By Jason Foumberg
In 1970 the Xerox Corporation founded a technology think tank called the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), and soon invited artists-in-residence, and gave them free reign to copy machines and computers, spawning the “new media” art boom.
But Xerox’s competitor, RISO, from Japan, planned no such artful scheme. They just wanted to get low-cost copy machines to their customers. But, artists found RISO, and with fervor. They found them on Craigslist, in libraries, at used-office-technology warehouses. The Risograph was designed to spit out thousands of school newsletters and church bulletins at a fraction of Xerox’s cost—in color. Over the past five years, self-publishing has thrived in Chicago thanks to RISO. The machine is seemingly made-to-order for alternative printmaking.
About the size and shape of a copy machine, the RISO is more like a screen-printing machine (but less of a mess) and can churn out color prints quickly using stencil technology. Risograph prints are decidedly lo-fi, inky, small and inexpensive to produce. I’ve seen prints sell from $2 to $50. The image style depends on the artist. I’ve seen Bauhaus-like geometries, psychedelic comics and designer broadsides. Comic artists, graphic designers, conceptual artists, zine producers, illustrators—everyone gets in on RISO, especially artists going the independent or self-published route. RISO is very much part of the “graphic arts” movement we’re currently experiencing in contemporary art.
George Wietor, of Issue Press in Grand Rapids, is one of the most knowledgeable persons in the risoverse. He says the oldest RISO art studio, to his knowledge, is in Nijmegan, the Netherlands. The Japanese copy machine, invented in the mid-1980s, somehow migrated to Europe and then spread everywhere. With soy-based ink and no toner emissions, it’s earth friendly. It also produces the jazziest hot pink you’ll ever see. At least three publishers interviewed for this article mentioned how the RISO’s pink ink is without equal.
Chicago is enamored with Risograph prints. In the week I researched and wrote this article, two prominent graphic artists purchased RISO machines. Angee Lennard just added a RISO to her West Loop printmaking co-op studio, Spudnik Press, which generally houses more traditional printmaking presses. “We like that the Risograph offers some of the same aesthetic advantages of hand-made prints,” she said. Lennard acquired her RISO from the Skokie Library.
Serendipitously, this week Marc Fischer of Temporary Services also acquired a RISO (also second-hand) for his Half Letter Press. This machine will be in use during the Fall, 2014 exhibition “A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action,” at SAIC.
I envision a year when every Chicago apartment art gallery contains a small Risograph printer. The RISO fits neatly within Chicago’s art ecology, since our artists are naturals at creating and promoting self-directed projects. Today, several artists do keep the RISO machines in their apartments. The RISO has found a happy home here.
Kyle Schlie was perhaps the first to set up a RISO art studio in a Chicago domestic setting. In Pilsen, in early 2011, Schlie purchased a machine from a pastor in Indianapolis, and Spare Press was born. It is mostly a bookmaking studio, but it has an important community aspect.
Perhaps in retort to the Xerox PARC artist residency program from the 1970s, Schlie created Spare as a Risograph residency which he operates from a spare room. Artists from Italy, the Netherlands and elsewhere have traveled to print with him. The residency lasts two or three weeks. They print in editions of thirty to one-hundred, which sell from $8 to $12 each. Spare’s specialty is artist books. “I’m interested in working with people who challenge the format of the book,” said Schlie on a recent afternoon in his living room.
A half mile from Spare is another prolific Risograph art studio. Clay Hickson runs Tan & Loose from his apartment, and works mostly with local artists to publish art prints. Hickson got his machine in autumn of 2011 from Craigslist. Luckily it was in good working condition.
Hickson and I met in his manicured art studio to look at prints and talk RISO. Trained as a screen-printer, Hickson doesn’t even like to compare the two printmaking techniques. “Part of the charm of Riso,” said Hickson, “is its flaws and imperfections.” Color-separation registrations, or layers, don’t always match up. The colors can be finicky. “It’s not ideal for art prints,” he laughs. The format reminds him more of countercultural publishing, “more about quantity than quality.” Still, Tan & Loose’s prints are impactful, psychedelic and fun. Hickson has certainly cultivated a vibe with Tan & Loose. The prints sell between $3 and $10.
Surprisingly, Risograph thrived in the hands of Chicago’s graphic designers. In fact, the Museum of Contemporary Art was the first Chicago institution to produce in-house Risographs for their artistic benefit. With James Goggin as the new director of design, print and digital media, hired in 2010, he immediately purchased a machine for the museum, and broadsides were produced as free takeaways for museum visitors. (Goggin left the MCA in 2013 but continues to run his design firm, Practise, here.)
Goggin recalls first seeing Risograph prints in the mid-2000s in Amsterdam, made in a punk, DIY-style. But in a design office, publishing can feel distant. You’re clicking all day on a computer, then emailing files to some foreign country for printing. “It’s refreshing to get ink on your fingers,” said Goggin, on his effort to bring the printing press back into the design studio.
At the MCA Goggin turned the entire staff into RISO diehards. Current design director Christopher Roeleveld runs the machine at the MCA, and also owns a personal one at his home. He calls his RISO studio Working Knowledge, and it serves as an outlet for his more artistic side projects. If a designer must always meet the demands of a client, then in-home printing is where the experimentation happens. “You can do it at night when nobody’s looking,” said Roeleveld.
“It produces kinda shitty prints,” jokes Roeleveld. “From an engineering side, it’s not graceful.” Still, he says, “The whole invention is brilliant.” He mentions that “affordability is the company’s ethos. You don’t see the Xerox corporation saying, ‘we’re going to make a mom-and-pop printing press.’”
By June of 2012, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago purchased a RISO, quickly followed by DePaul University. “I’m a RISO evangelist,” said Scott Roberts, associate professor at DePaul, who is one of many comics artists using and teaching the RISO. Risograph printing is especially popular with underground comics artists in the city. And now with these institutional producers, Risograph education and production, we’ll see an unprecedented upsurge.
But why RISO, and why now, when digital printing is also accessible? “People are enamored with the process. It’s fetishized,” said Roeleveld. “I call it back-to-the-land 2.0,” he says. “It’s a search for authenticity for the younger generation.”
Hickson agrees. “Digital doesn’t feel special, like anything I would want to see out in the world.” He adds, “It feels part of a cool movement.”
Look for Risograph prints and books on June 28 at the Printers Ball at Spudnik Press, 1821 West Hubbard.