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Opinion 10: On printing

By Kim Võ I remember it was March 2020, just a few days before everything got shut down. Walking down the corridors, I arrived just in time for the pin-up presentation of Foundations of Design: Representation (FoDR). It was the first and would be the last time, for these first-year students of that semester to experience the unique experience of a studio review, a deeply rooted tradition of design schools across the world. The walls were filled with drawings, pinned up neatly in perfect alignment, an etiquette that the tutors must have instructed to their students a week before. Students took turns standing in front of their drawings. Some were holding their croissants, pointing to their pinned drawings, and explaining how they extracted and translated the objects they were holding in their hands into lines, symbols, and notes on their pin-ups. On that day, one could see a queue forming outside the print room for the whole day. The atmosphere at the school was swelling with anxiety about our uncertain future, about an unnamed plague that had arrived at our shore. But it was also filled with excitement and a different kind of anxiety, the kind that you would have when you wait at the printer for the first time, like a child, staring at this mysterious machine that will make all sorts of noise and movement before delivering your work into this material world. Prints were produced, carried, and pinned up in the review room. Critics would examine and point at the prints while conversing with the students. Some prints stayed on the wall even after the review, some were torn down and tucked away hastily, and some were left behind on the table. One could hear someone complaining about how the colour on these prints was “not quite right.” One could catch someone staring intensely at the print, forgetting for a moment about the unfolding turmoil on that very day.

And that was the last day of it!

The day after the government announced, and later confirmed by the university, a nationwide lockdown. It was supposed to be a temporary measurement that turned into 260 days of movement restriction for the city of Melbourne. The screen was the only means for each of us to interact with the world. Studio culture was forced to adapt to this new condition, same principle but different in form and medium. The review remained. In the virtual pin-up board, out the printing and physical models. Assignments were redesigned. The studio protocol was rewritten. Even when the threat of the virus has become a remote past, returning to the way things were before is somewhat unthinkable. How could one remain the same when the unprecedented became the only mode of existence for two

years? The pandemic showed us that the studio could survive and do away with printing. The virtual presentation opens many new possibilities: increased accessibility, cost reduction, broader international outreach, etc. Since then, FoDR has never asked students to produce any prints as part of the submission requirements. Has the pandemic just killed off printing in architecture and design schools?

Printing is dead! Long live printing!

One might think the MSD Media Lab is not exactly a great place to hang out and chill since it would be filled with busy students trying to print, trim paper, scan, or borrow equipment. The truth is that I have been hanging in the print room whenever I was procrastinating on my work for the last two semesters. The space has been surprisingly empty and quiet ever since we returned to campus after the pandemic. Kalvis, the head of the Media Lab, told me that the number of print jobs had slowly gone up compared to last year. But still, it was only around a third of the pre-pandemic level. As usual, the majority of the job requests are submitted around mid-semester and final reviews. But there are fewer print requests during the teaching weeks. Perhaps, the habit formed during the pandemic and the rise of the cost of living have made weekly prints for desk crit a rarity.

Admittedly, printing appears to fall out of favour nowadays. Billboards are now replaced with gigantic LED screens, switching between text and images of different advertisements on the same day. People keep photos on their phones instead of in the thick photo albums that their grandparents have. Prints are not exactly the most attractive pieces in galleries, and you can see their display space has been slowly reduced. Everyone now has a screen in their pocket. Screen technology has been further advanced in the last few years, producing more vibrant and convincing colours. At the same time, whenever you go to any office printing area, you can find a note telling you to reconsider if you really need to print. The environmental impact of printing is unimaginable, from ink and paper production to energy consumption and the disposal of unused prints. All of this had already been considered before 2020. The pandemic just happened to speed this up. I doubt printing would die entirely. We said the same about lots of things like film camera, vinyl player, fountain pen, etc., but they keep sticking around. Whenever there is a proliferation of a paradigm-shifting technology, one always encounters a countermovement, a nostalgic project. I would rather not dwell on this aspect when talking about printing, specifically about the craftmanship of turning a drawing into an artefact through the use of artisan paper and arduous labour. In my opinion, the nostalgic project glorifies the “good old past” through the coloured lens of the present, without critically assessing the ontological nature of the technique and medium. Every medium and technique are both capable and incapable of rendering a certain form of expression, which produce a distinctive epistemological framework structuring our perception of reality. A painting is unique because it is a removable flat surface (canvas, timber panel, paper) covered in paint media, which is different from a mural, an immovable flat surface constrained in an architectural setting covered in paint media.

