Following the progress of my Studio 4 residency at Chisenhale Art Place, where am making a series of etchings in response to the large broken glass windows at the back of the Chisenhale building.
Tracing, Cutting and Sticking.
Tracing the image from the screen and cutting it with a scalpel into the sticky-backed-plastic involves a surprising amount of drawing. Small decisions are made at each stage. How sharp should that corner be? How should I enterpret that fuzzy bit of the photograph? There is a style even to traced drawings and more so to the drawing with the scalpel that I have to do as I slice through the plastic. I have never drawn with a scalpel before. It is rather satisfying and I begin to get more skillfull at it. It seems an appropriate way of drawing the shapes made by sharp glassy edges.
With practise I improve at the fiddly business of cutting and getting the plastic on to the plate. After a while I am in a zone of tracing, turning , cutting and sticking, but after a longer while , I begin to get bored and very tired and to lose concentration. I realise there are a great variety of possible mistakes to make. With all this repetition I have many oportunities to make all of them. For example: Placing the tracing paper or cutting the plastic upside down, both result in the printed image being back-to-front. Sticking the wrong part of the plastic on the plate results in black where there should be white. Spraying the front of the plate instead of the reverse with stop out enamel is just stupid, but somehow I do manage to do that once.
Can these mistakes be accepted as part of the process? When I notice my mistakes early I re-cut the plastic, but 4 plates get bitten and printed before I realise the image is back-to-front. I don’t have time to redraw and re-etch new plates so I have to accept all but one of them. In that one, the change in compostion caused by the reversal of the image, upsets me too much and I crack and have to redo it.
Industrial mass production is all about repetition. As Jeanette Winterson wrote in her recent Guardian article on repetition in Lowry’s painting http://gu.com/p/3ggkk “At the loom, on the assembly line, on the track, the human being must perform the same task in the same way every working hour. The machine does not tire of this repetition, a repetition reinforced by the uniform lines of the mill windows, the identical terraced houses leading down to the factory.” The repetition of the bricks and windowpane grids in the façade of the Chisenhale building is a reminder of the repetitive labour that went on inside the factory.
In choosing to reproduce a version of the window in etching, I have launched myself into a mass production of my own. Printmaking has always been a way of mass-producing images, but in this piece I am not just creating an edition by repeatedly printing from one plate, but making a series of prints in which the production of the plates is also repeated over and over again.
When I conceived this idea, I assumed that this repetition of tasks would produce an efficiency that would enable me to complete a far larger body of work than I would usually manage in the time, but as I start with the first task of degreasing the plates I begin to realize quite how daunting the scale of this project is. Even with everything set up to clean and dry the plates en-masse, it takes about 5 minutes to degrease each plate. That is negligible if you are producing one or even a few plates, but I have to produce 64 plates to represent the 77 in the window (the unbroken panes can be made with blank plates, used more than once). I do some mental arithmetic and realize that it will take me about five and a half hours of continuous labour just to degrease the plates. This is only the first of many stages required to get an image printed from the steel. At this point I decide I have to split the production into 3 parts like the window itself. There is a balance to be struck between the efficiency to be gained by repeating each task 66 times before moving on to the next and taking account of my human tendency to go mad with boredom and fatigue. So I start with the 21 plates that will represent the top section of the window.
Degreasing is satisfying. The chalk and ammonia make a white bubbling mixture that sweeps across the plate forming a pattern like those painted by decorators on the inside of windows. The plates emerge free of the oily substance that keeps them from rusting; clean and naked and vulnerable and ready to be bitten by the acid. I line them up on their corners against the studio wall to dry and then line them up again, edges touching, to spray the backs with enamel paint to stop the acid eating into the reverse of the plates.
There is a meeting arranged at the end of my second week with artists from Chisenhale Studios. This gives me a good deadline by which to produce my first trial prints. Before I start mass production I need to check that the techniques I am proposing will work and also try to invent shortcuts and efficiencies in order to save time later.
My initial idea is to print out photographs of the individual windowpanes and project them onto the plates with a Tracer Projector, then mask off the areas I don’t want to bite in the acid with sticky backed plastic. There are several problems with this. The first is that my studio is very light and being summer, stays light until past 9pm, which means I will have to carry out this fiddly process for all the plates in the middle of the night, or buy two large pieces of very good blackout material. Also, it is very time consuming, and results in a fuzzy image that leaves a lot to the imagination when transferring it to the plate. After transferring a couple of images this way I realise that it would be much easier to trace the photograph directly from the computer screen and then use the tracing as a template to cut the plastic before sticking it onto the plate. Fortunately my computer screen is just large enough for me to expand the photographs of each pane to exactly the same size as the plates, if I turn the images sideways.
