The art of the photocopier

The art of the photocopier

The risograph printer looks like your standard Xerox machine.

It is not a new technology, with roots from the 1940s. In Singapore, schools and religious organisations use it to print documents and worksheets cheaply.

Yet, the technology is fast gaining the favour of artists and designers here, with two risograph (say "ree-so-graph) presses setting up shop recently.

Mr Djohan Hanapi, 27, and Ms Marilyn Yunjin, 26, of risograph press Knuckles And Notch, first encountered riso prints at the New York Art Book Fair in 2011.

"We thought they were silkscreen prints," says Mr Djohan, referring to a technique of printing by hand that is commonly used to print posters, T-shirts and tote bags here.

They set up the company early this year with a third partner, Mr Muhammad Izdi, 28.

But unlike silkscreen printing, risograph printing is automated.

In fact, the machine - the brainchild of Japanese inventor Noboru Hayama who went on to set up Riso Kagaku Corporation ("riso" means ideal in Japanese) - is technically a photocopier.

The main difference is that it is much cheaper to print using a risograph printer than other digital copiers, about 75 per cent less for each printed copy.

The low cost is due to a cheaper emulsion ink being used and also that heat is not used as part of the printing process.

But for artists and designers worldwide and increasingly in Singapore, the aesthetic of the print itself is the main draw.

"I can get colours that I can't get with normal prints, such as brighter fluorescent colours," says Mr Stuart Li, 27, creative director of pop-up theatrical dining experience andsoforth. He worked with Knuckles And Notch to create infographics for his last pop-up event in May.

Besides their vibrant colours, riso prints are also tactile - the ink feels powdery against your fingertips.

There is also an underground feel that lends itself well to self-published zines, posters and prints.

Graphic designer and lecturer Darryl Lim is a big fan of the rustic look.

"It looks lo-fi. There is a graininess and texture to riso prints," says the 29-year-old, who is working with another press here, Push Press, on a pamphlet project.

"Lo-fi" is short for low fidelity, where technical flaws are expected and sometimes desired.

Such "flaws" - such as misalignments in printing and fading - make a riso print decidedly quirky, something that people should accept if they are working with the printer. And charmingly, because of the lack of heat, sheets have to be dried on a rack.

"It is really a craft," says Mr Djohan, who expresses a desire to take the printer apart to study it more thoroughly.

Mr Sean Kelvin Khoo, 33, of Push Press will agree.

He spent almost two years tinkering with the machine to test what it could and could not do (and found out when the machine broke down a couple of times).

Despite setting up the company in 2012, he and partners Randy Yeo, 28, and Nicole Ong, 30, started being more active in risography only this year.

Paper Communications Technology has been the sole distributor of the risograph printer in Singapore for 25 years. Its CEO, 69-year-old Seet Choo Kiang, is only beginning to understand the co- opting of risograph printing by creatives here.

"I had no idea at all. An old man like me cannot think of such things," he says, referring to the quality of artworks that can be produced with the printer.

The majority of Mr Seet's clients are schools and religious organisations, which use the machines for standard printing.

"There are people who come to us looking for a cheap printer," says Mr Yeo of Push Press, though he does not turn them away.

For a print run of 100 copies of a colour document, Push Press charges between 40 and 60 cents a piece. Commercial printers at Sunshine Plaza charge between 50 and 80 cents.

But cost is important for the artists and designers here too.

"Offset printing can cost a bomb. With riso, you don't need a massive quantity," says graphic designer and artist Kristal Melson, 30, who produces artworks in quantities of up to 25, which she says is a "safe number".

Offset printing is a common type of printing used for publications and often requires quantities in the thousands to be economically viable.

For now, both presses plan to share their knowledge with students and enthusiasts. Knuckles And Notch will conduct workshops with the new Singapore Polytechnic Design School next month, while Push Press has plans to hold intensive two-day workshops centred on design concepts, such as the consideration of space and forms.

One person who is very excited about the possibilities of risography here is Mr John Ling, the creative director of art collective Villains.

"It's art that's affordable for people to buy and for artists to make," says the 34-year-old. He bought 10 illustrative prints by different artists from Knuckles And Notch during its first show in April. Prices ranged from $25 to $40 a print.

"It's way more than just printing some poster. It will affect how creatives can come together and do things on the ground. It's very exciting."

This article was first published on July 25, 2014.
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