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Diary of a Press Check

Hello from Altona, Manitoba, Canada (pop. 3,700), where, on behalf of the Art Institute, I am on a press check for the forthcoming exhibition catalogue Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964-1977. We're printing this catalogue with the fine people at the Friesens Corporation. This is my fourth trip to Altona this year, so it's becoming a routine: the Chicago-Winnipeg-Altona route, dinners at local hot spot the Pizza Haven, and spending hour upon hour in the customer suite at the printer (printing involves a lot of downtime, but we'll get to that later).

This'd be a good time to remind everyone that the Art Institute has a very active publishing program. We produce approximately a dozen titles a year—catalogues for special exhibitions organized by Art Institute curators, catalogues highlighting parts of the Art Institute's permanent collection, guidebooks on collection highlights, smaller titles in continuing series, you name it. We have even recently ventured into the exciting world of postcard books (check 'em out; send 'em to your friends. Postcards: like texts but slower.™). Our books print all over the world: Canada, the Chicago suburbs, Rhode Island, China, Italy, Singapore, Germany, Belgium, and elsewhere. Choosing a printer is a complicated process. Budget and schedule are two huge factors, of course. On top of that, different printers have different strengths. For instance, some are better at printing photography, some specialize in unique and complicated bindings, some excel with larger or smaller print runs. We have a stable of printers we trust, so we can always choose the right fit.

Anyway, one of my jobs as the publication department’s Production Coordinator is to supervise the process of actually printing these books—the last big step in a project often many years in the making. I'm now going to briefly describe some technical details of printing a book, so some of you with short attention spans or better things to do might want to click "close tab" now. Bye!

Okay. We print our books using a method called sheetfed offset printing, wherein large sheets of paper go from one end of a printing press to the other (a journey of 30 feet or so). In the process, rollers transfer ink from aluminum plates to the sheet of paper. The plates are prepared beforehand using a process called “computer-to-plate” wherein text and images are digitally etched directly onto the plate. There’s one plate for each color of ink—usually cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. One side of this printed sheet is called a form, and once a sheet is printed on both sides (or "backed up"), it is cut down into pages and folded together. This is called a signature—usually 16 sequential pages. Once you've printed every signature, they're bound together into a final product we call a book. In our case we're specifically talking about art books, also known as "EXPEDIT Fillers."

Those are the basics. The essential purpose of being on press with a book is to "okay" each form. You work with the press operator to get the color of the images as close to perfect as possible (particularly important for a museum catalogue) while keeping a close eye out for any other problems that may come up. Such problems include, but are not limited to (you may want to get out your glossary of printing terms here): registration issues, ghosting, flopped images, moiré patterns, inexplicable color shifts, hickeys, plate scratches, checking imposition, and on and on and on. We work with some of the best printers in the world, but it’s impossible to anticipate every last potential problem. With our unique titles, it’s crucial to have someone on press who’s very familiar with the project and the Art Institute’s standards.

Once everything looks good, I initial the sheet, and the press operator prints the full run of the book—i.e., if we’re printing 5,000 books, then, of course, we gotta print 5,000 copies of each form. While those 5,000 sheets of paper are flying through the press, I have time to kill. Printing plants aren't typically located in extremely exciting areas, so one’s options for sightseeing or hitting the clubs are usually slim. Of course, as I write this, my coworkers are back in Chicago working on other forthcoming books. So, I’m working too: responding to email, reviewing designs, revising schedules, you name it. Things need to keep moving so we’re ready to print the next book.

Once nighttime rolls around, though, no one back home is really too active on email. This is when it’s better to switch to lower-brainpower activities so I can be fresh for the next okay: Youtube; writing wordy blog posts; Facebook stalking; drinking too much coffee; doing my taxes; more Facebook stalking; staring into the middle distance; more Youtube; sorting through my wallet; wait, she's in a relationship?; not reading the book I brought; coffee; in a relationship with WHO!?; spending too much money at the iTunes store; or that'd be whom, I guess, right?; staring at the dregs of my cold coffee; gaping into the maw of my 30s; eh, forget it man, we weren't right for each other anyway.

This is usually a good time for the press operator to call me up and let me know there's a new form to review.

So, how's it going so far?


