going gutbucket: aesthetics of leftovers

by Art Chantry:

i LOVE gutbucket, crappy cheapo printing. well, in all honsety, i love all printing processes (except inkjet. i think inkjet stinks). but, there is something about bad printing, that sort of printing you get when you spend as little money as possible, the printing you get when you go down to your neighborhood copyshop and ask for the “best price”. so long as it’s offset, it’s the best.

—one of my favorite disaster/miracle stories was when a centerspread layout for a henry rollins show (full color) came hot off the press with a big old thumbprint on it. (it was in the blue layer which lay on the yellow layer, so it
was a green color field with a bright yellow thumbprint right in between hank’s head and the headline.) the night crew (always what we got stuck with) were old burned out journeymen drunks (mostly). nobody knew how to shoot new film. so, here we were way behind schedule (fixing it would require releasing the paper a day late – an advertising disaster), a big bad boo boo on the center spread and the press stopped while the old drunks stared at us with big shit-eating grins on their faces asking me the magic question: “what do you wanna do?” so, i thought for a second and told them to turn off the ink stopcocks on the press for the blue (cyan) on the right hand side and then graduate them across to full strength – basically creating a ‘split fountain’ with the blue ink. the result would be a split color field fading from bright yellow on the right (erasing the thumbprint) to a full green on the left side. those old bastards all burst out into big smiles and from that point on, they all loved me. they’d do ANYTHING for me. i proved i was ONE OF THEM!—AC

i fell in love with bad printing back in my early daze as a young starving graphic designer. none of my clients had any money to spend, so i was forced by circumstances to learn the pitfalls of what can happen when printing goes terribly wrong – for two very powerful reasons: 1) i needed to avoid those disasters as much as possible in order to do the job i was hired to do. and (especially) 2) i needed to find out what this printing machine can do in order to maximize and manipulate the quality of the work i produce with the tools i had. as darth rumsveld famously said “you go to war with the army you got, not the army you want.”

this requires learning HOW those machines work. it also requires getting to know the people who operate the machines. those guys were the ‘artists’ reproducing my creation. if you gain their confidence, they can make (or break) you in the blink of an eye. and most printers hate graphic designers because we’re such a foppy ignorant and arrogant bunch of twits. we know nothing, operate on our imagined “taste” and boss everybody around like they’re dirt. so, printers in particular tend to get the brunt of our foul natures and quickly learn to despise our ‘craft’ and our ‘ilk’. i don’t blame them. we suck.

when i was art director at the rocket, the process was so gutbucket bottom-of-the-barrel printing wise, that we used the cheapest mass production presses available – non heat-set web newspaper presses (those same companies that printed ‘littel nickel’ papers and those horrible singles’ magazine and even porn – which they called ‘smut’). horrible, dirty dangerous monsterously huge machines that crank out thousands of copies a minute – all of it slopped out with almost no regard to quality control at all. getting to know what those things can do (and CAN’T do) became the real test of whether that magazine worked or failed. winning the confidence of the actual press operators could mean salvation.

going to the pressroom to check on the printing cycle (a “press check”) became absolutely necessary because we jumped to whomever was the cheapest on a regular basis, therefore, we seldom had the same printing company for longer than a year. just as soon as you got to know how one company worked – wham! we were printing in a different state or even in canada. it usually required working around the clock to meet the art/layout/editorial deadline and then driving for 6 or more hours (one way) that very night to do the press check after each production cycle. afterwards we’d all have to sleep for a day or two before we could function again (aka, drive home). it REALLY wore you down physically. i remember functioning in a haze for days after completing an issue.

but, what you got in return was knowledge. suddenly a print job like you see here (some 1950’s gift wrap printed so far off-register that it becomes a surreal fantasy) can be avoided. or, better, you can use a screwup like you see to your advantage and make a mediocre layout into a masterful printing tour-de force. imagine actually wanting to make your work look this bad? during the punk/grunge era, this was our secret. we USED bad technique and bad technology to create the very language of “the loser” (“the existential hero of the 90’s”). it’s true. we all learned to work with crap and garbage and gutbucket and make it work beautifully. all that crappy looking stuf was carefully created to be that crappy.

