Questions about self-organisation: Temporary Services and Mess Hall, Chicago


Temporary Services and Mess Hall, Chicago

Brett Bloom

> What are the aims of the project you are involved in?

I am involved in several initiatives – Temporary Services, Mess Hall, In the Field, Learning Group, The Library of Radiant Optimism for Lets‚ We-Make the World, and The Journal for Northeast Issues (Hamburg) – but will only focus on two in order to keep the replies as brief as I can. Each has its own set of concerns, some of which overlap.

Temporary Services offers art and our activities as a service to others. This means that we aren’t focused on the production of objects or traditional forms of art expression, but rather that we are more concerned with the social contexts within which art is and can be embedded, and additionally how art can be used to open up all kinds of situations to new thinking and possibilities. We are also interested in compelling human creativity wherever we find it.

Mess Hall is an experimental cultural center. Nine of us established it in order to have a place where art and visual culture could be put into a broader dialog with other practices that both informed our work, but also represented other communities that we are active in. Mess Hall seeks to foster dialog among groups of thinkers, makers, doers that rarely intersect with the hope that more interesting practices, ideas and form of resistance (to the dominant culture) can emerge. We seek to establish alternate forms of exchange and are actively building a culture or generosity.

> How is the project organised?

Temporary Services is a group of three persons. We work in several different ways simultaneously: as artists, producers, organizers, curators, activists, designers and so on. We always develop consensus for the things we choose to work on. If we don’t reach consensus, then something isn’t done under the name of Temporary Services.

Mess Hall (MH) is in part an extension of Temporary Services, but is also a lot more in that it involves four other active members, and two at-large members. We call ourselves “keyholders”. This started as a joke, but quickly took on a lot of meaning vis-à-vis how MH is organized. We are all involved in many things and the last thing we wanted was another group with another group process. We wanted to streamline MH’s functions and make it as easy as possible for us to coordinate. To this end, we set up some basic rules that both encouraged group cohesion, but also provided for individual expression and dissent. The rules were: 1) If you have a key (are a keyholder) then the ultimate responsibility for things to happen at MH fell upon you. If no one wanted to organize anything, then nothing would happen. There would be no group pressure exerted on individuals to perform some productive role; 2) Everything at MH is free. No one should be asked to pay or make a donation for anything that happens at MH. MH is to be a place as free as possible from market-based forms of exchange and thinking – a safe place for other ways of being and doing; 3) Formal and informal rules can be broken by an individual if they are in the way of that individual having complete freedom to explore his/her ideas. The keyholders are the core group and organize most of the events, exhibitions, screenings, talks, and other things that happen at MH. They are also the contact persons for those outside the group who want to use MH as a resource. We call MH an experimental cultural center. It is a place informed by visual culture, but is not a gallery. We have multiple constituencies interested in a wide range of topics and issues from food democracy and experimental urban planning, to radical cartography and sustainable design and ecology.

> How do you support the work financially and what impact does this have on your project?

Temporary Services gets small amounts of funding and commissions to produce our work, but we can’t live off of this money. Each of us has to have income from other sources usually in the form of part or full time jobs. We refuse to take part in the commercial art market as it is anathema to our concerns and how we want our work to function in the world.

Mess Hall. The space MH inhabits was given to us for free. We provide everything at MH for free. We tap into the surpluses everyone has whether that is time, money, resources, skills and so on. When people start sharing these things on a larger scale, money is needed less and less. We do pay for the basic operation of MH out of our own pockets – and sometimes from money that comes in the form of donations, payments for lectures, small grants and so on. There is such a low-level economy that it is extremely easy for us to maintain the place and its community.

> What do you feel you have achieved, and what are the problems you face?

Temporary Services has been able to do so much more work than we ever thought we would and to insert a voice of dissent and complication into the discourse around contemporary art practice in the US and elsewhere. We want to continue to build up our practice and its impact on others and our own lives. It is hard to maintain this kind of non-commercial, anti-authoritarian practice in the United States. You get worn out easily doing it. Having the strength to continue is often the most important thing.

Mess Hall has built up a unique, supportive culture and is a model for others on how to do the same thing. Things are going well now, but what we have built is so frail. We have made no plans for MH to continue should our free rent situation cease. I am not sure that MH should continue beyond its life in its current locale. The larger challenge is to ensure space for places like MH. This is a much bigger task and I don’t know if the current MH crew will address it.

> Are there any past projects/models which have inspired you?

The Ex, HaHa, Group Material, General Idea, The Weathermen, MOVE, The Experimental Station, N55, WHW, Wochenklausur, The Jane Network, Axe Street Arena, PAD/D, Up against the wall motherfucker, Solvognen, The Situationists, Can Masdeu, The Steelyard, Fort Thunder, Sonic Youth, Funkadelic/Parliament, The Diggers, The Resource Center (Chicago), The Mad Housers, The Landless Movement of Brazil (MST), Free Radio Berkeley, The Empty Vessel Project, Women on Waves, The Farm, The Whole Earth Catalog, Zapatistas, Boing Boing, and many more I am not remembering at the moment.

> What are your hopes for the future?

I hope that Temporary Services will continue to work together until we are all in our 80’s. I also hope that we find a better way to sustain our work economically, but while maintaining our principles and the basic concerns that inform our work.

Mess Hall was started as a short-term experiment. None of us expected it to last or develop in the ways it has. It has completely surpassed our expectations and we hope it continues to develop and last for as long as it needs to. It has already encouraged many others to build their own places like MH. We would love to see a place like MH in every neighborhood of Chicago.