Sydney-based Artist-run printing co-operatives Big Fag and Fagette in Throw Shapes:
THE BIG FAG PRESS IS A NOT-FOR-PROFIT CO-OPERATIVE. YOU ARE NOT A CLIENT. YOU ARE A PARTICIPANT. THERE IS NO GUARANTEE OF A PROFESSIONAL OUTCOME.
Thus warns the brochure for the FAG 104, a huge old offset proof printing machine which an Alexandria-based artist collective snapped up at a liquidation auction five years ago. A $50 bid was all it took to drop the gavel on the machine which, considered obsolete technology in the commercial printing world, is actually worth two thousand times more. Four days later, the four tonne beast was lovingly re-named THE BIG FAG and dropped by crane into 'The Barn', an artist-run studio in Alexandria. And since then it's been offered non-profit as a self-publishing DIY facilitator to social media makers, activists and artists alike. We were pretty interested in the whole initiative, so went to The Barn to meet The Big Fag and hear his story. According to artist Lucas Ihlein, one of the people behind the Big Fag Press, “it was just sort of serendipity.”
It took two years for the Big Fag's new parents to get to know him, and to start getting the best out of him: low-run, hi-quality prints on B2-sized paper and card, which have an aesthetic and potential for customisation that you can't achieve anywhere else. Lucas puts it well;"It's a bit like having a 1950s Cadillac or something. It's beautiful, but it takes a long time to learn how to use it… It's going to be a lifelong journey, you know?" So is it the only one of its kind? "We call ourselves Sydney's only artist run offset printing co-op. Which is pretty safe."
Most printing companies today have become 'printing brokers', who email files to China for cheaper prints which then get sent back to the client, usually without being looked at by the company. Serves a function, sure, but the hard, clean plasticity of commercial printing sits uncomfortably with the art world and the principles of DIY. "There's a real joy and pleasure in being able to do it yourself, and also in being able to get a result that you wouldn't be able to get in any other way. We try to make sure that whoever's doing the job with us is here on the day of printing, so that if some issue comes up we can make decisions on the run." When artist James Dodds was making his pole posters on the press and accidently scratched the fragile metal plate used to make the print, he just went with it, enhancing the scratch with sandpaper. "If we were a commercial printer, we would have just chucked out the plates and started again, because you know, you have to deliver the Best Quality Work For The Client. But here, since the client is an artist…"
Art Vs Activism
Because use of the Big Fag hasn't extended too far out of the networks it belongs to, a lot of the clients have been artists. But the Fag Press network is more complicated than that, with members wearing hats in a bunch of other collectives at the same time. Many have an anti-Establishment bent. Lucas, for instance, is also a key member of the Network of Uncollectable Artists, who print swappable bubblegum-card packs featuring 50 of Australia's Most Uncollectable Artists, "collect them all!" - a spoof on Art Collector Magazine. Lucas also wears a badge in Squatspace, an initiative which run various projects and programs to engage with, demystify and reclaim space in the city - in 2002, they set up an Un-RealEstate agency in a Newcastle shopping mall, mapping out unoccupied residential "empties" in the area and offering copies of their Squatters' Handbook. They also run a Redfern - Waterloo Tour of Beauty, where residents get taken on bike or bus to learn about the inner-West from unexpected vantage points. Their next one is this Sunday, June 22.
Still, ownership of the machine is tied up in a diversity of backgrounds and different ethical stances -and printing is not just reserved for subversive or activist media. The Big Fag has printed culture jams, promotional posters, beer labels and also just art for arts sake. Kernow Craig, another member of the co-op, has been behind us in the studio making colourful, Big Fag-themed silkscreen prints:"I mean, it's a printing machine, but it's not only that. And it's a printing collective, but it's not only that. Because of all those different stories, it's also constantly exceeding itself and going further than we could ever imagine."
The only limits to what can be printed are those imposed by the Big Fag himself - mostly to do with size, colour and time. "If you're doing fifty posters in two colours, that's gonna take you a day. If you get more than that, it's a bonus. So yeah, it's slow." Lucky there's an alternative then - an independent (but associated) collective have just purchased an old Riso Stencil Press they've dubbed the Fagette, a more manageably sized machine that offers all the benefits of a photocopier, while reintroducing the aesthetics of the handmade. One of the first things they're printing on the Fagette is a poster pack - 18 posters by 18 artists, including big names like Mambo's Reg Mombassa, and the Age's cartoonist Bruce Petty.
But the story of getting the art together for this pack highlights the difficulties of self-publishing in a conservative society. Reg Mombassa had submitted his latest Aussie Jesus, a mainstay in Mambo theology; "Aussie Jesus' Address to Homophobic Bigots of Australia". But the company set to go ahead with the essential paper sponsorship deal wouldn't give the paper up unless Aussie Jesus was taken out. Kernow gets red around the ears here: "It's important never to forget what a fucking right wing, neoconservative, Christian country this is. Fred Nile's the most visible point, but it goes so much deeper!" I'm guessing they didn't go with the company? "No! I mean Fuck! Not wanting to put something out there that's provocative in such a progressive way? They can suck my cock - sorry, but I think that's an appropriate response."
At the recent MCA zine fair, the organizers allowed participation on condition that zines contained "no pornography, nudity, defamation, harassment, commercial advertisements, and material encouraging criminal conduct." Big Fag Press' response? A zine called PORNOGRAPHY, NUDITY, DEFAMATION, HARASSMENT, COMMERCIAL ADVERTISEMENTS AND MATERIAL ENCOURAGING CRIMINAL CONDUCT. The centerfold was an open letter to the MCA explaining why limits should never be put on a event encouraging self-publishing. As it happened, people brought all the sexy, gory stuff anyway and just hid it under their tables.
The Death Of Print?
While I sadly missed the bottom-drawer goods, what I did notice at the zine fair was the huge crowd that came out of the woodwork. According to Kernow, it was the best thing the Museum's done. "The MCA is generally so divorced from the meaning of people's everyday lives in Sydney, whereas this actually brought in a whole culture. It felt alive, I mean it really felt alive, and I was so surprised at how many people came, and the diversity of work as well!"
So when it feels like there's been a zine fair pretty much every fortnight in the last few months, it's got to be time for media naval-gazers to shut up about the Death Of Print, right? Lucas takes this question: "There's always surges in one direction and then backlashes in another, you know? We all got so excited about websites, and they turned out to be amazingly useful, but we use them so much these days that there's a sense of relief when you come across something you can hold in your hands." It's that resurgence in the value of slowness and the tactile qualities of a tangible experience that the Big Fag Press and their machines are all about. Talking about the philosophical underpinnings of DIY art and social print media, words like punk, Fluxus and even Dadaism are thrown around. But they summed it up best here:
Lucas: "It's anti-art, but anti-art is the high art of the 20th century. And of course we're now in the 21st century, so you have to bring nostalgia into that."
Kernow: "So what does that make us? The retro mixtape of the 20th century?"
Lucas: "This is like pulling shit off the garbage heap of 20th century technology."
Kernow: "Or maybe we're just creating the golden oldies of the future."