Learning to run the Big Fag Press took time. About four years in, they got a commission from the MCA for the cover of the exhibition book Avoiding Myth and Message. They still had their printing press stored in Alexandria, rather than their current Firstdraft-run digs in Woolloomooloo, when they were still learning their craft.
According to Big Fag member Lucas Ihlein, when they presented the cover to the printer doing the book's pages he was "just aghast. He was like That's just the worst I've ever seen. And then he said Don't worry, we'll reprint them for you." He seemed to think that he was doing them a favour, but Ihlein thought otherwise.
"I had a hunch at the time that, although I wasn't entirely satisfied, the MCA would be really pleased with it." And he was was right. The MCA loved what would ordinarily be seen as errors or mistakes.
"In a period of time where even your Kmart catalogue is the most beautifully, clearly, crisply printed thing, perfect printing is no longer something to get excited about. What gets people excited is imperfect printing."
The "Fag" in Big Fag is a F.A.G. offset proof press. ("Offset," here, means the plate and paper never touch, while "proof" means it can go from design to a real print quicker than some more complex machines.) The Big Fag Press — before it was formally called that — got its hands on this huge printing press for $50. As luck would have it, that original incarnation of the collective-to-be were living in an Alexandria warehouse big enough to house the thing. But it still cost them $1200 just to move it back home.
The press is grey, four tonnes and occupies most of a room. It's a complex beast to run. According to Big Fag member Diego Bonetto, you have to take into account "air humidity, consistency of the paper, some inks react differently than others, fresher than others. So there's lots of variables that need to be taken into account. To master all of that, you need to have worked in the industry 40 years."
Given the complexities involved in running the press, it's surprising how much access Big Fag gives artists to the machine. Unlike the Rizzeria, it's Big Fag members who actually run the machine. But visiting artists are still deeply involved at every step of the process. Bonetto says it sets them apart.
"We can allow artists to be part of the process, and engage with the whole process of printing. Which, in commercial terms, is something that is unthinkable."
For an artist, using the press starts with an image. They bring in a high resolution image of their artwork (at least 300 dpi). Then, as each colour needs its own pass by the printer, the image needs to be separated out into its component colours. If the artist doesn't know how, Big Fag does it for them.
The image then gets transferred to a special metal plate — one per colour — at a Marrackville print shop. With the plate made, you're ready to print.
Printing is like a relay process. Ink goes from the rollers to the plate, the plate to a rubber "blanket", the "blanket" to the final piece of paper. To start, the ink is put on the top of the rollers, where it rolls down a cascade of rollers, being pressed flatter and flatter by the process until it finally reaches the rollers at the bottom, which presses the ink into rollers second from bottom.
These will be the rollers that actually apply the ink onto the printing plate. The day we visited, Big Fag was printing a first green layer of a design by Lucas Ihlein and Ian Millis, so rollers and ink were all green.
The rollers then move along the press to apply the ink to the printing plate. The plate has been washed with water first by the press. The plate is specially treated so that water will sit on most of the plate, but not the design. So, after the plate gets wet, and the inked-up rollers roll across, these oil-based inks won't stick to the wet parts. But they do stick to the design. So it's only the design that gets inked up.
Also inside the massive moving top part of the press is "the blanket". This is the big rubber cylinder that does the final printing. Once the plate is inked-up, this cylinder rolls over it, picking up the design in ink, then laying it down on the actual paper that the artist wants to print on.
It takes one pass per colour, and often multiple passes of each colour until the right amount of colour has been applied.
The final result is usually an oversize poster (like this one, for example).
Big Fag custom quotes for each job, so fees can vary to cover the cost of running the workshop, having a Big Fag member there to operate the press, paper, the metal plates and other sundry expenses. More detailed information can be found here.