License article

Press gang

Once considered obsolete, offset printing technology is being revived by artists.

When Sydney designer Zoe Sadokierski needs to print a copy of one of her sketches or illustrations, she finds contemporary technology isn't always up to the task. Efficient and frustratingly exact, laser and inkjet printers can't compete with the imperfect beauty created by old-school machines, she says.

''There's something wrong about a digital print … of a hand-drawing,'' she says. ''That doesn't work for me.''

Sadokierski's preferred tools are industrial machines rendered obsolete by more sophisticated devices. In Sydney, she has experimented with two old printers. The first, a lithographic offset proofing press, is run by the Big Fag Press collective in Woolloomooloo and can create large, limited-edition maps and art posters on anything from plastic to metal.

The second, a Risograph duplicator (Riso), is a precursor to the modern photocopier and creates cheap, bold stencil prints on rough paper. It is operated by The Rizzeria, an artists' co-operative that runs regular public workshops in Darlinghurst.

These groups, along with the Melbourne Risograph Printers Guild and Benchpress in Perth, are among artist-run presses that have sprung up globally in recent years.

''The Riso is very different from a digital printer,'' Sadokierski says. ''It's much more like screen printing, so that slows down the process. There is a sense of randomness - you're not exactly sure what's going to come out.''


Unlike most modern printers, which use four colours - cyan, magenta, yellow and black - the Riso only prints one or two colours at a time, say The Rizzeria's Jo Ellis and Leigh Rigozzi. It's cheap, portable printing. ''People don't use [the Risograph] if they want a completely slick, polished-looking print,'' Rigozzi says. ''It's a very DIY aesthetic.'' Perfect for the zine community. ''It's got a rough quality, but it can also be very fine,'' Rigozzi says. ''You can get beautiful tones out of the machine, and because we're only printing spot colours, it has a certain quality in common with early newspaper comics, especially when the colours don't quite line up.''

But the act of printing is just as important as the result, says one of the directors of Big Fag Press, Diego Bonetto. His group bought the printer for $50 at a liquidation sale, learnt the craft from master technicians and pass on their skills to anyone who wants to use the device.

''By preserving the machine, we also preserve the know-how,'' Bonetto says. ''People come to us because they want to interact with the process. Far too often, artists, designers and printmakers are totally removed from the process because that's the way the industry works - you make up a PDF and come back and pick up an artwork from the printer.''

Xavier Connelly, a member of the Melbourne Risograph Printers Guild who runs a press in Collingwood, likes to experiment with photographic prints and complex colours. ''I've tried to push boundaries on how people use it,'' he says. ''I was worried about [Riso printing] becoming too faddish too quickly and people getting bored. I wanted to try to get to the level where the printing wasn't quirky … it's just good printing.''

Rizzeria stencil-press workshops, noon, November 10 and November 17, Oxford Street Design Store, Darlinghurst. For bookings, email workshop@rizzeria.com.