Copy, Paste, Remix: Digital Tricks That Originated on the Printed Page

A portable printmaking studio shows just how central replication and recombination have been to art for ages.

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Jacob Samuel insists that he is not an artist. "I do not think like an artist," he says. "I do not have creative thoughts. I have technical thoughts." And yet this technologist has had tremendous success as an artist. Three pieces of his work are currently featured in a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. How is that possible?

The answer begins with a peculiar contraption that Samuel designed in 1994: a portable printing studio, built of bellows from two 8-by-10 view cameras and surgical tubing, and powered by Samuel's own breath. With his portable gadget, he travels the world making aquatints, a variety of printmaking that involves etching a copper plate with an acid wash, and so-called because the resulting prints resemble watercolors. The portable studio, Samuel told me, "gave me the freedom to be able to work with artists in their own studios." He's not the artist but the instigator, the technician whose magic box can draw an artist into a medium he or she has never explored before. 

The exhibit, Print/Out, is a major retrospective of the last two decades of print art -- a medium that is at its core about "replication," the duplication of a work, whether on an inked-up letter press or a laser-jet printer. The works of the exhibit serve to remind us that replication is not a child of the digital age. While "copy" and "paste" may be the most basic of computer tricks, their analog names did not come out of nowhere. Printmaking has always been about art that can be replicated -- and the manipulation that makes each iteration new.

All three of Samuels' Print/Out pieces are collaborations: "Spirit Cooking" with performance artist Marina Abramović, an untitled work with Gert and Uwe Tobias, and "Coyote Stories," a project with painter Chris Burden featuring delicate prints of objects -- knives, potato chips, a wallet -- that illustrate a series of handwritten stories. Samuel explains how the portable studio works in the video below.

In some ways, Samuel's collaboration with Burden, "Coyote Stories," perfectly encapsulates the across-centuries reach of Samuel's work. The piece is a series of stories about Burden's encounters with coyotes in southern California. Samuel initially thought they would print the stories from letterpress, so he had one of the stories typeset. Burden thought the print looked "too mechanical." He wanted to write it out by hand.

The resulting prints *look* like etchings -- a 600-year-old technique -- but they are print-outs of digital scans of stories handwritten on a legal notepad.

The trick was that for Samuel to print the stories from an etching, Burden would have to write the stories by hand on an etching plate *backwards* because the process flips the impression. Burden was unsatisfied with his backwards handwriting -- it didn't look sufficiently natural -- he wanted to write it on legal pad and use that. How would Samuel make it look like a print? His solution was to take Burden's handwritten stories, scan them into Photoshop, and print them out onto a Japanese paper known as surface Gampi.

But something was still missing: When an artist prints from an etching plate, the paper takes on the imprint of the plate's beveled border. So once Samuel had printed the legal-pad scans, he took a blank legal-pad-sized copper plate, and ran each print through the press with the plate, giving them the beveled marks of an etching. The resulting prints *look* like etchings -- a 600-year-old technique -- but they are print-outs of digital scans of stories handwritten on a legal notepad.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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