Interview by Elana Friedland
EF: How are you?
SS: I’m good, thank you. I’ve put video on, as you can see, just so you can have a look at my space and have some fun. Lots of printing presses, lots of stuff, yeah.
EF: It’s also been a real pleasure to see your space through the videos that you have on the website too, so thank you.
SS: Well, that’s good, because we just had a new website with the responsive template launched last week, so really good timing.
EF: I noticed that and I was curious: what prompted the change to the new website?
SS: They had rolled out a responsive template all across the university, and I’m one of the smaller centers so I wasn’t included in the first tranche, and then they had some extra money so three of the research institutes and centers were asked to rethink their websites. So it’s transitioning into a different mode, but there’s a lot more, shall we say, things to play with, to make it a lot more user-friendly, and to profile a lot more images and that, so that’s a first step, but it will be a growing thing.
EF: Thank you for explaining that. And thank you too for taking the time out to talk to me about the press.
SS: Well, it’s sort of cool that you were here for a semester. When was that?
EF: Back in 2010. I took a survey course on New Zealand literature through the English department.
SS: Yeah. Who was your lecturer? Jane Stafford, or Mark Williams, or Lydia Wevers, or —
EF: I think they all took turns lecturing, because I remember having a rotating cast of lecturers in there.
SS: Great. Yeah. So, small world. So thank you so much for connecting with me, and yeah, it looks like this is a great project, and I love the way that Lori sort of framed the whole course, so it’s been a real inspiration for me to dig down a bit into that too.
EF: Awesome. I’m glad there’s been a value in this for you too.
SS: Oh, absolutely. We’re talking the same language, so I was really excited to see that not only she got her media archeology lab, but some of her inspirations are mine as well, so yeah, I’ll be interested to see how the class goes, and particularly with whatever creative work that you end up producing as a result of your, you know, intersections with all these worlds.
EF: To shift gears a bit, I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about the work that you do in your role as the director and the printer over at the press. Since it seems like you encompass a wide range of things in that role, how do you find the balance between the different aspects of your role?
SS: Yeah, it’s a bit of a juggling act, as you can imagine. I inherited the space, and the three pillars, which were the research, the teaching and learning, and the printing and publishing, were an important marker of what Wai-te-ata Press was all about.
So I retained all three of those, and in the world of accountability and administrivia, there’s a lot more to do in terms of the back end administration stuff as well. But it doesn’t mean that I can juggle all the balls all at the same time, it means that according to the rhythms of getting external funding for research projects, funding or commissions for printing work, and then the schedule of teaching through the year, it’s quite a flexible kind of space where, depending on what comes in the door and what’s on the menu at the moment, able to weave things in and out.
I’m a sole charge director, which means it’s just me, and I run my own budget center, so I’ve got a level of autonomy, because I’m not associated with the school or a department, but I am under the faculty of humanities and social science, so I do have a kind of academic affiliation, but it’s more a facility that is available to anyone in the university. So a lot of what I do is not only work within the existing spaces that I have, but also reach out to across the university and a lot of external engagement.
So in order to help execute all the stuff that I really want to do, that relies upon me getting funding, generally external funding that then I can hire research assistants. So that’s easiest when it comes to research projects. So at the moment I’ve got four research assistants working on my project on William Colenso and the Victorian Republic of Letters.
We also have something called Performance-Based — PBRF, Performance-Based Research Fund, which is a government-organized census of all individual and university research outputs that are then, every five to eight years, collated, and universities are then ranked, and based on their ranking they get a lump sum from the government, and based on then how the university wants to distribute that lump sum, it will go back to the schools or the departments, not necessarily to the person who has earned it through their research portfolio. So because I’m a single unit and because I’m the one doing the declared research in the census, they’ve made an accommodation for me, and I get the research fund money directed to Wai-te-ata Press, which means then I can hire publication assistants as well to help with that component of the operation.
And then with teaching, depending on what’s going on, that’s a revenue stream, so it gives me a bit of latitude to be able to cross subsidize other stuff that we do.
