Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts

L1020156Here at Printeresting, we like to think we know a little something about impractical labor so when we heard about Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts (ILSSA), we were intrigued. In addition to being founded in 2008, ILSSA and Printeresting have a number of things in common: a love of antiquated technology, a fanatical appreciation of printed matter, and a far-reaching audience to name just a few. Bridget Elmer (Local 347 Shop FS) & Emily Larned (Local 917 Shop RC), founders of ILSSA, were kind enough to answer a few questions for us. Let’s cut the intro short and get straight to the Q&A.

JU: The FAQ page on your website covers a lot of bases but perhaps you can say a bit more about unions in general and ILSSA in particular. Why form a union as opposed to some other type of organization? What does it mean to you personally?

ILSSA: When we had our first discussion about making something together (at which point the seeds for ILSSA were planted), we were trying to break ourselves out of familiar systems (academia, galleries, libraries, museums) and dichotomies (art vs. craft, art vs. design, art vs. life). We were no longer comfortable defining ourselves and our work via these established mechanisms, primarily because, despite our implicit allegiances and explicit memberships, we found ourselves isolated and unfulfilled. We had both begun making art in order to make connections, so we wanted figure out how this was possible… how could we feel so disconnected when our purpose in making was to connect?

We realized that in our scurry to make a living from making, in our attempt to prove that our passions could also be ‘practical,’ we had lost sight of our ideals. Slowly but surely, the market and its culture had crept in and reduced our senses of possibility. As artist-printers, we began to believe that we had only two options: to teach or to hustle. Both of these options had prescribed paths that we seemed forced to follow, regardless of our core intentions. And both of these paths seemed to be limiting, shrinking our world views every time we decided to answer the question, “So, what to you do?” “I’m a letterpress printer.” “I’m an art professor.” “I’m an artist.” “I’m a craftsperson.” “I’m a designer.”

ILSSA (Continued): So, we began to define our ideals as entirely separate from their manifestations: time over money, process over product, re-use over discard. In that moment, we decided to reveal and reject the contemporary definition of practicality as inherently capitalist. If our labor could only be deemed ‘practical’ via monetary return, then we had to flip the whole thing on it’s head and reclaim our labor (at least some of it!) as IMpractical. Once we made this commitment to each other, we felt a sense of liberation and relief, an opening. And immediately we wanted to share that feeling. We decided that we must not be alone, and that it was our responsibility to open up our world views by reaching out and putting our ideals on the line.

Since craftspeople first formed guilds a thousand years ago, workers have self-organized in order to improve their lot. We realized, there’s no reason why art-workers shouldn’t also self-organize. Not for better pay or material benefit, as those issues were misleading us. Rather, for solidarity and spiritual gain: to create a non-monetary return-value for work that is itself too meaningful to be compensated by purely financial means.

For this very reason we founded Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts (ILSSA), a membership organization for those who make conceptual or experimental work with obsolete technology. We chose to focus our membership in this manner because it was multi-disciplinary and self-defining, while simultaneously prioritizing the ideals we shared. We found this self-definition to be liberating instead of limiting, breaking the afore mentioned categories that were suffocating our work. We turned to the union model (which some might define as obsolete, exposing the malleability of the term), and we chose that model explicitly for its potential to be repurposed. We wanted to revisit an organizational form created by the market and reclaim it for ourselves. We wanted to unionize, not for monetary or material gain, but for spiritual and immaterial gain. So we did!

Consisting of a Union and a Research Institute, ILSSA seeks to build community and create resources, promoting the creative reuse of discarded innovations and the values embedded within. Together, the two departments produce resources and opportunities that in turn support the meaningful work of our Members. The Union hosts the listserv and organizes events (see the Festival below) and the ILSSA RI publishes the ILSSA Quarterly, a periodical produced by a variety of obsolete means that consists of a variety of morale-boosting ephemera.

JU: Would you agree that there is something inherently political in the idea of unionizing? If so, how does this manifest itself in ILSSA?

