle key lime pie and a quarter of the way through a dog-themed puzzle. And then, from the depths of my wallow, I realized that the rules of social distancing we are collectively honoring are oddly ideal for experiencing my project.
I began developing the project, now called Public Record, in April of 2019, when I was selected to serve as the Public Artist in Residence (PAIR) for the Department of Records and Information Services. An initiative of the Department of Cultural Affairs, the PAIR program is modeled off of Ukeles’s pioneering work with the Department of Sanitation. PAIR artists are meant to embed deeply into city government and to create ambitious public works utilizing their intimate access to the inner workings of New York’s municipal systems.
Many of the nine PAIR projects completed before 2019 were public facing without having any of the traditional hallmarks of object-based public art. In 2015 Tania Bruguera, PAIR for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, created CycleNews, a two-way bike courier service that leveraged trusted networks to transmit information between city government and immigrant communities. The PAIR for the Department of Corrections in 2018 was Onyedika Chuke, an artist who typically works in concrete and steel. He couldn’t bring anything into Rikers but pencils, so he created a collaborative art curriculum for inmates, which focused on moments of dissent in the art world and colonialism in the art historical canon.
I was in residence with the Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS), which runs the Municipal Archive and Library, two spaces located at 31 Chambers Street. DORIS’s staff of sixty-five oversees the retention of and access to all of the records created by New York City government that have historic value. Government transparency through records retention is cited as a keystone of our democracy, and legislation requires that municipal agencies keep the records they create. The scope and depth of the material overseen by DORIS is almost unfathomable: millions of physical records created by dozens of government agencies over hundreds of years. Items span nearly every format used to capture information. Most records in the collection are unprocessed and only a small portion of the collection is digitized, though all of the material maintained by DORIS is accessible to the public and can be requested for review. The city operates two offsite storage facilities—one in Brooklyn and one in Queens—and I spent much of the past year in a cavernous warehouse, next to a discount carpet emporium and below the training facilities for the Brooklyn Nets, in Sunset Park.
The Brooklyn facility stores 243,000 cubic feet of city records going back to 1653. There’s no database of all the archive’s holdings and only a few staff members work with the collection onsite. I’d often go days without seeing another human being for more than a few minutes. Deep in the warehouse there was no internet, no outlets, no climate control, no chairs, and no desks. I spent my time crouched in dimly lit aisles between eight-foot-tall shelves, weaving through thirty years of Robert Moses’s files, from “Aquarium” to “Zoning.” I wore a face mask, then just a barrier against the dust. I read through boxes crammed with papers eight hours a day and still I was only able to review less than one-tenth of one percent of the archive. At some point I calculated that I could only get through the entirety of the current collection if my residency were extended by one thousand years.
This isolation felt far from the ideal environment in which to conceive of an artwork for crowded, lively public spaces. Instead it produced the kind of urban solitude that comes from the crush of strangers’ words and other peoples’ histories. I started imagining creating an artwork that would be public in the specific way these items were public. It wouldn’t be installed in a plaza between skyscrapers, but rather consumed alongside marriage records and birth certificates. It would live next to Jonas Mekas’s mugshot and the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory indictment reports and ledgers documenting how much wet nurses were paid in New York City’s 19th century orphanages. These records are public space. They are owned wholly by citizens and made available for the public’s benefit.
As I was conceiving of this work a mere six months ago, I couldn’t have imagined a future—our current moment—when physical public space was so restricted. And yet I began to move forward with the idea that we could submerge in public information in the same spirit as we dip into a public pool.
For my project to earn a place in the public record I would have to find a way to make art that was also official government records deemed to be “of historic value.” If I could pull that off, the artworks would end up in the municipal archive—for all eternity!—after a multi-year procedure of transfers and processing. More immediately, though, the project would also be subject to the protocols that regulate the digital release of new and active government records through the Freedom of Information Law. Typically, FOIL requests are issued in order to monitor the work of sitting officials and agencies. In New York City, documents relevant to submitted FOIL requests are posted for all to see on a platform called the Open Records Portal. In this digital public space, my artwork could be on permanent exhibition, installed next to budgets and memos and minutes of meetings about mosquitoes and September 11th and public housing and deadly viruses. I just had to figure out how to get it there.
Back in August, I was in the archive working on research for the project, looking through the Parks Department collection. I had just located a memo from 1940 that read “I do not think the sculpture would improve the esthetic sense of the young but would be more apt to present an invitation of suicide” when the warehouse suddenly plunged into darkness. The huge windows on the eastern wall of the sixth floor were covered in paper so that sunrise wouldn’t slowly fade the materials. I yelled out in the dark. Hearing no response, I made my way to the bank of switches at the far end of the floor. There I found Gabriel Gervais, Reference Associate, who has worked in the warehouse for forty-two years. He greeted me with a smile and apologized for the interruption, though he seemed delighted by the surprise that someone else was on the floor. Gabe was responsible for transferring material from storage to Chambers Street and had prepared many boxes for me since the start of my project. At first he labeled every box “For patron: Julia Weist.” Over time he dropped patron, writing just “For: Julia Weist,” and eventually abbreviated it to “For: Julia W.” Recently, my boxes were simply labeled “Miss Julia.”
