Stop the Press: the Allure of Ink – by Caren Florance

The following is an article written by our Canberra colleague Caren Florance, aka Ampersand Duck. It was commissioned by Big Fag Press co-director Lucas Ihlein for his UNDERGROUND edition of Artlink Magazine, launched in June 2010. Since it relates directly to the seizing of obselete printing technology by ratbags, we thought it germane to reprint here on the Big Fag website.
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Stop the Press: the Allure of Ink
Caren Florence, June 2010

Images for Caren Florance Article
[An early printing office (!), 1499 (from S.H. Steinberg, Five Hundred Years of Printing (UK: Pelican, 1955), plate A.]

There is something magical that happens to text when it is printed. In print, a scramble of handwritten words becomes solid, legible and above all, authoritative. Some of the most outrageous propaganda and religious doctrine throughout world history have been believed because they have been printed. Printing brings ideas to the surface and imbues them with power in a way that cannot ever be underestimated. Even these days, with so many ideas shared over the internet, there is still glamour and prestige in having your words transformed into printed matter: witness all the blogs that turn into books.

Printing, however, takes money, and distribution needs connections. When people want or need to share their ideas without the necessary money and connections, you get underground publishing, and ingenious methods of print production and distribution.

When printing with moveable type and presses first took hold in Western civilisation, there were always sympathetic printers who would print for political and religious groups on the side. In the 18th century (deemed the golden age of printing by those nostalgic for manual work that they probably would never had done themselves), private presses emerged, originally owned by noblemen who had the money and time to buy and use the equipment for their own enjoyment, later run by less noble (but no less cashed up) individuals. Privileged, maybe – but much of what these private presses produced over the centuries has set the design standards for more commercial printing.

As printing equipment evolved (dramatically, with the development of the iron press during the Industrial Revolution, and even more so when technology like the linotype machine came into being, decreasing the number of people needed to set type and run machinery)1, obsolete technology provided opportunities for alternative print production. Sometimes old equipment was deliberately used to obstruct. When Louisa Lawson, mother of poet Henry Lawson, wanted to start a newspaper for women to be set and printed completely by women (The Dawn), she got little help and a lot of hindrance from the — male — Sydney printing community. She asked a number of printeries for donations of type, and what she received was so worn and damaged that her first productions were dreadful, far beyond the usual amateur printing and binding mistakes, with barely-visible and damaged letters scattered through the text.2

Images for Caren Florance Article
[Front page of the first ever copy of The Dawn, a newspaper written and printed by women, edited by Louisa Lawson (under a pseudonym for the first few months), mother of Henry. From Clarke, Pen Portraits (Sydney: Pandora Press, Allen & Unwin Australia, 1988), p. 163.]

Throughout the twentieth century in Australia, there was a small but vibrant private press community. Australians generally are keen to embrace new technologies, and the printing industry was no exception. Large commercial presses upgraded fast and furiously. Old machines were often scrapped without thought to their potential alternative usefulness. Those who had private presses could still, for much of the century, purchase fresh type and other supplies, thanks to the retention of older press technology by small printing establishments who couldn’t afford to upgrade.

Suddenly, in the late 1980s, these supplies dried up. Computers were evolving more rapidly than presses had, and desktop publishing decimated small printing businesses. A generation of private press printers (outlined in a book-length list by Geoffrey Farmer in the mid 1970s)3 reached retirement age, dusting off their machines only for the annual Christmas card. Eventually they died, and their families either scrapped the presses, handed them over to a museum, or passed them on to someone with a garage and dreams of “getting to it one day”. These days, a few traditional private presses survive (like the reclusive Wayzgoose Press in Katoomba, NSW), and there are a few careful hoards of press paraphernalia4 but few working letterpresses, and even fewer institutions that teach type-based printing methods remain. Hold that thought.

So: presses and moveable type were abandoned in favour of linecasters and lithographic plates. As always, there were sympathetic printers who would throw something on the end of a run to help community groups and the occasional prosaic nutter. But even though there was a lot of cast-off machinery in a window of opportunity in the 1960s and 1970s, machinery needs money to operate, and space to house it, and knowledge to run. Students were activating, culture was vibrating, and there were things to be said. It was time to get alternative, time for tactics more radical than just buttering up the local printery: time, that is, to seize the means of production!

Images for Caren Florance Article
[Cover spread of Final Taxi Review, Glandular Press, Sydney University, 1981, edited by Stephen K. Kelen. Cover attributed to ‘Drunk Persons’.]

