On Sunday, 22 July 1973, American artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles cleaned the front steps and courtyard of Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum during her now considered canonical performance, Hartford Wash : Washing, Tracks, Maintenance : Outside. While at the Wadsworth, Ukeles also spent four hours inside the museum washing its floors (Hartford Wash : Washing Tracks, Maintenance : Inside, also performed that day), dusting a display case (Transfer : The Maintenance of the Art Object, on Friday, 20 July 1973), and temporarily locking different doors in the museum during opening hours (The Keeping of the Keys : Maintenance as Security, on Friday, 20 July 1973).
Four decades later, on Saturday, 11 January 2014, I found myself thinking back to Ukeles’ performance as I helped to document a performance on Rabat’s avenue Mohamed V outside of L’appartement 22 (1). Entitled Spring Cleaning, this seven-hour long performance was an initiative of Women With Talents (WWT), an open but women-only collective founded in summer 2013 by Athens-based artists Georgia Kotretsos and Natasha Papadopoulou, joined in Rabat by artist Touda Bouanani (2). By 9:15 am that morning, I was drinking coffee with Georgia and Natasha as we waited for Touda and Maud Houssais, one of L’appartement 22’s coordinators. We sat outside of the café below L’appartement 22, where Georgia is currently an artist-in-residency, surrounded by four foot tall, rolled up cardboard stencils and blue buckets of cleaning supplies and with our view of the soon-to-be performance space partially obscured by the wide columns that support the street’s covered sidewalk, a relic of colonial-era French urbanism. Rabat is a quiet city, despite—or perhaps as a result of—being the capital and this early on a Saturday, the café and street were nearly empty. Those pedestrians who did pass by threw funny looks our way. This might have been because Georgia and Natasha were clad in oversized, slightly translucent, grey coveralls complete with pockets and hoods, like a HAZMAT suit made out of hospital gowns. But then again, three women sitting outside of a café can be reason enough to attract the attention of male pedestrians.
Twenty minutes later, Maud had arrived and we were both upstairs at L’appartement 22 in order to take photographs and set up Natasha’s pocket-sized HD camera on the balcony. With their stencil and bucket cargo under arm and in hand, Georgia and Natasha strode across the street to reach the center palm tree-lined median bookmarked by fountains. Once there, they began to unroll the first two words of the day : as-saha (health in Arabic) and κάθαρσις (catharsis in Greek). Using the stencils, they outlined both words with white chalk. They then rolled the stencils back up, put them aside, and began to brush special marble cleaner made in Italy and brought by the artists from Greece onto the taupe stone. Fifteen minutes later, Touda arrived, changed into her jumpsuit, and headed to the fountain. It was then that everything stopped. On a street more known for the protesters who march almost daily to Parliament, for being frequently shut down to automotive traffic for official state visits, and for the incessant frimeurs (flirts) trying to pick up any female pedestrian in earshot with calls of “ça va ?” these three women scrubbing the ground in the name of art was far from business as usual.
What started as an inquiry from a male member of the military was followed by the arrival of a uniformed male police officer and then two undercover men in jeans and baseball caps. Maud, who had gone downstairs to talk to the police, signaled to me from below to take down the video camera and to stop photographing. I did and then went downstairs. Frustrated, Georgia and Natasha rolled cigarettes in the pink rolling papers Natasha brought from Athens, which they smoked sitting next to Touda on the ledge by the fountain. The avenue’s resident pigeons returned, pecking at the soapy letters. Maud left for the Wilaya (City Hall) to track down the government official who had authorized the performance at 4 pm the day before, but had not signed the authorization form. The three officers stood a few meters away, occasionally speaking on their cell phones or walkie-talkies. I returned to the café across the street and ordered mint tea for four. The waiter brought it to us at the fountain but by the time he arrived, Maud was back with news that the chief (pacha) of the police precinct (commissariat) was on his way. This appeared to be all the information needed to make the two incognito police officers climb back on their motorcycle and ride away. One theory : they wanted to leave before the commissariat men could arrive so as to avoid being reprimanded. A couple men in dark clothes from the commissariat arrived, better dressed than the guys who had just left, and we were good to go. It was 10:45 am.
This opening drama did more than interrupt WWT’s performance, although it certainly did that. It also revealed the sly pageantry that is constantly negotiated in Moroccan public space. For if Georgia, Natasha, and Touda drew stares and literally turned heads with their baggy coveralls and stencils, just as Maud and I did as we juggled our cameras, also visible that morning was the way public space is managed—and gendered—in Morocco. As I returned to my photographing post on L’appartement 22’s third floor balcony, I couldn’t help but wonder if what had shifted with the arrival of the city officials was not so much that the performance’s authorization had been confirmed by those responsible for keeping the street in order, but rather that we—five women, four foreign and one Moroccan—now had Moroccan male chaperones. Because the commissariat guys arrived without any documents that confirmed our authorization, it was as if their physical presence was the authorization. They stayed nearby for the rest of the day, intervening later that afternoon when a non-uniformed man interrupted my photographing to ask if we had permission.
For the next seven hours, as I helped to fill memory cards with photographs and high definition videos of the three women as they bent, crouched, and kneeled their way through Spring Cleaning, it was hard not to think of how different this experience was from how I had imagined Ukeles’ Hartford performances. This difference cannot be entirely attributed to the gap between reading about a performance years later and participating in it as a spectator and, in my case, photographer. Art historians typically discuss Ukeles’ Hartford performances for how her actions made visible the invisible and often female labor(ers) of maintenance work (3). But Women With Talents’ cleaning provoked another and altogether differently gendered performance, one I don’t think any of us—the artists, Maud, me—anticipated : the male maintenance of public order in Morocco’s capital, a literal stone’s throw away from the country’s Parliament.
