State of the Arts

The “Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts,” ILSSA for short, has over 200 members from 28 states and 5 countries. They’re artists and artisans, crafters and creators bound by a common thread: they all make artwork with outdated practices and technologies. Their inefficiencies and eccentricities are self-identified, boasted really. And it’s all for the betterment of their untimely cause.

From Friday, July 5 to Sunday, July 7 ILSSA members will gather in Asheville to celebrate 5 years of artistic obscurity during the first-ever ILSSA Convergence, a weekend-long conference, studio tour and exhibition series.

Artists and letterpress printers Bridget Elmer and Emily Larned founded the organization in 2008. The two were interested in bringing together a previously-untethered population of artists and crafters scattered into the far corners of the art world. More specifically, ones belonging to a irregular arts community shrouded in obsolescence — impracticality by another name.

So what does this talk of impracticality mean? ILSSA members are out to challenge status-quo methods and approaches to craft, creation and fine art by using seemingly-archaic tools and techniques. That’s to say, the old way.

“We’re asking that people reconsider the impractical,” Elmer told Xpress.

Computer printers, automated looms, industrial glues and other contemporary technology are cast aside and ignored. Instead, they’re crafting and creating artworks with technologies long-considered to be obsolete: hand-cranked printing presses, needle and thread, agricultural practices and the like. ILSSA is dedicated to preserving these methods through practice and discussion.

“As many hours as it takes!!!” reads their webpage’s slogan.

It’s a concept similar to the missions of similarly-functioning contemporary craft institutes such as Penland and John C. Campbell. But they’re slightly modernized, while still being out-of-date. Their charge is also aligned with the ideological foundations of the Arts and Crafts movement — preservation of the old means and rejection of the soullessness of new, hyper-modern technology. Though it’s slightly less romanticized. “We feel a kinship,” she says, “but unlike William Morris, we don’t see ILSAA as a utopian revolution.”

But ILSSA also has a secondary organizational identity that aims to create a larger, international network of members. They’re a union and a research institute.

The ILSSA Union differs from most labor unions, according to Elmer and Larned. “While we find the union model useful and inspiring, ILSSA is not limited as a guild or trade union may be, by hierarchy of experience or type of trade,” they say. “Instead, ILSSA is a union for those who make experimental or conceptual work with obsolete technology, its members are self-appointed believers in its mission.”

Many of those members are working alone in private studios, bedrooms, basements and garages. In some cases, they may be the only self-declared obsolete artists in their geographic area. “Rather than advocating for structural and “practical” or political gains, we see it more as a way to support folks who are working independently,” Elmer says. “It’s spiritual support.”

To better understand the methods and motives of these members, Elmer and Larned created a survey, letter-pressed none the less, that they sent to the 200 or more ILSSA artists. Each survey sought to assess labor conditions and artistic endeavors and struggles within satellite arts communities.

The returned surveys were compiled and structured to help create an image of ILSSA’s own, impractical crafts sector. It’s that data that will be the topic of conversation at this weekend’s Member’s Meeting and the focus of an Asheville Bookworks exhibition called “State of the ILSSA Union.”

The ILSSA Convergence will also feature a series of panel discussions, member events, exhibitions and a film screening to be held Saturday night at the Bebe Theatre. There’s also a self-guided studio tour that fans out into several West Asheville neighborhoods.

The ILSSA Convergence begins this Friday, July 5th and goes through Sunday, July 7th.  Check out the itinerary below and for more information visit


JULY 5, 1:00-5:00 pm
Impractically Asheville
Self-Guided Walking Tour
Location: Various
Visit the shops and studios of local Impractical Laborers, including 7 Ton Letterpress, Asheville BookWorks, The DryGoods Shop, Harvest Records, and Small Terrain, among others. Printed guides will be available at all participating venues.
Free and open to the public.

JULY 5, 5:00-7:00 pm
State of the ILSSA Union
Exhibition Opening and Book Release with Artists' Talk at 6 pm
Location: Asheville BookWorks
In our fourth year as Impractical Laborers, we felt it was time to survey the State of the ILSSA Union, as a means for self-assessment and with the intention of better serving each other. To that end, the ILSSA Co-Operators mailed a survey to all members, asking each to assess her or his labor conditions as an art worker. This exhibition features the 42 returned surveys, letterpress printed and answered with loving care, as well as an edited compilation of the results: a collective and contradictory voice recounting the State of the ILSSA Union. Exhibition will be on display from July 5-August 31, 2013.
Free and open to the public.

JULY 5, 7:00-9:00 pm
ILSSA Hands & Tools
Exhibition Opening
Location: Harvest Records
This exhibition of ILSSA Hands & Tools will be on display through the month of July.
Free and open to the public.

JULY 6, 10:00 am-5:00 pm
ILSSA Working Group
ILSSA Member Meeting and Roundtable Discussions
Location: Center for Craft, Creativity & Design (CCCD)
Join us for our first ever ILSSA member meeting! Roundtable Discussions will address themes that emerged from our State of the ILSSA Union survey, including: Union as Model, Art-Craft, Obsolete Technology, Belongingness and Time. The Gallery at The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design will provide a picturesque project space, with the ILSSA Library, a collective collection of resources, on-hand. Our goal will be to consider the results of our survey and brainstorm ways to better serve each other. Our efforts will be documented and left for visitors to consider in the exhibition space, on display through July 24, 2013. Lunch will be provided and we will celebrate our achievements with a gallery reception at days end, featuring locally brewed refreshments generously provided by CCCD.
Current ILSSA members only. Join ILSSA at

JULY 6, 5:00-7:00 pm
ILSSA Working Group
Exhibition Opening and Reception
Location: The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design (CCCD)
For this exhibition, The Center will see its galleries turned into a project space as ILSSA members converge for their first conference. This ‘Working Group’ will occur on July 6th and the documentation of their meeting as well as the ILSSA Library will be on display through the end of the month. Exhibition will be on display at from July 6-24, 2013.
Free and open to the public.

JULY 6, 8:00 pm
Heroines of Handmade Cinema
Mechanical Eye Microcinema Film Screening
Location: Bebe Theatre
A screening of handmade films brought to you by our fellow Impractical Laborers at Mechanical Eye Microcinema.
Free and open to the public.

JULY 7, 10:00 am-2:00 pm
Festival to Plead for Skills
ILSSA Holiday of Practicing
Location: Asheville BookWorks
Each year on the seventh day of the seventh month, ILSSA celebrates its own version of The Festival to Plead for Skills. The festival 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. Join us as we observe this holiday by practicing a skill: using a tool, trying a method, honing a technique. We imagine Impractical Laborers spanning the continents, practicing together in observance of the holiday. Join us at Asheville BookWorks or practice wherever you may find yourself on July 7th!
Small donation suggested. Space limited. Pre-registration required, (828) 255-8444.

About Kyle Sherard
Book lover, arts reporter, passerby…..

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.