for example, nirvana’s bleach LP was famously recorded for only $600 (‘necessity is the mother of invention”.) the rocket itself was produced on an art budget (including everybody’s salary, all freelancers, supplies, typesetting and camera chemicals and materails, etc.) of $500. all those famous record covers paid you a couple hundred tops to create. the poster art was free, because usually if you billed them, you never got paid anyway. i used to often trade my poster design work for food.

when soundgarden hired a big shot famous producer to put out ther first major label record, the guy had to call up jack endino (the producer who recorded nirvana for $600) and ask exactly how he “miked” soundgarden to get that ‘grungy sound’. apparently, with all that money and technology, that big shot producer couldn’t figure out exactly how to re-create the sound that made soundgarden so famous. jack just laughed and said, “well, i put the entire band in the studio, put a mike in the middle of the room and told them to play‚Ķ.”

a before nirvana could AFFORD to live in seattle (whch wasn’t until ‘nevermind’ was on the charts for months), they chose to live in tacoma, where the rent was so cheap, they could actually afford an apartment. it was also halfway between seattle and olympia (their perceived gigging territory). grant alden interviewed them for the rocket in their tiny dirty place in tacoma. while they sleepily answered questions, they prepped for a gig that evening. curt cobain dug around in a corner and pulled out a bunch of broken guitar parts. he took a slightly cracked body, a snapped-off neck from some other guitar, and a power drill and simply drilled and bolted the two pieces together as best he could. then

strung it and tuned it (sorta.) he finished with, “there, that should work.”

the entire aesthetic and style of punk and grunge was built upon working with ‘left overs’ basically after the bulk of the boomers took all the good stuff. it was as much a reaction to privilege and class as it was a revolt against power (“we’re the flowers in the dustbin” is the line that haunts me.) and graphic design since punk has become as bifurcated and class-structure alienated as the ‘loser’ culture that spawned the contemporary styles that even the most privileged layers of our society take for granted. but the truth may actually be more of a ticking time bomb. that anti-culture is always there waiting…

if the grid went down – if sunspots wipe out the internet and the microscircuits – if an EMP nuke went off in the middle of the country, we’d suddenly have to work with our hands and our smarts. i actually know HOW to make things look exactly like this bad printing intentionally. that means, i can also make it NOT SO. i’m a master at being able to take this stuff any direction i want to go. can you? without a computer? on a real printing press? really?

we currently have an entire generation of graphic design ‘experts’ who have no idea how the actual process of their craft actually works. when the art work goes to the printer, they have no idea what happens. they actually think it’s the same process as a desktop inkjet printer thingie. i meet graphic designers all the time who have just plain never actually SEEN a printing press. that flabberghasts me. i mean, that’s like claiming to be a painter but never actually having put brush to canvas. it’s impossible, yet there it is. graphic design as it is practiced in 2012 is a real life conundrum. and it’s so fragile.

ADDENDUM:

AC…thermography. i tried to do a thermography POSTER once. the blowers were so small they couldn’t get a big piece of poster paper through it. it was all set up for business stationery. did you know that most thermography was run under heat lamps that were too hot? that super bubbly look was actually BURNED thermo. when thermo was done correctly, it looked like a smooth layer of plastic ink raised up on the surface very cleanly and looked amazing. but, most of the cheapo setups at the quick-print shops had the wrong heat source in them and the result looked like crap. but, that’s pretty cool, too. imagine a big poster of bad thermo texture??…

…oh, and the funniest part of that story about the thumbprint? after those old journeymen printers learned that i knew my stuff, they suddenly remembered how to shoot a new piece of film, too. interesting, huh?…

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