So I try and keep a healthy balance, because in a world of accountability, if you’re down below the line too often, people start to look askance at you, but I’ve got lots of support from the university which likes the idea that this is quite a unique facility for Australasia, that it does a lot of things, and that it has a lot of street cred and profile in the wider community. So as I say, it’s a bit of a balancing act, but it’s — and juggling the balls all the time for survival in a way, but you can never be complacent in one of these spaces, nor can you be complacent in academia anymore anyway.
EF: I’m interested in how much the community outside of the university is able to get involved with or does get involved with the goings-on of the lab. Is it easily accessible to the wider community, or are most of the folks who come in affiliated with the university?
SS: If we look at the research side of things, we do have partnering with externals, and that can be people who are working on specific research projects themselves, people who have expertise that we want to buy in or collaborate with.
So in digital humanities work, in digital history, which is where I locate our research platform, you can’t always times compared to that within the university, just because in New Zealand we’re about 10, 15 years behind the thrust through North America and Europe. So we don’t have the skill space and we don’t have the density of people who have graduated through DH programs, because we only really have one in the country, and it’s not a fully rendered one. So we’re always looking outwards for expertise. Always looking out beyond the subject area and the individual faculty to alliances within the university.
So the work that I am doing on exploring the materiality of culture, which is looking at 3D printing, that I’m doing in conjunction not only with our School of Design and Architecture, but with students in the School of Languages and Cultures, and a PhD student who’s in the nanotechnology space in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences. So we’re really an interdisciplinary space, so trying to do that, you know, intra-university but inter-university as well.
In terms of the printing and publishing side of what we do, yes, often we will have commissions that come from external patrons, and some of those are writers who want to see their work published. Sometimes it’s — we’ve done a whole series with the diplomatic community, so embassies and high commissions commissioning work from us, and depending on whether we get access to what’s called Creative New Zealand, which is our arts funding agency, we can do additional projects.
So that’s really project-focused, and for anybody who’s external to the university community who wants to come in and do, in effect, studio hire, or commission us to do stuff, we’ve got quite a process we want to go through. Because being a university, education is our first mandate, and serving our local constituency is right up there, but we also want to cultivate relationships externally, but they can’t be for commercial gain for an external party. So what that means is if somebody wants to come in and do studio hire, that’s great, they have to pay for that service, and there are checks and balances in that because it’s — I’m the curator of the collection, and it’s a collection that is historic, so I have to balance what we call preservation through production, using the collection but not overusing it, and as soon as you start thinking in commercial terms, obviously that at times becomes totally overkill.
So what emerges is that for external communities, I at times will run workshops, and those can be run through our continuing education program. It can be ones that I’ve initiated myself, when there’s a density of people that I know that want to come in and learn the skills of letterpress. But it really is a question of scaffolding that initial training then into thinking about what those people then want to do. We’re not an open studio, A, because I can’t manage that given my time, and B, there’s — I would have to be on-site, and there’s a huge number of health and safety issues in our new legislation that would just preempt me from doing that, and would put the university at risk.
That being said, what we’re trying to open up is something we’re calling the PDFs, the Printer’s Devils Fridays, which will be, once we get sort of all the logistics sorted, an opportunity for the university community to drop in on Friday afternoons to learn a bit about type setting, working with the — I’ve got three students who have come through with me in coursework who are now either publication or research assistants, who themselves want to gain more experience and not skill. So then we work on a credit system that the hours that they put into doing activities for the press are then logged against personal projects that they’ve already agreed with me are suitable, are within scope, will use the equipment that we have, and the fonts that we have available.
So it’s an interesting balancing act between ensuring that we are seen to be open to the wider community, but not so open that everyone thinks they can just come in and do their stuff and leave their undisked type sitting for the next poor soul who’s got to, you know, find a letter that they can’t find because someone else has locked it up.
So unlike, say, the arm in New York or even some of the centers for the books — like in Wisconsin — or in Minnesota, rather, or New York, Guild of Book Workers, et cetera, the university is an interesting space to promote education, but it’s also not — it’s not a free space for the community, and that’s a difficult message to get across to people who assume that since universities are publicly funded, they’re basically a public resource, and that anything that you do is for free. So that could be consultation, they assume that’s all for free and coming in and using the facility, well, that’s for free, et cetera. But over the 50 odd years that Wai-te-ata Press has been in existence, the university has made a financial as well as intellectual commitment to this place, and so we have to, at the very banal level, we have to make our bottom line. So unless I can clear $250 a day, I can’t pay the rent that the university charges for the space that I have.
