Guest post by Meg Santisi
Marc Fischer and Brett Bloom are not going to be at Expo, Chicago’s huge international art fair on Navy Pier. Instead, they’ll be down the street, operating a small publishing house as part of A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Practice, opening Sept 19th at SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries. Curated by Mary Jane Jacob, the exhibit traces a history of Chicago’s long engagement with social art practices from the 1800s to today, with a series of newly commissioned works.
Inside the exhibit, Temporary Services have built a fully operational publishing platform, an installation they’ve titled Publishing Clearing House. Evoking banking and financial surpluses as well the DIY spirit of giving stuff away for free, Publishing Clearing House will feature newly minted artists books written by artists, activists, lone archivists, amateur photographers as well as Marc and Brett themselves.
I sat down with Marc and Brett during their install to discuss their involvement with the exhibit, their relationship to social practices and publishing archives, and what the future might have in store for Temporary Services.
Meg Santisi: To start off, who is Temporary Services in their most current formation?
Brett Bloom: I’m Brett Bloom, and this guy sitting right here is Marc Fischer. It’s the two of us currently working as Temporary Services. Although in the past it’s been as many as seven people, and for most of our history Salem Collo-Julin was working with us, right now it’s the two of us. We started here in Chicago since 1998, and have been working together since then.
For this project we are collaborating with a ton of other people outside of our group, which is a common thing. Individuals, groups, activist organizations, exhibition spaces – a variety of different things.
Marc Fischer: One of the earliest ways we’ve worked is to create a kind of creative structure that contains the work of other people, so this project is very much in keeping with past projects where we, in this case literally, create something like a house or a hut from which about 15 new publications will be created and then move out beyond the exhibit. One of the intense limitations of a space like this is that it’s so unknown to so many people in the city. So a big challenge for us was to figure out how to do something that was social beyond the pre-existing or current audience of the gallery and that would have a life beyond the three-month duration of the exhibit. The creative distribution of work by ourselves and others that we feel deserves an expanded audience is something we’ve always been obsessed with and publications are a particularly cheap and effective way of making many, many copies of things, at least a few hundred copies of each publication, in some cases 1,000 is more typical for us, so it can go other places, in Europe in libraries, like Harold Washington Library down the street. So we are always thinking of what exhibits can do beyond their short term.
BB: Yeah, it’s to create surpluses out of the situation we are given – an archive of material surpluses – as well as social and political surpluses. In this case we have 15 publications and roughly 1,000 copies of each. We have published over 102 publications under our own imprint, Half Letter Press, which started in 2008 for publishing offset 4-color publications, sometimes our own, sometimes those of other people. So, yeah, as Marc was saying, it’s important for us to take an opportunity like this in a show that will have a nice amount of visibility and that’s well resourced, to share it with these large communities we are a part of, and that intersect with a variety of concerns that we have. We wrote recently that publications are this sort of social, spatial, and political currency, and we really use them in this way, to activate a bunch of different subject matters and audiences.
MS: And so what kind of topics are being addressed in the publications coming out of Publishing Clearing House?
MF: Well there’s one publication by a group who, because of the sensitivity of the materials they are working with, don’t want to be named. But the other authors one of them is Sarah Ross, but there are multiple others, consisting of both artists and teachers, as well as people in prison who are doing these writings about time and what different types of time structures exist for in prison. So there’s writing and also a creation of timelines talking about the movement of time. Melinda Fries who formerly did the artists web project called AUSGANG (ausgang.com) for many years, is doing a booklet which is also kind of a map and walking tour about a riot, a racially motivated riot, that took place in 1919 in the Back of the Yards area. So there’s some fairly far distant Chicago history.
MS: Not dissimilar to Paul Durica’s audio tour for the exhibit, which is also a nod to far-reaching Chicago history as well as the present moment.
MF: Yeah his work also taps into those more obscure local histories.
BB: There’s another publication by Tracy Drake and Sharon Irish about a cartoonist for the Chicago Defender in the 1930s and 40s named Jay Jackson who was depicting the really violent racial segregation that existed in this city – I mean it still exists in this city – and these cartoons make it so explicitly absurd. They are pretty powerful cartoons. Tracy is an historian and Sharon is an art historian and they collaborated on this publication together. I think there will be a lot of unearthing, or reflecting on, or pulling into the present, some of these deep histories of the city, and how it influences the various ways in which people work that are included in this exhibition.
MF: There are also some people we’ve invited that are based in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana so the Midwestern region. Stephen Perkins is writing a ten-year history of a space that his family started in their spare bathroom, called WC Gallery, to deal with just the complete lack of space for experimental, or political, or just weird art culture in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He administered the space for a long time and he goes over each exhibit and the issues they brought up.
MS: So did you keep the publications decidedly local to the Midwest?
BB: I mean so many people have a connection to this city, they work in the city or continue to work in the city, and they sort of socially engage with it in some capacity. So the stuff we chose didn’t necessarily have to deal with that, but it was important that we had some connection to the Midwest or to the region. There’s a lot of amazing stuff being made here, and we tapped into that. The audience for this will be quite a large international audience, so we [want to] push some of this art further into the world.