ILSSA: Definitely. We chose the union model explicitly for its political identity and for its potential to revalue and be revalued. We received some criticism and skepticism right after our founding, implying that we might be DEvaluing the importance of the union as an organization, or somehow making a mockery of existing unions by introducing impracticality into the mix. We had to clarify–our intentions are completely the opposite! We’re simply proposing that we may find value in our labor that is not based in the market, that the old might be just as valuable as the new, and that our process may be just as important as the product. By employing the union model, we hoped to give these propositions real cultural weight. We’re having fun, but we’re completely sincere and serious about our purpose. Bridget is a member of the Guild of BookWorkers and would join a teacher’s union given the opportunity; when Emily worked for the state university system, she was a member of the teacher’s union. Each of these organizations serve different purposes, as does ILSSA. We intend to complement the union model by adding a new form thereof.

local347shopfsJU: There’s been plenty of talk in recent years about “grassroots” and “netroots” movements not to mention “community organizers”. How important is this sort of bottom-up organization to a group like ILSSA?

ILSSA: Essential. Our members find us via a variety of means, all of which can be deemed “grassroots.” Our website is designed with accessibility as a priority… but the paths that lead people to that site are much more important. The printed matter we produce and distribute for only the cost of materials + shipping, our etsy site, blogs (like printeresting!), word-of-mouth, face-to-face conversations between individuals–these are the ways that ILSSA is organized. The listserv is essential to this: it gives all of our members access to each other, and the ability to share their ideas, expertise, and resources. Bottoms-up!

JU: Though less than two years old, ILSSA’s website features a fairly long list of geographically distributed members. This would suggest success as a growing organization. How do you measure success? Have you been surprised at the numbers or has this been more or less what you expected?

ILSSA: You know, part of starting this whole thing required us to let go of measuring success. We decided that we would be satisfied if the membership included just the two of us! That’s how much we needed it. And yes, we have been surprised by the numbers… and thrilled by them! We were looking for a community, so in this sense we do feel satisfied, and excited.

JU: Printeresting’s favorite historical union is the International Typographical Union. The ITU was not only one of the country’s earliest and most powerful unions, it was also an innovator having admitted female members as early as 1869 and helping to pioneer the forty-hour work week. Looking to the future, what kind of effect would ILSSA dream of having?

ILSSA: Again, we’re not sure that ILSSA has such concrete goals. We imagine our efforts to emerge from the needs of our members, so we have to leave that open. If anything, we think we can speak for our membership as a whole in saying that we’re all interested in revaluing labor with factors other than monetary gain. But this is more of an internal battle than external. We’re trying to establish our own systems of prioritizing, within and despite existing systems.

local917shoprcJU: While you are committed to “obsolete technologies,” clearly the computer is an integral tool for organizing. You aren’t using DOS, are you? Has it been hard to find a balance between technologies? In 2010, is the debate over analog versus digital a moot point?

ILSSA: We have to answer this question with a question. What is obsolete and who defines it as such? We committed to an ephemeral category for a reason. We don’t believe in the absolute value of the new, which seems to be a cultural given these days. So, we’ve proposed obsolete technology as our focus in order to put things into relief and find some folks who don’t subscribe to that given. We can only speak for ourselves, but we don’t believe in the absolute value of digital or analog either. Sure, there are inherent values to both, but why does it have to be a dichotomy where one wins and one loses? As one of Bridget’s colleagues once declared, “When the elevator was invented, we didn’t stop using stairs!” Exactly. (Thanks, Jon!)

JU: As impractical laborers yourselves, how do you strike a balance between the work of managing ILSSA and doing your own personal work?

