Saturday, March 01, 2014

Make it slow....

This piece was posted in January to another blog I write, largely about my making practice, but I intended to post it here; once I found the login and password for things semi-abandoned on the net. But nevertheless, slow making and the manifesto we laid out in 2006 are just as relevant and thankfully still present within our own practices.

But in the eight years since we set this blog up, social media has come to dominate as the main avenue for communications, Pinterest offers the craft or art worker a personalised visual diary, Evernote and its variations act as digital notetaker, and Tumblr has come to the fore as the arts blogging medium. A new craft movement has been in progress for some years, with a quirky focus on craft as amateur practice, combined with liberal doses of hipster irony and mid century revivalism. This piece is not a general statement about slow making so much as a musing on the state of contemporary making and the impact of curatorial support or otherwise. But I hope it might illuminate a very small corner of the making process - the need for time to contemplate, to make mistakes, to make many mistakes and the need for time to play.

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My more cynical friends might be tempted to point out the slow making doesn't begin to do justice to quite how slow my making is. But a fellow Art School survivor who was over for dinner made the point that whilst making five pieces in two weeks for an exhibition might seem crazyfast, it was only possible because of months, nay years, of thinking, contemplation, faffing, drafting, playing and more faffing.

And she's absolutely right.

 The other key thing about slow making is that it allows within certain types of craft practice the ability to respond in the moment to materials, to unexpected arrangements, to revealed glimpses of beauty or oddness; any of which might require plans to be changed, pieces rethought, things remade.

I won't be in the UK to see the exhibition Make it Slow but I would love to compare it to The Crafts Council's touring exhibition Raw Craft. As someone whose knowledge of craft were initially forged by the craft revival of the late 1960s and 1970s (1) and then matured in the 1990s, I am a bit underwhelmed by a lot of the work in Raw Craft as it suffers from the problem that a lot of contemporary design seems to also suffer from - being derivative and not (according to my world view) saying anything particularly interesting or important.

 I tripped over Make it Slow on the Crafts Council UK news page, after reading a post by Rosy Greenlees where she makes the oft-made point that tough times suit innovation. Perhaps, but the degree of impact that this new moment might have on over-consumption of the badly made and poorly designed that plagues us is not likely to be great - Greenlees' keenness reminds me of Sennett's recent work on skill and craftmanship which I found very very annoying. My main gripe was that as far as I could tell, Sennett had no real idea of what making actually entails, how it feels and has no experience of what Pye called the craftmanship of risk.

 A lot of the skills I've collected over the years are to varying degrees redundant. But none more so than french polishing. In the 1990s I did a trade certificate in a trade that effectively no longer exists. I was lucky enough to be taught by polishers who were very highly skilled and able to do very technically accomplished work, including arcane polishing techniques such as acid and chalk pulls on a french polished surface. Apart from the skill(s) themselves, what that level of expertise also gives you is the ability to see. And see very differently - detail, nuance, and errors become glaring in your own work and other peoples. How important that training, that re-seeing is, was reinforced by my time at the Woodworkshop, Canberra School of Art under George Ingram.

What I find disconcerting is how often I look at new work, and see hesitancy, haste, poor understanding of the materials, and an object that is first and foremost an intellectual exercise, a theoretical response to the notion of furniture or object or a cultural moment. I vacillate between feeling disappointed and seeming a very bad tempered harpie. However it is the curated applause that boosts such work that disappoints me far more. All work should be experimental; a challenge to your skills and design ideas which carries a high risk of something not quite working. Much that is applauded probably doesn't deserve such praise; the modern madness of praising when none is due; an act that anoints the expert and removes the rest of us from the critical field.

 I find that a lot of the opinion, criticism or theorising about craft seems to be written by people who demonstrate that they have little understanding of the making process, no grasp of the craftmanship of risk and lack the eye of the maker, but instead construct theoretical structures where the work is slotted into some spiderweb of cultural theory.

But in the next breath, I can also be critical of work that is too slick, lacking any sense of the maker, or work that relies on the material's pattern, colours or assumed value. Somewhere there is a space that I try to exist within - where slowness balances the need to work the material, push the tools at the pace of confident risk, where consideration and contemplation open possibilities that deadlines, surety and theory take away.

1. I had something of a charmed childhood as my mother ran a craft gallery during my primary school years. My weekends and school holidays were often sent in makers' studios as Daph dragged my father and I around Tasmania on her buying and object collecting trips which often included Craft Council meetings, or workshops blessed with all of the earnest adult certainty of the post-Chicago craft revival.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Where does your timber come from?

Using wood as the primary material for making demands a number of considered processes when selecting and buying one's timber. Firstly, where is it from? Secondly, how is it harvested? Thirdly, who profits from the harvesting? And lastly, who or what may be harmed in any part of the process?

Organisations such as Rainforest Alliance, FSC and numerous others have developed grading and certification systems - not all are as thorough or quite what they appear, but given the appalling practices in rainforest timber provision, no-one should buy and use any rainforest timbers without being very very sure that it is certified appropriately. Habitat loss, the murder of local Indigenous peoples, and support of regimes and elites such as Indonesia's military by Thai timber interests demand something more than a shrug and another 'oh well'.

