Author: Sarah Corsa
College students are constantly reading books, surrounded by books, and immersing themselves in the ideas these books impart. But rarely do students consider the artistry and the physical qualities of the books we touch and look at every day. Johanna Drucker of UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, a scholar, artist, and rule breaker in the realm of book arts, gave a lecture and workshop last Thursday. Students from the letterpress/book arts and printmaking classes gathered in the Weingart Studio to learn from Drucker’s work in experimental typography and book arts.
“Books are potent, iconographic objects,” Drucker said. The lecture and workshop indicated that the value of books lies not only in the ideas which their words convey but also in the physical and aesthetic presence of the binding, pages and typography. Her work doesn’t follow the linear patterns traditionally used in typography but rather utilizes a more artistic and radical approach.
Letterpress, the art of setting type on the bed of a printing press, requires inking the letters and rolling the paper over them to leave a mark. The set up is a time consuming process, yet yields prints speedily and can be reproduced quickly with a finite number of products.
The two and a half hour workshop began with students talking about their own silkscreen work done in their classes. Only after going through every piece on the table did Drucker bring out her own collection.
Much of Drucker’s writing and letterpress work holds politically-charged messages about women and language’s place in society. Her most recent, and final, project called “Stochastic Poetics” was inspired by a Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) poetry reading amidst the raucous nature of a street festival downtown.
“The poets who were reading were reading themes of sexual abuse and violence, Holocaust testimonies from the second World War, racism and eco-disaster,” Drucker said.
She described how overpowered they were by the activity around them, despite the enormous significance of these topics. “It raised this huge question for me about how can poetry or aesthetic material register in the world in which we live, where is there a place for it, how does it take shape?” Drucker asked. The book elaborates on these questions through the busy format of the words as well as the implicit message within them.
Before her arrival at Occidental, Drucker requested that the students in the letterpress class brainstorm words or phrases that came to mind when they think of poetry. During the hands on portion, she took their carefully aligned letters and rearranged them on the press, or rather unarranged them from the traditional straight lines and squares seen in classic typography. In what is considered unorthodox among book artists, she splayed the letters in arcs, creating a wave of words out of the neat metal stacks. Students then filled in any empty space on the press with metal spacers that hold the letters in place so they don’t wiggle when the paper is rolled over them.
One by one, eager students tried their hand at printing a copy of the array of words. Following Drucker’s lead, they printed on the same paper more than once, tilting the paper slightly off kilter each time. Subsequently, each print came out differently.
Drucker asked, “is there a place for print in our culture?” And Occidental students have consistently answered yes. Every semester two classes of letterpress rookies are filled. Professor Jocelyn Pederson is trying to change the advanced class from a two unit course to a four unit course. “Students gain something they wouldn’t when working digitally,” Pederson said.
This workshop will only boost the program further. “[Drucker] made it very easy for people like myself who just started letterpressing, people who were also at the workshop who had never letterpressed, to become very involved in what she was doing,” Ari Laub (junior) said.
The potential for collaboration with other departments is on the horizon, according to Pederson. The letterpress class currently makes postcards for the advancement office that might be sent out to donors or sold in the bookstore. They are working with professor Martha Ronk’s poetry class to print the student’s writing as well as Ronk’s personal work. Pederson expressed a desire to work with the history department in the future too.
Laub explained the connection between her English and Comparative Literary Studies courses and the art of letterpressing. “It’s really caused me to look at reading in a completely different way and interact with literature in a completely different way.” said Laub.
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