A print is a removable flat surface (paper, canvas, vinyl) covered with ink and can be mass-produced by a printer. We will not go into the history of printing starting with Johannes Gutenberg during the 15th century. Instead, I like to point out that, unlike painting or mural, there is a complete schism between the making of the printed content and the making of the print itself. In painting, the content and the painted surface itself are interweaved, simply inseparable. Every paint stroke on the surface dictates the outcome of the work itself. In printing, content creation is a separate step. A matrix, either cut or engraved on wood, linoleum, or copper, is prepared in the earliest printing techniques. A negative is developed in the photographic process. And a digital file is created for the contemporary industrial printing process. The “content,” in whichever form, is then put through a printing process of transferring ink onto a sheet of paper.

It is a common assumption that the creative process stops at preparing the content and the making of the print is purely production. In the art world, every produced print is simply

an “impression,” varying in colours, tonality, and material substance. Depending on the edition of the print and who was the printmaker, the value of the print can be significant. In photography, printmaking, also known as the darkroom process, is an important step that can sometimes be considered the other half of the photo-making process. The same negative can be printed under various processes, producing significantly different outcomes. An exhibition between April and May this year, From Dags to Digital, at XYZ Photo Gallery, a small private photographic gallery in Docklands, gave a glimpse into the history of photographic print processes. The number of commercial printing techniques are staggering in the last 200 years since the birth of photography: salted paper, daguerreotype, cyanotype, albumen, ambrotype, tintype, carbon print, Woodburytype, platinotype, collotype, gelatin silver, photogravure, photochrome, halftone, Van Dyke brown, dye destruction, bromoil, wirephoto, dye transfer, dye sublimation, chromogenic print, dye diffusion transfer, inkjet, 3D lenticular, cromalin, digital laser, etc., to name a few that were parts of Garrie’s, the gallery owner, private collection. Moving along the gallery wall, seeing one print next to the other, the differences are not in the terms, historical context, and science of the processes, but most obviously are the differences in image qualities. It is presumptuous to claim one process is “better” than the other in terms of how closer to reality the resulting print is. Each print renders a unique “look:” the distinctively cyan tone of cyanotype, the metallic luminescence of platinotype, and the faded sepia colours of salt prints. In my last attempt to explore rural Victoria before leaving Australia, I happened to visit Gold Street Studios in Trentham, owned by Ellie Young, a photographer and a renowned expert in the salt print process. Ellie told us she had nothing against inkjet printing, but the idea of just sending someone the files to print and put on display was simply not her way. For Ellie, the printing process is even more important than composing and taking the photograph. When looking at Ellie’s prints, the subjects acquire unusual clarity, raising themselves out of the flatness of the print despite being rendered only in a sepia tone. The photographic subjects were faithfully depicted, yet at the same time not, taking on their own realities in a glorious symphony of the chemical components and the captured light. It is simply ignorant to regard print simply as a means to deliver content. A print is an expression that inevitably conditions how we perceive the content.

Perhaps, there is no point to demonstrate such nuance in this magazine as I would avoid shooting myself into the foot by poorly replicating the above prints with a lower-quality office inkjet printer. Yet, the schism between content and the print itself requires a different awareness for a printmaker in comparison to a painter. Remember the rookie mistake everyone once made when they printed their project on paper for the first time: the text was either too small or too big, the line weight did not appear, and the detail you had spent hours doing was barely legible. Kalvis has endless stories about these issues, especially when the printmaker would blame the printer not their lack of awareness of the real world. The printer has its physical constraints for the minimum printhead, the type of print technology that allows how small the details can be, unlike the screen where you can just zoom in infinitely. (Yes, remember the meme in all these investigation movies and shows when a detective asked to zoom in on a tiny, pixelated image a thousand times, have you tried it yourself? Even the screen has its limitation). But more importantly, the choice of font size, line weight, and printed scale predicate a distance between the viewer and the print. A good pin-up presentation knows how to utilise this, from capturing the attention from far away down to the moment when the reviewer already has their nose touching the print. Every print has a built-in spatial codification of how it is presented. Imagine the spatial difference between viewing a print in a book, a printed poster, or a printed map. Are they meant to be up close in your hands, on a wall far away, or flat on a table? The intended display space can also dictate how the print is designed. A poster in a corridor cannot be designed the same way as a billboard at an intersection. Unlike presenting on a projected screen, you cannot just “zoom in” a print when someone told you that they cannot see it. The ink is already dried on the page.