ILSSA: That’s the beauty of ILSSA for us–they are one and the same. We founded ILSSA to support our own personal work, and we see it as such. The managing is just another part of the making. Of course, it’s not all we do. Bridget is designing, printing, and binding her MFA thesis right now, all while working as an adjunct professor, serving as resident artist at a university book press, and taking on-line library science courses. And Emily is a full-time professor, teaching six courses per year, advising 40 students, and serving as department Chair, in addition to her own studio practice. So, yes, sometimes (!) there are issues of time management and prioritizing. But because of ILSSA’s purpose, we’re able to address those issues with flexibility and creativity. In other words, we give ourselves a break, do our best, and trust the patience and goodwill of our membership. So far so good!

JU: ILSSA organized and celebrated its first Festival to Plead for Skills in July 2009. Can you give us a brief recap of the festival and its purpose? Are there plans for a second Festival to Plead for Skills?

ILSSA: The Festival to Plead for Skills is derived from the Chinese holiday of Qi Xi and the Japanese festival of Tanabata, in which celebrants wish for the betterment of their own craftsmanship. Instead of wishing, the ILSSA festival is a holiday of practicing: every year on July 7th, union members are invited to practice a skill through the making of small objects. Members send the objects to us, we collate them into sets, and return one set to each participant. The set is an archive of the holiday but moreover it is a commemoration of our collective action. And yes! the Festival is an annual event and will happen again on July 7, 2010!

JU: What’s on the horizon for ILSSA? Any big plans for the near or distant future?

ILSSA: Our latest project, the Reference Collection, is an “analogue internet” collectively and continuously generated by our members. All members are invited to submit handwritten reports of books, lectures, articles, movies, websites, and other resources essential to their practice. We create multiples of these reports and mail them out to our membership. Together, we hope to build a new framework of ideas, purpose, and valuation that will reward impractical labor.

We do have a future project in mind, which is still entirely in its nascent stage. Together with our members, we’d love to visit institutions and inventory whatever unused obsolete technology they may have. We hope to research this equipment and how to use it, organize it into working labs, and invite seasoned users of the technology to come in and give guest lectures and demonstrations. Ideally, the labs would be open to the community as centers for further experimentation and making.

But really: we’ve barely begun to explore what is possible to accomplish as ILSSA. Our minds are open.

Impractical Laborers unite!

(Thanks to Julianne for the tip.)

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Categories: Interviews, Resources

4 Responses to “Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts”

  1. Seedbed of Irony Press says:

    …the Reference Collection, is an “analogue internet”…


  2. christian mardoñez says:

    Soy de Chile y acá no hay mucho que contar, estoy prácticamente solo, cuando digo que soy encuadernador artístico me miran raro, creo que soy algo así como un Quijote, acá hay dos o tres personas que se dedican a la encuadernación de arte y son gente de recursos diría que lo hacen por pasatiempo. El producto de arte es solo para la elite, acá las diferencias sociales están muy marcadas y ser pobre con gustos raros puede ser fatal.
    En Chile las políticas sociales para microempresas apuntan a otro tipo de mercados y productos en especial servicios, por lo que no logro conseguir financiamiento, pero a mí no me desaniman fácilmente.
    Yo me siento muy identificado con sus planteamientos en especial con lo de rescatar técnicas obsoletas. Me interesa mucho el tema de la impresión tibetana (esa con bloques de madera), quisiera aplicar esta técnica a mis trabajos y saber si ustedes me pueden recomendar algún tipo de tinta para impresión que sea de origen vegetal o si es posible ayudarme con información para fabricar mis propias tintas, (también quisiera saber si la madera usada para los bloques tiene que tener alguna condición especial) sería fascinante y se los agradecería eternamente. Saludos y mucha suerte.

    Christian Mardoñez

    Christian mardoñez

  3. Rachel Heberling says:

    Thank you for bringing this union of obsolete technology to light- I’ve just joined!!

  4. Hobert Bisby says:

    Hi ! Great website with interessting content ! Maybe you can change a little bit color of the design but it’s actually cool ! I’live in Switzerland and so i dont speak great english so i wish i’m not to too much mistake ! Bye bye and continue like that