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Creative Chaos: Inside the activist art of Temporary Services

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By Anthony Elms

In public events, posters, exhibitions, demonstrations, objects, discussions and presentations, Temporary Services has been responsible for some of the most engaging and chaotic art actions to come out of Chicago in recent memory. Furthermore, they have tried to demonstrate how collaboration is the most active noun in the English language. They refuse to work in commercial galleries, but will work in just about any other venue and location you can conceive of.

For example, on March 19, 2001, Temporary Services’ “The Library Project” opened at their self-run space. On the walls were posters promoting reading; instead of the usual cheap wine or beer there were Dixie cups and jugs of water, and instead of the usual chitchat, the attendees were engrossed with a large table littered with books. While slightly unusual for an exhibition opening, the real work was just beginning. Temporary Services had arranged for more than 100 books to be donated by artists. Most of the books were conventionally produced hardcover or paperbacks and some not so—a book that opened out into a wearable suit, a photo album, a cast book made of concrete. All titles had been given call numbers, and little by little snuck onto shelves throughout Harold Washington Library. As soon as someone tried to borrow a surreptitiously added volume from the library, any librarian who entered the book into the database after discovering the title had no barcode became an unwitting collaborator. And so the project played out over months, one book at a time. Titles not generally collected by the library (because of interest, funds or format, or if collected, relegated to rare-book holdings) became part of the library collection, avoiding red tape, committee selection and concern for cost, preciousness or value. Eventually, a sharp librarian caught on and began collecting the found volumes and cataloging them as one collection. “The Library Project” was generous if cantankerous, fugitive, inquisitive, slapdash, caring, caustic, absurdly fun, intrinsically interactive, but dispersed in a manner that makes it hard to achieve an overarching view. And that in a nutshell describes Temporary Services.

Temporary Services is currently Brett Bloom, Marc Fischer and Salem Collo-Julin. On December 5 at Co-Prosperity Sphere, the group celebrates the release of its book, “Public Phenomena,” an assortment of hundreds of snapshots documenting all sorts of pedestrian creativity from parking-place savers to “fence-eating trees”; as well as the release of two new booklets: one an interview with members of Texas punk band The Dicks, the other a conversation with Austin-based musician and artist Tim Kerr. “Public Phenomena” is printed by Temporary Services’ newly inaugurated publishing imprint and online store Half Letter Press. But the big news is not the new publications, not even the new imprint and store; after all Temporary Services has generated eighty-three booklets or books, most self-published. The big news, and one reason not to miss this event, is that Temporary Services will be celebrating its tenth anniversary. There will be music by The Velcro Lewis Group and others, publications galore, slideshows and in true Temporary Services fashion, food and further surprises.

It would be unethical for me to not mention that I am anything but an impartial observer to Temporary Services’ history. I met Brett and Marc at the University of Chicago. We were all painters at the time (yes, incriminating evidence exists and yes I know where to find it). Sometime around 1996 I met Salem through Brett. In early 1998 when Brett was readying Temporary Services as a storefront at 2890 North Milwaukee, he asked me to be a partner. I gave a resounding “no,” in what remains either one of my brightest or dumbest moves.

It was not long after formation that Temporary Services (TS) moved beyond the original storefront (1998-1999), spilled out into the public sphere, landed for a time in an office space at 202 South State (2000-2001) and then on to the Post Office Box and Web site that act as the only consistent bases for Temporary Services today. One result of this transformation is that the moniker changed from the name of a space for activity to the name of a group of individuals and set of activities.

In light of the upcoming anniversary and book release, it seemed time to reacquaint myself on a base level with three people I see on a fairly regularly basis, ask some basic questions I have not heard them answer for at least four years, and learn how they define their practice today. For example, how did the current group see the change from a situation where one was asked by Brett to contribute projects for the nascent Temporary Services to a group with equal members? All responses to my questions were written together by the group.

