Stagecraft: Designers, Artists and the Theater of Print in a Digital World

A disclaimer: I recognize that discussing the relationship of art and design is a quagmire. It’s a contentious and potentially dizzying exercise that has bogged down far greater thinkers than myself. The aesthetic or the decorative versus the functional, the subservience of idea to process or process to idea, the promotion of commercial content in contrast to making for making’s sake are just a few of the divisions that can be drawn. Many practitioners and projects move back and forth in the gray area between art and design. All the individuals I contacted while researching this essay make things for others (design) and for themselves (art), and it should be noted that most of them actively resist classification. I am warily treading in murky waters.


 

Joseph King, Words on a Poster (2013), screenprint and letterpress, 13 x 20 inches. Edition of 100. Printed and published by the artist, Seattle.

Joseph King, Words on a Poster (2013), screenprint and letterpress, 13 x 20 inches. Edition of 100. Printed and published by the artist, Seattle.

As co-editor of Printeresting, a website dedicated to sharing innovative print work, I have been particularly fascinated by what seems to be a new synergy—or new ambiguity—between the overlapping domains of art, printmaking and graphic design. When we started the site in 2008, the graphic design conversation online seemed to be thriving, widespread and inclusive;, while the online printmaking conversation was considerably quieter. Websites such as DesignBoom and CoolHunting were showcasing great print work alongside architecture, industrial design and fashion, while the handful of dedicated printmaking sites were inward-looking and focused on technical issues.1 One of our goals has been to promote exchange between these communities, which despite professional and educational differences are joined by a shared history, approaches and technologies.

Recent years have seen a well-documented resurgence in the use of analogue print media by graphic designers. From screenprinted gig posters and letterpress broadsides to immersive print environments, designers are revisiting processes that a short time ago seemed destined (from a commercial standpoint) for the scrap heap. Online, designers have introduced a variety of presentation tactics that convey the physicality of handmade prints and printing—a stagecraft that reveals a keen awareness of a print’s life online. At the same time, these tactics embrace performative or process-oriented content that was traditionally the province of art. They differ from the didactic explanations of processes that frequently appear in print exhibitions or “how-to” tutorials. They are tools for presenting the objectness of print. Their profusion raises questions about what exactly their audience is being asked to buy—a thing or an experience.

Graphic design conferences these days abound with panel discussions and workshops showcasing screenprint and letterpress, both of which are supported by thriving, outspoken niches within the design community. When Jim Sherradan of the venerable letterpress shop Hatch Show Print spoke in Austin a few years ago, it was as a guest of the local chapter of the AIGA.2 While the work of most professional graphic design firms is generated and realized almost entirely through digital media, organizations like Firecracker Press in St. Louis are representative of a vital small business movement in the United States and Europe—small shops that merge graphic design services, art production and manual print processes and handcraft. Such hybrid entrepreneurial efforts have been celebrated in recent books about handmade print processes in the design world, including Fingerprint: The Art of Using Hand-Made Elements in Graphic Design (2006), Pulled: A Catalog of Screenprint (2011), and Impressive: Printmaking, Letterpress, & Graphic Design (2011), all reveling in the notion of getting one’s hands dirty. Screenprinting on the Cheap (2012), a technical manual by designer Andy McInnis and his Minneapolis-based team, makes an especially strong case for the use of screenprint by designers.

Screen capture of the archive page for the “People Holding Posters” Tumblr blog by Nate Gagnon. http://peopleholdingposters.tumblr.com/archive.

Screen capture of the archive page for the “People Holding Posters” Tumblr blog by Nate Gagnon. http://peopleholdingposters.tumblr.com/archive.

Many motivations undoubtedly lie behind this revival. Physical printing—the pulling of a squeegee, the setting of type, the odor of ink—can be seen as antidotes to the bloodlessness of the LCD screen, and the alchemy of ink screenprinted on paper or of letterpress embossed on cardstock represents a lively, tactile alternative to the uniformity of commercial offset lithography. (In addition, of course, the smaller numbers produced by hand add the allure of rarity to work when considered as a commodity.) These qualities are attractive precisely because they are in direct opposition to the immaterial, nontactile, anonymous and ephemeral images that dominate visual life in the digital age.

Traditionally, the end product of printmaking was a finished print or edition; documentation of the process might be important for archival or legal purposes, but was peripheral to experiencing the art. Today the act of printing and the space in which it occurs, with their connotations of authenticity and labor, have become subjects in their own right. We all depend on the Internet to introduce us to new things; the crux comes when critical content lies in aspects of an object that cannot be made manifest virtually: the weight, the scale, the surface, the process.