A residency that embeds an artist within government relies on the premise that an artist is different, wouldn’t otherwise be found in government agencies, and wouldn’t fit in. As “Miss Julia” I felt that I finally had a place, and I was grateful to Gabe for that. I thought about thanking him as we stood by the light switches, but suddenly felt shy. I returned to the 1940s without mentioning it.
The question of where I fit within the city government was mirrored by a question I chased through the archives: Where do artists appear in city records, and how does the government see them? I began to collect examples of the city attempting to articulate what artists contribute to civic life. On one hand, the archival material is exceedingly optimistic, revealing that the government understands the full power of visual culture. Across decades and disparate departments the arts are described as being “among our most important resources” because of their ability to instill “civic pride” by “humanizing spaces often devoid of humor, beauty or symbolic resonance” and “harmonizing the disparate populations of the city” because “a heightened aesthetic sense helps develop a warm appreciation for differences among people, cultures, styles” while simultaneously “improv[ing] that indefinable yet quite tangible thing known as the quality of life.”
These are statements from culturally minded agencies and commissions, but also from departments such as the Health and Hospitals Corporation, which runs the city’s public health system, and the Board of Education. One particularly moving passage in the Department of Employment collection from 1977–1980 reads, “No culture can or ever has survived without artists. What they record is essential to the growth and stability of peoples . . . the artist can capture the meaning of a decade, the significance of a lifetime in a painting, the gesture of a dance, or the press of a novel.”
While it’s undeniable that New York’s municipal government has historically understood the value that art offers the city, it was less clear, in my research, what the city offers back to artists. Just a few boxes over, a record in the Department of Employment collection stated that “Even prosperous economic times may find up to an estimated 75% of the work force in arts professions unemployed.” A few notable public work programs show up, such as the Works Progress Administration, established in the 1930s, and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act in the 1970s, each of which could provide models to consider as we plan for economic recovery in the months and years ahead. But they’re largely the exception. Instead, the collection is exhaustive in its documentation of art workers struggling to survive in the city. Artists are defunded, victimized, rejected, and evicted. They are turned in to the House Un-American Activities Committee and are surveilled by undercover NYPD “Red Squad” officers who infiltrate their gatherings and find them subversive and obscene.
In the archive, even artists who today are established and successful can be found struggling earlier in their careers. One city panelist gave Philip-Lorca di Corcia’s photograph Lightbulb a 4 out of 10 and another agency scored writer and filmmaker Chris Krauss 3 out of 5 for the quality of her work. In the early ’90s, Faith Ringgold’s fabric works are described as “depressing,” “ethnocentric,” and “too small”; conceptual artist Mel Chin received “no strong feeling in support of him”; and curator RoseLee Goldberg’s application was denied because she “has written very few articles.”
But the archive does contain evidence of one artist who, in contrast, has significantly more power. This Fall I lugged several boxes from the basement stacks at Chambers Street to a wide desk in the room where the archivists sit. The boxes contained materials belonging to Rudolph Giuliani’s Press Office and were stuffed haphazardly with photographic prints and albums documenting speeches, a visit by the Pope, and even Giuliani in full costume and makeup backstage at the Lion King on Broadway. In one box I found a print showing the Mayor performatively aiming a camera at a landmark on what appeared to be Ellis Island while journalists photographed him taking the photograph. In the same folder there were a few envelopes of images that seemed out of place. The images were blurry, over exposed, and tilted at dramatic angles, unlikely to have been taken by the Mayor’s staff photographer. I kept searching and soon found an oversized print showing a postcard-like image of a bridge at sunset, signed with an unmistakable “Rudy Giuliani.” I called to Ian Kern, one of the city’s archivists, whose unit was busy processing Michael Bloomberg’s emails.
“Ian, do you happen to know if Rudy Giuliani considered himself . . . an artist?”
Ian chuckled and walked over. I showed him the banal but technically competent bridge print with Giuliani’s signature, and then laid out a photograph of Giuliani pointing a camera at Manhattan from the Jersey side of the Hudson River. Finally, being careful to rectify the sight lines, I put down a blurry 4 × 6 image of the Twin Towers and their surrounding architecture skewed at a 45-degree angle. Ian looked at the photos and nodded; he agreed that the Twin Towers photograph was taken by Giuliani in the moment documented by the press photographer.