“There was a direct conscious decision to make a group and to move away from running an ‘alternative art space.’ We found the limits to this way of working really rapidly. TS could have continued indefinitely in that mode and would have been kind of interesting, but it wasn’t pushing things as far as we wanted.

The move wasn’t hard. We all were working more or less as a group over the course of three or so years and it was easy to make this relationship more formal. Everyone who is involved in the group now had participated in some way since the first exhibition—either as an included artist or someone who helped behind the scenes.

The coherence of a group creates stronger ties and commitments. We have become more like a family with deep responsibilities to one another and to a shared creative endeavor.”

Over the course of this transformation I, like many others, got pulled into Temporary Services’ actions. I organized a project for the Temporary Services storefront, contributed as an artist to several projects initiated by Temporary Services, was the organizing contact for projects that have included Brett, Marc or Salem as individuals at other institutions, collaborated with Marc on projects, disagreed passionately with all of them when given the chance, and in 2003, through the organization WhiteWalls, published the book “Prisoners’ Inventions” in collaboration with Temporary Services. Reflecting back on these events and activities, the best description for my relationship to Temporary Services might be as both active participant and hostile witness. In this I am not alone. During the transition from a storefront to a group, four others passed through TS and dozens more contributed projects, ideas or labor. For a time, membership was fluid, but in 2002 TS solidified into the current trio.

Even as stable stewardship settled, TS didn’t stop collaborating with others, they simply appended the collaborator’s names. Projects would be credited to, for example, Angelo and Temporary Services, Brennan McGaffey with Temporary Services, Biggest Fags Ever (Rob Kelly and Zena Sakowski) and Temporary Services, etc. They have collaborated with other artists, writers, gardeners, actors, performers, passersby, prisoners, academics, activists and the homeless. Naturally, the question arises: What drove the change to keep a consistent roster, and if working with others, list them as additional collaborators rather than TS members?

We used to insist on Temporary Services being an umbrella for a more or less anonymous group of people. This caused many problems for us and created public misperceptions of the group (which were fueled by ignorance, racism, sexism and, more commonly, unfamiliarity with the way we make art).

One way of being explicitly clear about who was behind Temporary Services was to list our names. It is not because we want recognition as individuals, but to cut out the possibility that someone think that Temporary Services is only one of us while the others are just helpers.

We used to think—in the days when we were apt to call ourselves a collective—that growing the group was healthy for Temporary Services. We learned that this wasn’t necessarily the case and that once you add a few more people, you have to spend a lot more time taking care of the group over the work. At this point, we didn’t take care of the larger group in the ways we take care of each other now—and this means having conversations that can be uncomfortable about the power dynamics and problems we have relating to one another. We had a lot of romantic ideas about collectives and how to make work in groups. Those ideals are still there, but they are tempered by practical considerations and real efforts to keep our group healthy.

Adding additional people to the fold on a per project basis has been a great way for us to get other people included who are perhaps less recognized in the arts (or in some cases are not artists) and to learn how others work while we work with them. It also destabilizes our identity a little, creates a healthy kind of confusion, introduces curators and organizers to people they might not have included otherwise, and keeps the three of us from falling back on solutions that we might be inclined to repeat too often if everything we did drew only upon our own interests, skills and concerns.”

A telling story speaks to their commitment to the ethics of group organization: When Temporary Services was offered free storefront space soon after a mention of the group in a New York Times article, the members decided not to launch Temporary Services Location Mach 3. Rather they invited likeminded individuals to help program a multi-use space, Mess Hall. The space quickly morphed beyond the core group of TS, and beyond TS functioning as the lead organizers. Running since 2003, Mess Hall now counts fifteen “keyholders” who program free workshops, screenings, talks and exhibitions in the Rogers Park storefront. Around this same time, a frantic rhythm settled in for the TS group, and five years later this pace is well entrenched and shows no signs of abating. The three members don’t necessarily all travel to the numerous international Temporary Services exhibitions and events (sometimes due to monetary limitations of the host organizations). All began to reassert their individual practices. Each one at least doubled their individual collaborations with other individuals and groups. To hear them tell it:

“There is definitely an ebb and flow to how we work and whether or not we give all our energy to TS at one time or another. We think we are doing a lot more work now in general and we are all are giving a tremendous amount of time to TS. The demand for TS has increased significantly over the years. TS is limited in the kinds of things it does and the ideas it takes on. We all have concerns that are better addressed when we work by ourselves and in other configurations. The freedom to move back and forth has been a real strength that we have had to develop.