So that’s all then factored into if we want externals to come in, are they willing to either be a printer’s devil and start working to help the activities of the press and build up credits for personal projects that are noncommercial? Are they people who want to come in and learn a skill and then commission something for us to do?
So it’s a really interesting space to be in, and what we’re finding is that there are other letterpress opportunities in the city and throughout New Zealand, and they always say to me that you’re overpriced yourself, and I just try to explain that, well, we’ve got to make our bottom lines. If you want to train the people up to set a line of type and print it, fine. If they have that skill and they want to come to me and do something more with that, I’m open and flexible and we have our studio hire protocols that they could come in and work on those.
So yeah, I’ve been doing a business of investigation about what other book art studios, particularly in North America, how they deal with this question, whether they’re affiliated with colleges and universities, and it’s my understanding from my colleagues that most colleges and universities just serve their local community, as in their enrolled students and faculty, rather than looking outwards. So yeah, that’s a bit of a long answer for a short but meaty question.
EF: Thank you for that really in-depth look into the operations there. So you mentioned PDF, and I noticed with the updated website that there’s also the Literary Atlas app project that’s in the works. I’m curious about other future projects that you have in mind or directions that you’d like to see the press go?
SS: I guess because I came from an artist printmaking background and did a bookbinding apprenticeship in Scotland, and have a PhD in basically interdisciplinary cultural history, I don’t see the book arts studio in its most traditional form as producing, you know, the single section pamphlet, the tape sewn quarter bound book. I see there’s a lot more potential for letterpress, and I’m happy to leave it to other people to do those kinds of works, but for me, the challenge of keeping this space alive and keeping it relevant is demonstrating that there is a lot more you can do with these presses than printing.
When you start thinking in that regard then, you start thinking about what can I do with letterpress that helps to bridge the perceived gaps between orality and digital. So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about physical and digital materiality. I’ve written a piece for the new Companion to Digital Humanities all about digital materiality that I think you might find interesting, because it’s building on a lot of stuff that is coming right out of Lori’s work, and it’s looking at some of the key players like Matt Kirschenbaum and Johanna Drucker, people like Jussi Parikka and the whole school that he’s affiliated with, with Wolfgang Ernst.
I teach letterpress like material science, and what I mean by that is it’s come out of my training where if you understand the materials that you’re working with intimately, then you know how to manipulate them. And irrespective of the technology of that manipulation, you can create wonderful things.
So most recently, because my research is working in the digital history area, and I’ll share with you a project that we’re working on now, but also because I’m really interested in printing 3D fonts and then analog printing those, you start thinking there’s major crossovers between the world of the digital and the world of the handmade. So we’ve coined “the digital handmade” as a mantra for what we do here at the press. Part of that is pragmatics. There is not enough time in this world to be able to–given everything else we’re doing–to hand set, hand print, and hand bind every single work that we do.
So as a pragmatic strategy, in the past what I’ve done is done hybrid editions with some digital and some letterpress. It might be a cover that’s gone digital because it’s a glorious multicolor wood block that we can’t afford to get the artist in here to do a limited edition for the covers, so we do a high-resolution, beautifully digitally printed work, and then the inside is all letterpress, set and printed, and it’s all hand bound, or vice versa, having the cover letterpress printed, and the interior digitally done. I guess our mantra is fine design is the key thing, and we feel we can do that in the digital handmade.
So we started out exploring what we could do with digitally scanning and then 3D printing from wood types, and one of the reasons to do that was I was inspired by a colleague who was generating new wood types out of medium-density fiberboard, and what we decided to do was, okay, Marty’s doing that, what can we do in the 3D printing space? So what we’ve got is — this is the MDF, or the medium-density fiberboard printed, that’s the classic wood type, as is this down below, and if you look nice and close, the middle one here is our 3D printed one. And as soon as we did that, we thought, wow, this is a great way to generate floriated initials for a star because there’s decorative elements in effect on the surface. But for me, it was the mark of the machine. There’s a bit of a chatter in the middle, it’s coming down here, so it’s not just a mechanical extrusion of the plastic, but the machine itself is either throwing a wobbly or it’s deciding it wants to do the pattern a different way, and we thought that’s telling us something about how the machine is controlling a process that we as humans think is totally controllable. So that was an exercise in just the techne, the logic of how we could get this thing produced.
