[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #8 in May 2009]
Temporary Services is Brett Bloom, Salem Collo-Julin and Marc Fischer. During the last ten years, they have persistently created art with concerns for generosity, cultural exchange, and artistic experimentation. They have developed and sustained a DIY/self-publishing approach, using resources thriftily and making their work available for free. They have published 84 booklets and carried out countless projects with countless collaborators in Chicago, the U.S. and internationally.
This past year Temporary Services launched Half Letter Press (HLP), a publishing imprint that is combined with an online store. The imprint publishes their work and the work of fellow artists. The online store is a hub to sell their work, as well as that of fellow cultural producers.
In February, I contacted Temporary Services to ask them if they would address the question of money in their art practice for this issue of AREA. I first asked them how their understanding of “free” has evolved now that they are engaging in monetary exchanges to sustain their work and the work of others. I then asked them to articulate the business model for HPL, in order to get a sense of how it was thought out, how it functions, and where it is going. —Jerome Grand
Free doesn’t just mean $0, it also means trying to set up relationships that aren’t based on monetary exchange. That was an important starting point for us. A big concern of Temporary Services’ work has long been to devise strategies that expand the audience for experimental art and culture—our own, as well as the work of others. We also try to work against some of the elitism that so frequently is a feature of the ways art is received by the public, and also lives uncomfortably in many of the “art worlds” that exist.
The commercial art market drains more creativity and freedom from artists than many are willing to admit. When you have to make work that participates in that system, you must conceive of work that you think someone else will buy, work that functions in art fairs, and work that galleries will support. This immediately shuts down a lot of avenues and experimentation.
Giving everything away for free was an initial step for us in rejecting a system of exploitation that we want nothing to do with. Unsurprisingly, few commercial galleries have any interest in dealing with artist groups—perhaps because the complications of group authorship contaminate the long-standing and commercially useful myth of the individual creative genius.
One early strategy toward creating new audiences was to, where possible, present our work in situations that does not cost money to attend such as free exhibition spaces and public spaces that can be used without permission. Another strategy has been to make informative publications like booklets and posters that can be taken away for free. These publications extend our work and ideas, or the work and ideas of others. In addition to being available at most exhibitions and events that include our work, these booklets are often given to students, made free for download on our website, exchanged with others when we travel, and generally used as an educational tool, a means of self-promotion and sometimes a tool for bartering with other self-publishers whose work we want to learn more about.
Creating multiple points of access to our work is one result of this strategy. There is also the creation of surplus—or of how people will see their own surplus and be willing to pool it—that exceed what exchanges of money can accomplish. There are so many unexplored and untapped potentials for building economies of generosity, some of which we mobilized by helping to start and run Mess Hall, an experimental cultural center in Chicago.
When we first started, we were spending quite a bit of our own money (and an enormous amount of our own unpaid labor) to create generous situations through self-initiated projects. We rented two spaces in Chicago (a storefront from December 1998 – September 1999 and an office from February 2000 – December 2002) for presenting exhibitions and projects and printed thousands of copies of free publications. Gradually we began to receive more invitations to do things in other places outside of Chicago that could provide a small budget for production (though not usually money for the labor that would go into producing the work).
These invitations often allowed us to produce free publications that viewers could take away during the exhibition or event. Often, after the exhibit ended, there would be extra copies of whatever we produced. Many more of these are also given away for free but we gradually began to sell them as well—usually for not more than what it costs to make them.
Those small monetary returns get further reduced when these booklets are sold through stores that take their own cut of the profits (usually 40-50%). With these small returns from selling our publications, we print new publications that we have had to pay for out of pocket, and we try to cover other expenses that come with our practice such as renting a storage space, paying for web hosting and renting a P.O. Box.
Ten years on, we are still donating the majority of the labor that goes into Temporary Services’ work. However we’ve increasingly been able to publish booklets, and finally our first self-published full size book, using budgets from exhibitions, projects, teaching workshops, and the occasional grant.
A substantial pair of grants allowed us to initiate our own publishing imprint, Half Letter Press, and to fund the publication of a 152 page color book, Public Phenomena. The need to deal with distributing this book led us to create a web-store that we use to sell it, along with our smaller publications.
Recognizing that other self-publishers have the same problems finding sales venues for their cheap booklets, we immediately began distributing the work of others. Our preferred business model is to buy people’s work upfront at wholesale rates (rather than using the more common consignment model) so that they can have that money to work with right away. We also barter publications with others who operate similarly—that is, people who make their own publications and distribute publications by other artists.
Affordability is important to us—in the publications we make and the publications we sell. When we published our own book we could have charged whatever we wanted for it but decided to price it modestly at $15.00. We expect other Temporary Services and Half Letter Press publications will be similarly affordable. Likewise, we prefer to sell work by others that is inexpensive so that a wide range of people can afford it.
We are interested in building a supportive infrastructure for nurturing the kinds of work we are interested in. One of our major goals in our work and with the store is to help out other artists on their own terms. Selling books and trying to build an ethical funding model that doesn’t exploit anyone in the chain of exchanges is the next step in our thinking. We have some long-term goals that build upon some of the steps we are now taking with Half Letter Press.
We think that we need to build a business practice that is ethical, that doesn’t participate in the mentality of profit and growth at all cost, that is, in a lot of respects, anti-capitalist.
There is an enormous amount of work that is produced in both art and other creative fields that is gets very little support. A big reason for the lack of support is because of the creators’ refusal to participate in the commercialized exchange. There have been two very good periods of government funding for non-commercial practice in U.S. history (The WPA under FDR’s New Deal, and the NEAfunding that fomented and supported the Alternative Art Spaces Movement under LBJ’s Great Society), but the climate is not good for this at the current moment. We don’t necessarily advocate a return to these programs, but we think that there needs to be a lot more attention given to building up support systems for non-commercial and experimental forms of art making. If the bottom line or “letting the market decide” (as Ronald Reagan said) is the capitalist criteria of support, then we are going to get really shitty art. We have to build up something different. This is something that we have been committed to for a long time. We are becoming more proactive in this regard.
We are still providing a lot of things we do for free. That will continue, increasingly so, as HLP flourishes. We hope to eventually give even more of the profit back to artists as we do more business with the store and press. This will take a long time and our process is going very slowly right now, but it functions.
Half Letter Press would not work without all the positive connections with artists and organizations, flows of generosity, and ethical, reciprocal relationships that we have enjoyed since our inception.
Temporary Services: www.temporaryservices.org
Half Letter Press: www.halfletterpress.com