Many FSC certified programs involve local landowners and workers processing the trees at least into roughly milled section for export, and often some tertiary utilisation as well. Peter Mussett's ongoing involvement with PNG and Solomon Island community based forestry leads to carefully stacked piles of kwila, New Guinea rosewood and walnut sitting in a yard and very very large shed in Welby, NSW - timber that has been sustainably harvested with minimal habitat disturbance, as well as ensuring that maximum economic benefit goes back to the community. The Woodage also stocks nothofagus from New Zealand produced by a FSC certified operation - a far more commercial enterprise than most of the PNG providers but evidence that sustainable timber harvesting + beneficial local economic outcomes = profitable timber businesses. A lesson Gunns seem to be realising if only to take advantage of the marketing opportunities.

Most FSC certified plantations or forests in the developed first nations are still usually harvested with high levels of mechanisation. But occasionally you come across someone such as the Streamline Timberworks in Floyd County, Virginia. As we begin to slowly come to terms with peak oil (even if the governmental response is still nothing more than hopeless) there are even more reasons for considering how we harvest timber than minimising habitat damage.

Where I live has what is probably the greenest timber mill in the eastern half of Australia. Situated on the edge of a large State forest, it processes radiata pine for the building industry, using timber from Wingello, Penrose, Belangelo and Meryla plantations. What can't be broken down into lumber either goes to the Visy Paper & Pulp Mill at Tumut or ends on garden beds as pine chips. The mill produces no waste, no water waste, has lowered its carbon footprint by modifying its drying processes and utilises only radiata from plantations.

The mill is owned a private family company - the plantations that is relies upon are State Forestry controlled. As NSW heads towards a change of governments in March 2011, the future of publicly owned forests is of concern as the more than likely O'Farrell government does have a conservative agenda of privatisation. Calls to the current shadow minister of Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, National Party member for Burrinjuck has seen assurances that an O'Farrell government has no plans to sell off the State Forests, at this stage. What Labor may be planning is anyone's guess - effectively there's no one answering the phones and it's proved a little difficult to get anyone at the Minister's office to answer questions concerning State Forests policies. As the State government of whatever persuasion is closer to broke than they're happy to admit, watch this space for sudden changes due to inclement financial conditions.

Moving on from the political shenanigans, the process of harvesting in State Forests whilst regulated by legislation is not policed as it ought to be (see for example investigations earlier this year concerning North Coast forests - the South Coast has also seen similar issues) and there are significant scientific questions about the harvesting processes currently employed. In single species plantations of exotics such as radiata pine, the protection of habitat is not critical, but harvesting methods can and do have significant impact in terms of soil erosion, spoilage of water courses, spreading of weed species. Whilst I think you'd have Buckleys getting anyone in Forestry to seriously consider using work horses in plantations, it should be investigated as a way of moving to true sustainable selective logging practices in native forests.

Plantation management poses some particular problems - as the State Forests are pretty much all operated as monocultural clear fell operations, the medium and long term problems are buried in the blizzard of so-called efficiencies of high rotation/ high output. In the Southern Highlands, the State Forests represent significant barriers to endemic species in terms of migration as they offer little in the way of migration belts or corridors. But its also what we're not growing that frustrates me. Joseph Maiden as director of the Botanic Gardens in Sydney did extensive work concerning mixed species plantations of native species at the end of the nineteenth century; including techniques for successfully cultivating red cedar which is usually attacked by the cedar tip moth. Maiden identified co-dependent species which not only protected the cedars, but could in turn be harvested and processed as well. Unhappily I say, State Forests NSW does not and has not put anything like the effort and funds into native species utilisation as it has done supporting radiata utilisation. Hence I can go to The Woodage and buy absolutely beautiful FSC certified Shining Gum which comes from.... Chile. What is coming onto the market from Australia is woodchip quality.

It is not heart warming that a country lucky enough to have endemic in its forests some of the finest cabinet timbers in the world, some of the structurally toughest building timbers has chosen to pursue a policy of radiata pine as the end all and be all of non-pulp timber production in planations. It is well and truly time for us to be debating what our State Forests should be growing, and how.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Printing poetry at Otago

Twenty years ago, I visited Dunedin for a couple of days on a NZ touring holiday and loved it at first sight. I always hoped to get back here, and every time John Howard threatened to win an election, I would joke with my friends and family that I'd move to Dunedin if he did. I was getting quite serious when Kevin Rudd saved the day. Now I've made it back, thanks to a brilliant residency opportunity, and I'm telling people that if Tony Abbott wins, I may not go back to Australia. I'm getting quite serious about it.

The residency fell into my lap, through the generosity of master printer Alan Loney, who took it upon himself to introduce me to Donald Kerr, the Otago University Special Collections Librarian, when we were all at a conference in Brisbane called The Limits of the Book. Donald has custodianship of a wonderful collection of printing equipment, originally established as a bibliography teaching aid, and while continuing to be used as such, has also become a press in its own right: the Otakou Press. Established in 2003, it hosts an annual short-term printer in residence who produces a work that is sold – and usually sold out before the project is finished – and funds the next PIR the next year. The residency is now totally self-funded, and includes travel, accommodation (which includes food) and a stipend.

