The Australian National University’s Inkjet Research Facility

The Australian National University’s Inkjet Research Facility’, Imprint Magazine, March. Pp28-29

The ANU’s Inkjet Research Facility in the ANU School of Art was founded in 2003 with a remit to research the creative arts potential of inkjet printing on as wide a variety of different substrates as possible, and to integrate inkjet printing as closely as possible with other disciplines taught in the school such as photography, printmaking, drawing , textiles and painting.

The approach the Facility takes, of methodically and slowly applying hands on, studio based, iterative experimental processes to the technologies of inkjet printing, is very much in keeping with the ethos of the School of Art in which it is based. While the facility has nurtured many younger artists, many of the other artists who have experimented on our Océ Arizona, wide-format, flatbed, UV cured printer already had long experience in studio-based, hands-on techniques in other disciplines — particularly painting, printmaking, textiles and photography. They are already experts in working closely with the materials of their discipline in the ‘atelier’ of the studio or darkroom. To them the digitisation of image printing is just part of what has been a larger evolving and mutating environment in which they have continued to make their work.

Taking a low volume, experimental approach to equipment primarily designed for the high volume, highly standardised, requirements of an industry is not all that new, even if within traditions of art it has always the manual processes that have been valorised.  In the discourses of art photography and printmaking it is the craft and materiality of the traditional darkrooms or print studio that was usually celebrated.  The material processes of light falling on emulsion, or light projected through the finely-tuned magenta, yellow and cyan filters of colour enlargers were once the only way that photographic images were ‘bodied forth’ and their meanings created. Photographers thought in terms of cones of light causing chemical reactions across emulsion. Different emulsions and chemicals, they knew, reacted in different ways. Darkroom printers controlled those reactions directly through manually calibrating light filtrations and subtly changing chemical reactions.  Similarly prints and paintings were once chiefly made by the squeegeeing of ink through the fine mesh of a silk screen, or the pushing of paint into the weave of canvas. In these studio processes the intuitive control of the hand, twisting and pushing, inflecting and directing with micro-muscular movements, was what was valorised ‘ — by the market, the connoisseur and the historian.

However, just as art history was celebrating the individuated manual control which apparently reigned in artists’ darkrooms and studios over the centuries, the artists themselves always knew that at the same time they were dealing with automatic processes, often derived from industrially scaled reproductive technologies, such as lithography or screen printing, that had become superseded in the factory or commercial printery, but had survived in the atelier. They also knew that art history’s divided narratives of photography, printmaking and painting meant little to them when it came to the actual production of their images. Most art has always been ‘multimedia’ to some degree, combining various processes from photography, printmaking and painting, as well as, of course, collage, performance and construction.

This history continues. If you were forced to identify year one of the so-called ‘digital revolution’, you might nominate 1988. It was the year the first digital camera was invented, the Fuji DS-IP , which directly recorded images as a computer file onto a 16 MB card. It was the year the JPEG and MPEG compression standards were formulated. It was the year Thomas and John Knoll signed a licensing agreement with Adobe to distribute the software they were developing, which they had just christened ‘Photoshop’. And it was the year the Hewlett Packard Deskjet printer was released, the first consumer-priced printer to translate the bitmapped digital image into a matrix of microscopic jets of ink. Yet seen from the seen from the point of view of most of the artist who have worked in the Inkjet Research Facility, the year 1988 is not really so cataclysmic. It has simply introduced new technical procedures, and new material spaces into the artist’s working process — a process which has been going on for a long time.

For instance in 2009 the IRF hosted the ANU’s H. C. Coombs Creative Arts Fellow, the late Michael Callaghan. Well-known for his iconic screen-printed posters of the 1970s, Callaghan had a thirty-year career as a graphic designer, painter, sculptor, and printmaker. He brought all of this to bear as he worked closely with the IRF’s printer at the time T. J. Phillipson, who is now working in London at Cut Laser Cut. For a major exhibition which was first shown at the ANU School of Art Gallery, and then at the Damien Minton Gallery as The Torture Memo, Callaghan graphically collaged and layered the familiar media images and slogans of the recent Iraq War. The media images appeared in silhouette, the slogans in repeated patterns of both English and Arabic script. For one ambitious work, eventually called ‘What the US Government Did at Gitmo’, the patterns were printed onto marine ply which was then laser cut and assembled into a chair, such as a torture victim may have used. The chair was placed on a large mirror, itself printed with more script, which in turn reflected an image on the underside of the chair’s seat.

Other researchers didn’t exploit the Océ Arizona’s ability to print on a variety of substrates, as much as its ability to cover a lot of print area quickly, and at reasonably high quality. For instance, for his 2009 PhD examination David Wills produced one of his massive ‘Wunderwall’ installations. Titled ‘There Are Too Many Things in the Cupboard’, it comprised over 3000 separate images, each printed directly on 150 x 200mm fomecore, installed in a floor to ceiling grid almost twenty-seven metres wide.

So far there have been two exhibitions showcasing the Inkjet Research Facility’s work, each held in collaboration with colleagues from the University of South Australia’s School of Art, Architecture and Design. The most recent, Assisted Reproduction, curated by Dr Denise Ferris, was held at the ANU School of Art in October 2012.

It featured work by the painter Gary Smith, a graduate of the School’s painting workshop. For a series of large canvases of glowering industrial landscapes called ‘Refined’, he used a technique researched in the IRF with the aid of an ArtsACT grant.

In the catalogue Smith said:

‘My work over the past three years has explored how contemporary inkjet technologies and traditional glaze painting techniques can be layered and integrated to broaden the scope of painting. … I create multi-pass composite prints, that seek to utilize the inkjet facility as a painter would develop a picture rather than how a photographer would output a print.’