In the days that followed, I found a press release for an exhibition of Giuliani’s photographs at Leica Gallery in May 1998, called “View from the Capital of the World.” The show opened a mere eighteen months before Giuliani attempted to shutter the Brooklyn Museum over its Sensations exhibition, which he called “sick and disgusting.” Outside of the archive I found a 1997 article in Photo magazine that quoted Diane Bondareff, a photographer for the Mayor’s office who managed Giulani’s personal photo bag, as saying, “He’s always looking for visually striking scenes, even when he’s marching in parades.” Jay Deutsch of Leica Gallery confirmed that the Mayor’s three loves were “photography, the opera, and the Yankees.” I found two other signed exhibition prints in the archive, both similar to the first: sweeping views of the city seemingly shot from the aerial vantage of a helicopter. Each was in stark contrast to the more casual shots in the Press Office box, which were uniformly out of focus, either overly bright or too dark except for a crisp flash, and often included Giuliani’s finger as a beige smudge in front of his chosen subject matter—colleagues, boats, pretzel stands, and even an eagle flying over what I assume is Central Park.
By following Giuliani’s lead, it was easy for me to make artworks that were official government records. I had already been invited inside of city government through the PAIR program, and I used only equipment owned by the city (a large-format copy camera, photo lights, and a computer) with the assistance of a digital technician for the department during her regular workday. Any city record that is made using city resources—city equipment and staff time—as the product of city agency activities is subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law, unless it’s deemed exempt for reasons such as personal privacy, judicial proceedings, or other clauses defined by New York State.
I created compositions by overlaying archival items with retrieval slips, leaving only essential sentences visible behind a layer of pink, white, orange, or yellow. The retrieval slips were crucial to my work, part of a complex system I developed so that I could re-locate individual sheets of paper amongst the tens of thousands I had touched out of the millions in the collection. Once the photographs were complete, I transferred a print of each to the Commissioner of DORIS with a simple memo attached: “I’ve completed eleven artworks in a series called Public Record.”
A document that is subject to the Freedom of Information Law isn’t necessarily guaranteed a spot in the Municipal Archive, though. Government records are retained for a specific period determined by their function and are only accessioned by the Archive if they are determined to offer historic value. Sending the photographs to the Commissioner as a piece of official correspondence added an extra layer of insurance that the works will make it in, most likely as part of the department’s Agency Head General Subject Files. One year after the end of the Commissioner’s service term, which could follow the inauguration of a new New York City Mayor or another personal or professional event, they will be transferred to the Archive.
Two weeks after we’d decided to postpone the launch, I had another call with the project’s partners. Both agencies reported improvements in their ability to run offsite, the background noise was greatly reduced, and everyone was eating healthier lunches. This was our normal now, not a temporary nightmare. Some local, state, and federal agencies had suspended or curtailed FOIL responsibilities, but many of New York City’s departments had not, including DORIS. If the project was going to launch anytime soon, it would be into this remade world, one desperately in need of new imaginings of public space.
I read aloud to the group from a paragraph that I had written in an early proposal for the project, arguing that the administrators of the archive who accession new material are actively establishing public space for millions of future New Yorkers, at an enormous scale. We decided to move ahead. The artworks are made, they are official government records, and they are ready and waiting for the public to FOIL them.
When originally planning the project’s launch, we came up with various solutions to try to get New Yorkers interested enough to use the Open Records Portal and submit FOIL requests for the pieces. I designed a promotional campaign that would have played on LinkNYC kiosks, which now feature public health information rather than slides of NYC culture, and we also explored advertising on bus shelters and in the subway. We assumed that we’d be competing for attention with physical exhibitions, and I secretly worried that a subtle digital release on a government website would get lost in the shuffle. I couldn’t have imagined my project would be opening when The Met, The Whitney, and MoMA were closed. Now we have to find artwork where we can—out the window or in our memories or on a government portal.
Once you begin to look for art in alternative contexts, the barriers to entry that cordon off many traditional art experiences—insider language, complex references, artificial scarcity, exclusive access—become even more pronounced. And when I examine the longing I feel for culture in isolation, it’s not specialized jargon or swanky gatherings that I miss. I find myself craving art that meets me on level ground, that finds me where I am in my everyday staleness. I pine for artwork that can flood my agnostic heart with a sense of sacredness, even if I’m in my pajamas.
Public art has to do this work: it has to engage the audience where they are and create value on their terms. It doesn’t have the luxury of relying on lingo or shorthand. When trying to explain my project to the archivists at DORIS, I couldn’t fall back on art historical terminology to convince them that it mattered; I had to make work that was legible and valued in their context. What the archivists understood and valued was the archives and records themselves, and the public the archives create: a vast audience of all present and future New Yorkers.
While it may not help us now, in this crisis, to know that a previous Mayor was a terrible photographer, there’s much more to find in the records than Giuliani’s photographic outtakes. These records illuminate where power and resources have pooled or been withheld, and tie history to daily life. Someday our present challenges will likely be as distant to future New Yorkers as the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire—or the 1918 Influenza Epidemic—is to us. But they, too, will have the benefit of information owned wholly by and for their future public. And of course art is, and should be, a part of that record. After all, “No culture can or ever has survived without artists.”
Public Record can be viewed at https://www.archives.nyc/julia-weist.