Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts (ILSSA) is a union for reflective creative practice.
As a union for artists, makers, and creative practitioners of all kinds, ILSSA focuses on improving the immaterial working conditions of our members. ILSSA publishes contemplative tools and resources; organizes participatory projects, exhibitions, and events; facilitates an annual group residency; and observes an annual holiday, the Festival to Plead for Skills. ILSSA seeks to restore the relationship between makers and their tools, makers and their time, and makers and what they make.
ILSSA's projects and publications often take the form of a call-and-response. Calls have included a survey asking members to assess their working conditions as impractical laborers, a workbook inviting members to ruminate on their relationship and experience with time, a chronobiological self-test, a request for member manifestos, and an inventory of essential tools for living. Participation in these projects often leads to additional publications and exhibitions.
ILSSA members' interests vary widely, from fiber arts to listening and sound practices, from poetry to animation. What unites all members is a valuation of process, exemplified by our motto, As Many Hours As It Takes!
All who feel kinship with ILSSA are welcome to join. Want to keep current with ILSSA activities? Please subscribe to the ILSSA Listserv, and/or follow us on Instagram. Want to get in touch? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Local 347 Shop FS Bridget Elmer is an artist, bookmaker, letterpress printer, and co-owner of Print St. Pete Community Letterpress. She is a frequent instructor at Ox-Bow, Penland, The Press at Colorado College, and Ringling College of Art and Design, where she served as Letterpress and Book Arts Coordinator for seven years. Bridget studied bookbinding, letterpress printing, printmaking, and artists' books at the Cooper Union, Center for Book Arts, Penland School of Crafts, Asheville BookWorks, and the California Rare Book School. She received her MFA in the Book Arts, as well as her MLIS, from the University of Alabama. She is currently Development Director at NOMADstudio, and President of the College Book Art Association. Find her on Instagram @flatbedsplendor.
Local 917 Shop RC Emily Larned has been publishing as a socially engaged artistic practice since 1993, when she created her first zine (Muffin Bones) as a teenager. She is the founder of Alder & Frankia, a publisher of new collaborations and reissues of feminist archival material. Her award-winning publications are collected by over 70 institutions and exhibited internationally, and she teaches and lectures widely. She received her MFA in Graphic Design from Yale School of Art, and is currently Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. In addition to writing, designing, hand compositing, letterpress and risograph printing, bookbinding, and publishing, Emily reads, knits, embroiders, practices Vipassana meditation, and grows and cooks vegetables. Find her on Instagram @emilylarned.
Fellow artist-publishers, feminists, and educators Bridget Elmer and Emily Larned met through serving on the Board of the emerging nonprofit Booklyn Artists Alliance (NYC) in 2002, and quickly became close friends. Within a few years, we found ourselves hundreds of miles apart pursuing graduate studies: Bridget studying book arts, Emily graphic design. We felt isolated, restricted by the disciplinary parameters of our programs. We wanted to unite and expand these activities. As letterpress printers interested in socially engaged art, we were curious how other artists and makers were utilizing obsolete technology (OT) as a personal, political, conceptual, social, and aesthetic strategy. If one is privileged with access to emerging technologies, preferring OT is often a values-based decision. Sustainability, affordability, accessibility; controlling the means of production; opportunities for fresh solutions due to severe restrictions; labor-intensive processes which problematize the relationship between meaningful work and remuneration; a prioritization of process over product; a rejection of novelty; a refusal to succumb to the demands of the market: these are characteristics shared by many, if not all, forms of OT. We were intrigued by Walter Benjamin's and Marshall McLuhan's shared notion that OT, once liberated from its original purpose, becomes an artform. We established ILSSA to locate and connect our far-flung peers, those artists and makers using OT to create what we called "speculative arts:" process-driven iterations that wander into unknown, exploratory territory. As the 2008 economic crisis erupted, we felt strengthened in our purpose: it was time to reconsider how and for what we live. Process over product. The means contain the meaning.
