Networked Printers: Artist-run presses build new futures with old technologies


Technologies are often pitted against one another. Print, for instance, is often cast to play the role of the has-been, the also-ran, while digital and network technologies prepare for yet another close up. In this scenario any passion for printed matter tends to be disparaged as nostalgia or explained away as an analog response to the siren call of digital devices. But old technologies can be used in new ways and two artist-run presses in Sydney, Big Fag Press and the Rizzeria, offer an alternate account of print’s continued appeal in a networked era.

Big Fag Press is a four tonne offset lithographic press—FAG 104 to its manufacturers, “Big FAG” to the press’ directors Lucas Ihlein, Mickie Quick, Diego Bonetto and Pat Armstrong. None of the four artists were fine art printmakers in 2005, when they bought the press at auction for just $50. (They were, however, the only bidders.) Nor did they have any experience running a lithographic press. What they did have is a shared commitment to socially-engaged art projects and a history working together in art collectives that valued self-reliance, sustainability and a DIY aesthetic.  Buying a printing press was a crazy idea, but they were just the somebodies to do it.

“We just fell into it,” says co-director Diego Bonetto. “We didn’t have a nostalgia that drove us to preserve the machine—We’d never seen this machine before! When we saw it, we saw possibility.”

Bonetto admits that some possibilities they’d envisaged were pipe dreams and even though they had expert guidance from Master Printer Jens Hausch, it took them longer than they’d expected to learn the ropes.  Just moving and housing the machine was expensive and exhausting. To raise the $2500 it took to move the press to its current home, a former cleaning depot in Woolloomooloo that is owned by the City of Sydney and run by First Draft Gallery, the crew printed and sold a portrait of the press as (not-so) mobile object. Purchasers were asked to pay their weight for the prints. A crane was hired to do the heavy lifting.

The mammoth Big Fag Press

The mammoth Big Fag Press

Proofing is still an important stage in the offset printing process, it’s just that newer digital printers have rendered functional machines like the Big Fag, commercially obsolete. Artists and designers who use the press today, however, value many of the aesthetic qualities that the proof press offers.

“There is a value in not losing this technology,” says Bonetto. “There is a value in not losing the look and the feel of these products. With all the possibilities of cheap printing we tend to forget that you lose a lot of process. Corners get cut and definition is lost.”  By re-engaging with an older print technology, artists and designers are able to step outside the usual templates and filters of digital production (some for the first time.) The control that the press offers has made it a viable option for printing fine art editions and the press has published works for galleries such as 4A, First Draft and Darren Knight Gallery.  Documenting conceptual or ephemeral artworks, has also become a specialty of the press.  One such print, the Yeomans Project, a collaboration between Director Lucas Ihlein and artist Ian Milliss, recently won the 2012 Print Award from the Fremantle Arts Centre.

Another part of the process that Bonetto says he values is the collaborations and networks that the press helps to build  between artists, designers, activists, students and cultural workers. Big Fag is a not-for-profit business but it sees itself as a socially-engaged conceptual artwork as well. Sure, it publishes prints, but it also produces creative collaborations by providing an affordable resource for the art community.

Not far from the Big Fag, in the back of the Oxford Design Store in Darlinghurst, sits another kind of socially-engaged press. The Rizzeria is a cooperatively owned stencil press run by a loose collective of artists and self publishers. A core group of volunteers run training workshops and host open print studios. When I visit, Sydney artist Leigh Rigozzi is showing a young volunteer, Tim Barbarino, how to clean and change the ink drums on a machine that looks something like a photocopier but  produces prints that look more like screen prints.

The Rizzeria's riso

The Rizzeria’s riso

Riso machines don’t fit neatly in the analog digital divide as they are digital printing systems—you can input your images as digital files—that produce and use stencils to print one colour at a time with real ink. The machines were designed to be a cheaper alternative to both offset printing and photocopying, targeting institutional clients with medium-sized print runs. Designers and artists today tend to choose a stencil press for print small runs— more than 50 copies— making it ideal for the creators of posters, comics, zines and chap books.  Stencil presses are still pricey—in 2012 the Collective had to raise $5000 to replace their old machine after an accident—but they are able to operate at a relatively low cost. Printers are asked to join the collective and they are charged fees for materials, making it a relatively affordable community resource.

The key draw for many Risograph users, however, is not cost but the particular aesthetic, a combination of careful artistic intention and control of process with machine-produced chance. The printing process consists of sending an image to the machine, producing master stencils and then using each stencil to print a single color on paper. Rigozzi says that the machine is “temperamental” but, like many artists and designers, he embraces the two-tone effects that can produce. “There is a bit of the accidental quality that you work with,” he says. “Like with any medium its a matter of getting in your head what the machine can actually do and what it is good at and then designing  your stuff to fit in with that aesthetic.”

As with Big Fag, it is the particular combination of process and material possibility that attracts users. Says Bonetto, “[These presses are] reintroducing an old technology into the vocabulary of contemporary graphic outcomes. The look they produce cannot  be made on current technologies.”

Rather than a nostalgia for print, participants see in the revival of older print technologies, the possibility of reinvention.

“I am here to involve myself with what is actually occurring in the city,” says Barbarino, who also interns at Big Fag and hopes to attend art school next year.  “This exists in the present.”

Dr Margie Borschke is a lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Sydney.