Working the break point: Maintenance, repair and failure in art

Teresa Dillon


The artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote in her MANIFESTO FOR MAINTENANCE ART 1969!:

“Two basic systems: Development and Maintenance. The sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?”

In this one sentence, Ukeles sums up the tensions between our drive on one hand for the new, and on the other the daily care that is necessary in order to keep systems alive and working. This tension in part was borne out of Ukeles’ position as a mother and her frustration with the late-1970s New York art scene. Repetition as an action in and of itself was a key method that Fluxus and other avant-garde artists used to highlight or comment on social systems. Such repetition was celebrated as bold and new. Yet when it came to housework, childcare or city maintenance, repetition within such contexts is often considered as drudgery, or in Ukeles’ words “fucking boring”. In addressing the underdog ‘maintenance’, Ukeles took up a series of challenges about the position of art in society, which led to an official (yet unpaid) artist-in-residence position at the New York City Department of Sanitation, which she has held for over three decades.

Drawing attention to the actions and processes that are needed in order for ‘stuff’ to work, Ukeles’ work was the subject of a major retrospective at the Queens Museum, New York in 2016-2017[1]. Now considered as a legendary art figure, her work has become a cornerstone for understanding artistic practices in public institutions. Projects such as Touch Sanitation, in which Ukeles spent 11 months crisscrossing New York City to reach all 59 sanitation districts, so as to shake the hands of over 8,500 sanitation workers to thank them for “keeping New York City alive”[2], clearly illustrate her innate sensitivity towards highlighting the daily acts of labour and organisation that infrastructures such as cities require in order to keep working.

From an academic perspective, it took several decades for repair and maintenance to be considered a serious topic. Early work, such as Orr’s (1996) research on people who repair photocopiers and Henke’s (1999) concept of the “sociology of repair”, predated what Schulz (2017) has referred to as the ‘turn’ towards repair, which is evident in a slew of recent publications.[3] These include Graziano and Trogal’s (2017) call for a special issue on repair for the journal ephemera[4]; Callén and Criado’s (2015) research on material vulnerability in relation to e-waste workers[5]; Dant and Bowles’ (2003) ethnographic documentation of car repair[6]; Houston’s (2017) research on the maintenance and mending of mobile phones in Uganda[7]; and Graham and Thrift’s (2007) critique of how the social sciences have failed to take on a proper account of repair.[8]

Stating that repair and maintenance are “the engine room of modern economics and societies”[9], Graham and Thrift argue that one of the major research challenges within the social sciences is to reimagine the economics and places of maintenance and repair that surround infrastructural connection, movement and flow.[10] They consider how the politics of repair “saturate wider geopolitical struggles and conflicts”, and reveal as much about the nature of contemporary globalised cities as points of connection and assembly.[11] Addressing repair and maintenance requires us to move away from what Ukeles referred to as the “sourdough of revolution” and the rhetoric of the ‘new’ as a means of progression and innovation, to what Jackson (2014) calls “broken world” logics.[12]

Jackson’s broken world logics addresses repair by acknowledging that contemporary life is about dealing with the coming apart of things, where “breakdown, dissolution, and change, rather than innovation, development, or design as conventionally practiced and thought about are the key themes and problems facing new media and technology scholarship”.[13] Although we could argue that life has always been about dealing with such dissolution, Jackson balances this by also focusing on the myriad of activities through which stability in the face of breakdown is actually maintained, via the “subtle art of repair”. While Jackson’s subtle art is not referring per se to artistic practices but to processes of checking, cleaning, maintaining, fixing and restoring, if we are to take repair seriously we need to differentiate between its forms. To this end, I distinguish between the following forms of repair: critical (relating to the intellectual and artistic), craft (relating to heritage and tradition), entrepreneurial (relating to business and economy) and essential (borne out of immediate need).


Critical Repair Series (2017), Slogan No 1. Repair Action, Teresa Dillon.


For the purpose of this publication, I will focus on critical repair as exemplified by Ukeles’ work, which directly makes visible the actual workings of how we live and the magnitude of the part that maintenance plays in the continuation of our sociotechnical lives. Aesthetically Ukeles approached this topic from the perspective of a performance artist and described her method as “piggybacking”, whereby she built a new artwork on what was already out there (for example joining 300 workers on their shifts over the course of five weeks, or shaking hands with thousands of sanitation workers).[14]

The notion of piggybacking could also be applied to the work of the artist Benjamin Gaulon and to the work of jewellery maker, artist and designer Linda Brothwell. Credited by the Craft Council of England for her revival of repair in the crafts, Brothwell utilises her skills in metalwork to repair elements in the urban landscape by piggybacking and learning skills from local craft practitioners. For Bench Repair[15] (2009) she learnt wooden inlay techniques from Portuguese artisans, which she used to repair benches in Lisbon. The tools and skills involved in repairing were further explored in her project Acts of Care[16] (2013-ongoing), when again Brothwell learnt and adopted local craft skills from which she created a bespoke set of tools that were then used to repair various urban elements, such as shop front lettering.