Over the years, as we developed and iterated new projects as ILSSA, we realized that our mission was to help impractical laborers cultivate a considered, thoughtful, and balanced creative practice—whether or not we engage OT. Living in an era of fear, antagonism, and exhaustion, creating alliances that support, sustain, and nourish each other is critical. While we have removed the phrase "obsolete technology" from the mission on our homepage, the values inherent to OT remain central to us and to many of our members.
ILSSA is informed by: the ethics and aesthetics of care of 1970s radical and intersectional feminisms; the interests, actions, and publishing of the Situationists; the Arts & Crafts movement's belief in the value and benefit of making things by hand; the immediacy, accessibility, affordability, and DIY sensibility of zines and mail art; the design method of iterative problem-seeking; socially engaged art’s commitment to creating a new reality through bettering daily life; the art workers’ movement of the 1960s; publishing as an artistic practice; cultural anthropology; and labor unions.
A word on the lattermost: a union is an organization formed around labor interests—an organization created for workers, by workers, in order to better their lives. We respect how unions have been able to improve material conditions for workers through collective bargaining with employers. The ILSSA Union is different. The nature of impractical labor is that it is self-initiated, chosen for its innately satisfying characteristics, not for its exchange value. As such, our Union seeks to improve the immaterial conditions of our fellow impractical laborers: how we experience what we are making—our lives.
ILSSA Solo Shows
ILSSA Frameworks, Unrequited Leisure, Nashville, TN, 2019
ILSSA Implement: Essential Tools for Living, Hunt Gallery, Webster University, St. Louis, MO, 2018–2019
As Many Hours As It Takes! 10 Years of Impractical Labor, Stulberg Gallery, Ringling College, Sarasota, FL, 2018
ILSSA Implement, Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY, 2017
ILSSA It's About Time, PRESS!, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, North Adams, MA, 2015
ILSSA It's About Time, Asheville BookWorks, Asheville, NC, 2015
ILSSA It's About Time, Coburn Gallery, Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO, 2014
ILSSA Working Group, The Center for Craft, Creativity, & Design, Hendersonville, NC, 2013
ILSSA Hands & Tools, Harvest Records, Asheville, NC, 2013
Surveying the State of the ILSSA Union, Asheville BookWorks, Asheville, NC, 2013
ILSSA Every Day Work, Hammes Gallery, Moreau Center for the Arts, Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, IN, 2012
ILSSA in Group Shows
Better Together, String Room Gallery, Wells College, Aurora, NY, 2020 (canceled due to COVID)
Loose Leafs and Bindings: Book Arts and Prints, Connecticut College, New London, CT, 2019
Conspire: Collaboration, Cooperation, Collection, Juried CBAA Members Show, Museum of Fine Arts, Florida State University, Tallahassee FL, 2017
Artist Books From A to Zine, New Hampshire Institute of Art, Manchester, NH, 2015
The Last Brucennial, The Bruce High Quality Foundation, NYC, 2014
Present[ation] Public[ation] Install[ation], Juried CBAA Members Show Purchase Prize Winner, Marriott Library Gallery, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, 2014
Almost Metal Collective, A+D Gallery, Columbia College, Chicago, IL, 2013
Fine and Dirty: Contemporary Letterpress Art, Center for Book Arts, NYC, 2011
Fine and Dirty: Contemporary Letterpress Art, Minneapolis Center for the Book, Minneapolis, MN, 2011
Copy Jam! 2 by Printeresting, 6th Annual Printer’s Ball, Columbia College, Chicago, IL, 2010
ILSSA Commissioned Projects
The ILSSA Ballot for Twenty Twenty, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT, 2020
ILSSA Talks, Interviews, & Articles
Better Together Forever: Impractical Labor, Wells College, Aurora, NY, 2021
UConn Faculty Exhibition Spotlight: Assistant Professor Emily Larned with Bridget Elmer & MFA candidate Paul Michael, University of Connecticut Benton Museum, 2020
Number:Inc Magazine, 2019
Ecotone Magazine issue 24, 2017
Bmore Art, 2016
At Length Mag, 2012
New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), 2011
Bad at Sports, 2010
Art Work, Temporary Services, 2009