Temporary Services, Art Work: A National Conversation About Art, Labor, And Economics, 2009, exhibition and nationally distributed newspaper

For the last 15 years artist group Temporary Services has created one-of-a-kind publications to address social issues and inspire counter narratives

by Troy Pieper (MA 2015)

Social practice, participatory art, collaborative art. Socially engaged art has been around for a long time, just not with labels like these. But today it is enjoying a bit of a moment. Between the creative activism of the Occupy movement and the decadence of the commercial art world, the idea of art with a social mission is growing in popularity.

Few artists' groups have practiced in this way longer than Temporary Services, a loose troop that came together in Chicago in the late 1990s. "There's something really powerful about the social interaction and cohesion that the work we do allows you to experience," says co-founder Brett Bloom. Along with Marc Fischer and others, the group has done a range of projects over the years—most accompanied by a publication.

This fall Temporary Services will undertake one of 10 new projects in A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action, an exhibition at SAIC's Sullivan Galleries that explores and expands Chicago's role in the development of social practice. Temporary Services is collaborating with a number of Chicago and Midwestern artists, activists, scholars and fellow publishers, to put together publications in Publishing Clearing House, a makeshift print shop in a 39-by-20-foot space within the gallery. "Printing and publishing have been powerful tools for us over the years," says Bloom, a former SAIC faculty member. "It's very much about the social aspects behind book making being present and available for the general public and also for ourselves." The shop will host artist talks, readings, meetings, all the booklets displayed in process, and book launches.

The 20 publications in the works for Publishing Clearing House are about matters that Bloom says do not receive a lot of consideration. One will be conversations with people impacted by gun violence in Chicago; another will document art projects organized with inmates in an Illinois prison; and another will discuss issues around artists having children and the economic and institutional barriers to making art. The list of authors includes: Kaitlin Kostus, Oscar Arriola, Sharon Irish, Melinda Fries, Wes Janz, Anthony Rayson, Stephen Perkins, Tracy Drake, and George Weitor, among others.

Among Temporary Services' most well-known projects is Prisoners' Inventions (2003–ongoing), which documents the ingenuity of prisoners coping with the harsh realities of a maximum security prison. Through drawings by Angelo, an inmate at a Southern California prison and self-taught artist, the project detailed numerous inventions such as tattoo guns made with Walkman motors, cigarette lighters made from hotpots, homemade condoms, and salt- and pepper-shaker chess sets.

The two-year collaboration with Angelo culminated in an immersive exhibition that traveled around the country and included re-creations of the inventions displayed along side Angelo's drawings, a book of his drawings, a life-size replica of his prison cell, videos showing how the objects were made, and a resource library. "The project kind of took over our lives for a while. It was a watershed moment for us," says Bloom.


Temporary Services, Publishing Clearing House, 2014, part of the Sullivan Galleries exhibition, A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action


Temporary Services took on a large-scale project in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that sparked a discussion about how that event was impacting artist communities around the country. "It seemed like a good time to talk about the kinds of infrastructure and support that there are for artists," Bloom comments. Temporary Services gathered writings and reports from artists in several regions of the US about how the crisis was affecting artists living there in addition to historical accounts of artist struggles in the 1930s and '60s, a timeline of artist projects addressing economic issues, critical essays, new ideas for building up different infrastructure, and more. Temporary Services published the resulting collection, Art Work: a National Conversation About Art, Labor, and Economics (2008), and distributed it in all 50 states, in nearly 100 cities. The publication spawned a community of its own, connecting artists around the country through more writings, lectures, and other events.  

Behind these and many other projects (Temporary Services has published more than 100 titles), says Bloom, is a constant striving to "create a space for this culture of artists, who may be on the margins, for their work or ideas. We often find ourselves in a place where we publish things that aren't going to have a popular audience or wide distribution." They advocate for artists picking up publishing as a way of working and distributing their ideas. With the rise of online publishing, Bloom notes that Temporary Services tries to reflect "a worldwide return to making publications, with unbelievable variation, and what this tells us about the persistence of books." 

Temporary Services published, for instance, 100 Actions for Chicago Torture Justice in 2012 by Lucky Pierre, a group that "creates structures for engagement with various publics" through writing, performance, and visual forms. "It was a text we really loved, and we thought that if a person didn't seek them out online, they would never see it," Fischer says. Number 19 is "Present an over-sized novelty check in the amount of $1,278.27 to a torture survivor and ask them if it was worth it. Number 20: Make a list of all the people from whom you require complete obedience. Make a list of all the people you are required to obey completely. Compare the lengths of the two lists. Reverse-categorize. "We thought it would have quite a bit of power as a publication that you can hand to someone as this physical thing."

A strong community exists at the intersection of art and politics and everyday life, Bloom notes, "and we spend a lot of time discussing the hidden social and political underpinnings of artistic discourse, but we quickly decided that all art is political." In places like art schools and museums, he says, there are attitudes that art has to be a certain way, or it pushes at the boundaries of what is considered art. "We don't believe we should spend much time thinking about that question."

Fischer acknowledges that work organized around a principle may need a way to be explained, "but that's someone else's problem. We don't belabor the question of whether what we do is art. People seem to recognize our work as creatively necessary. If someone engages with the ideas more easily because we're not talking about art, that's fine."

Truly, there is no one way of experiencing culture. Each person brings a unique set of interpretations to a cultural experience, and Temporary Services wants to validate those interpretations. That, says Bloom, produces "way more interesting conversations." 


Temporary Services, Socialized Media–Designated Drivers, Interactive Records, and a Booklet Cloud, 2013, University Galleries, Texas State University San Marco