If you have spent any time online in the last decade, there’s a good chance you have come across a staged picture of a person holding a poster. The posters are usually screenprints, letterpress or sometimes digital prints, and their subjects run the gamut from concert promotions to pithy statements intended to make you laugh or to reveal a truth. Person holding poster (PHP) is quite different from an image of the poster itself. The holders’ faces are usually hidden by the artwork, though their hands and legs (and occasionally the tops of their heads) are visible. (In August 2009, my Printeresting colleague Amze Emmons called attention to this tactic in his post “Graphic Designers Hide their Heads in Shame.”)

Kevin O’Neill, who is half the design team Will Work for Good and a former Printeresting contributor, sees PHP as a device of younger designers to suggest “the designer is an independent/small scale practice that has a direct connection to the work.” ((All quotations from correspondence with the author.)) It is rarely used by large commercial design studios. Nate Gagnon, a San Francisco-based advertising copywriter who devoted a whole Tumblr blog to the phenomenon, concurs that its purpose is to connect the image to an actual, individual creator.

Tind (Manolis Angelakis) is known for his screenprinting process photos, such as the ones above. Images courtesy Tind.

Tind (Manolis Angelakis) is known for his screenprinting process photos, such as the ones above. Images courtesy Tind.

The goal of stagecraft is to sell an idea—to convince an audience of a story. PHP is visual shorthand for “you are looking at a real poster that exists in the real world and was made by a real person. It provides a bodily sense of the object and in the most literal of ways “humanizes” even the coldest design. (I’m looking at you, Helvetica!) PHP is staged authenticity.

Undoubtedly posters were sometimes photographed this way prior to the Web. (A parallel fine-art trope might be photographs of artists signing prints or working in printshops, demonstrating their direct, physical involvement in production.) But the proliferation of PHP today seems emblematic of the way we share information about physical printed matter in the virtual world. My own training as a studio artist took place about 20 years ago in the era of 35mm slides. To document my prints, I was instructed to use a copy stand and to isolate the printed image—a hand creeping into the frame was simply unprofessional. It is perhaps not surprising that the more we consume art and design online, the more important it has become to authenticate the object’s “realness” with evidence of the hand of its maker. I should mention that it is rare to see an image of someone holding up an etching. Perhaps the fine line of etching doesn’t reproduce well online where a strong, punchy graphic is needed to capture the attention of an audience forever scrolling past images, or perhaps an etching’s handmade-ness is a given and not in need of theatrical emphasis.

Screenprint, however, has become its own theater. Pictures of prints lying on drying racks or being pulled from vacuum tables place the print firmly in the real world and reinforce its physicality, even when the images are consumed virtually. Manolis Angelakis, who works under the name Tind, is a Greek screenprinter/artist/designer who may be as famous for his seductive process photos as for his actual print work. In screenprint circles Tind has become a kind of celebrity artisan, sharing his active studio life through social media. His photographs of iridescent inks and dramatic studio moments are unapologetically beautiful celebrations of making. His Twitter byline, “I swallow inks and I spit prints,” may conjure the hijinks of the band Kiss, but Tind believes that “screenprint should be a cross relay marathon of printers exchanging knowledge and not be mistaken with rock star attitude.” The end product of his commercial print work is designed to please his clients’ audience, but Tind uses studio images to engage the wider Internet audience. As with PHP, behind-the-scenes workshop photographs have spread prolifically: Baltimore Print Studios and A Small Print Shop regularly delight their Twitter and Tumblr followers with images of color drawdowns (tests a printer does to check ink consistency and color), the arrival and setup of new studio equipment, in-progress prints, and ink-covered hands.

Stills from The Zombies of the Walking Dead (2012), production video produced by Greg Nicotero, Danny Miller, The Half and Half and Joshua Rainwater. http://vimeo.com/37567520.

Stills from The Zombies of the Walking Dead (2012), production video produced by Greg Nicotero, Danny Miller, The Half and Half and Joshua Rainwater. http://vimeo.com/37567520.

Vimeo, Youtube and other sites have thousands of beautifully-edited high-definition videos of printing, often accompanied by soundtracks carefully chosen to communicate the appropriate atmosphere of ink and sweat (my next essay for Art in Print might be a breakdown of printshop video music genres). Such extended media help connect the viewer to the act of making and can provide critical context for an individual printed image. The Zombies of the Walking Dead is a video by the Columbia, South Carolina-based shop, The Half and Half. In it scenes of screenshop activity flash by, inks are mixed and printed, one layer after another, until we finally see glimpses of the completed posters for AMC’s zombie TV series The Walking Dead, presented—of course—in the PHP format. Watching the video makes you wonder why there isn’t already a reality show that follows the exploits of a screenprinting design team.