MS: And so Brett, you are based out Copenhagen. How often do you get to work in Chicago?
BB: At least once a year. I’ve been here a lot for this [the Proximity of Consciousness exhibit] maybe five or six times? Many trips for this project in particular.
MF: Which is an unusual luxury for us, and for our way of working.
MS: So you guys are you usually collaborating over the internet?
MF: Well, we come in for the installation, sometimes one of us sometimes both of us, and you know the return visits for site research. Mary Jane Jacob and all have been great –
BB: They’ve really taken great care of us.
MF: They value a slower process. I mean there’s been other projects where we were invited just two or three months in advance and we were expected to produce, well, a miracle (laughs) with not nearly as much time or money.
MS: And it seems like Mary Jane has done something really smart, which is to realize that for all the exhibitors involved there are differing relationships between created objects and the social aspects of their work. The challenge seems to be how to best represent a socially engaged practice inside of a contained space, and what objects best represent those practices.
MF: Yeah and that’s something we struggled with for a long time. It’s a hard situation. I mean I think we felt that if we tried to do everything outside the exhibit, then people who wandered into the gallery, where there was nothing to look at, would get frustrated. Or if the thing terminates within the exhibit, then [we] would get frustrated that maybe we didn’t reach as many people as we possibly could have, or that we made it too much for a school’s audience or something. I think there are many people who teach here that use this as a teaching opportunity for their students, which is exciting of course, but Chicago is a really diverse place. I mean I teach too, and my students six blocks down the street don’t know that this place exists. So that’s a concern, you know.
MS: And that touches on something I love about you guys. For me personally I’m really interested in examining gentrification, especially the ways in which artists gets lumped into a narrative about gentrification. And your practice, in my opinion, has always sought to counteract artist-led gentrification by assimilating or quietly inserting yourself within each neighborhood you’ve worked from. For example, I’ve heard that one of the reasons you chose the name Temporary Services was to blend with your neighboring storefronts on Milwaukee Ave. Same with Mess Hall in Rogers Park.
BB: Yeah and you know you train as an artist and you immediately have a kind of access and class status, but you also have a certain kind of poverty. Especially if you work with explicitly non-commercial or anti-commercial work. So at that beginning point we were in this very precarious place, I mean federal funding for experimental exhibition spaces, which had been nationwide – that collapsed right when we came out. We wanted to do experimental work, so we were in this very precarious place where there was no infrastructure. So it kind of made sense to see ourselves, as we still do, in relationship to people who were struggling to survive in some capacity. It made for a really ambiguous relationship as to what the hell was going on in our space. Mess Hall maybe did this way better in terms of pulling all kinds of different groups of people [together]. Like radically different groups of people would show up depending on what was being presented at that space. We didn’t learn how to do that until much later, but it was definitely an idea at the beginning, to have conversations with people that will give you unfiltered feedback. People wouldn’t necessarily see what you were doing as art and they would tell you pretty quickly. And you learn an immense amount about what you are up to, how people see it, whether it’s relevant, or whether it’s a throw-away. It was good training for us.
MS: Do you work from a specific space now?
MF: The basement of my house. (laughs)
BB: We only had a shared workspace for a few months really. At Northwestern, a dedicated studio, but we work mostly on-site and that is our shared workspace.
MS: Your work has a lot to do with the formation of archives and the voices they do or do not include. Often you work features narratives that are left out or ignored by more institutionalized archives. I’m thinking of some of projects like The Library Project, Prisoners’ Inventions, or more recently Marc’s work on Public Collectors. I’m wondering if you can speak to how the archives become activated in your work, or how archives can become living exhibits.
MF: Well it certainly helps if there are people who maintain archives that feel some kind of connection with that archive, and to the materials they are saving. They activate that stuff by knowing enough and being able to guide someone to it. We’ve benefitted enormously from Doro Boehme at the Joan Flasch Artist Book’s Collection, because we’ve known her throughout the entire time we’ve been a group. I mean we could give them everything but if they never bring those publications out or show them to students when classes visit, then how much does that help? But almost every time I go in to drop off stuff to her [Doro], I see something of ours sitting on a table waiting to be looked at by a visiting student or group. So we’ve benefitted enormously from people who advocate for our work. Also our materials are included in Harold Washington Library, if anyone wants to look at our stuff. At Harold Washington the value is more that they are willing to care for and preserve these things, rather than actually direct people to them.
Then there are those people’s practices that we really admire, but maybe they are not the best at putting themselves forward, and we are going to bug them until they make something. One of the people we invited for this is Oscar Arriola (https://www.flickr.com/photos/fotoflow/) who has been an incredible fixture of documenting a million things around the city. He’s in some publications but not a lot. He has a very active flickr account and we wanted to see him leave more of a paper trail.
MS: Have you ever come across anyone who has not wanted to be archived or published about?