Young poets were rebelling against the mainstream publishing machine dominated by large publishing houses like Angus & Robertson (with whom you needed connections to gain entry). Artists wanted to print images, but intaglio and relief presses were also expensive and cumbersome. Community printing facilities like Redback Graphix (Sydney), Studio One and Megalo (Canberra) and small magazines like Magic Sam, Final Taxi Review and others sprang forth, usually from university English departments, using cheap and cheerful technologies: screenprinting; relief printing; typewriters and office duplicating machinery like mimeographs, gestetners and roneographs; photocopiers; and the humble stapler.5 There was a revolt against slick commercial production (a handy attitude to have when you are producing rough and ready publications) and it was encouraged by people like American printer Clifford Burke, who took time from his fine press printing endeavours in 1972 to teach students how to get print-savvy with his friendly how-to book, Printing It: A Guide to Graphic Techniques for the Impecunious.6

Images for Caren Florance Article
[The cover of Clifford Burke’s Printing It: a guide to Graphic Techniques for the Impecunious (USA: Wingbow Press, 1972). Cover image by Chuck Miller.]

Much of the impetus and populist communicative energy behind these alternative printings has now been deflected into online forms of publishing like websites, blogs and chatrooms: relatively egalitarian venues for all kinds of self-expression with potentially limitless audiences. Surely this would reduce the lust for alternative published matter? No: living in the digital, online age, there are few signs that printed matter is disappearing. No matter what is produced on computers, much of it emerges as hard copy. There also remains, comfortingly, resistance to the slick glossiness of the dominant print paradigm. Photocopiers are still used for zines, along with the new cheap favourite, inkjet printers; and a renaissance of typewriters, drawings and handwriting is contributing to a retro aesthetic that ephemera collectors (a broader and more avid group than ever before) just can’t get enough of.

Images for Caren Florance Article
[‘Essential equipment’ for underground printing listed by Clifford Burke: The electric IBM Typewriter. (Printing It, p. 43)]

The extreme economic rationalism of the Howard era killed off a lot of community arts activity, but groups like Megalo (Canberra) and the Firestation Print Studio (Melbourne) still exist, and there are more of these facilities brewing. Big Fag Press in Sydney is attempting to reinvigorate the less sexy end of the obsolete press spectrum, using lithographic plate processes instead of letterpress to bridge the gap between community image-making and textual print production.7 It would be hard to do a comprehensive survey of what has survived in Australia: there are ‘print hermits’ scattered through the country, doing unseen but remarkable things8 that few people will ever know about (how much more underground can you get?). There are new discoveries at poetry slams and zine fairs, and also in the burgeoning artists’ books exhibitions and events around the country.

A new generation of private (perhaps independent, or ‘indy’ is a better term) printers is emerging – of which I am proud to be a part – and most of us who use obsolete processes and technologies are aware that we need to work with others collaboratively to encourage more interest in our craft in society. We share resources, we hold classes, and we plan ways to keep our small pool of equipment and knowledge alive. This is another aspect of the survival of underground printing technology. Over the years, printing knowledge has been shucked like corn husks as its plant evolves. Like many crafts and languages, this knowledge cannot be replaced by reading a manual. It is gleaned from touch and intuition and repetition, and unless it is kept in practice, much of the intricacy and skill is lost. Taking on an obsolete process – and the machinery and attitude that comes with it – is to become a tradition-bearer, a keeper of the flame, and, on the surface, a completely unfashionable geek. But that’s another aspect of being underground: if you become appreciated, popular even, you start to rise to the surface, and suddenly what you do bobs up into the mainstream.

This is happening to letterpress machinery at the moment, with the popularity of ‘letterpress’ designer stationery. Designers, not content with the flatness of a conventionally printed sheet, are lusting after texture in their work. They use letterpress processes to deeply imprint thick, fluffy papers, and the results are seductive and beautiful. These designers are, on the one hand, saving machinery from the scrapheap, but the pressure they use during the printing process to deeply bite the paper (‘How else can you tell it’s letterpress?’) is damaging the machines, and the subtleties and beauty of hand-set typography is being ignored in favour of computer-designed plates and fashionable colour-swatches. Letterpress is consequently now ‘popular’, but this means many people now think it’s just a way of making cool wedding invitations. Other, subtler uses of the craft are overlooked, and under-utilised.

Still, the whole point of any of these printing endeavours is to put things back into hands, to allow people the tactile pleasure of holding something while they look or read. It’s irrelevant whether the object is fine or roughly printed, whether wedding arrangements or poetry, whether the poetry is fresh and raw or mellow and well-seasoned, or if the pages are sewn or stapled. There’s a deep longing in humankind to feel, and that’s something a screen can’t (yet) provide. The underground nature of printing practices may well win the battle for hearts and minds over time: the dominant printing paradigm has increasingly shifted sideways to the production of ever cleaner, ever glossier units. Offset printing (outwardly neat products that are produced by dirty, grubby processes involving ink and oil and machines) is being overtaken by digital printing (products that spit out of the inkjet printer in full colour ready to distribute after a quick cut and fold). People and processes are ostensibly moving away from mess.

