Blog Post

Art and Labor: Temporary Services organize around their new project Art Work

"In the 1960s art workers theorized how modes of human making are affected by specific economic strictures, the aestheticization of experience, and the production of sensibilities.2 What makes the coherence of the phrase art worker challenging even oxymoronic is that under capitalism art also functions as the outside, or other, to labor: a non-utilitarian, nonproductive activity against which mundane work is defined, a leisure-time pursuit of self-expression, or a utopian alternative to the deadening effects of capitalism. " -Julia Bryan Wilson




    Art Work at University of Illinois Chicago's Gallery 400.

  Art Work at University of Illinois Chicago's Gallery 400.



Art Work: A National Conversation about Art, Labor, and Economics is the latest project by art group Temporary Services (TS). Two-thirds of the group lives in Chicago, Illinois, and one member of TS lives in Urbana-Champaign–full disclosure–in my house. I wanted to write about this project on HASTAC because of the amount of online organizing and distribution the group has done to spread the paper.


Art Work collects essays about artist labor part and future, as well as reports back on artist led projects that directly addresses art and economy. TS begin the paper with their own editorial about the national state of art and artists, specifically critiquing the marginalization of art and artists in a capitalist culture. With the current economic crisis, the paper seeks to galvanize "art workers" into a movement for creative social change, an interesting proposal.


The paper draws a timeline for artist activist intervention, with historical pieces and documentation of artists projects, past and present.  Nicolas Lampert, a member of the Just Seeds collective and political art historian,  advocates for organizing in his article about the Artist Union of the 1930s. Compared with documentation on arts organizing in the 1960s and 70s with the Guerilla Art Action Group (GAAG) and the Art Worker's Coalition, whose iconic poster closes the paper. TS goes so far as to make an actual timeline here, to foreground the economic cycles that directly effect the precarious position of arts workers.  This document moves from the ridiculous, like the 1961 piece by Piero Manzoni, where the artist sold his own excrement to the scathing critique by the 1985 Guerilla Girls poster campaign taking museums and patrons to task for their  racism, sexism, and economic disparity for women and minorities. The timeline of economy-focused art works shows that this has always been a subject of interest and inspiration for the art worker and craftsperson. is one of the many contemporary projects included  that combine economic need with technology to potentially positive results. The newly formed web based project , with design and coded done by one of the founders of Zip Car, seeks to connect New Yorkers with each other for a new kind of arts infrastructure. "Ourgoods facilitates the barter of skills, spaces, and art objects," according to their tagline. The project becomes a sort of Craigslist specifically for art workers, but with a focus solely on barter, not on the exchange of money.


The Art Work paper has been distributed around the United States and Puerto Rico, with events led by TS and other events led by engaged artists. There are over 90 Art Work distribution sites, with several locations hosting discussions and mini-exhibitions of the paper. The most recent event was held at the University of Illinois-Chicago's Gallery 400.  I attended this opening and talked to many about their own labor positions from disgruntled adjuncts and a recently laid off gallery director, to a student with a difficult health situation not covered by insurance. These attendees felt acknowledged and buoyed by a public discussion related to their own frail economic positions. 


Temporary Services has done a lot with online organizing as well, gaining international distribution with web based networking and distribution of their publications. The website created for the project,, functions as a hub to connect people internationally that are working on issues of economy. The group makes the paper available for download at the site, as well as offering a free eBook to read on your handheld personal device. One of the most powerful sections of the site is the "Personal Economy" stories. A quote from one art worker,


"My personal art economics have always included a full time job. I never really understood how

to hustle for money in order to avoid the rat race."

 This is an ongoing collection of readers who write down how they make a living and continue to maintain a creative practice, often working multiple jobs. Many express feeling inadequate or unsupported when they realize that they are one of thousands of recently graduated MFA's with little in the way of sustainable job prospects.


Finally, a great moment in networked culture happened when independent curator, Joseph Del Pesco posted on the San Francisco Museum of Art blog that he was starting an audio book of the Art Work paper. Del Pesco began by recording himself reading Julia Bryan-Wilson's essay Art versus Work, a quote from which begins this post. Anyone can read an article, essay, or segment form the paper and Del Pesco will post it on the SFMOMA blog. This is an exciting way to extend the discussion out into the world.


Creative work, art work, is serious. It's serious labor.  Art workers are avidly creating ways to make it sustainable and rethinking labor in general in the process.





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