MF: For the most part people want to have a printed thing made. There are people who, for whatever reason, haven’t had much printed, like the group Lucky Pierre (http://www.luckypierre.org/) doesn’t have a ton of publications, and when we invited them they were great. We knocked it out in three weeks, and it was exciting to them, and it was exciting to us to be able to distribute. But you know, on their own, they’d probably find something more pressing to do.
BB: It’s a way to have your work circulate in all these different ways and at different volumes. We often give stacks of our publications over to curators or museums and that can have a tremendous impact, to just give somebody ten years worth of publications. It opens things up in a way. It’s a way to get our ideas out there.
MF: It’s really rare to get the kinds of invitations where someone has developed an exceptionally creative strategy for disseminating someone else’s work. Because usually it will just be in a space, it will be up for a month, we ship them our stuff, they ship it back to us. Pretty much always when someone is starting a new and more interesting kind of library we’ll send them things if they ask. There’s a project in New York, Petrella’s Imports, where they are using an old fashioned newsstand to sell artist books, just like any other kind of periodical. So someone’s going to put themselves out in public and have those awkward conversations all day long, like, ‘Don’t you have ESPN magazine? What is this artist shit?’ Or similarly there was a project in Chicago called SOUND CANOPY. The artist M.W. Burns working with Experimental Sound Studio, [played] people’s sound art through speakers under a scaffold. The results were really mixed, and it was hard to deal with the level of noise in the Loop, so during the day it would be hard to hear, and at night it would be really loud, but the opportunity to think about a sound piece for anyone was exciting. When we organized [the Library Project] you know, adding books by artists to the Harold Washington Library collection without permission, there were a couple of people who just didn’t respond, but I don’t think there was anyone who actively said no. Everybody said yes, and gave us multiple copies of their books, and they were really generous about it, because who wouldn’t want to extend the reach of their work? Even if we couldn’t guarantee that the books would stay there.
MS: How well do you know the other exhibitors in the A Proximity of Consciousness exhibit? Have you discovered or known about the connections between all of your work?
BB: Almost all the people we know quite well.
MF: It’s also really fantastic that everything is a new project. I mean, it’s all commissioned, which is extremely uncommon.
BB: Some of these people we know quite well from the Chicago community and others have intersected with it. Yeah and most of the people we have worked with multiple times or have had years of conversations with.
MF: Or been in exhibits with. We’ve had many exhibits now with [Michael] Rakowitz.
BB: Or Pablo [Helguera] helped bring us to MoMA to talk. We remember doing actions out on the street in the 90s with Laurie Jo, so there are some nice histories in this place. Dan Peterman is a mentor of mine.
MS: So it’s great that this exhibit is not just about everyone as individuals but you all as a community as well.
MF: In Chicago, people are so accessible. That’s the nature of this city.
BB: Also this work has had a tremendous impact, but the literature that has been written around socially engaged practices has really focused on other narratives, and other places, but Chicago has had tremendous impact. Because it is far from the markets, [so] people just kind of do things. I think we come out of that culture of just doing things. The stuff shows up in New York or London in different ways. It’s way more of a spectacle because it has to compete in a different kind of a way. It’s really nice that all this care and attention has been given to this work, and this city that really deserves a lot more credit. These conversations and this way of working have been developing on top of things happening in the 1960s, the 1930s, even the 1800s, proving there’s a continuity that’s being drawn out here. It’s not just some easy to market thing. Some people have turned it into that, taking the social aspects and making them into spectacles, and making a lot of money. But this work didn’t start from that place, it didn’t start so that people could make, like, Social Practices MA’s, all those kinds of things. It started out of really basic needs, out of making an experimental culture in a tough place and a tough economy.
MS: So what kind of services are next for Temporary Services? Any continuations of Publishing Clearing House work after this exhibit closes?
MF: We definitely [have extended] our capabilities as far publishing. There was enough of a budget to buy a Risograph printer so we’ll probably be starting a new chapter in our publishing. We also keep adding to this library of flat packable furniture that can be used to make other spaces. There’s a book fair coming up in Berlin, there’s an exhibit in Kansas City that we’ll probably be taking part in November. It’s like the second things are done we always find multiple homes for the work.
Temporary Services is included in Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action from September 20 – December 20, 2014 at Sullivan Galleries, 33 S. State St., 7th Floor. The exhibition also includes projects by Jim Duignan, Paul Durica, Pablo Helguera, J. Morgan Puett, Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, Dan Peterman, Michael Rakowitz, Laurie Jo Reynolds, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Publications by Oscar Arriola, Cultural ReProducers, Tracy Drake & Sharon Irish, Melinda Fries, Wes Janz, Kaitlin Kostus, Nicolas Lampert, Dylan Miner, Stephen Perkins, Prison Neighborhood Art Project, Project NIA, Anthony Rayson / South Chicago ABC Zine Distro, Dan S. Wang and George Wietor / Issue Press.
Meg Santisi is a Chicago-based writer and artist. See more of her work at www.megsantisi.com.