I take 3 trial plates to the etching studio. I have not had that much experience of etching steel. Ian assures me that I can deep bite the steel for 20-30 minutes in 1:10 nitric acid and will get a deep black without the need for any aquatint, but I am worried that I will mistime it and end up with a drab grey. Also steel has a natural tooth unless polished, which results in a grey plate tone on the print, whereas with copper or zinc it would be almost white. So I could end up with everything in shades of grey. In addition I have never used plastic to mask off areas before, will it work, or will the acid seep under the edges? Why am I trying out so many new techniques on such a massive project with such a tight deadline?
The first print is a success. The black is incredibly black, the edges of the shape, sharp and glassy. I experiment with over-wiping the background with muslin to remove most of the plate tone and with leaving the plastic on the plate to print (the plastic has no plate tone, but does have scratches, which I quite like).
After the prints have dried I pin them up on the wall of Studio 4. I am excited. The voids have been given a black velvety form. They are figures now. They have come out as I wanted, but I am still surprised to meet them. When the artists from Chisenhale come to introduce themselves to me and to discuss their upcoming project to mark the 30th anniversary of their colonisation of the derelict factory, they form silhouettes against the window grid in the studio that echo the shapes in my prints.
This is why I like to make things: So they surprise and please me with their material presence and then I can watch as people and things interact with them.
Measure once, cut twice.
The steel plates are cut and the edges beveled. I take them to Studio 4 and prop them against the walls. Horror! I realise they are not the same size as the windowpanes in the studio. My plates are about 1-2cm narrower and 1cm taller. Since Studio 4 is part of the same facade as my triple height source window, my initial measurements of the windowpanes in the derelict space must be wrong.
Why is it so important to me that the etching plates are the same size as the original panes? It is partly because the way I normally make my prints is directly from the object. I cannot do that in this case but I remain strongly attached to the idea of the work as a print from the window, a transfer from it or trace of it, not just a drawing of it, which could be any size. The first place I will show them is in Studio 4 next to some of the real windows, so even a slight difference in size will be obvious (to me at least).
Rushing back to measure my chosen triple height window again I find to my surprise that the panes are not all the same size. They vary slightly in width due to the warping and rusting of the window frames and probably inaccuracies in the initial manufacture, but more importantly they are quite different heights in the different sections. The tallest (in the bottom section) being 5cm longer than the shortest (in the middle section). I then run around the building measuring all the windows I can reach and discover that they vary from floor to floor and one façade to another.
In some ways this is good news, I have to question my idea of them as industrially manufactured identical units, and not be completely precious about getting them exactly “right”. But I decide that despite this that I should buy some more steel and get some more plates cut (about 3 days work). None of my existing ones are tall enough to replicate the bottom section panes and due to inaccuracies in my cutting some of them are up to 1cm too narrow.
I ask various people for advice. Some of them think my perfectionist tendencies have unhinged me, but a couple of artist friends are more sympathetic. One says ‘It is the beginning of the project, just cut them again so you are happy and don’t end up wasting time worrying about it” So I summon up the energy to return to the OneStopMetalShop, buy more steel and cut it to get my three sizes of plates. Some of the initial plates can be reused and the whole process takes about four days and doesn’t stop me worrying at all. Now I am worrying about the time I have left to make anything with these plates and about whether I might have gone measurement mad.
Hackney still has some industry. Each year more of it disappears to make way for more overpriced two-bedroom flats, but remnants of it persist. Around the corner from Arcane Studio, (where I do my etching), on the Hackney Road, is Daniel Lewis & Son, ‘OneStopMetalShop’. It was founded in 1797 supplying materials to carriage makers and still has some of the original shop fittings. It supplies metal and all sorts to local manufacturers, menders and makers of things. It won’t be there for much longer and I want to return to it in a later post.
I bought three 8 by 4 ft steel sheets here and carried them across the road (with help from Ian Steadman from Arcane studios), where Adam in his under-the-arches fabrication lair, cut them into pieces small enough to go into the cutter back at Arcane.
Arcane Studio is on one floor of a 1960s factory building in The Oval off Hackney Road, with a fantastic view of the gasworks on Regents Canal. It is about a mile west of Chisenhale and linked to it by the Canal. Ian has accumulated a collection of old presses and opened a printmaking studio there.
I feel as if I am immersing myself in East London’s Industrial Heritage, I may not be making anything useful, but I am making something, and it is big and requires a lot of metal and heavy physical work to make.