For Moroccans, however, both this maintenance and its gendering are neither invisible nor surprising ; they form the Sine qua non of life here, as in many places (4). Although the years of lead have passed, people continue to speculate about which parking attendants double as informants and jokes told among friends belie real concerns about surveillance (5). Security cameras, meanwhile, have multiplied throughout the capital’s streets and shops. But for white Westerners, these quiet negotiations of power and public space largely remain out of sight. Individuals perceived as white in Morocco and hence generally assumed to be Western are largely unconscious actors in and witnesses to this power play, even as they benefit from it (6).
Yet on this Saturday, Spring Cleaning set the play into motion for just such an audience. In it, the unpaid maintenance work of women cleaning clashed with the underpaid maintenance work of men policing, forcing the undercover maintenance men to perform for an atypical audience. But although neither group seemed to understand what the other was up to, this clash of maintenance performers took place gently and respectfully. And once the initial stress of “are they going to let us finish ?” and “what happens if they fichier (open up a file on) each of us ?,” it all felt rather comical.
Let’s imagine for a moment the phone and walkie-talkie conversations that took place that morning as the different officers assessed the strange situation unfolding on the street : “Three women in grey jumpsuits are unrolling cardboard stencils onto the ground around the fountain on avenue Mohamed V. One stencil says as-saha… yes, it’s in Arabic, and the other is in Greek. The stencils are bigger than the women. Now they are using plastic buckets to get water from the public fountain and wooden brushes to paint a clear substance onto the ground where the stencils had been. Their other supplies include scrub brushes of two different sizes and latex gloves. People are watching them, some taking pictures.”
This is all to suggest that in their selective removal of the stubborn layers of dirt, pigeon shit, and gum that cover the center median of avenue Mohamed V, Women With Talent’s performance made visible more than the words—as-saha, κάθαρσις, sawl (Amazigh for sound, written in Latin letters), gaze (transliterated into Arabic), and Spring Cleaning—that they scrubbed clean. Nor did it simply call attention to the hard labor of cleaning that, at least when done by women in Morocco, is largely confined to the home. The rarity of women cleaning public space—a job largely performed in the capital by men in bright Veolia jackets and pants—was emphasized by the male passersby who lingered and watched, some for awkwardly long periods of time, their offers of help repeatedly refused by the artists. The clear discomfort experienced by these men as they watched the artists made me wonder if they also offer to help their wives, mothers, or sisters scrub the floors at home. Was there something about this particular performance of cleaning—an act of cleaning arguably much more symbolic than practical—that prompted them to intervene ?
When, in those tense twenty or so minutes as we waited for the go ahead that morning, Spring Cleaning provoked another performance, the performance I had not expected, it revealed the extent to which life on avenue Mohamed V is undergirded by this very specific institution of men whose labor is to watch. That avenue Mohamed V is filled with men who watch should not surprise any woman who has ever walked down that street. Yet somehow during these seven hours, as I crossed the street multiple times and entered its stage, I felt differently on display, less self-conscious while much more conspicuous. It was as if in their grey jumpsuits, latex gloves, and acrobatic acts of cleaning, Georgia, Natasha, and Touda had negotiated a new, albeit temporary, order for this public space, an order whose terms were just strange enough that by the end of the day, as they washed away the soap from the final as-saha, the crowd of fifty or so Rbatis that had gathered around us broke into cautious applause.
Postscript. Around 5:30 pm that day, we packed everything up and headed up the stairs to L’appartement 22. Those who had remained to watch Georgia and Natasha finish the last two words (gaze and κάθαρσις) left and the street returned to its regular Saturday evening rhythm. But even a few days later, the words slightly faded but nonetheless visible, it is tempting to wonder if perhaps something of this new public order might also linger. In a place like Morocco, where outdoor cultural events are typically limited to large-scale, state-funded festivals, the significance of carving out some space for such an idiosyncratic performance should not be underestimated. At the very least, the next time L’appartement 22’s artist-in-residence wants to do a public performance somewhere in the city, Maud knows who to call. She’s got his cell phone number.
E.C., Rabat, January 2014
The artists, Abdellah Karroum and Maud Houssais of L’appartement 22, Massimo Pastore, and Faye Gleisser for her additional editorial assistance.
(1) L’appartement 22 is the region’s first independent art space and was founded by Moroccan curator Abdellah Karroum in 2002. Karroum has organized a number of artist performances in Rabat’s public spaces as well as artist expeditions throughout Morocco and elsewhere since 2000. These projects are documented on its website as well as in Abdellah Karroum, L’appartement 22 (2002-2008) (Paris : Editions hors’champs, 2009). An important predecessor in the history of Moroccan art is the 1969 outdoor exhibition of Moroccan modern painting at Marrakech’s Jamaâ El Fna. See : Khalil M’Rabet, Peinture et identité, L’expérience marocaine (Paris : L’Harmattan, 1987).
(2) For more on Kotretsos’s residency at L’appartement, see : “Georgia Kotretsos
(3) Ukeles defined maintenance work in her 1969 “Maintenance Art Manifesto” as the everyday work that makes development (and modernity) possible. Helen Molesworth quotes this manifesto in part in “House Work and Art Work,” October 92 (Spring 2000) : 71-97. See also : Sherry Buckberrough, Mierle Laderman Ukeles
(4) Abdellah Hammoudi, Master and Disciple : The Cultural Foundations of Moroccan Authoritarianism (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1997).
(5) On the years of lead, see Susan Slyomovics, The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco (Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).
(6) It is important to emphasize the frequent elision in Morocco between white and Western, particularly as attacks on, and discrimination against, non-Moroccan black individuals, perceived as being illegal migrants from African countries south of Morocco, have increased dramatically over the last few years.