Donald and I had wonderful talks in Brisbane, about letterpress, the history of the equipment, and his liking of posters. Up to now all the printers had been New Zealanders, men, and had made books. Time for a change! We decided that I would be the 2010 PIR, and we would make posters, preferably using some of the wood type in the collection, which had scarcely been utilised.

We decided to have six poets, three from NZ and three from Australia. Donald picked out some names and emailed them all to see if they were amenable. Peter Porter and Les Murray were on his list, but PP died soon after, and we didn't hear from Les, so we ended up with Vincent O'Sullivan, Michael Harlow and Sue Wootton batting on the NZ side, and Robert Adamson, Sarah Holland-Batt and Stephen Edgar for the Aussie side.

And then Donald got a letter in the post from Les, who doesn't do computers. He'd LOVE to be in it. And, we both agreed, you can't say no to Les. So. We had SEVEN poets, and I just didn't have the time in the residency to add an extra NZer – seven was going to be pushing it. Did I mention that my edition is to be 100 of each, plus title page and colophon? That's 900 pages, over a period of six weeks.

There was only so much planning I could do beforehand, since I hadn't seen the type selection: read the poems (each poet sent a small selection of small, in most cases unpublished, poems to choose from) and select one for each, and make notes about what each inspired visually when I read them. We'd decided upon paper stock, and ordered it: Fabriano Rosapina, a lovely thick white Italian paper, that would need to be hand-torn into quarter-sheets.

The poems I picked didn't seem to have any connecting theme, apart from my liking them, so I decided to go with the idea that their number inspired and call the folio PRIME, playing with the idea of seven as a prime number and also that these are poets in their prime. Since then I have realised that the connection is one of process (in the use of wood type) and that the title could have reflected that, but I'm happy with Prime.


Arriving at the University of Otago, settling in to my digs at the very comfy St Margaret's College, and getting to know my way around were all the easy things to do at the start of my residency. Dunedin is beautiful, even in the depth of winter, and surprisingly warmer than Canberra, owing to what everyone says is a mild winter. The big learning curve was tackling the presses in the print room...

I am used to printing with a cylinder flatbed letterpress, which has built-in rollers that ink the type and can be adjusted to stay at a level that rolls the type the same way every time. Here in Dunedin, they have iron hand-presses only, which means that the printer has to hand-roll the ink onto the type every time they pull a print.

The up side of that is that you can print multiple colours at once. The down side is that you have to develop a good technique of rolling sensitively to the type's needs, and evenly, and neatly. Every time. And I had to learn how to do it FAST, because there were those 900 pages to print, and time was ticking.

I'm talking in the past tense here, but as I write I'm still in the thick of it. I'm nearly halfway through my third week of the residency, and I'm only 300 pages in...

This is the Columbian press, the grand madam of the room. She's my press of choice from the three available to me, with her bobbing eagle counterweight and decorative dragons. I had a crash course in using her, including how to make my own brown-paper tympans and friskets.

The fact that I have to hand-roll the type, lower the frisket then the tympan, roll the bed under the platen and then pull the press handle for every. single. print. means that I am physically limited as to how intricate and/or layered these prints can be. I need to design them to be striking without being overly hard to produce.

I am also limited by the colours available to me. I can mix colours, but that means I also have to judge how much mixed ink I need for a print run, and the amount of ink varies according to how much surface area there is on the type; wood type is generally broad-surfaced and thirsty, whereas metal type is smaller and finer, needing finer layers of ink rolled with a lighter touch. When I first arrived, I only had blue, red, yellow, black and a transparent mixing white, but an ex-commercial printer who now works at the Uni of Otago library brought in a gift of some pristine tins of Pantone colours: a variety of reds (rhodamine, rubine, warm red, all fabulous and important distinctions when mixing colours), a green, orange and a good dense rich black that does not shade into grey like most offset blacks. A most welcome gift, and one I'm using gratefully.

The other limitation, or maybe I should say, addition to the palette of choices, is the type itself. The Otakou press has a house font, Garamond, which is one I use extensively in my studio as well. So there is a healthy amount of that, plus a number of drawers of assorted fonts like Gill, Imprint Shadow, Plantin, Gothic Condensed, but not in any great quantity or variety of sizes. There is also a lot of very beautiful wood type, in many sizes (wood type is measured in 'lines' but I don't know what 'lines' actually means).

So, to print a poem as a poster, no matter what my idea is, I have to find a font that not only suits the feel of the poem, but also has enough characters in the drawer to set the whole poem and whatever I want to use around the page. I had to count every character in every poem and make a chart of the alphabet needs so that for each layout I can make sure that I can make the poem before I get halfway through and discover that there aren't enough Hs or something. And you know poets... they tend to use strings of words with the same letters, even if they aren't conscious that they're doing it (I don't even mean alliteration or rhyme... I mean just repetitions of letters generally).

My first attempt was a shape poem by NZ poet Sue Wootton, called No Strings Banjo. Donald thought that this would be one of the hardest poems to tackle, but actually, making a shape in letterpress is fairly easy if you stick to the basic principles of keeping all the lines the same length and making a shape within a block, like building pixels.

banjo forme

This turned into this:

Please excuse the torn base and the handwriting; this was my bon-a-tirer (good to print) reference copy for editioning purposes.