We have never been “truly” digital!

With such hassles, one might eventually ask if it is even worth the effort when the digital screen can just bypass the above constraints. The screen has its own set of problems. Have you ever sat in a review when the content was presented on a screen and one reviewer got annoyed because they could not compare drawings side by side, or the tedium of a reviewer asking the presenter to go to a specific slide so they could view it again? During the lockdown, many design studios used a virtual pin-up board where online reviewers can just look at all the drawings at their own pace. When we returned back to campus, that virtual pin-up board has not worked as smoothly as when everyone was doing the review virtually on their own screen. Even when you hand every viewer in a room a tablet, it is still a very isolated viewing experience, heavily mediated through different interfaces. The printed medium allows viewers the option to both take part in the communal viewing experience and step out to examine details on their own. With the digital screen, it is an either/or situation. You either focus on what the presenter shows you on the screen together with other viewers or become a backseat driver and tell the presenter what you want to see at the cost of other viewers.

If a print creates a specific ontology, a screen does too.

To plagiarise Bruno Latour, I think we have never been “truly” digital. We have been using a screen as a substitute for a print, at least in many design schools. Following our rationale above, a screen is a flat surface capable of displaying digital information via a media player. The very unique aspects of digital media in comparison to traditional media are that they are “moving images,” and they can be interacted. Showing a video of how you move through a building on a screen makes perfect sense since the point is about the transition between different spaces not the design of the space itself (which I believe conventional architectural drawings: plan, section, isometric, etc. can do more objectively). The other case is when the content was produced by a digital tool the representation of it via traditional media would reduce significantly the captured information. One example is the point cloud captured by a 3D scanner. And another one, surprise, surprise, is the 3D model itself. One of the most impressive uses of the digital screen presentation I have seen was done by the students working under the guidance of Armature Globale, a Milanese architecture studio, for the 2022 Venice Studio Melbourne workshop in January. The presentation was done entirely in Rhinoceros, a common 3D software in many design schools. Unlike the typical workflow where one uses the 3D Rhino file as a base and exports different drawings out of the model, the student team constructed a virtual space within Rhino, containing the digital model of the final product along with its previous iterations, juxtaposed by floating text and images. The haphazard look of the whole presentation might appear as tacky to many. Yet, in the actual presentation, we were guided through the text, reference images, and the models viewed from different angles in all glory. The experience felt like a fly-through in digital space in which the 3D models did not have to pretend to be conventional drawings. It is a fitting presentation for a project that was conceived by experimental 3D software through large input of data. The design was not conceptualised via conventional architectural drawings. It is not a conventional “building” in any sense, but a formal experiment on building envelope and its limitation. The representation of the project shows a different possibility offered by the digital screen. It also critically situates the representation method whether printed drawings or digital media, not as an end product of the design process, but as an ontological framework to bring about the design project.


In the last few weeks, I have been going through my belongings, deciding what to throw away, donate, go into storage, and bring with me for my next two years in the US. I came across boxes and folders filled with printed drawings of my mid-semester and final presentations during my master’s study. Examining the prints, snapshots of my thoughts of those years, reminiscing my inexperience, growth, and failures, and how far I have come to this point. I still keep the digital files of these prints but rarely look at them on the screen again unless I have to compile a portfolio. With digital files, the chance of accidental re-encounter is minimal unlike discovering some displays you never meant to find while wandering distractedly in a gallery. The physicality of prints in our material world, either precious or waste, means that they are always there waiting to be discovered again. I remembered a presentation by an archivist from the Canadian Centre for Architecture, who highlighted the challenge of digital archival because the technology became obsolete very quickly. The files they gathered from a project a few years ago might not be readable anymore simply because the software was discontinued. The immateriality of the virtual is both its virtual and vice. With some fleeting thoughts, I put the prints back into the boxes for storage, leaving them behind, my personal history, my archive to be rediscovered again.


Image credit:

Kim Võ


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