It is also an important outlet for us all to do things that are not TS. As the three of us have moved away from running Mess Hall and Mess Hall has added many new keyholders, this has also created a bit more time for members of Temporary Services to experiment outside of the group, as well as take on more work within the group.”

Still, over the last decade I sometimes have had a sense looking at Temporary Services projects and of thinking, “oh, that’s a Brett project, or that’s a Salem touch, or a Marc approach.” Is this a problem? Do they care if people read the individual personalities into the gestures?

“It isn’t an issue. You might be one of only a handful of people who can see this because we have all known you for so long.

In earlier projects there was a clearer division of labor or authorship and it was more common to see things like essays with an individual author’s name attached. Now most texts are written by all of us together and we only identify individual contributions in things like live interviews where multiple members are talking, or other situations where it gets confusing to use a group identity.

The group has to agree on everything that shows up as TS work, and we all have our hands in TS work. So, while one person brings ideas to the group that may be his/her obsession, we all have to agree on it and we end up working on everything. The degree to which we each work on every aspect varies a great deal based on the time we have or the level of interest. However, our practice is incredibly flexible and accommodating to individual and group concerns and an oscillation between them, and is why we have been able to stick together for so long. We also genuinely like working with each other and the challenges that it brings.”

Having known the individual members for longer than Temporary Services has existed, I continue to argue with Brett, geek-out over music with Marc and laugh about what probably shouldn’t be laughed about with Salem. The major change in my relationship with the group has been the fact that where once I often got contacted by people outside of Chicago asking me to tell them about Temporary Services, the group now works outside of Chicago, and the country, much more than they do in their hometown. Now I often find myself having to ask out-of-town friends to describe Temporary Services’ latest activities to me.

Marc and Salem both still live in Chicago, Brett currently resides downstate. So don’t miss the chance to see them together in the same place and at the same time. For the event at the Co-Prosperity Sphere everyone’s invited, and more to the point, everyone is asked to be involved. “Do-it-yourself motherfuckers.” This phrase, equal parts motivation, threat and promise, is written across a banner TS produced from melted plastic shopping bags. One constant with the group has been calling attention to the creativity that surrounds us everyday, with particular attention to practices that take the right to creativity as a given, and rewrite or trespass on any rules or barriers that seek to limit this fact. Recently they initiated a series, “Temporary Conversations,” where they interview people and groups they admire. This could lead one to interpreting the recent TS projects as more archival, focused on documenting other people and groups. The group made clear this was not a conscious move away from generating their own content toward a more documentary practice.

“We try to do both things and to actually alternate them so we don’t get bored or stuck too much in any one way of doing things. We are generally doing several projects simultaneously and it is hard to get a sense of this from outside the group.

The increased interest in interviewing, and shedding light on the work of others, has been a nice way for us to learn from people who have worked in groups for many more years than we have, as well as to present practices that don’t always get enough attention. For our next booklet we’ll be publishing a long interview with Jean Toche from Guerrilla Art Action Group. Jean is 75 years old, still angry, still fighting the good fight, and still working on the margins. He’s the pissed off kind of artist that we’ll all hopefully be in about forty years. It’s helpful for us to talk to him so we can learn where we might wind up!”

The party for Temporary Services’ tenth anniversary and the release of their book “Public Phenomena” takes place December 5 at Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219 S. Morgan, at 7:30pm-midnight. $5.

One Response to “Creative Chaos: Inside the activist art of Temporary Services”

  1. robdeadtech Says:

    Yay Temporary Services!

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