I didn't know that Sue was from Dunedin until she walked into the studio for a peek, and to my delight she was delighted with the layout, and adored the Fancy Western wood type as much as I do.

I wasted a lot of paper on that first edition, until I worked out my rolling technique. Donald forgave me, as he knew I'd been chucked in at the deep end. I thought the edition printed ok finally, but I know that by the time I get to the end of the residency, I'll look back at the quality of this first run and shudder.

The next batch, because I had such a clear picture in my head of the print, was Les Murray's At the Opera. Donald wanted COLOUR, and so I decided to give him some red, a good patchy red velvet curtain of a large wooden M.

Like this one, all rolled up and ready to print as this:

Another thing that Otakou Press has in abundance are wonderful vintage image blocks, ranging from whimsical Victoriana through to cheesy ads from the 70s and 80s, before everything moved to polymer plate. Donald wondered if I might not use a couple, like this one:

He thought it might be a good way to illustrate the word lorgnette, which is the central premise of the poem, but I decided to keep everything typographical, to stay away from the ready-made images, and make people do what I suspect Les Murray wanted people to do: go and look up the word.


So I'm beavering away, even on the weekends, because doing something every day is the only way I'll get everything done. I've had lots of visitors, including a bunch of wonderful librarians who have been helping me tear down the paper. Part of my brief was to promote the program locally, so I've had interviews with the local paper, the university paper and there's one coming up with the local tv station. I've talked to English students about working visually with poetry from a textual viewpoint, and to printmaking students about working with text as image and markmaking with moveable type.

I'm discovering how fast I can work if I only have one roller, and one colour, but that working fast gives me blisters. I printed 130 pages (I allow for bad printing!) in two and a half hours on Sunday to produce an under-layer for my Vincent O'Sullivan poem layout:

It's a poem about rocks in a river forming trains like bridal veils, so I've printed large pine type that has a distinct wood grain in a green-grey, and will make the three stanzas of the poem into charcoal-silver clumps that will have cool watery type trails.

While that layer dries, I'm working on the Stephen Edgar poem, a fabulous piece about imagining words in the air around oneself. While my inner vision is an airy one in dull colours, what has emerged from the type and colour resources (and Donald's yearning for colour) is quite different. It's early days yet, but I've pulled from the poem the notion of sunset revealing disintegrating words, so I'm using sunset colours of pinky-red and orange and black...

This is hot off the press this afternoon, my first tentative pull in one colour to see if the composition works. I'll be running this one through the press twice, like the O'Sullivan, which will cut into my time a bit. I can see the next two weeks being completely manic as I try to get everything printed in time for the folios to be collated by the last week. I've just finished talking to the most excellent university binder here about the folio design of black & white with a strip of overprinted proof inset into the front. Yum!

I have been blogging my Dunedin experiences, both printing and otherwise, at my personal blog, and there are more photos on my flickr page.

(BTW, If you're interested in purchasing Prime, you can contact Donald by emailing donald[dot]kerr[at]otago[dot]ac[dot]nz. Because the press is not-for-profit, they retail the PIR produce at very affordable prices, and pump all the money back into the residency. This folio of seven posters will be only NZ$250 plus postage and packing. We've already sold a third of the edition, so don't delay if you want one.)

Cross-posted at Ampersand Duck.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Social media at Slow Making

One of the consistent themes of the new Craft Movement(s) is the role of digital technology - Web 2.0; net connectivity; social media... the small physical footprint of the technologies (though the environmental and social cost of its manufacture is not discussed and acted upon enough), the ephemeral nature of content matching the whimsy and vigour of much contemporary practice, the role of design software during making.

Handmade Nation which documents the rise of the new design, craft and making cultures in the US has a presence in the US as a film on the indie circuit as well as the book. It also has a Facebook presence with a Facebook page. The Slow Movement is not strongly represented - Slow Food sites tend to be focused on webpages, rather than using social media except as a way to get information about events etc out there. There's also Alastair Fuad-Luke's Slow Design space, originally set up in 2004 which is connected to New York's SlowLab. Both use webpages as their most significant Web presence.

Which brings me to the point of this post - we've set up a Slow Making group on Facebook. I might be completely missing the reason as to why social media forms such as Facebook are so successful but having a Facebook page seems too passive. We hope that people will want to engage with the idea, the processes, share information and perhaps even work toward workshops or an exhibition (real or virtual) or the like. Our hope is that a Facebook group will work to generate that engagement in a way that a Facebook page wont.

Then again, that might be completely wrong. Perhaps using something like Ning might be more appropriate; having a group you have to join. Whilst I agree with Clay Shirky about the potential of cognitive surplus, I suspect a lot of the reason for Facebook's success is that most of the actions and responses we are likely to do are really pretty passive - from Superpoking to even commenting on a friend's status, we're not doing much more than a digital version of raising an eyebrow or waving across a room. Which is fine - but Facebook may not be the right forum for Slow Making.

So let us know what you think, join the group if you're so inclined - theoretically any posts here on the blog should be linked up the wall of the group. And let us know about other social media based groups where ethical and green making, craft and design information and ideas are freely moving about - most of us would have had some connection with the Open Source movement. Is it possible to foster something similiar around Slow Making, or are there virtual spaces we should be connecting into now?


