This text responds to the Print Archive at the Royal College of Art, London.

Atoms of the Modern.


First Proof.

People die for words or books, but not for printed pictures.

Imagine the 20th century if Hitler had passed his prison term making prints; Mein Kampf as a portfolio of aqua-tints of Munich, or if Marx and Engels had commissioned Gustave Courbet to make litho prints of working class living conditions in Manchester, instead of using words to describe the ignored.

The words of that now defunct literary age persist and retain an ability to crack and splinter thought, but the printed image which has accelerated through lithography, the camera lens to digital disposability provokes little, except a momentary outrage that bubbles up in the lee of pornography or torture.

The printed image radiates pleasure or aversion, not revolutionary fire.

Second Proof.

Although predating the printed word, the printed image has been patient in its progress from woodblock to stereo-lithography. Poised on the cusp of becoming three dimensional, the print now offers a future world of printed objects and architecture; everything, except words, will be hot off the press.

Third Proof.

From the window of the RCA print archive room the city is visible as a multitude of roofs and trees tops.  It is a landscape of pinnacles, of moments of final ascent, above which is air. In one of the draws inside this room, amongst the tens of thousands of caught and pressed moments, lays an imprint of thought derived from the chemistry and gravity of ink, paper and press. Dozing in the archival darkness is one particular set of prints, which marks a moment in the calendar of recent British history; a moment in which an irregular ritual occasion is commemorated. This set of 5 prints depicts ‘the people’ celebrating a day of pageant.

The prints themselves can be situated as ornaments, as decorative documentation, or they can be seen as an innocent aesthetic experience judged on subjective tastes of composition, colour and line. But this focus on the arrangement of the image is their least interesting feature. These 5 events of the press provide a persuasive argument for understanding one of the failures of modernism, specifically the failure of utopia.

Painting, printmaking and sculpture, the three ‘classics’ of the Fine Arts, which survived more or less, the predations of the Modernist avant-garde, are situated within a sequence of actions determined by the expectation of a final end, or moment of creative closure embodied by an autonomous art object. The necessity of an ultimate or absolute object in the traditional creative process is reflected in the social utopias dreamt by Modernism. The utopia existed as a point in which Hegelian history would end. The dialectic would find absolute completeness in full emancipation and the administration of things, not people. Modernism terminated in the coolness of Form, in the barren spaces of line, volume and colour, from which all content was expunged. The Formal space is recognized only through analysis of its aesthetic characteristics. This is the paradox of Modernist utopias and its point of commonality with the printed image.

Utopia and the printed image have an ontological resemblance. Both are predicated around a final moment, in which the play of form is made still. Each shares a trajectory of decisions which gravitate ultimately to choices of taste and judgment. The avant-garde fundamentally reduced its political, social and intellectual project to one of taste and judgment and the dreamt utopias where always and perpetually an image.

Fourth Proof.

The printed image is not created, produced or seen in isolation. It is seen within a lineage or chronology of similar others. During its production the print is embedded in and draws its value and meaning from the complex relations between inconsistencies and blemishes. The printed image in all its endless varieties is inherently a fetishistic process.


Fifth Proof.

The poetics of print-making is akin to the cut and thrust of a conversation. The first proof is a negotiation; a slight indentation that reconstitutes innumerable previous moments, histories and manners of seeing. The second proof is a tentativere-ordering of weight and inks. Each proof has its own poetry; each alteration and adjustment however slight or iconoclastic inscribes itself in the imaginative space of the next proof.  

Final Proof.

It is unknown which one amongst the 5 prints is actually the final print. Two of them, marked with marginalia are disqualified from being an ‘end’, leaving any of the other three as potentially the last. It is also possible that the concluding print is absent. But the five prints do offer one conclusion from among their variances. The end is the content of this multiple image; the crowd of people standing, sitting and lounging in a festive park atmosphere. This printed shadow of a party invents a particular version of the public, one that is at ease on green fields under bunting, drinking beer and making hay.

It is a utopian vision of the public that will haunt the heart of the post war world.