“The public will tell you that your ideas are working or not. Friendly audiences go to art openings; these people tell you that you’re great, congratulations, and let’s go have a glass of wine. But I wanted more critical engagement.”—Brett Bloom
Brett Bloom + Marc Fischer: Co-Founders Temporary Services / Chicago IL + Copenhagen DK
“the public will tell you that your ideas are working or not. friendly audiences go to art openings; these people tell you that you’re great, congratulations, and let’s go have a glass of wine. but i wanted more critical engagement.”—brett bloom
What led to collaborating together?
Marc:Temporary Services started in 1998. At the time, all of the members were living in Chicago. Brett and I met in grad school, and others met through the work we were doing. Chicago, at the time, did not have a lot of opportunities to work in an experimental way. Some of the long-running not-for-profit spaces had recently closed. Most of the gallery work that existed was in the form of commercial galleries, which wasn’t appealing to us. We were looking for ways to expand the audience of experimental culture by doing things that were more event-based. The group started in a very small storefront space, and publishing was incorporated from the very beginning when we made a free booklet for our first exhibition. A booklet is nicer to give away than a postcard or a press release. Publishing became an ongoing part of what we do, in tandem with our other creative work.
Brett: Our community emerged from the same set of needs. Many places were part of a nationwide network of alternative spaces that started in the ’70s and were funded by the national government. From the dramatic right-wing turn of Reagan onward, we suffered a massive defunding of those spaces. We had a desire for our art to function in really different ways than allowed by the traditional gallery system. We wanted to build a culture that followed its own terms and its own logic. There aren’t many avenues for open-ended thinking. We were part of a robust community of people across the city. There were an enormous number of things happening. The turn of the millennium was an exciting time to be in Chicago.
courtesy of ts
Why not keep everybody together in Chicago?
Brett: We got old. Jobs, families—life just got complicated. We were three people until very recently; Salem moved and left the group to be with a partner. I moved to Denmark for a job, and Marc is holding down the fort in Chicago for us. We all used to live on the same street, within walking distance of one another, but we mainly just emailed and called each other all day long. And we would see each other on the weekends. We were already used to being apart in a way.
Do you still meet up to run projects?
Marc: We see each other at least a few times a year. Certain aspects of our work are harder to manage long distance than others, but our publishing has always consisted of files and layouts and JPEGs and PDFs being passed back and forth. Fortunately, as we have grown further apart geographically, technology has expanded to do this work from a distance.
Brett: We are 16 years into this, so we know how to deal with problems, conflicts, and pressures of life outside the control of the group. We have been through all of that. We still have to do maintenance on the group. Living in Copenhagen, I can’t see what Marc is doing on a daily basis. I don’t know what he is going through, unless he shares that and vice versa. Once in a while, we have to take the time to check in, and see where each other’s at. We have to overtly state when we are going to be occupied with other things, a chore that you wouldn’t have to do if you were living near each other in the same city. We have spent an enormous amount of time taking care of that. It has been necessary.
Can you describe the various running ventures of Temporary Services?
Marc: Temporary Services started first. Half Letter Press organically grew out of that in 2008. Temporary Services has never had any kind of designation. We are not a not-for-profit. We are not an LLC. We are not a partnership. We have always defined ourselves as a group without hierarchy. There is no official structure. We received a grant that was enough money to publish our first book in 2008. We could have either given that money to a pre-existing publisher and let them make our book for us, or we could try doing it ourselves and create a business for it, which would not only handle that book, but other future publications. Usually, we give them away for free during exhibits, but copies that are left over are often cheaply sold online through the site we created. We also distribute and sell works by various friends and allies who are also self-publishers, as a way of supporting the culture and community that we care about.
Soft Reliance Library
courtesy of ts
Brett: We helped co-found an experimental cultural center called Mess Hall, with Temporary Services and five other people. It was donated to the group of people running it, and we were only involved for a certain period of time. We are interested in all kinds of collaboration and figuring out different ways of working with other people, ourselves included, by putting our group into a larger configuration. We pull in people to work with us from outside of the group for periods of time. We like the flexibility that the group offers. It can become a business if it needs to solidify. It can function as a cultural center if it needs to.
We are in Chicago now setting up a physical printshop as a place for socializing, bookmaking, and printmaking. We can have lectures and discourse and a variety of efforts by 15 different groups of people. We champion these collaborative ways of working, and it can lead us into a wide range of relationships and partners.
Marc: In between all of this, there are dozens and dozens of specific projects and exhibitions; there is a lot of detail there. With self-publishing and doing this design work ourselves, we have never worked with a commercial gallery. It has been a way to tell the story of our work, sometimes only eight pages at a time, but in our own words, to provide accountability for what we do and not expect that someone else will describe our practice for us. We have been fortunate in the enormous amount of press that we have gotten over the years, but a lot of what has been written is heavily derived from that we have written ourselves. Without doing this work, there would be no paper trail, no way of recording the history of so much of the stuff.
How much of that narrative comes from internal dialogue?
Marc: There is a ton of internal emailing, which has been the mechanics of how we work. We could make an encyclopedia, or three, out of that. The writing that we do is always collaborative.
Brett: We don’t deliberately position ourselves in some way. We are so opinionated that that falls out of us easily. It’s the editing process that cleans it up and makes it interesting for somebody else to read. I might pre-edit it myself, but Marc always surprises me. It has been 16 years of this, but there are still surprise responses in the text that will trigger a reaction from Marc, opening a new way of thinking that then pushes me. It is a process that we trust.