Thursday, July 08, 2010


Earlier this year, I received an invitation for a group show. The overarching concept embodied in the show's title, A Container of Memories, is as open as it is frustrating. Sometimes the most open of briefs are the most difficult.

Apart from the issue of memory, who had been invited to exhibit and why formed part of the intellectual process that might go into the design of the piece. What I knew as the Canberra School of Art in the late 90s (now known as SOA, ANU) had evolved from the courageous notion of a national craft school, based on the atelier system, launched in the early 1980s. An antipodean Bauhaus. The founder of the Woodworkshop, George Ingham, stood down as head of workshop in 1999, to be replaced by Rodney Hayward in 2000. The show was to involve students and visiting artists who had been part of the workshop over the last ten years, but also to perhaps remark upon the aesthetic memory any maker carries after going through a course.

Because my two undergrad years at CSA were those of George leaving and then a temporary head of workshop, the aesthetic baggage I might carry is more of the English modernism that Ingham exemplified than the European sensibilities of the Krenovian tradition that Hayward has brought to the workshop. This is partly due to aesthetic preferences I'd already formed and partly about disposition - I am really more of a tinkerer; hence describing myself as an object maker - it hides a multitude of sins. Curious about how to solve the problem in the simplest way possible. At times blind to the potential promise of decoration; unmoved by the gaudy qualities of timber. A mechanic's daughter. Rodney's legacy is for me most profoundly centred on his nuanced holistic philosophy of making not just as process but its unique intellectual space, combining head, heart and hand.

So - quite how do you respond to a brief called A Container of Memories?

Last year, the SOA Gallery hosted a retrospective of Ingham's work. And as always Ingham's miraculous virtuosity as a technician sang from the pieces and remains on display in the accompanying book. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the design gods, the sheer achieve of the thing can on occasion render a coldness to some of Ingham's pieces. A Brunellian mechanical clarity that fires one's inner engineer but doesn't quite warm the cockles of your heart. Discussing the show afterward, what I thought really interesting were the number of women who focused on two small cabinets Ingham made in 1990. A metre high by 150mm wide and deep, they were six sectioned cabinets with doors and a back panel each decorated in leather and a narrative line of decoration. Wall mounted, they sat at average eye level so the top of each was about 1800mm from the ground (I stand to be corrected on that figure). I do think George was a very gendered maker, particularly when his work is viewed against the work of his partner, Pru Shaw - but I suspect that was very conscious on Ingham's part. For whatever reasons, those two cabinets were seen as approachable and defined as such in ways that other pieces were not.

A couple of months before my daughter's tenth birthday in April, madam was in full flight about her plans to be an inventor. At ten, she still has a child's form - curiously rectilinear; three sectioned; legs, torso then head. A scale of about 2:3, the top of her head comfortable for resting one's crossed arms on; a large marionette. In full flight, her hands and feet were cutting a dancer's lines through the air, whilst her torso stayed centred and still. In that moment her form, its scale, reminded me of Ingham's two cabinets. But it also raised the issue of memory.

One of the enormous privileges of parenting is having the chance to play Jane Goodall to a gathering of children, to do fieldwork in their natural environments. And the surprising issues and thoughts that are so often raised either by their questions or observing their patterns and actions. Memory is particularly interesting, as the clarity children have about events that adults don't even note, the intense seizing onto some memory as validation of definition of self is no less certain than an adult's. Memory is the only means by which we can truly define the individual self - without our own and the interlocking memories of those around us in our social webs, we are no longer who we may believe ourselves to be. The insistence on memory as validation is just as intense with a four year old child as it is for a eight nine year woman struggling to retain her recall. But memory is not truth, nor concrete, nor permanent. Neurologically, it is a marvel of electro-chemical engineering balancing evolutionary pressures but truth as we might like to define it, has little use to a highly evolved primate as a principle of memory. How the neurons of memory are laid down, under what conditions, and the frequency and how with which it is recalled, profoundly affect each memory. The rise of numeracy and literacy within human cultures is a culturally evolved response to the limitations of human biological memory.

In that moment of my daughter reminding me of a cabinet, lay both the certainty that she wont remember that conversation - it being just a transient moment in the flow of a household - but equally that I will remember, that it will become one of my strongest memories of her as a child as her boundless enthusiasm, potential and embodiment of potential memories (the future is, after all, a memory yet to happen) were encapsulated in the moment of her twirling hands and feet and stilled torso.

So I have a basic form at this point, referencing Ingham's cabinets but I'd like to introduce an element of movement to suggest Mim's physicality as well as scaling and situating the piece in relationship to her ten year old size. Movement also adds a discourse about the cabinet as holder of aide de memoire - in most domestic settings, things, bits, pieces, objects, are grouped on display - in cabinets, on mantelpieces, bookshelves; artfully or otherwise. Things kept, held, are to whatever degree precious - placed objects in a cabinet are more precious yet, an exclamation point of notice. However, usually a display is static, and in Japanese aesthetics, an object worthy of display must be viewed only from a single perspective - honored by the right aspect. The static siting of an object is central to Ingham's two cabinets, the preciousness highlighted by the doors securing the space. Asking someone to place their preciousnesses in something that swings and spins will mean that the object will be viewed from perspectives not at all expected, and is also something of a headfuck - movement threatens the equilibrium of an object. The possibility of one's sixteenth century Korean tea bowl tumbling onto the floor and breaking is not a comfortable prospect for most people.

