ALBUQUERQUE, N. Mex. — This past summer, Risolana, a community risograph studio in Albuquerque’s South Valley neighborhood, organized and hosted Typesetting the Movement, an analog riso workshop “designed for New Mexico’s activists, movement builders, and community leaders interested in signage as a tool for community building and direct action.” The place was packed.
Created in 1984 by the Riso Kagaku Corporation of Japan, the risograph uses a stencil or “master” wrapped around a color drum to print one color at a time. The process, whether digital or analog, happens quite fast and accentuates the paper’s texture, resulting in a handmade aesthetic that has become associated with posters, broadsheets, zines, and pamphlets, and has been embraced by small publishers.
As I watched Risolana’s risograph roll out posters with phrases such as “Demand Access” and “Art Workers in Santa Fe Can’t Afford to Live Here,” I wanted to know more about what makes this vintage “printing robot,” as it’s been called, so attractive within creative communities.
I contacted Marc Fischer, who, along with Brett Bloom, started Temporary Services in 1998 and Half Letter Press in 2008. When they bought their first machine in 2014, riso printing wasn’t all that common in the United States. Fischer said he received valuable guidance from George Wietor of Issue Press, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who first started using risographs around 2009 or 2010.
As a publisher of books and booklets, Half Letter Press is interested in supporting and building audiences for people who work creatively and experimentally. Although they don’t print exclusively with riso, Fischer told me, “The appeal for us, at least somewhat, is the community aspect of talking to other risograph users and, no matter what people printed, we could still have a conversation with them about machines, papers, and inks. That kind of shared generosity of community and shared knowledge filters through everything in our practice.”
Since its ’84 inception, riso has been a way to connect with others. When Noboru Hayama embarked on his riso development after the end of WWII, he believed in pursuing ideals as a way to ensure the future, naming his company “Riso-Sha” — which means “ideal.” His sentiment seems well-suited to our current moment.
“Riso makes it possible to respond to urgent situations in a way that offset or silk screen is not as good for,” explained Fischer. “The possibility of having an idea and just going with it, not having to take it somewhere else to get it printed — that’s been really huge for us and that’s huge for a lot of people. The whole cycle of production and distribution goes quickly. During the worst of COVID, I was publishing this double-sided publication Quaranzine and going around taping it up on poles and dumpsters in my neighborhood on the same day it was printed.”
Fischer also favors risograph’s ability to print large quantities, saying they’ve printed over 1,000,000 copies, with few repairs. The low cost also adds to the allure. Even with paying a book binding service to assemble everything (they work with Union Book Bindery), it’s still cheaper than getting the same thing printed elsewhere.
But it’s not just the affordability factor; it’s also the responsibility that comes with production and the opportunity to experiment. Fischer said, “One thing we’ve been working on lately are publications about the waste created from making books, Book Waste Book and Artist Publishers Reflect on Book Waste. Both of those publications include sheets of recycled overprinted waste paper — if we were sending that job to a printer, they might not be willing to take something like that and send it through an offset printer, and they certainly wouldn’t send it through a digital printer. Being able to experiment with overprinting or to use unusual materials that we come across for a particular project are big aspects of control gained with riso.”
Also in the book- and booklet-making business is Endless Editions, which Paul John co-founded with Anthony Tino in 2014. Similar to Half Letter Press, Endless Editions was spurred by John’s belief that books are the most democratic and accessible form of art making, and a much easier way to directly access an artist’s work than seeing it in a gallery. He wanted to remove barriers for people interested in art, and to help artists get their work published.
To that end, Endless Editions offers two publishing programs: the copy shop residency and the work exchange program. John also founded the Brooklyn Art Book Fair, which Sarula Bao, who now manages Endless Editions, also organizes.
“A lot of the models that we artists have for success, such as the gallery system or traditional publishing, are so difficult to access,” said Bao. “For me — and I think for a lot of other artists — the appeal of riso printing is the self-publishing aspect, and the small scale that makes it feel authentic to you. It’s something that’s (almost) completely under your control. When you’re self-publishing, you decide what this final piece is. Within the limitations of riso, artists can actually explore further. And even within the control that they have, the image is still always going to come out a little wonky. There’s always going to be imperfections and mis-registrations. Which is part of riso’s magic.”
That magic contributes to the charm for Lauren Harms, co-founder and creative director of Next Chapter Studio. In fall 2017, she took a continuing education class at the School of Visual Arts (SVA), taught by none other than Endless Edition’s Paul John. The class, part of the MFA in Visual Narratives program, comprised mostly artists and illustrators who wanted to self-publish in book form. The school had a riso lab because it was an accessible way for students to publish their zines and graphic novels.
The birthday card Harms made for her mom in that first class at SVA prompted her to start the company with her husband in October 2018. “We were interested in creating greeting cards because it was an easy way to share riso with people. Letterpress had such a resurgence in greeting cards, mostly because of the wedding stationery industry,” she said. “Now people really appreciate it and see that they are of a higher quality and more artistic. Riso is not letterpress, obviously, but it has its own unique quality that you don’t get from digitally printing. I like to say that riso is the next letterpress.”
Harms’s print graphic design background influences her crisp, colorful approach to riso. “I had taken screen printing in college so riso made sense to me,” she told me as we sat in the production area of Next Chapter’s Albuquerque studio (they relocated from New York in late 2020). “And I worked in book publishing for 10 years, so I understood the four-color process file setup and setting up for spot colors. I knew how to incorporate Indesign and Adobe, so it was more about experimenting with the process.” Similar to Fischer’s experience, almost no one knew what riso was when Harms started Next Chapter Studio. Now, she said, close to half the people they meet are familiar with it.
“I think part of the resurgence, or new interest, is because colleges are getting printers. And so even if the student isn’t in a printmaking class, they may still try it out. Some schools have it set up like it’s a print service, so students can take files and then see someone else print it.”
The University of New Mexico’s art department recently acquired a risograph, thanks at least in part to the efforts of artists and educators Amanda Curreri, Meggan Gould, and Nora Wendl. Given the risograph’s history of use in corporate and educational settings, I was surprised to learn that one wasn’t already tucked away in someone’s office or studio, or in a corner of the department’s basement. I hope to be equally (and pleasantly) surprised by the ways students take advantage of riso as an ideal way to share their messages with the world.