Philadelphia has a long history when it comes to printing. There were Ben Franklin's press, the first U.S. currency, the first copy of the Declaration of Independence, pamphlets, books, magazines. Many of the documents that shaped American history had their start on a printing press in Philadelphia.
So, with history as a backdrop, the city is abuzz with exhibitions, collective public works and visual happenings, organized in a gigantic print festival called Philagrafika. More than 300 artists at 80 venues are participating in this citywide celebration of the impact of printmaking concepts and methods on contemporary art.
The variety of printmaking techniques is broader than you might think. When Oscar Munoz works on a print, he uses trays of water and floats graphite powder on the surface. Regina Silveira cuts plastic into the shapes of enormous insects. Gunilla Klingberg turns corporate logos into huge mandalas. And Carl Pope creates billboards for communities.
So, with all of these variations, when is a print a print?
Jose Roca, artistic director of Philagrafika, says that contemporary art "has blurred the boundaries" — and that's both a good and a bad thing.
Roca worked for five years with a group of Philadelphia-based curators to develop the festival. He says that in spite of the liberties artists take with the concept of print, some basic principles apply.
"In my opinion, a print has to have at least three components," Roca says. A matrix, an ink and a support. The support can be paper, cardboard, a wall, skin, or even video.
Inside the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, an unusual music video by the Indonesian art group Tromorama is being projected onto a large screen. The images are rendered entirely with stop motion animation, using an ancient print technique: woodcuts. Outside the screening room, 402 of the blocks used to create the woodcuts are on display.
"There is a sort of democratic balance between the video and print," says Julien Robson, the academy's contemporary arts curator. "They represent a very different sense of time. The video is very fast and the process they used to make it — it's very laborious way of making things. Very hand-crafted."
In fact, the common denominator among all the works in Philagrafika is the use of traditional print technologies with a contemporary twist.
Deborah Wye, chief curator of the Print Department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, says that artists working in traditional workshops now have the advantage of computer capabilities.
"An artist can have the computer as part of another process," Wye says. "As another tool, just like someone uses a burin or a gouge for woodcuts ... Now there's a computer for other possibilities."
Another variation on printmaking is the work of Colombian conceptual artist Munoz. It's centered on the distortions of memory and the trickery of time. For Munoz's work Narcissus, he floats an image of himself on top of a tray of water.
"I was very interested in the systems man has invented ... to remember and retain, even in distorted ways," Munoz explains. "With Narcissus, I wanted to explore the graphic and poetic possibilities of water."
Munoz says he took graphite powder and silk-screened his image on the surface of the water in a shallow white tray.
"Time, weight and subtle vibrations in the room created different portraits — some blurred, some unrecognizable — as the graphite settled at the bottom of the tray," Munoz says.
Narcissus then is about not only the fragility of memory, but the very image itself. And it illustrates just one of the many ways contemporary printmaking has transcended the limitations of paper.