Initially I'd machined up some boards of blackwood, Acacia melanoxylon - the remainder of a flitch I had bought in about 1992 and carted around since. On dry fit, the grain and tonality were awful - my fine sentimental mutterings about the tree's demise on a roadside in northern NSW after a bout of careless Council spraying were not going to make it work. Urban salvaged oak I'd bought 12 or so years ago from Richard Parsons in North Richmond offered hope, but the boards were extremely deformed and twisted. An oak grown somewhere on the Cumberland Plain near Penrith promised interesting grain but equally promised all the appalling habits of evil bastard wood. The memory of its past life resides in the cambium, years of little rain in tightly lain down cell lines, the patterns of medullary rays opening up in the wet years. It machined up much better than I had expected, but to use 120mm long mitres on 9mm stock means the joints are not at all load bearing. This also meant I had to figure how to hang the cabinet without any of the joinery being weight bearing.

Physics also insisted that for the cabinet to hang true, there had to be some manner of adjustment. As the back is also solid timber, if the cabinet is set to hang when empty absolutely vertical front to back, it will tip forward with any objects in it. Using 1.2mm steel wire captured in automotive electrical grommets wedged onto the 4.76mm steel rod allows for line lengths to be finely adjusted and to hold when the cabinet is fully weighted. As the rods can also be shifted sideways, balance points can be found across the vertical from side to side if necessary. It's pretty simple, but it requires a degree of finesse, an engagement by its user to its built requirements, to remember why the adjustments may need to be made, to develop a routine of tweaking to ensure it sits true, shelf gaps are even, lines run parallel or at even angles. A memory of engagement.

Finally, the cabinet also contains the memory of movement. As it swings and spins, it is responding to the touch of a viewer, a gust of wind, the curiosity of a child, a bump from a dog or passing vacuum cleaner. It is made for a domestic space, and as such will hopefully respond to the ebbs and flows of movement and being. In its name, Swing, what it will do is given but it also ties back to the moment with my daughter. For most of us, a common metaphor of childhood would be those hours spent on a swing - exhilarated, thrilled, terrified, expectant, exultant, comforted, held. Swing offers to hold the things that perhaps matter, the aide de memoire of precious.

A Container of Memories - SOA Gallery, ANU, Canberra
July 8 -31, 2010


Monday, October 26, 2009

Uncommon Press

A few months ago I watched a remarkable television show: Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press. Maybe you watched it too; because I'm a letterpress printer, I've had a lot of people ask me if I saw it. I did: it was part investigation into the way Gutenberg had earned his reputation as the Father of Letterpress, and part documentary about the recreation by a group of British press enthusiasts of a wooden hand press similar to Gutenberg's.

If you did watch the show, you'd remember that Gutenberg didn't actual invent the press itself, as hand presses had been used for printing woodblocks before his time. No, he is the Father of Letterpress for inventing a process to easily cast individual metal letters for the purposes of printing. It was much more of a jeweller/blacksmithery type of invention, really, and of course it revolutionised information technology as the world knew it.

While I was watching the show I remember thinking that, in my limited experience of Australian letterpress, and in my broader virtual observances of overseas letterpress, there seems to be two kinds of letterpress enthusiasts: those who live for the print, and those who love the machines. I've only known one person who combined elements of both, and he produced beautiful work.

Myself, I'm a print person, someone who loves what the process does rather than the process itself. I'm not particularly interested in the machines, and when something goes wrong with a press I'm working with, I’ll try to fix it intuitively, but if that doesn’t work I’m not afraid to look girlie and call people who are much handier with a spanner and screwdriver than I.

Canberra has a Museum of Printing quite close by in Queanbeyan; it's full of machines of different vintages, and that use different technologies, from iron presses to platen presses to cylinder presses and a working linotype machine. It was set up from the remnants of the Queanbeyan Age newspaper, and the people who run it (all volunteers, many of whom worked on the newspaper) love their machines. They get them working, they maintain them lovingly, and they print off the odd souvenir flyer to show the public what the machines can do. I don’t think there's a lot of print production happening there, and because I don’t worship the machines, I don't go there very often, which is quite remiss of me.

I bet all the QPM volunteers watched the Stephen Fry/Gutenberg show, and marvelled over the building of the wooden press; I bet they don't know, like I didn't, that a similar labour of love was happening just down the highway a bit. In Australia? Where most of our presses have been scrapped? Where it’s impossible to buy new metal type? Where the once quite healthy private press movement is now almost completely non-existent? Really?

Yes, really.

Let’s start with a little bit of printing history, a bit of context. I listed some printing presses above, but you probably don't know what I mean. Forgive me if I make a mistake here, I'm not a print history expert, I've just absorbed a few things in the time I've been involved with letterpress.

So, this is a press very similar to the one used by Gutenberg.