But there are many out there who value mess, and process, and the products and by-products that result. For example, print collectors sometimes only want to buy artists’ proofs rather than the edition; some people love print ephemera, the brochures and labels and other working papers, more than fine press books and posters. These collectors encourage folks like me, and my undergound peers, who love the noise and grot and grubbiness of manual process and the wonder of standing next to a press and looking at the beauty of a fresh wet print, knowing that even though the print may look simple, the process behind it involved thought and skill and generations of knowledge. Knowledge that, if it disappears, might never come this way again.

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GLOSSARY

Digital printing: inkjet or laser printing, usually printed directly from a computer command with no human intervention other than replenishing paper stock.
Ephemera: incidental printed matter, not considered important or notable: menus, envelopes, labels, receipts, etc.
Gestetner: a spirit-based duplicating machine (predecessor to the photocopy machine), similar to the mimeograph but more automated.
Intaglio printing: printmaking that prints from marks dug into a flat surface to produce images: etching, mezzotint, drypoint.
Iron Press: From Gutenberg’s time through to the Industrial Revolution, printers used presses made mostly of wood, with only the most essential, hard-wearing areas using metal, which was very expensive. Once iron could be cast cheaply, presses became nearly wholly metal, hence the term iron press. The term is now used to categorise non-automated metal hand presses.
Linotype / linecasters: A machine that replaced much moveable type, capable of casting lines of letters for printing (composed using a typewriter-like keyboard) and then melting the printed type slugs down to be reused later.
Lithographic plates: thin zinc or aluminium plates that can wrap around a rotary drum on a press and can carry photographically-produced text and images, working on the principle of oil repelling water. Still used in offset printing now.
Mimeograph: a cheap rotary printing press that forced ink through stencils onto paper. Stencils could be produced by typewriters and or by hand. Played a huge role in very early zine production. ‘Mimeo’ was a brand name, as was ‘Roneo’.
Moveable type: metal letters cast as single units, instead of more modern methods of casting in line slugs or blocks that have spacing included.
Offset printing: printing that is indirect: starting with an original design that is transferred to plate or stone, and then printed from the plate or stone onto paper.
Presses: the machines that print type or image plates.
Relief printing: printmaking that prints from the surface to produce images: linocuts, woodcut, wood engraving.
Roneograph: a variation of the mimeograph.
Screenprinting: printmaking process using ink pushed though stencilled or masked fine mesh screens onto paper or cloth. Very low-tech and relatively inexpensive process.
Type: small units of lead alloy, cast from moulds (mats) to form printable letters that are gathered and clamped together to print text on a press.
Zines: small, cheap, usually handmade publications using quite low-tech methods, originally a simple and inexpensive way for groups like sci-fi fans to communicate with each other (like newsletters), derived from term fanzine.

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About the Author:
Ampersand Duck is an umbrella term for a number of activities, both personal and collaborative, undertaken by Caren Florance, including letterpress printing. Her website is here.

  1. For further information about the development of printing presses, see http://www.briarpress.org/. []
  2. Observed from handling a volume of Henry Lawson’s Short Stories in Prose & Verse, printed by The Dawn Office, 1894 and owned by Professor Paul Eggert, UNSW@ADFA. For more info about Louisa’s troubles with the printing establishment, see Patricia Clarke, Pen Portraits: Women Writers and Journalists in Nineteenth Century Australia (Sydney: Pandora Press, Allen & Unwin Australia, 1988), pp. 160–171. []
  3. Geoffrey Farmer, Private Presses and Australia, (Melbourne: Hawthorn Press, 1972), and a extra chapbook list printed by hand, Private Presses and Australia: A First Supplement (Hobart, Geoffrey Farmer, 1976). []
  4. For example: Melbourne Museum of Printing; Armidale Printing Museum; Queanbeyan Printing Museum. []
  5. Listed in Michael Denholm, Small Press Publishing in Australia: the early 1970s (Sydney: Second back Row Press, 1979). []
  6. Clifford Burke, Printing It: A Guide to Graphic Techniques for the Impecunious (Berkeley, California: Wingbow Press, 1972, reprinted many times; my edition 1981). []
  7. Megalo, Firestation, Big Fag Press. [Editor’s note: every author, no matter how competent, occasionally makes mistakes. Obviously, here, when Caren Florance writes “less sexy end of the obselete press spectrum”, she actually means to write “more sexy”…] []
  8. Like Richard Jermyn, building a Common Press from scratch in a tin shed on the far south coast of NSW: see http://ampersandduck.blogspot.com/2009/10/uncommon-press.html []