Then we started thinking, well, you know, can we do logotype? So here’s one that we’ve done, and as you can see, handmade. And so we were there playing with can we extrude type, what’s the nature of the plastic that we have to use, what kind of honeycomb texture inside do we need to be able to get a block that doesn’t compress too much, and that might very well give us a blind emboss of a reasonable quality.
So I’m just going to lift this up, because underneath here — then the guy I’m working with, this is the nanotechnology guy — so then he did that block, and then at his printer, he can, not at the point of generating the font file, but at the point of instructing the printer, you can get different textures, because different ways in which the type is then actually extruded, or the plastic’s actually extruded.
So we started thinking a little bit more about possibilities. He’s done a San Serge letter set for us, he’s been playing with can we go really thin, rather than having the real top block, can we go as thin as this? And what we found is — comms and marketing have been doing an article for us, so you can see there it’s called the digital handmade, so we’ve been playing with fonts to be able to get a few things roaring.
Now, one of the reasons we started thinking about going to plastic was because of this phenomenon. Now, the indigenous language for New Zealand, as you know, is Te Reo, Te Reo Maori, and the conventional form for orthography is the macron. So since none of the wood or metal types that I have — this is all in reverse, you see? So since none of the fonts that we have have embedded accents, let alone the macron, we thought, oh, this is a way to think about what’s possible in that space. Likewise, we have the only collection — and you would have seen on the website — the only collection of Chinese types — in New Zealand, which is pretty cool. So if you look between the large, the uppercase, beautiful Gaudi caps there, there’s a whole bunch of different Chinese characters, and so we thought — the student who’s working on the Chinese characters, she’s doing a master’s on bilingual signage. She’s also helping to restore those types, and she’s really interested in how we can basically create new digital fonts which might very well be, again, 3D printed fonts that then get analog printed to think about modularity of type.
So there’s somebody in Montreal at UQAM, l’Université du Québec à Montréal, Judith Poirier, and she’s been playing with Inuit types and modularizing them, so she was out here a couple of years ago, and we really got inspired by her work. So I guess it’s the digital handmade that is sort of one of the characteristics of both the teaching work that we do and the print output.
So as part of the big Marsden Grant, which is the largest humanities grant that’s available in New Zealand, from the Royal Society of New Zealand, as part of that grant, I’ve been exploring serendipity and palimpsests. Palimpsests are easy to configure, because you think of the layers that you do with printing, but serendipity is part of the researcher’s tool kit. So we ended up curating an exhibition at the Turnbull Gallery downtown called Unexpected Connections, Colenso and his Contemporaries, and we did it all as a cabinet of curiosities space, with taxidermy, and with obviously print, and we had botanical specimens, paintings, just everything. We had a couple of wonderful chairs from the Wellington Maritime Museum in the middle, and basically people were to make their own connections between objects, and we had a digital artwork in conjunction with that. So I’ve just shot through the URL for that (https://wai-te-ata-press.qitlab.io/unexpected/#/)
EF: Thank you.
SS: Because I’ve got one image up there, and there’s a little bit about the physical show.
So basically what happens is that we’ve got about 350 digital assets in the system. When you push — when you open the website, you’ll see there’s a little round arrow, and when you push that, you generate a new composite, and it uses a randomized algorithm to select five of the digital assets, and then has six operations, sort of like a dice, six operations that can be performed on each asset, and that can be rendering them transparent, resizing them, cropping them, repeating them, a whole bunch of things happen. But the point is you never know what this piece of amazing art is going to look like.
And it’s got us thinking about, again, in the digital handmade register, about the nature of digital materiality. Because my next step for this digital artwork is to then 3D print the five items as plates, and then analog print them. Not to replicate the digital artwork, but to see within the letterpress technology what the affordances of the technology are to create another creation, you know, another creative artwork that riffs off the digital one.
