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Letterpress and Zine Making: Improvising at the End

Dan and Tony are consulting with a young woman named Colleen about the taped and stapled pages spread across the tables. “Remember how the pagination works differently with the saddle stitches we’re doing,” Tony says.

“The staples will show up,” Dan says.

“But that will be cool,” Tony says. “This is always part of the process—improvising at the end.”
Miranda: Megawords-at-ICA1

Miranda: Megawords-at-ICA1

It’s early on Saturday morning, and Dan and Tony, who form the collaborative Megawords, are beginning day three of a free four-day zine-making workshop sponsered by ICA, Kelly Writers House, and Common Press. This workshop is loosely associated with ICA’s exhibition One is the loneliest number, which explores two-person art making collaboratives and is organized by ICA Assistant Curator Kate Kraczon, whose idea this workshop was. Megawords is part of that show, and the zines produced this weekend will be on display in Megawords’ exhibition and programming space on ICA’s mezzanine.Most of the people here this morning have never made a zine before. Maybe some of you reading this don’t even know what a zine is. Last week at an ICA curatorial meeting, where Kate filled us in about the zine she was dreaming up about “junk foods that I bring back from trips…a love letter to things like the Hubiq’s pies I brought back from New Orleans!” the question was discussed: how is a zine different from a magazine?A zine is handmade, so each one is a little different—intentionally or unintentionally. Zines are often distributed for free, and they usually have small print runs: the ones made this weekend will have print runs of 25, courtesy of ICA’s copier. To me, zines have a pleasantly grungy feel about them, a scent of disaffection, a kinship with graffiti, tattoos, 2 AM subway rides, and underground music. But that doesn’t mean they’re not as considered, planned, sweated over, and obsessively reworked as any other work of art or literature. Spend half an hour with Tony and Dan, and you’ll see how seriously they take their work.The same goes for Matt Neff, an artist who also runs Common Press at the University of Pennsylvania, which, he explains, is both a teaching tool and a professional shop. As he leads us down the steps of the Morgan building on 34th Street, he says, “It looks like a creepy basement, but it gets a lot of use.”
Miranda: Press-Bed-One1

Miranda: Press-Bed-One1

Matt gives us the tour: the two galley proof presses, one from the sixties and one from the fifties, and the old-fashioned, nineteenth century press like the kind Ben Franklin used. He talks about the type, some of which is wood and some metal. “The thing about wood type is it gets damaged, and that’s part of the aesthetic. They don’t make it anymore, so it’s hard to get a complete set. You might want to set something that has three ks, and we might only have two.”

He explains how letterpress has lots of parameters. “Working against those parameters really yields interesting results,” he says, and Tony adds, “And things will start to happen just in the process of doing it! The idea of the unpredictability of the zines and the photocopies, we get some of that here.”

The students decide to make a broadside, with all their names on it, that will advertise Megawords and everyone’s zines. Matt shows them the drawers of type, which are labeled with wonderful names: Wood Type, Dingbats, 14 Univers, 18 Univers Light, 24 Univers Bold. They start setting up the “beds” of the two galley proof presses, choosing type they like and spelling out their names. “Top is always top,” Matt says, demonstrating, “but if I want it to be readable, I have to stack it backwards.” He says, “There’s type as a way to communicate words, and there’s type as design. Sometimes we talk about filling a page with type or images, and sometimes we talk about using a page to make an image.”
Miranda: Press-Bed-Two1

Miranda: Press-Bed-Two1

Students mill around, pulling out drawers, laying out letters. “I’m starting to lose track of which way letters normally go,” someone says: “Did you mean Deb? Or Bed?”

Someone puts some music on. The room falls into a quiet, productive hum. Matt starts putting furniture into the beds—bars of wood or metal that fill up the extra spaces so the letters don’t move. He moves some of the pieces around like a puzzle, measures, finds some more furniture: “Let’s try that.” Soon Matt will lock the bed up, put pressure on it, apply ink. Each broadside will be a little different from the rest—intentionally or unintentionally.

The big-bellied, nineteenth century press sits in its corner, looking jealously on. If the young Ben Franklin were alive today, you can bet he would have been a zine-maker.
Miranda: Finished-Zines1

Finished zines! Photo: Kate Kraczon

One is the loneliest number, with Megawords on the mezzanine, is on view at ICA now!