All this reflects a broader fascination with craftsmanship and “making” in contemporary culture. David Rees’ 2013 book, How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Angelsmiths, & Civil Servants, laboriously (and hilariously) details the proper form and technique for sharpening a pencil. Rees is satirizing the desire to apply “artisanal” attention to every aspect of life. It is no longer enough just to do something or make something: evidence of how it is made is required. As Susan Tallman pointed out in one of our discussions for this essay, “unlike 1970s process art, in this situation it is not the job of the thing itself to tell us about its making—that job has been given over to the more easily distributed electronic media.”

This self-consciousness about production does not, however, extend to the videos and photographs themselves, which, as she observes, “are curiously opaque about their own status as made things.” In most cases, there are technicians working off-camera, unacknowledged. One craft skill is being used to glorify another. (Anyone who’s spent any time with the video-editing software FinalCut Pro knows that mastering it is worthy of any craftsman’s respect.)

The Making of Dodge Trucks Guts & Glory” is a short YouTube video about the production of a Dodge Ram commercial at the International Printing Museum in Carson, California. It is unusual in that it focuses on the crew filming the printers: we can see the lighting setup, the monitors and the technicians. In a wink to the scripted nature of the commercial, the museum’s director/curator, Mark Barbour, is listed in the credits as “The Hands.” The stagecraft is revealed.

These increasingly extravagant frameworks leave the print itself in a curious position. Compelling documentation does not necessarily make the print any better as a work of art (though it may make its content easier to grasp for the audience). Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi of the Chicago-based art and design team Sonnenzimmer are well-known for their lyrical and often abstracted poster designs [see Art in Print Jan–Feb 2012]. “We rely on [Twitter],” Nakanishi says, “to aid distribution for the physical work, but also as a stage.” Such adjacent documentation can, however, become “a bit meta,” in Nakanishi’s phrase, and detract from the print’s own role as a document of its processes. Even the most colorful and dynamic print is still and quiet when compared to the movement, sound and drama of a video. At what point does it become difficult for a real, physical print to compete with its own documentation?

Above and below: Two views of “The Smallest Printing Company,” a recent project by Letterproeftuin, is a mobile printing installation for small posters and books. International Poster and Graphic Design Festival of Chaumont, 2013. Image courtesy Letterproeftuin.

Above and below: Two views of “The Smallest Printing Company,” a recent project by Letterproeftuin, is a mobile printing installation for small posters and books. International Poster and Graphic Design Festival of Chaumont, 2013. Image courtesy Letterproeftuin.

Letterproeftuin is a Dutch “traveling open-source design studio” with an educational mission. They design graphic work laboratories; “the work in ‘process’ is the exhibition itself rather than just the finished works,” according to Letterproeftuin’s Jaron Korvinus. For the International Poster and Graphic Design Festival in Chaumont, France, they created a large series of lasercut wooden matrices that festival attendees (mostly other designers) could use to print posters on a relief press. The matrices were arranged on the walls of the workspace because, as Korvinus explains, “aesthetics of the workspace are very important to us. The space has to inspire us, and it is the presentation of our project at the same time.” Letterproeftuin guides the results of such projects, supplying the matrices, substrates and facilities, but the audience is a collaborator. These projects are thoroughly documented on their website (Karvinus notes “one of us always has a camera on them”). For groups like Letterproeftuin, the finished product of the printing process is produced, not by a single creative vision, but through a community’s creative energy, brainstorming and involvement.

Relative to art, design is subject to strong external influences such as utility and client needs. In the context of a campaign—often the case in graphic design—the individual object is far less important than the cumulative message, so perhaps the emphasis on documentation over the work itself isn’t so surprising. But it has produced a cultural expectation of supplied context that may well alter the way all prints are understood.

In 2014, the act of screenprinting or letterpress printing or any other printing is understood as performative in way that it wasn’t just a decade ago. Production has moved from behind-the-scenes to center stage, and like a movie, a print can now justify a theatrical trailer introducing it to the world. The act is documented and shared, and no one needs to hold the print to understand that it happened. We are reminded that the physical print is only a fragment of a larger thing—the most concrete fragment, but a fragment just the same.

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  1. Fortunately this has changed considerably in the past few years with blogs such as Patrick Wagner’s Black Heart Press, Brian Garner’s LithoShop and Shelley Thorstensen’s Printmakers Open Forum, which help contextualize historical works while showcasing contemporary print practice. []
  2. Formerly the American Institute of Graphic Arts, AIGA is the nation’s primary professional association for graphic designers. []