So I guess what I’m trying to do is close the loop all the time, trying to make technology seem not as disruptive, but as part of the really innovative creative practice where you intersect technologies all the time. And so while I love the idea of media archeology, for me it’s archeology that’s living in the present.
So Literary Atlas. Literary Atlas was an opportunity through an interdisciplinary research fund which had certain requirements to collaborate with people outside your faculty. They specifically came to me and said, “we want a digital humanities something or other,” and so we started thinking, knowing how intensive it is to create your own digital assets and structure them and everything for a digital humanities project, what have we already got at the university that we could use, and because we have a long text legacy of the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre that was based on the University of Virginia Tech Center, it was a case of what do they have that can profile New Zealand writing, and particularly Wellington, and for those writers that have a link to Victoria, what can we do? And it was a case of, you know, hey, presto, why don’t we think about a Literary Atlas?
So when we went and pitched the idea to some of the design students, they were really keen, because they’re working in augmented reality. They said it’s a prime opportunity for them to develop some new ways of thinking about mobile apps for an augmented engine experience, some new work on the back end, with the database linking to the gaming ingenuity that will then deliver the augmented reality experience. And for them, because although they’re in design, it’s mostly industrial design, and digital media design, they actually don’t have typography as one of — at the moment we don’t have a graphic design program, but they don’t have typography as a single course that they would learn what to do with type.
So we decided to look at the Wellington Waterfront Walk, where there’s all those poets all immersed in the water or not, and the guys went down there, they selected three of the writers that had a link to Victoria, and then they’ve started playing with what they can do to give an interactive experience, which is not only you go to the site and you see the type itself being unleashed in really interesting sort of kinetic typography forms, but also how can the person who’s experienced that feel that they are taking away part of that experience in the form of found poem.
So they’re currently working on the app where you can actually drag and drop some of the animated letter forms, if not words. And if we can manage it at 140 characters, then they would have a found poem fragment that they can tweet out and then put it into an archive that consecutively then becomes individual lines of a continually reinvented found poem.
So we haven’t released the app yet, but that’s why I put their blogging journal of their research journey on the website, the bespoke website that we’ll get, that would be part of it as well. So it’s showing everybody the journey they took to where they’re going, and not only some of the design decisions, but some of the wacky conversations that we’ve had to get to that point.
So as you can see, it’s a case of not siloing any one component of what the press is all about, but thinking about it as an integrated whole and ways in which we can cross fertilize between the printing, the teaching, and the research, in this world where — one of my mantras is honor the content, so whatever comes in the door, whatever we invite into the shop, how can we best release that content in a form using what technology is most appropriate, something that really, you know, puts the reader or the viewer or the visitor or the user right at the center of that experience.
And it’s part of what Johanna Drucker talks about in terms of performative materiality and thinking about digital materiality, not as a fixed thing, but as something that’s always in flux, always in process, always changing through modes of transmission and changing through users.
So it’s really a fun dynamic space to play in, and the fact that we also create things as part of the process.
EF: To sort of shift gears again, my next question is due to the focus of the course I’m taking, which had us starting out looking at humanities labs before shifting into talking about the digital humanities. I saw on your website that you identify the press as a teaching laboratory. So I’m curious about what led to that as a way in which you think about the space and the work you do there?
SS: I guess it’s partly because I’m a real believer in collaboration and teamwork, and while some humanists demonize the lab model as belonging exclusively to science, and there’s a huge hierarchy and it’s only the big guys that get the name for themselves, for me, lab actually means a hub of experimentation and innovation.
So there’s any number of synonyms you could use for lab. You could use hub, which we use for our digital history hub, innovation hubs, innovation labs are really common parlance within the digital space now, through digital media, data artists, digital humanists, but I think laboratory really gives you the sense that it’s a place of experimentation, and for me that’s an important dimension, experimenting with our materials, experimenting with those in the context of specific projects, but also just a space to realize researchable potential.
So that’s sort of why we’ve got teaching lab and book arts studio, we’ve got our Chinese scholar studio, we’ve got our digital history hub, but for me, the principles underlying all of those are the same, you know, teamwork, collaboration, really buzzy environments for cross fertilizing and this idea of experimentation is really core.
EF: Thank you. I’m curious too, since I’ve only been able to get glances of your space: what has determined the organization of your space?
