I first came across SPARE residency at this past year’s MDW Fair, held at the monstrous industrial complex adjacent to the defunct Fiske coal plant and now known as Mana Contemporary Art Center. The fair was kind of a clusterfuck, but I somehow made my way through the madness to SPARE’s small table displaying smart, well designed books and postcards – all printed on a Risograph GR3750 stencil printer.
Among the things that caught my attention were “The Commodity,” a love story told in receipts, by Caitlin Warner and “A Family Home” by Megan Hopkins.
Another book that caught my eye was “Vaporware” – SPARE’s collaboration with Christopher Roeleveld of Working-Knowledge, a fellow Chicago Risograph owner – which was made specifically for the occasion of MDW.
Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of paying a visit to the home of SPARE’s Risograph – which also happens to be the home of Kyle and Shannon Schlie, their 9 month old son Theodore, and dog Roxanne. The family lives on the third floor of a graystone walk-up a stones throw from Harrison Park in Pilsen. Bookshelves made of recycled lumber and an array of vintage medicine cabinets hung over the bathroom sink decorate their cozy apartment. Two of the three bedrooms are dedicated to the residency: one is living quarters for the resident and the other houses the Risograph printer. Lining this small wood paneled workroom are shelves holding books, paper, a long arm stapler, basic book making supplies, and various other tools.
Tucked away under these shelves are large pod-like crates housing the different color ink drums for the Riso. The inventory of books and postcards that have been printed at SPARE occupies other boxes. Posters and printed materials paper the walls. A Spiderwort plant hangs by the sole window, which looks out across the neighboring rooftops.
At first glance the Risograph looks a lot like a standard office copier. However, when you open it up, there is a large cylindrical ink drum inside, around which a stencil of the image to be printed is wrapped. As the paper feeds through, ink is transferred through the stencil onto the paper. One color is printed at a time, and while registration is finicky due to the nature of the process, colors can be layered in really interesting ways.
SPARE has been in operation for about the past year and has hosted 4 residents so far, for 1 or 2 weeks each. Kyle and Shannon provide room and board as well as access to the Risograph and workroom. When I was at their house, their most recent resident had just completed a run of books, which were stacked neatly in the workroom.
The following is an email correspondence that followed my visit.
Bailey Romaine: How did you come to Risograph printing and what about it was so appealing to you? How did the residency develop out of or around your interest in this machine?
Kyle Schlie: I came to it through making books, which is in part a search for ways of making and printing on a small budget. I really liked the Risograph prints Iâ€™d seen, and wanted a way to print things myself, and the price was right, so it made sense to try it. One of our stipulations in getting a Risograph was that we needed a framework for allowing others to use it too. Since Iâ€™d been interested in the Riso for a while I figured others would be similarly interested, so we developed a residency program that we ourselves would want to be a part of and built it around the Riso.
BR: When I met with you at your home a few weeks ago, we talked a bit about the network of Riso printers that you have been finding your way to – or have been finding their way to you – since you acquired the press. You mentioned Issue Press – a small press based out of Grand Rapids that prints with a Risograph – as well as a number of Chicago artists who have Risographs in their homes or studios. Can you talk a bit more about these connections you’ve made?
KS: I wish I could claim more intention behind those connections. Theyâ€™ve mostly been initiated by other people, or out of sheer necessity on our part. In Chicago, Christopher Roeleveld of Working-Knowledge and Clay Hickson who operates Tan & Loose Press found me shortly after getting Risographs and are each doing great things with them now. Itâ€™s typical for people with a Risograph to reach out to others as problems, questions, or sharing opportunities arise. Risographs being used for small press stuff is more common now and seems to still be growing.
BR: It’s a pretty intimate gesture to invite artists you’ve never met before to come stay with you and your family. Did the two of you have any reservations about how it would work out?
KS: Not really. Thereâ€™s no way to know about things like that and at a certain point you just have to try it. The upside seemed great and we focused on that. Every person weâ€™ve had so far has been awesome and the experience for us has been uplifting way beyond printing and making books.
BR: It seems like you’ve had residents come from all over. How have applicants come across SPARE? What sort of outlets did you take advantage of to get the word out?
KS: This is another question I wish I had a better answer for. Our approach has been to go for things we feel are worthwhile, then figure out and adjust along the way. Weâ€™ve had the residency posted on websites that post opportunities for artists. Initially we made almost no effort to let people in Chicago know what we were up to, since we anticipated more appeal for people abroad because weâ€™re offering room and board in addition to the bookmaking stuff.
We donâ€™t how people find us, but emails and applications continue to come in. Itâ€™s not a great answer but thatâ€™s how itâ€™s been for us. Of course, we too are open to suggestions from people who actually know about these things.
BR: You are currently getting your MFA and your work seems pretty materially diverse. What do you think is the importance of making books – particularly in this aesthetic that both you have and SPARE seems to foster, that is somewhere between the finely crafted and the ad hoc?
