From the Series: Keywords for Ethnography and Design
Designed worlds are produced and maintained by human labor. As such, maintenance labor is a key site through which ethnographers might rethink the design of our own research.
Living in Ladera Heights
The black Beverly Hills
Palm trees and pools
The water’s blue
Swallow a pill
Keepin’ it surreal
In “Sweet Life,” the artist Frank Ocean sings of the affluent Los Angeles black enclave of Ladera Heights. He describes life for the city’s young middle-class black inhabitants as insulated and undisturbed: the sweet life.
A meter shift in Ocean’s vocals and music encroaches on the fiction of this “domesticated paradise.” The veneer of an unblemished pool and of svelte skirted Mexican palms is undone by the song’s chorus: “You’ve had a landscaper and a housekeeper since you were born.” Ocean’s analysis of a black middle-class subject works to make visible immigrant maintenance labor.
In Ramiro Gomez’s acclaimed series of artworks Happy Hills, the serenity of affluent West Los Angeles is similarly recast by making visible the unmarked labor of Latina and Latino immigrant laborers. Gomez, who worked as a nanny, plants life-sized cardboard cutouts of gardeners on the sidewalk hedges of Beverly Hills mansions and inserts domestic workers into the immaculate kitchens shown in the pages of magazines like Better Homes and Gardens.
Gomez and Ocean make palpable the relationship across Los Angeles’s suburbs between affluent and working-class, leisured and laboring subjects. In their works, disparate social and material worlds overlap by making explicit the maintenance labor performed by workers who are themselves alienated from the very places they enrich.
How is maintenance work, which is to say life-creating and time-freeing labor (such as the domestic and gardening labor of Latina and Latino immigrant workers), a site from which to theorize ethnography and design?
Maintenance, as Ocean and Gomez highlight, is the work of fiction. It is the repeated labor that creates a neat story about the way things naturally appear to be. Ethnography—as the practice of approaching material reality—is itself a practice of repetition, from repeated travels to the field and reconsulting with field notes to the writing and rewriting of a supposed reality. Maintenance labor, like ethnographic narratives, produce an image of the way things supposedly are by erasing the trace of its constant reworking; that is to say, it makes invisible the labor necessary for its construction. In the case of maintenance work, as Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo (2014) argues, labor is made invisible through its gendering and racialization. In the case of ethnography, on the other hand, the author works to remove their labor from the frame so as to represent an unvarnished texture of cultural difference. Or, as Kamala Visweswaran (1994, 1) puts it, the supposed division between fiction and ethnography “breaks down if we consider that ethnography, like fiction, constructs existing or possible worlds, all the while retaining the idea of an alternate ‘made’ world.”
Maintenance, for gardeners and domestic workers, involves the constant reworking of a lawn or the repeated wiping down of a kitchen counter—week after week, sometimes day after day. Conceiving of maintenance as the material accumulation of labor, resulting in well-fed plants or well-fed children, echoes what Keith Murphy and George Marcus (2013, 258) identify as “the complex processes” that designers and ethnographers undertake, which are “almost entirely obscured by the form of their products.” For maintenance, as for design and ethnography, the final products “receive most of the attention from those who consume them” (Murphy and Marcus 2013, 258). Yet there is a surplus contained in the seemingly invisible labor of maintenance.
For Latina and Latino immigrant gardeners, maintenance also means mantenimiento, a practice of organizing days into routes (rutas) and labor sites into divisions of labor shaped by differences in legal status, ethnicity, age, and ability between gardening company owners and their ayudantes or peónes (hired helpers). Mantenimiento reveals a practice of working around the designs of affluent gated neighborhoods, congested Southern California highways, imperatives of state exclusion, and the demands of homeowners and their plants. Mantenimiento challenges the naturalization of racialized and gendered labor, which forecloses the possibility of certain subjects being represented and casts laborers’ repeated reworkings as exacting and skilled labor.
Maintenance is the constant repetition of life-creating labor. As Kalindi Vora (2015) notes, reproductive and affective labor also contains traces of workers’ life activity that, although alienated from the laborers’ social world in order to enrich the lives of others, may retain a collection of stories and affective connections that happen in the service of others’ needs and that, for gardeners and domestic workers, occur in homes designed for others. Sometimes laborers take in excess of the demands of their labor, whether this occurs in the form of a gardener taking a botón of a succulent to reshape the landscape of their own or a domestic worker building a bond with an employer’s child; mantenimiento is attuned to the life that occurs in places where it is said not to exist.
My interest in maintenance as a concept that raises questions about ethnography and design arises from my experiences as a gardener and longtime manager of a small gardening company in Orange County. As a researcher, the parallels between my own repeated practices of maintenance labor and the repeated practices I employ in representing gardening laborers’ sociality are tethered to laborers’ careful design of their labor and lives.
Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette. 2014. Paradise Transplanted: Migration and the Making of California Gardens. Oakland: University of California Press.
Murphy, Keith M. and George E. Marcus. 2013. “Epilogue: Ethnography and Design, Ethnography in Design . . . Ethnography by Design.” In Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, edited by Wendy Gunn, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, 251–68. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Visweswaran, Kamala. 1994. Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Vora, Kalindi. 2015. Life Support: Biocapital and the New History of Outsourced Labor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.