SS: This is the seventh space that the press has been in since it was founded in 1962, and it was called Wai-te-ata Press because it lived in a garage that was below the house — the old house that was the English department. Not sure if you prowled around Wai-te-ata Road while you were here, but it’s sort of that next level down from the library, and there’s a whole bunch of old houses there, the Stout Research Centre, the Health Centre, the Education Centre, and now the Campus Services, they’re all in those old houses.
So this was one garage, then it became two garages, and then it moved across to what was called the Printing Office on the Parade, so there was another garage on Kelburn Parade. Then it moved into the basement of the Music Building, and then when I arrived, it was relocated to what was the Central Services Building, and now the Malaghan Institute, the round building at the back, and there were two locations there that I moved into.
And then when they were talking about refurbishing the library, the then university librarian, who had a soft spot for Wai-te-ata and who had had the university bindery under his wing, which was in one of the spaces we went into in Malaghan, said, you know, before I leave, I want to find a permanent home for you. And so he suggested that we go into this level zero space here in the library.
I was delighted because it was just the most obvious place where Wai-te-ata Press should be, you know, sort of words meet culture, meet everything else. And the light was good, and the configuration of the space is such that I came from — and I can’t remember the square meterage — but I came from a space where we had all in the one space, store area, a classroom, and then the whole press room area.
Came into this space where the configuration was a bit different. We’ve got the press room that you’ve seen, we’ve got an office and a storeroom, we’ve got a foyer area that is an exhibition space at the bottom of one of the internal stairway accesses, and then the classroom was across the — separate from the press room.
When we came to think about work flows, and where all the equipment that had been accumulated over 50 plus years would go, a colleague of mine–I call him my technical adviser to the universe–who was a letterpress trained printer, he’s a book designer and a publisher, work for Government Print and some of the major publishing houses, he and I sat down to work out what the configuration of the press room would be like, so that what we end up having is you come in the door, you’ve got the type setting area, so we have a selection of the fonts most commonly used, sort of in this part of the world.
So we come in the front door, you come around, okay, so then you’ve got all your cases with type, and those are configured not only with the long type frames, but also in pods of four cases. So we’ve got four different setting stations for the teaching, and then the presses are over in this part of the world by the windows so there’s good light, so you can see what you’re doing, and even if the power’s not on, you can still print.
We’ve got then our library behind the big screen, and that’s mostly my personal collection, but it helps support the teaching. We also have the multipurpose storage plan cabinets that store some of our wood type, and on the top are multipurpose for meetings, for binding, for sketching, just doing about everything. So that’s the press room.
So it’s in the discrete areas that you would expect, but it’s all in one fluid space. So you’ve got the type setting, you’ve got the printing, you’ve got the binding all under one, but that meant we had to declutter the space. So apart from the very cluttered office where we have all our research assistants as well as me, so at any one time we can have three people working in this space, then we have our story area, which has this mammoth, we call it the green elephant, our SP25 poster press. We’ve got our paper stores living in plan cabinets.
We’ve got our galleys and galley cabinets here, stuff, but one of the solutions to the fact that there’s lots of cases that don’t fit into their cabinets, I devised this set of basically a type library, framing, so that on the upper two stories, we’ve got the overflow wood types and then on the lower two bays, we’ve got the metal types, and what that is is just easy to slide in and out, you can see what’s out, you’re not restricted by the usual type case or type frame of which there are, you know, three or four or five different widths, but you’ve got these flanges that enable you to, irrespective of the width of the case, pull your types in and out and they still fit there. So that storage area — oh, yeah, and a couple more presses. You know how it goes.
So yeah, it’s a quite strategic way in which the place is being organized, and that’s really a function of the diversity of tasks we do within the printing environment, and also it has to be flexible, because we’ll host meetings, we have launches here for all sorts of things, like not only book launches but special diplomatic functions, and we have tours and demos where we can take, you know, between 20 and 30 people at once. So there’s got to be enough breathing room around the space, as well as it has to be a good working space for students working in teams, and for us to, you know, keep sane in the midst of a number of projects. So it was really quite carefully scoped out.
EF: Thank you very much for that tour. I think you’ve covered about everything that I was curious about today.