It is a wooden hand press, with most of the parts being wooden, and only some of the moveable parts of it made from metal, because it was very expensive to use metal at the time, as you can imagine. In fact, this press technology was the dominant form of print production for centuries, until the industrial revolution allowed metal casting to be a lot cheaper and large cast shapes were made possible. This allowed people to produce much more durable designs and you start getting presses that looked like this:

These are called iron hand presses. Similar concept to the hand press, in that you lay the type flat and press the paper onto it. Anyway, with all that marvellous industrial production capacity, from this point on press development went gangbusters, like everything else in the modern world, and presses changed shape rapidly over two centuries:

(That one is very similar to Miss Kitty, my beloved press.)

(Snaps to the marvellous Five Roses Press site for most of these images, a marvellous place to learn about letterpress.)

That first, wooden press is called the Common Press, because while there were many variants and slight improvements (and, I’d say, complete wackinesses) to its design over the centuries of its dominance, commonly they were all wooden with metal screws.

I'm pretty certain that, up to now, we haven't had a Common press in Australia, as we were colonised around the time of the Iron Press. Did you know that the First Fleet had a press on board? I read somewhere that there was no-one able to use it, so it festered in a hut for many years before being hauled out and put into use. One day I'll find that fact again and actually write down the details.

I received a hand-addressed letter a month or so ago, in gorgeous penmanship of a kind I haven’t seen in years. I had only seen the sender once in the last fifteen years, and that was only a few months before the letter arrived. He's one of those wonderful eccentric Australian people that set themselves up in the bush and do whatever the hell they want and the rest of the world can be buggered. When you get talking to them, they've had an interesting life, and are usually very well educated. This man, Richard Jermyn, is no exception.

I don't know a lot about Richard Jermyn. I've been told various stories, such as he is an ex-Navy man; he was an architect, so forth. I don't really know what is true and what apocryphal from the various stories. What I do know for certain is that he has a strong interest in letterpress and printing, and used to have a private press in the bush near Bemboka, NSW called the Indian Head Press, named for a nearby peak in the Bega Valley. He lived near my parents, who have a lot of respect for him, and they took me to meet him when I first started showing an interest in type and printing. I lost contact with him; he sold his Bemboka property and moved further south. Apparently he gave a lot of his equipment to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, and only kept the basics, and that’s the last I heard for a long time.

Then earlier this year I taught a bookarts workshop in Bega, and he popped in to say hello. I had a couple of my fine press books with me, and I was delighted when he looked through them seriously, with care and attention to detail, and then looked at me soberly and said 'good pressmanship' with the same sense of approval that the farmer says 'good pig' to Babe at the end of the movie, and I felt so happy I thought I would burst. I have had the pleasure of having my books admired by good people, but when an experienced pressman praises, it really means something.

So, the letter. It was only a computer-generated and photocopied invitation, but the content was very exciting.

Of course I went, how could I not? I took my mother, a local historian who could also appreciate the importance of the occasion. It was a most enchanting experience: driving down the highway to the furthermost eastern corner of the state, turning into a rough narrow dirt road just off the main road to discover a large green Colourbond shed surrounded by the usual scrap and detritus that is common to most farm barns, plus a rugged vegie patch and a rudimentary washing line full of simple clothes: shirts, worker's shorts, socks. Outside the door of the shed was a table set up with wine and nibblies. Not wanting to drink, I asked for something non-alcoholic, and was poured a glass of water from the tap attached to the rainwater tank.

A bit of chat with the others gathered around – mostly friends and press-making collaborators, only one other person having anything to do with printing – and then we were allowed into the 'Tin Tent' to discover a completely different world.

I was expecting... I guess I was expecting the usual printer's set-up, arranged around the inside of a green tin shed. I wasn’t expecting the ambience of hand-cut wooden beams and carefully yet carelessly arranged arrangements of various collections – saws, lathes, timbers, chains, plugs, books, tins. among many, many collated things – up the walls and on a big mezzanine that is obviously a living quarters as well.

It was a living working space, one indistinguishable from another.

Richard had arranged for some local musicians to sit up on the mezzanine level with violin and harpsichord.

They played (exquisitely) from above as we entered and saw, in a cleared space at the far end of the shed, the press that Richard and a group of friends had built by hand.

You see this picture? Look at this:

It was gobsmackingly wonderful to stand and look at this working replica of early printing history. I can’t begin to convey how privileged I felt to be there when it pulled its very first print.

I had borrowed my mother’s digital voice recorder, and managed to record Richard’s opening speech.

I’ll provide a bit of it here, to give you an example of the gobsmackery:

This was started at the beginning of the year; I think the first of January I started to first put plane to wood. I might just go through quickly a bit of the language of the common press, the various parts, and you’ll see on the printed matter that I’ve made a bit of an explanation and some of the background, but basically this press was derived from plans … from a double volume book called The Common Press, which is the documentation of the common press that is in the Smithsonian Institution in America. Without the plans in this book I would not have contemplated it, but I looked at it and thought ‘I’ll have a go at this’. Just shows the things you can do in a moment of rashness.

The original plans called for oak, elm, beech timber, and the big departure has been that this is not European timber, this is all Australian hardwood. This is where Les and other people have come in. So, from the bottom down: the Feet are the hobs of the Tathra Wharf (there’s a story behind every piece), the Cheeks are (pretty ratty, you can see the difficulty of getting big enough timber)… basically wharf timber from North Bega.