It can be nerve-racking at times, when you want to make a really specific point. Then the process becomes really unimportant because you work through it. It isn’t like writing your own stuff at all; you have to give over to this process. It is truly generative. We have no interest in making position papers. I think that you would get that just from the text immediately. We try to de-jargon our text, and make it as minimally academic as possible. At one point, we were trying to write to at a 9th or 10th grade level.
What makes you want to work with a particular external collaborator?
Marc: As of right now, we are making about 15 new publications. Many of the people we invite have a long history of doing their own work. Some of them are people we have worked with before and want to revisit the pleasures and experience of that collaboration. It becomes a way of spending time with those people and adding interest and joy to our lives. Then there are people who we have never worked with, but we have been following what they do, and we want to see what that collaboration is like.
Brett: Often, it is just some kind of conversation that really resonates between us, and it will turn into an invitation to do something.
Marc: We are not working with anyone because we expect that our collaboration will be monetarily profitable.
What makes publishing and writing great tools for collaboration?
Brett: It gets us looking and thinking about different possibilities. It’s about the dialogue. It is about us working anti-commercially, in many ways. In the US, the market dominates, so it dominates the narrative around contemporary practice, so much so, that if you don’t engage it, you don’t get access to resources that everybody should have access to, like public funding and even private funding. There are a lot of instances where our commercial system is a gatekeeper to these resources.
We have been able to get visibility with our publishing. Publishing is a way to articulate our values as a group: cultural, political, and economic. The publishing allows us to engage other communities outside of artistic discourse, which is really critical for our intellectual health and survival. The artistic discourse that we find ourselves in, is often very dull, impoverished, and narrow. We find creativity in so many places, that publishing is something that people don’t really question. They say, “Oh you want to make a book? Okay, great. I’m up to contributing something for your book.” It kind of gives them access to talking to people.
Marc: There are so many artists that depend only on websites to chart the entire evolution of their work. Many people don’t have big, slick monographs of what they have done over the years. If someone stops paying the web hosting bill, or if someone dies, then that record vanishes.
Do you mostly write about existing work, or write as process for creating new work?
Marc: Writing is usually in tandem with generating the work, or it is the work. Early on, a lot of our writing was as exhibition guides. At first, everything was self-initiated, but then we started being invited to do things in other places. A lot of times, we were invited to do something new. The first thing we do is articulate to someone else what we want to make, or what kind of exhibit that we want to have, or what kind of project we want to initiate. Sometimes that is where the writing starts: it’s just trying to tell someone, (and figure out for ourselves), what we are interested in doing. Sometimes that becomes a catalyst for a much longer piece of writing. We realized that if we conceived our writing differently, then the publications could have a standalone function apart from the exhibit, and they could still be useful in some way. You could sell them at a bookstore or at an artist book fair.
How did you decide you wanted to work with each other?
Brett: We didn’t get along so well in grad school. There was no animosity, but I didn’t really care for the things that Marc was painting, and I’m sure he didn’t give a shit about what I was painting. We didn’t start working together until two years after grad school. I was making these publications that could be distributed through this network of free newspaper dispensers that I had set up. We began talking, and we actually had an enormous amount in common, music especially. I started Temporary Services at a small storefront that I was living in. We were interested in getting out of exhibition spaces and into public spaces where you can get direct feedback for your work. The public will tell you that your ideas are working or not. Friendly audiences go to art openings; these people tell you that you’re great, congratulations, and let’s go have a glass of wine. But I wanted more critical engagement. We formalized the collaboration after a year of making these experimental exhibition spaces. We changed our identity with each exhibition. We longed to have a much more fluid and experimental presence in the city.
Marc: There was not a lot of diversity in the art community in Chicago. Even at the not-for-profit spaces, almost everyone is college-educated or in the process of becoming college-educated. You also don’t see a lot of people younger than a certain range because of the hours of openings. There is one language that’s spoken. We tried things like having events in the morning or on off days. All of the people that we have worked with were also interested in testing where things could go and how they would be found.
Does collaboration lend itself to the public sphere
Marc: It is more a question of whether anyone is being credited for their input. There are successful artists with a whole team of people making their work. You would be stupid to have an exhibit and not consult the experience of the people that help install the work. When we write something, it is constantly looked at by people outside of the group. I don’t know that there is a way to work that isn’t collaborative; there are just different degrees of it.
Brett: We advocate moving your feet through all different kinds of arenas, not exclusively working in the public and definitely not working exclusively with an institution. It’s stifling if the thinking stops within narrow confines of modernist distribution. 99% of artists stop there, and it’s tedious most of the time. Art should be a whole hell of a lot more interesting.
What have you learned about working with each other?
Brett: It is hugely important to create structures that take care of each other, that recognize the different demands, the different personalities, the different sensibilities, the different paces at which people work, and how that affects the collaborative effort.
Everything in school is set up against collaboration; even collaborative classes still feed into a system that produces individual degrees or individual consumers of education. We are stuck in the 1950s, even with this explosion of socially engaged art. Finding ways to deal with conflict and mitigating it, and finding healthy ways of reflecting everybody’s needs within a group by building these kinds of structures, is hugely important. We didn’t start out that way initially, and we ended up alienating people that we really cared about. It is a stupid thing to have to go through, but when there are no guidelines, there is no culture to tap into. There is no pedagogy that produces these other ways of working.
Marc: Almost all of my students ask if they will get opportunities to work collaboratively with their peers in other classes. Even something very basic, like telling them that any assignment throughout the entire semester can be done collaboratively, is helpful. You can work with people outside of the class and bring them to the discussion of the work. A lot of people are not encouraged to even try that in their education.