Around 9 a.m. on a recent Monday, there was coffee out on a table near the entrance to the place at 13th and Norris streets formerly known as Temple Gallery. The first-floor space calls out to passersby with both the free coffee and a front-window display of eye-catching neon signs from Philly design firm The Heads of State: “Music,” “TALK TALK TALK,” “Food,” WORKSHOP,” “ART” and the new name, “TEMPLE CONTEMPORARY.”
Since Temple’s Tyler School of Art moved to the main campus from Elkins Park in 2009, this place has been in transition, but in the fall it solidified itself with a new mission statement: “to creatively reimagine the social function of art through questions of local relevance and international significance.” This focus manifests in a steady calendar of community lectures and events, and in installations that are constantly changing in response.
Following the changing face of Temple Contemporary can be a bit dizzying, but is ultimately rewarding if you’re willing to put in the effort — and City Paper did, recently stopping by every day for a week and finding something different each time — including the free caffeine on “Coffee Monday.”
The gallery behind the coffee is an in-flux wunderkammer of strange artworks, many remnants of past events. (Each one is carefully labeled with calligraphy on Post-It notes, giving the installation an air of being both well-loved and highly temporary.) Some pieces are traditional, like prints by Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds, left up after the Native American artist’s recent lecture. Others are more obscure: A gadget with several blinking lights turns out to be Hive76’s interactive display of accents originally put there to augment a fall talk by renowned linguist William Labov called “The Changing Patterns of Philadelphia English: White, Black and Latino.”
Even more mysterious were the remnants from a balloon drop tacked to the ceiling, its net still entangling one or two balloons. Robert Blackson, Temple Contemporary’s director, explained that this was part of an inquiry into what makes people happy. With the help of the Monell Science Foundation in West Philadelphia, Temple Contemporary has been struggling with the answer. Monell’s researchers have been studying odor for decades, and having found that the smell of sweat from an anxious person makes others feel anxiety, they wondered if happy sweat could create a happy contagion. The balloon drop was one of several activities, including watching Internet cat videos, during which the body odor of happy people was collected.
Some projects and objects remain on longer-term display, like Publication Studio. One of eight outlets for a project by Matthew Stadler (formerly the literary editor of Nest magazine) and Patricia No, Publication Studio is literally the means to self-publish anything you want for free — as long as you’ve taken the training course (also free). Other objects result from the running investigation of a theme that changes monthly. For instance, Maximilian Goldfarb’s Observer Reactor Loop consists of a tangle of hanging lightbulbs that are turned on by noise, part of an ongoing series about silence.
Tuesday night was “Potluck with a Purpose,” a monthly discussion series sponsored by Temple’s Green Council that brings in experts and free food — the week I was there, the topic was composting. By Wednesday, the gallery had metamorphosed into a lecture hall with rows of folding chairs in anticipation of the next day’s all-day conference, “Mass Incarceration in America: Advocacy, Art and the Academy.”
By Thursday, many of the objects on view earlier in the week had disappeared in favor of incarceration-themed ones. This included “Photo Requests from Solitary,” a collection gathered from inmates at Illinois’ Tamms Correctional Center, a supermax prison built around the idea that gang affiliations can be broken via long-term isolation — inmates spend 23 hours a day alone in their cells. The inmates were asked by mail to request a photo of anything, “real or imagined,” and frames con-tain some of their slightly crumpled, handwritten requests. Gene “Free Bird” Arnett wrote:
“I would have a photograph of a woman sitting by a lake fishing, with an empty chair next to her, with a cooler of beer. And in the empty chair have a sign with Free Bird on it! And have a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the background.”
Around 2:30 p.m., a recorded speech by Mumia Abu-Jamal played at the conference set the lightbulbs of Observer Reactor Loop to flashing. It cast a strange, oddly poetic pattern — the jumble of topics sharing the same space interacting and forming a cohesive whole.
Temple Contemporary’s regular programming will continue through February, with a unique event scheduled for the week of Jan. 21: at some point during those days the odor collected during the happy experiments will be pumped into the gallery and unwitting visitors will help to discover if it makes people happy. (They’re not saying exactly when, since this is a real scientific experiement.) From March through May, the graduate exhibitions from Tyler’s MFA candidates will be on display. Summer will bring a show pairing a recent Tyler grad with one of the program’s distinguished alumni. It’s an intriguing concept — just another example of what’s happening at Temple Contemporary every day.
Temple Contemporary, open Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (and other days/times for events), free, Tyler School of Art, Temple University, 2001 N. 13th St., first floor, 215-777-9144, temple.edu/tyler/exhibitions.