“This is enough to get us through tonight, isn’t it?” Grace says, grabbing two reams of paper and heading out the door.
It’s the morning of ICA’s long-anticipated Jason Rhoades, Four Roads opening, and we’re in a hurry. Before the day is over, nearly seven hundred people will pass through our big glass doors, and we still have to print the program card—the list of all ICA’s public programs scheduled for the fall. We cross campus at a brisk pace, talking about the color of the paper (pink), and the inks we’re going to use for printing (red and black), and the location of the machine we’re going to use: the offices of the Common Press, Penn’s print studio, in the basement of the Morgan Building. “It’s really nice to go down there and make something,” Grace says.
Unlike exhibitions, which are typically scheduled years in advance, public programs have a narrower lead time. Grace, ICA’s Spiegel Programming Fellow, works with Alex, the program curator, and the exhibition curators to bring the most interesting guests to ICA for Salons, performances, lectures, Free For Alls, screenings, conversations, 3-D slide shows, masked karaoke extravaganzas, workshops, music, and interactive games, and there are always details that refuse to be pinned down as quickly as anyone would like.
Luckily, ICA has a secret weapon. The Riso, or Risograph Printer-Duplicator, is a printing machine from Japan, popular in the 1970s, which we purchased a couple of years ago to make simple, beautiful posters inexpensively and fast. “It’s a way for us to be really responsive with our print materials,” Grace says. “Right now we’re still confirming some things for the fall, but that’s okay, because we can redo the cards.” She keys in the code for the Morgan building and leads us down the stairs, where a machine the size of a dishwasher is tucked in a corner. I’d been imagining something more like my elementary school’s hand-cranked mimeograph machine, but this is much more advanced. “It’s like if you combined an offset printer and silk screening together,” Grace says.
She takes a sheet of paper with the first part of the design and lays it on the bed of the Riso to make an impression in the first color. She’ll make a separate impression for each color ink and build up the layers one at a time. “You have to think about which colors you want to do in which order,” she says. “The colors all have different personalities. Blue is smeary. Yellow sits really well on the paper, who knows why? I think we’ll do the red side first.” She points out the rubber roller that grabs the paper and pulls it through. “It’s important to leave a blank on the edge of the design so the roller can grab the paper without smearing what you’ve already printed,” she explains. “But if it does smear, that’s okay—the ink is removable with a white eraser. It’s just a pain to go through and erase 500 things.”
She presses the button to make a master. The Riso makes a little racket: whine-thump, whine-thump, whine-thump.
“What’s it doing?”
“The phrase is ‘burn,’” Grace says. “It’s taking the wax coating off of the master roll from wherever there’s going to be a printed image. The ink will be pushed through these spaces and onto the paper.”
A sheet of inked paper shoots out of a slot in the side of the machine. Grace holds up the proof and examines it.
“You can see there was a piece of dust or something,” she says, pointing, and begins cleaning the glass bed. Then she makes another proof: whine-thump, whine-thump, whine-thump.
After a few more proofs, Grace is satisfied. She sets the machine to print 200 copies, slowly at first, then, as she presses a button on the Riso’s flank, faster and faster.
Now it’s time to change the ink color to make the next layer. The individual color drums are pricey. ICA only bought red, black, and blue to start with, but we’ve been slowly purchasing more: yellow, burgundy, emerald green. “Hot pink is the next color we want,” Grace says, running the paper through to overlay the black.
The Riso, Grace explains as the 200 sheets run through the machine again, is enjoying a Renaissance moment. “We were just in Chicago, and the MCA out there had a Riso-printed program card. Artists are using it for artist’s books. Isaac and Thom from our crew are going to be designing a program calendar for ICA@50 using the Riso.” As the pink sheets fly into the tray, you can see how the result is an almost hand-made quality, with small imperfections and differences that make each print unique.
Unfortunately, our cards have a bigger imperfection too. Despite having left the requisite margin, some of the red smeared when the black ran through, leaving a faint mark on every copy.
Still, as Grace said, it’s fixable. She gets out the white erasers, and we all set to work. Luckily for us, we only printed 200.
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