KS: I think finely crafted can be ad hoc, and vice versa. I guess, to make a connection between my studio work and Risograph printing, Iâ€™m interested in whatâ€™s available or neglected and bringing it on board in service of certain ideas Iâ€™m pursuing. The Riso falls into this category. Itâ€™s no-hassle mass-printing before digital technology, and has fallen out of favor commercially and institutionally so mostÂ printers, schools, and churches are getting rid of them.
The aesthetic of the Risograph is unique in large part because of how it operates. I like that the process is visible in the final result. Weâ€™re making books by hand and though the Riso makes prints easily and in large quantities they come out slightly different each time. The machine has lots of quirks which require responses from the operator that often challenge how a book gets made. Itâ€™s a great in-between technology in that itâ€™s mostly automated but inexpensive, and can quickly make one print or a lot of prints.
BR: Absolutely – I think that this notion of taking what you have and turning it into something discrete and well made is very clearly at the heart of SPARE. I really love the subtle ways you have designed around the quirks of the printing process – such as playing with registration and seeing how it shifts over an entire run. I’m really interested in the postcard project you did recently. Can you talk a little bit about this project?
KS: When I started grad school I knew the residency would take a back seat but I didnâ€™t want to let the printer sit unused. And I still wanted to work with other artists but knew I couldnâ€™t handle someone living with us for a few weeks and working intensely on a book while I was away in my studio every day. For the postcards, we came to the idea of using a simple standard format and to work more with the Risoâ€™s inbuilt economy of printing. We contacted artists we knew and/or admired and offered paper and ink color options which were intended to maximize the printing quantity and variety and minimize the expense. I saw it as a chance to try different options on the Riso, almost in a print sample way, and see what others would come up with based on the options and restrictions we gave them. We worked with Dante Carlos to design the graphics and cards and I think they work really well in showcasing both the printing and the work the artists contributed.
There was also some hope that we could make a few dollars to support the residency program with the postcards, but that prospect seems unlikely. We canâ€™t complain too much but at times itâ€™s hard knowing that the residency will always be an occasional and maybe not very long-term thing because in addition to everything else it does cost money to run.
BR: Dante Carlos is also the artist who designed the “registration graphics” that you have up as gifs on the SPARE website? I think those are so great.
You guys have certainly been very generous in the way you’ve structured the residency. Something we talked about somewhat in depth before was the fact that Chicago really is lacking a good book store or gallery that supports projects like SPARE and could be a source of income to fund the residency (through books sales, etc.). How do you see your life post-grad school, Chicago, SPARE, and the printing/book making/small press initiative playing out? Are there things you would like to do or see other people do with these things in Chicago?
KS: I came to books through art, so I often think of them in that context. Because Iâ€™m interested in how objects, and the ideas they carry, move and live in the world, books open up a lot of options that arenâ€™t as likely for other art-type things. I feel like books have a potentially wider, or at least different, reach that interests me. Books circulate, books are distributed, and so on, which to me, feels like an exciting active process; one which I would like to take beyond just books.
I also like that books are slow and give me the opportunity to really focus and lose myself in them. And beyond books, Iâ€™m in favor of slow focused venues for processing what other people have made. I think this is something that has to be fought for. Iâ€™ve started talking about it through the book, and consequently the places that allow us to get the book in our hands, but it exists in other ways. For example, going to a film screening versus watching it on your computer in your office while eating lunch. Iâ€™m not against the other options but I do know that if I want a bookstore to be around I have to support a bookstore. I canâ€™t complain too much about the lack of anything unless Iâ€™m really working to help the things I value survive. So we have a residency program to provide the little bit of what we want to see remain. I donâ€™t know if itâ€™s the most necessary thing to do but itâ€™s what weâ€™re doing right now. Weâ€™ll keep offering artists our time and our printer, and food and a bed, and keep making books, and see what comes of it. Even thinking of it a success or a failure seems like a luxury right now. The poles are more like doing-it or not-doing-it.
I should also say regarding the previous conversation you hinted at, there are lots of great places, bookstores and otherwise, in Chicago. I just finished getting some new books ready to take to Quimbyâ€™s where some of the SPARE books are stocked. Quimbyâ€™s is really supportive and has been around for a while which I think strengthens other related endeavors. I think those foundational places are the key to allowing other scrappier things to emerge and grow. There are certainly other things I would like to see in Chicago but Iâ€™m optimistic overall about whatâ€™s happening. Iâ€™ve been trying to think of an idea or example while answering this question, and I donâ€™t have it, but hereâ€™s what I came up with. A Chicago Supplemental Library which includes all the non-book stuff that should be available. If I were doing it it would be a museum-library-laboratory hybrid kind of system with check-out-able equipment, artwork, assistants and a variety of other world-class programming. But Iâ€™m not going to run it so it could be just like a place to borrow an umbrella for an afternoon or whatever.
Bailey Romaine is a printmaker and bibliophile currently living in Chicago.