Since 2004, Benjamin Gaulon (under the name Recyclism[17]) has been creating works on the theme of planned obsoletism. For example KindleGlitched features broken Kindle devices that have been found, donated or bought online. Gaulon piggybacks on these ready-mades by hacking them to generate a unique and permanent image, which he displays with his signature on the back of the broken device. Similarly, Sebastian Schmeig and Silvio Lorusso also highlight the aesthetics of the Kindle’s broken e-ink displays in their print-on-demand art book, 56 Broken Kindle Screens (2012). Revitalising broken or obsolete electronics, not necessarily by bringing them back to their original state but by working with their dysfunction, is also a characteristic of Gaulon’s other works, such as his ReFunct Modular collaboration with Karl Klomp, Gijs Gieskes and Tom Verbruggen. In this piece the group (re)uses numerous obsolete electronic devices (digital and analogue media players and receivers), which are hacked and bent into a complex ‘working’ sculptural chain, whereby the devices feed and live off each other.

Hacking can generally be defined as the exploit of a system weakness, by altering its function and intended purpose. Circuit bending is one such hacking technique that has been widely used within the arts. Since the 1960s the ‘godfather’ of circuit bending, Reed Ghazala, has been demonstrating how to customise low voltage electronic devices (toys, battery powered devices) to make new musical sounds or visual instruments. While circuit bending interferes with the existing system, the glitch works with its existing malfunction. Glitch as defined by Goriunova and Shulgin (2008) is “a short-lived error in a system or machine”, and can be classified as an unpredictable malfunction or change in a system’s behaviour.[18] As a technique it has been utilised by many artists within their work. For example, the seminal piece TV Dinner[19] (1979) by Raul Zaritsky and Jamie Fenton (with sound by Dick Ainsworth) opens with the voiceover that this is “absolutely the cheapest way that one can go in home computer art”. By pounding the Bally Astrocade video game console the artists made it pop out, resulting in a visual and sonic glitch, which was produced as the console attempted to create the menu. More recently the video artist Rosa Menkman has created a series of glitch-based works, including her eulogy to the death of the PAL video format entitled The Collapse of PAL[20] (2010-12), which also explores in-built obsoletism, industry standardisations and how traces of old formats continue to live within the new.[21]

Whether the glitch is purposefully constructed by intentionally breaking the device, as illustrated in TV Dinner, or naturally occurs through the lifecycle and breakdown of the device, numerous artists have used the technique as a means of distorting image and sound. Musicians such as Oval, who are credited with pioneering glitch music and created the classic ambient album 94 Diskont (1995), developed sounds by purposefully working with broken, scratched or written-on CDs. Yasunao Tone’s album Solo for Wounded (1997) is another good example of this.

The intention behind such processes (circuit bending and the glitch) is often to directly or indirectly critique mass consumption, with its emphases on the new, the faster and the better. Moreover the works also comment on read-only cultures referring to how devices are purposefully locked and closed, which in turn disables the users, who can no longer modify them for their own purposes. Aesthetically what has emerged from these processes, as Cascone (2000) notes, is that the sounds of digital technology not working, as produced by “glitches, bugs, application errors, system crashes, clipping, aliasing, distortion, quantization noise, and even the noise floor of computer sound cards”, has defined not just the experiential music scene but also our contemporary and popular music landscape.[22] As Cascone wrote:

“Indeed, ‘failure’ has become a prominent aesthetic in many of the arts in the late 20th century, reminding us that our control of technology is an illusion, and revealing digital tools to be only as perfect, precise, and efficient as the humans who build them. New techniques are often discovered by accident or by the failure of an intended technique or experiment”.[23]

To further contextualise this work, art critic and theorist Jack Burnham in his piece for Artforum on “Systems Esthetics” (1968) notes:

“Increasingly ‘products’ – either in art or life – become irrelevant and a different set of needs arise: these revolve around such concerns as maintaining the biological livability of the earth, producing more accurate models of social interaction, understanding the growing symbiosis in man-machine relationships, establishing priorities for the usage and conservation of natural resources, and defining alternate patterns of education, productivity, and leisure. In the past our technologically-conceived artifacts structured living patterns. We are now in transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture. Here change emanates, not from things, but from the way things are done”.[24]

Drawing on cybernetic thinking, Burnham forecast what I believe is evident in much of the artistic work commenting on repair, breakdown, failure and obsoletism that we see today. Whether it is the pounding and scratching of the cartilage or CD (Zaritsky, Fenton and Dick Ainsworth, Oval and Tone), the connection made by stringing together various broken digital and analogue media players and receivers (Gaulon, Klomp, Gieskes, Verbruggen), a lament to lost formats and standards (Merkman), or the fixing and mending of urban elements (Brothwell), these artists aesthetically all work with the broken. This highlights even further what Ukeles advocated in her manifesto with regard to maintenance being the necessary driver of our systems, rather than its often more privileged ‘sister’, innovation. Repositioning repair and maintenance as central drivers within lives, addresses not just the realities of the mundane but begs us to ask the simple yet profound question: What if we took greater care of what we already have?