Elsewhere he explained in more detail:

‘The canvas is initially prepared with many layers of silver and pearlescent glazes. These act like a screen in a theatre and add luminosity to the final image. The image to be layered is then split into each of the colours, ie CMYK, and printed separately as a reduced percentage. Between each layer that is printed the whole canvas is glazed with acrylic. This acts to separate each color and to help break the image down. This process is repeated until the image reaches the required level of saturation. These can vary from work to work being 8 layers of printing and 8 layers of glazing to 24 layers of printing and 24 layers of glazing.’

This technique was also used in the collaborative painting Smith did with Frank Thirion. Called ‘The Faceless Men’ it was shortlisted for the 2012 Archibald Prize.

Another longstanding artist with a long association with the IRF is Annie Trevillian, who has been experimenting for several years with printing directly on textiles. For Assisted Reproduction she exhibited work from the site-specific installation ‘Remnants’, about the fugitive historical existence of the Indigenous and European men, women and children who once lived near some old house ruins left in the middle of the new Canberra suburbs of Gungahlin.  For the sixteen large format images use in the installation she wanted to print her motifs, which were derived from various aspects of the site including its artefacts, buildings, orchards, food, animals and machinery, onto a similarly fugitive, remnant material, so she chose a crisp  but lightweight polyester fabric called polyvoile.

In the catalogue Trevillian said:

‘Because of the transparency of the fabric the imagery was either hidden or obvious depending on the light and where you are standing. It definitely conveyed the idea that there was a history to the site whether hidden or known. A bit like prompting memories of people and places. I worked closely with Amy Macgregor from the IRF sampling colours. Stretching the fabric taut and securing it with masking tape pre printing was very reminiscent of stretching mesh for screen printing. I enjoy the fact that my skills from previous art making activities can be translated to different aspects of digital printing.’

Three other artists in the exhibition printed onto glass. PhD candidate Kevin Miller, for instance, often rescues old window glass or architectural glass panels complete with their patina of long use. Miller intensively works with the contrast levels in his digital image until the tones are so compressed, at either the extreme dark or light end ends of the scale, that their content is often at the very edge of perception, as though seen at the outer limits of peripheral vision.  Miller advice to his viewers, straining to interpret the images, is:

‘You could imagine someone peering at a computer screen, adjusting levels, testing contrast and examining the colour, there may even be some manipulation involved, but this is uncertain. Then you imagine the file being uploaded to the printer in a brightly lit space. In this case the smell is not of chemicals but something closer to acrylic paint and while standing there watching the image being revealed in layers on the glass you could believe that the sound of the back and forth movement of the printer head is strangely comforting to the artist.’

Two artists in the exhibition were inspired by the peculiar mystery of glass magic lantern slides. Nick Stranks, another Phd candidate at the School of Art, has been collecting used and old tools. He sees them as a form of physical biography of their original owners. Inspired by nineteenth century magic lantern slides he prints their image onto glass at one-to-one scale, so they then act as sculptural ‘shadows’ cast from the original tool.

Martyn Jolly has approached the magic lantern slide more directly. Following on from his historical research in the National Film and Sound Archive he has tried to figure out ways of reproducing the experience of experiencing a projected image in the nineteenth century. He printed a 150 year old magic lantern slide of a butterfly, from the NFSA’s collection onto plate glass 1.5 metre square, which was suspended and spot lit as though it was a slide projection.

But the most popular work in the Assisted Reproduction show was the witty series, ‘Cheese on Toast’, by current Inkjet Research Facility technician Amy Macgregor. Pursuing her fascination with ‘cheesey’ and ‘hammy’ TV shows and movie stars from the 1950s to the 1970s, she harvested some images of her favourites, including Doris Day and Rock Hudson, and printed them directly onto slices of white bread, carefully dried in a microwave. Not only does the UV cured ink, in it saturated Hollywood colours, soak into the surface of the white bread in a wonderfully delicious way, but the visual pun on ‘white bread’ heroes plays itself out as Doris, Rock, Cliff, Olivia, The Fonze and all the rest gaze out of the bread at us full of wholesome goodness.

What is fascinating about each of these artists is how adept they are at incorporating a range of technologies — their legacy from centuries of studio-based art making practices and decades of industrial image-producing technologies — within a ‘new’ digital environment. For them their research takes place in an historically unprecedented range of creative spaces which nest one into the other: the optical space of the camera, the physical space of the studio, the virtual space of the computer, and the mechanical space of the printer head as it methodically moves back and forth across a surface directly delivering colour and pigment at an impossibly microscopic level of resolution.

Martyn Jolly


Gary Smith

Tanks 2012

Acrylic and Pigment on Canvas

115 x 240 cm

Amy Macgregor

Doris on White (from the Cheese on Toast series), 2012

UV cured print on bread

10 x 10 cm

Nick Stranks

Mr Pratt (installation detail), 2012

glass, ink jet image, Steel

180 x 50 x 13 cm

Kevin Miller

Blood and Bone 1, 2 & 3, 2012

digital print on glass

(3 x) 90 x 90 cm

Michael Callaghan

What the US Government Did at Gitmo, 2009/2010

Digitally printed marne ply, stainless steel, digitally printed mirror, MDF and Timber, aluminium

Dimension variable

Courtesy Damien Minton Gallery

Michael Callaghan

What Detainee 063 Did at Gitmo, 2009/2010

Digital Print

111 x 140 cm

Courtesy Damien Minton Gallery

David Wills

‘There are too many things in the cupboard’ 2009

Installation of 3000 individual prints

ANU School of Art Gallery

Martyn Jolly

Reproduction of glass magic lantern slide of a moth C1860s

Collection, National Film and Sound Archive


150 x 150cm

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