Letterpress is definitely not just retro-nostalgia anymore. This is a quite a statement to make, but in the event ‘Letterpress: Something to say’, held at St. Bride, several clues pointed int that direction: there were not nostalgic printers whimpering for ‘the better times’ of hand composition, nor there were old black and white movies with old printers covered in dust and past. In fact, what the organisers Catherine Dixon and Rose Gridneff managed to present was quite the opposite, eleven speakers that explained how contemporary letterpress is a fundamental element in their day-to-day work in very different ways. Without whimpering and without dust.
The conference day was divided in three sessions and simultaneously, there were posters exhibitions, book sales, letterpress workshop demonstrations, and the ‘sponsored room’ with the sponsors displays, in which each of the attendees could fill out their own goodie bag, with the noble purpose of not generating an excess of unwanted objects.
The morning started with Thomas Gravemaker’s long voyage in letterpress, from Amsterdam, London, Paris to Edinburgh, followed by the ‘irremediable’ Ian Gabb, and his explosive and impressive projects in which letterpress is only part of the process.
After the coffee break (unfortunately there will never be good coffee in a English event, so get over it or drink tea) Catherine Dixon introduced the work of Argentinean Federico Cimatti and his letterpress printshop Prensa La Libertad, and personally, this was the most emotional moment of the whole conference. The main course, a video that Federico had recorded himself, was poetry itself, with his work, a message of denunciation and social and politic critique.
Unfortunately I could not enjoy Jono Lewarne & Charlotte Hetherington’s talk so I jumped from Buenos Aires to Barcelona: L’automatica presented a peculiar modus operandi. Under the auspices of the so-called Spanish Revolution, a collective of graphic designers unaware of letterpress discovered the story of an old letterpress printshop in the edge of bankruptcy and, against any economical logic, decided to rescue it, converting the printshop into a self-managed cultural association and keeping the owner as their own mentor. Its been only a year since this adventure began, so it is probably soon to tell whereas it is an success, but so far the workshops, the quality of their work and the generated interest are positive prospects.
Lunch brought Anthony Burrill, his sense of humour and his typographic posters. Its the second time I see him on stage on a month (previous was TypoLondon), and what can I say, maybe it was the privacy of St Bride, or a better understanding of his work, but this second time I really enjoyed it. It was his birthday and there was a surprise that he was doubtfully expecting and that included a homemade cake (by Cahterine Dixon) and the sweetest quote of the day, ‘sorry about the kerning on the cake’.
The following speakers, Dylan Kendle, member of the collective Tomato, and Gee Vaucher presented a different approach to letterpress, both based in experimentation with printed forms with very different outcomes. Something similar could be said from Peter Nencini and his peculiar patterns and textures, but time ran out and unfortunately we could not hear the conclusions of his talk and work.
The conference day was due to an end but there was still two more interesting talks. Students and teachers jumped to the stage to present the results of the Collaborative Letterpress Project 6×6, a project based in the collaboration and experimentation of six colleges exploring the letterpress process.
Finally it was time for Catherine Dixon’s talk. It was different from the other talks in the sense that she presented her research and experience in Brazil related, obviously, to letterpress. She introduced a contemporary version of ‘Literatura de Cordel’, popular and inexpensive booklets that were sold in the streets and were very popular in Brazil, but also Portugal and Spain, that were printed by the means of woodcut in the XIX century, and that to my surprise are still on practice in contemporary São Paulo.
The last talk of the day ended with a different reality, the favelas, where surprisingly a print maker teaches typography to young people, and letterpress is far of being retro-nostalgia, but a social investment challenging kids to find a better life.
Although nostalgic letterpress is not disappearing its definitely evolving, and the roles of the designer/craft-man/print-maker are being transformed again (have they ever stop changing?). A superficial conclusion of ‘Letterpress: Something to Say’ could be that —as finally is happening with computers— letterpress is not the end itself anymore, but an active part of a process. But in the subtle there is so much more to think about.
Under this premises the future of letterpress it is, at least, promising.
Conference held in St Bride Library, 9 November 2012.