Unique Reproduction: Definitions of Original Printmaking in a Digital Age

Seacourt Print Workshop symposium 2010

The origins of this symposium stretch back almost two years from the time of writing. Roderick Duncan, a member of SPW's Board of Trustees appeared in the workshop one day outraged that gicleè reproductions of paintings were being editioned in hundreds, signed by the artist and sold as limited edition prints. His annoyance was with the classification “limited edition print” which he felt clouded further the public's hazy understanding of what an original limited edition pint was. In his view these works should be promoted as signed reproductions to ensure people knew what they were buying. At the same time Mike Booth was highlighting similar concerns on his website www.printworkshopcentral.com and asking for submissions of designs for a 'No Gicleè' symbol. The winning symbol could be used by traditional printmakers to identify that they were not running off reproductions on an inkjet. The term ‘Gicleè’ gives a certain ‘je ne sais qua’ to the lowly inkjet; though with its connection to the phrase ‘to spray’ – as in tom cats – it’s less elevating than you may first think.

Having used ‘tom cat’ technologies for several years I wondered why the technology was being lumped in with a concern that the public was in some way being hoodwinked by unscrupulous artists and publishers. For me these seemed to be two separate issues. As I explored further many interrelated issues began to emerge gravitating toward the four 'p's of creativity as defined by Mel Rhodes in the 60's; person, process, place, product.

Person: what part did the signatory play in the physical making of the print?

Process: do certain processes carry more weight in relation to a work being considered original?

Place: does where the print is produced matter, whether it is an artists’ studio, print workshop or publishing house?

Product: what constitutes an original print in light of its journey from concept to product particularly in light of new technologies?

In May 2010 at ‘Symposium Matrix’ in the KÜnstlerhaus, Vienna - organized by Georg Lebzelter and Wojciech Krywoblocki for the International Print Network similar issues were being explored though in the context of the matrix and its role in the printmaking process; specifically in relation to its analogue and digital manifestations. It seems that developing industrial technologies are once again pushing print-makers to redefine what they do and how they do it. The papers delivered in Vienna can be read in ‘im:print 2010, journal of the current state of printmaking’ published by Springer, Wien. Those interested in the impact of digitalization on art production will find Frieder Nake’s essay of particular interest.

The analogue model of the printing plate etched, cut or engraved with direct artistic skill is replaced by the digital model of the pixel matrix designed, implemented and encoded with indirect algorithmic care. Gone are lines which convey the delicate harmony of will, eye and hand, gone is the inking that let a worried yet confident creation of tension shine through; expressive impetus and quivering directness have become a thing of the past, replaced by the pixel and series and arrays of tiny picture elements. (Schneider et al. 2010, p131)

He goes on to say…’The intractability, inexorability and standardisation of this analysis may send shivers down your spine, but we must admit that the resulting demolition leads to a doubling of the image that opens up radical new inroads to the image and makes new ways of thinking about imagery both possible and necessary.’ (Schneider et al. 2010, p132)

Bradd Shore (1996) observes that ‘… The information age represents the apotheosis of the “knockoff” and the consequent change in the conception of value. The ease and effectiveness with which modern technology can reproduce virtually anything has created a legal and moral challenge to conventional notions of property and value.’ (Shore, 1996, p154). Defining what is and isn’t ‘original’ printmaking takes on new impetuous in the current climate and a little naval gazing is necessary at times of marked change. It was my hope that the discussions engendered by ‘Unique Reproduction’ might play a role in clarifying some of these issues and feed into wider discussions.

To help focus our minds SPW invited a group of speakers and contributors who have a wealth of experience to draw on and strong points of view against which to test our own. It was important for me that the subject be viewed from a 360° perspective, with contributions that included artists, workshops, editioning studios, publishers, collectors and researchers. Our contributors on the day were:

Marjorie Devon, Director of the Tamarind Institute, New Mexico

Kelly Troester, Worldwide Co-Director of Modern and Contemporary Editions, Phillips de Pury NYC

Prof. Stephen Hoskins, Hewlett Packard Professor of Fine Print and Director of the Centre for Fine Print Research at the University of the West of England

John Mackechnie, Director of Glasgow Print Studio

Jenny Roland, Managing Director of the Curwen Studio

The day was broken into three sessions beginning with the Keynote Address ‘Making our Mark in a Digital Age’ by Marjorie Devon. This was followed by speaker Kelly Troester whose talk was entitled ‘Collectors’ Understanding of Unique Reproductions’. After lunch we engaged in a round table discussion. Contributing to this section was Steve Hoskins, John Mackechnie and Jenny Roland joined by Kelly and Marjorie. Importantly, members of the audience were invited to share their views and this section was recorded. This publication contains the text of both talks, the opening statements of those contributing to the roundtable discussion and an edited version of the conversations between contributors and audience.

I would like to thank The Arts Council of Northern Ireland who provided Lottery Funding through their Small Grant Scheme to support this event; North Down Borough Council’s Arts Office which also provided financial support and the Ulster Festival of Art for helping to host the event and particularly Tim Kerr, Cultural Development Officer, for his commitment and enthusiasm.