These pieces... that’s the Head, and the other big lump down the bottom, that’s the Winter; those two pieces take the whole of the impression. These are dove-tailed into the cheeks, there’s a big dovetail running up in here, top and bottom, and those pieces take the whole pressure of the press, and these are Roads and Traffic Authority guideposts.

[laughs from viewers, someone says: they don’t make guideposts like that anymore!]

You can see a bit of the original timber there, I’ve written the dimensions there: 8 1/4 x 7 3/4 x 24 3/4, and that’s the offcut. So that’s the Winter. And somewhat ironically, the Summer is this little strip here...

If you want more of that verbal tour, you can download the files and hear for yourself. I’ve broken it into chunks, and apologies for some of the incidental noise, especially my iphone beeping at me. I taped until I stopped to have a go myself. None of the chunks are more than six or seven minutes:

Part 1: Richard Jermyn: Acknowledgement of the local Aboriginal peoples (this is about 30 seconds; I didn't mean to separate this out from the rest of the acknowledgements, but I was experimenting with the sound software)

Part 2: Richard Jermyn: thanking all those who were involved

Part 3: Richard Jermyn: Details about the parts of the press and what materials they used.

Part 4: Richard Jermyn: a live recording of pulling the first print

Part 5: Richard Jermyn: more live printing

Part 6: Richard Jermyn: an explanation of the metal screwthread and how it was made

The detail, the terminology, it’s all something you’d expect to see and hear in a museum, but it’s alive and well in a tin shed in Pambula. Amazing. Apparently this press will outlive anything built in European wood, thanks to the hard woody goodness of our Australian timbers.

Look at that woodcut of early printing again. See the inkballs used for printing? Richard had even put together a couple of those, made with wooden handles, horsehair and the remnants of a friend’s leather jacket. They worked really well, and he put a friend on printing duty while he supervised the press working.

On dabbed the ink, the paper (dry, not damp: he didn’t dampen machine-made paper) was inserted onto the guides, the tympan (made from real vellum) lowered onto the frisket and the whole lowered onto the forme (which is the locked-up type). Then he got friends to turn the handle that moved the type under the platen, and pull the lever that lowered the platen onto the type to make an impression. That prints the first page. Then the forme is rolled further along and the second page of the sheet is printed.

When the tympan was lifted to reveal a (fairly roughly) printed page, we all sighed deeply, no one more than Richard himself, who had very bravely and generously waited until we were all assembled to see if his press actually worked. This is what we took turns printing:

Don’t bother counting the typos: we know they are there, but there wasn’t time to change them, because the music was playing, and the wine was being slurped, and we were all taking turns to use the inkballs and turn the handle, and pull the lever – which, incidentally, explained a lot to me about why there weren’t many women in the trade. It’s hard work to pull that lever! I don’t think I could possibly print on that press regularly, although it would be akin to working out on a rowing machine, and probably very good for me.

>Just in case you can’t see the image, the book he used to build the press was called The Common Press: being a record, description & delineation of the early Eighteenth Century Handpress held in the Smithsonian Institution by E. Harris, C. Sisson (London: Merrion Printers, 1978). He used local craftsmen to help with timberworking and the blacksmithing.

He showed me the book after we stopped printing (only because we ran out of paper!) and it is incredibly detailed, with cross-sections, x-rays of inserts, plans and materials. Still, there’s no way I would look at something like that and think ‘I could do that’. I only do that with pictures of things people have printed.

I think everyone came away from the Tin Tent that day feeling privileged and excited. Richard had invited the local media but they didn’t show, and it’s their loss. Richard told me that he has happily spent $10,000 building this press. There is a thread on Briar Press about the possibility of building such a press, and I can’t wait for Richard to receive the praise he deserves for achieving it. He hopes to move it to somewhere more accessible, but in the meantime he will show it by appointment to anyone who is interested. You can read his contact details on the letter at the start of this post, otherwise feel free to email me and I will pass on his details. If you want to see more images of the press and the day's proceedings, go to my flickr set.

Richard Jermyn

[cross-posted at Ampersand Duck the website and Spike, the Meanjin blog]

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

What's Next?

The video below comes from the US based environmental journal, Orion. In many ways, it is a very immediate response to the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States. But it also asks that all-pervading question that we do have to address.

What's next?

And it is a very pertinent question for makers, artists, craftspersons.

What's Next? from Orion Magazine on Vimeo.

As a number of the speakers said, understandings and ways forward are best articulated by art, literature, making. In these spaces can we imagine what we haven't yet imagined or made real - some are solutions, some are arguments, some are reasons why things can't just run along the same tired course.

And if we the makers, the artists, are going to contribute what I think we certainly have to, our bit of answering a part of that 'What Next' question in the here and now, what are some of the possibilities we might offer?

Shall we be Luddites? Shall we be ethical? Shall we be the jesters? Shall we tell our neighbours, our families, our children about the emperor's clothes? Shall we engage, finding new pathways through virtual worlds of possibility? Shall we make beauty? Shall we be the solution, not part of the problem?