What repair and maintenance ‘do’ then is challenge the lexicon of fluidity and the seamlessness of ‘smart’ technologies[25] that have come to dominate the imaginations our of network society.[26] By cutting at our perceived norms and values, repair and maintenance interrogate what Burnham (1968) refers to as “the way things are done”, which in turn questions what we mean or value as progress and growth, which inevitably returns us to the question of the sustainable and ecological.[27]





[1] Mierle Laderman Ukeles: “Maintenance Art”, September 18 2016-Feb 19 2017, Queens Museum, New York Accessed on 20 August 2017.

[2] Justin, (2011), “Touch Sanitation & Maintenance Art: the Work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles”. Broken City Lab, Published Feb 18 2011. Accessed 18 August 2017.

[3] See J.E. Orr, Talking about Machines: An ethnography of a modern job (Cornell University Press, 1996); Hencke, C.R. “The Mechanics of Workplace Order: Toward a sociology of repair”, Berkeley Journal of Sociology,44 (1999): 55-81; Schulz, Tristain, “Design’s Role in Transitioning to Futures of Cultures of Repair”, in A. Chakrabarti and D. Chakrabarti (eds.), Research into Design for Communities,
Volume 2, Smart Innovation, Systems and Technologies 66 (Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017).

[4] Blanca Callén and Tomás Criado Sánchez, “Vulnerability Tests Matters of “Care for Matter” in E-waste Practices”, Tecnoscienza, Italian Journal of Science and Technology Studies, Vol, 6, No 2 (2015): 17-40. Accessed 18 August 2017.

[5] Callén and Criado Sánchez, “Vulnerability Tests Matters of “Care for Matter” in E-waste Practices”.

[6] Dant and Bowles, “Dealing with dirt: servicing and repairing cars”, Sociological Research Online Vol. 8 (2) (2003).

[7] Lara Houston, “The Timeliness of Repair”, in Continent. 6 (1) (2017): 51-55.

[8] Stephen Graham and Nigel Thrift, “Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance”, Theory, Culture and Society 24 (3) (2007): 1-25.

[9] Ibid., 19.

[10] Ibid., 17.

[11] Ibid., 18.

[12] S. J. Jackson, “Rethinking Repair”, in Gillespie, T. Boczkowski, P.J., Foot, K.A. (ed.) Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society (Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2014), 221–240.

[13] Ibid., 2.

[14] Patricia P Phillips, Tom Finkelpearl, Larissa Harris, Lucy Lippard, Mierle Laderman Ukeles (Prestel, Munich, London, New York: DelMonico Books, 2016), 12.

[15] Accessed 18 August 2017.

[16] Accessed 18 August 2017.

[17] Accessed 18 August 2017.

[18] Olga Goriunova and Alexei Shulgin, “Glitch”, in Software Studies: a Lexicon. Fuller, M. (ed.) (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2008), 110.

[19] Accessed 18 August 2017.

[20] Accessed 18 August 2017.

[21] See also Rosa Menkman, The Glitch Moment(um), Network Notebook Series. (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011).

[22] Kim Cascone, “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music”, in Computer Music Journal 24:4 (2000): 12-18.

[23] Cascone, “The Aesthetics of Failure”, 13.

[24] Jack Burnham, “Systems Esthetics”. Artforum, September (1968), 31.

[25] Tironi, “Ecologies of maintenance: Ethnography of maintenance and repair practices for a public bicycle program”, Disena Dossier (Universidad Católica de Chile, 2014).

[26] Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society: Economy, Society and Culture (Wiley & Blackwell, 1999).

[27] Burnham, “Systems Esthetics”.



TERESA DILLON (United Kingdom and Germany) is an artist, researcher and Professor of City Futures at the School of Art and Design, University of the West of England, Bristol. Her performative, research and sound-based work metaphorically and critically examines the techno-civic systems – which affect and shape everyday urban life – with a special interest in notions of survival, governance, regrowth and interspecies behavior. Recent commissions focus on sonic reenactments of the built environment (Canary Songs, 2016) and avian behavior, oppression and symbolism within digital regimes (UNDER NEW MOONS, WE STAND STRONG, 2016). Prior to joining UWE, she was a Humboldt Fellow at UdK and TU Berlin, where she carried out work on artistic processes to making the electromagnetic spectrum audible and its relation to city governance. Since 2007, she has curated various independent and established art programmes. and