11:00 AM: I arrived at 8:30 to find out that the job is delayed a bit—not unusual. I had a snack from the cafeteria and waited. Around 9:30 I looked at the first form and had some concerns about balancing yellow in the midtone and highlight areas of one particularly neutral image. When one image has too much of a color in one area and not enough in another, what do you do, add or subtract? You have to work out a compromise. But this didn't bode well for the rest of the job. Also at issue was the level of black ink. The press operator was running black ink at an unusually low level to avoid clogging the midtones of one particular image. Unfortunately, this made the black title type look weak and thin.

Now, sometimes you're able to comfortably make compromises on issues like this. Luckily, in this case, we didn't have to. Instead we placed an adjustment curve on two of the four plates. The printer will apply these curves to every yellow and black plate they prepare from now on, making (we hope) the rest of the job simpler.

11:40 AM: Just returned from seeing the form with the two adjusted plates. MUCH better. Adjusting a plate curve isn't always an option, though. It costs money and time (which IS money, as we all know). Friesens knows only to burn plates for one form for us, waiting to plate the rest of the book until the first form has been approved. They know we're prone to make a final adjustment such as this one before proceeding with the rest of the job.

11:52 AM: Thinking about lunch.

2:23 PM: Still haven't had lunch, but I've okayed another form and took part in a five-person discussion about how to print the dust jacket for the catalogue. The Light Years jacket will print on uncoated paper, which is an interesting alternative to more common coated paper stocks. It has a raw tactility that recalls the aesthetics of the work in the exhibition. The downside is that ink soaks into uncoated paper, robbing the images of vibrancy and impact. Certain presses use UV inks that dry almost instantly before soaking into the paper (see the Art Institute's 2009 Cy Twombly catalogue) but unfortunately that wasn't an option here. The background of the cover image is a 100% tint of a Pantone orange that, while beautiful, only makes matters worse—in addition to the problem of the paper, the orange further washes out the black. So, to give our cover image extra depth and shape, we prepared the image file as a duotone: two black plates will take the place of one, counteracting the effect of the uncoated stock and orange PMS.

2:46 PM: Oh, one thing that makes this catalogue extra cool: we're producing a limited-edition run of around 45 clothbound copies to be sold through the Gagosian Gallery. They will be presented in a matching slipcase box and accompanied by an Ed Ruscha print of one of the works in the exhibition. I just approved the stamping file for the front of the presentation box. This is what they'll use to create a metal die that will stamp the book's title in silver foil onto the cloth.

2:50 PM: Received email from AIC blog taskmaster Katie demanding a good post. I've never seen the words "or else" capitalized, bolded, and italicized. Cool out with the formatting options, Katie! (Ed. note: I would never!)

2:54 PM: Still no lunch. If I leave now I know another form will come up while I'm gone, and JEEZ do I not want to slow this down. Time's a-wastin'.

2:55 PM: Tuesday crossword puzzle. Easy.

3:50 PM: Three forms down. Now going to the Pizza Haven, Altona's main culinary experience. It's attached to a video store, so maybe I'll snag Knight & Day on Blu-Ray while I'm there.

6:06 PM: Just approved the fourth form after eating my late lunch. Working my way up Mt. Inbox. Not going to count how many messages are from my real people vs. how many are from The Chicago Cultural Center, Goodreads, NPR, Chainlink, Archeworks, Active Transportation Alliance, President Obama, or one of the other organizations who guilted me into signing up for their e-newsletters.


12:11 AM: Hola, blog. I know it's been a few hours since I rapped atcha, but we got into a nice groove and I had no problems to describe in glorious detail. We have passed into the next day, which is notable. So let's see, I'm heading into hour 17 soon, and we're not yet half done. Wait, whaaaaat.

12:20 AM: This robot has a really cocky strut that I don't like the looks of one bit.

2:27 AM: I thought I'd be coming up with all kinds of zany late night quips by now, but I’m kinda not. So I'll reel off a few more facts about the Art Institute Publications Department. We're a muscular band of four editors, a production team of three, and a scrappy business manager named Bryan. Outside the museum, we work with a dazzling cast of freelance editors and designers, printers the world over, prepress houses, authors, translators, indexers, and bakeries. And of course we work with the amazing people in a number of departments within the museum. A handful of our books are designed in-house by our Graphics Department (see the recent Contemporary Drawings from the Irving Stenn Jr. Collection and Jitish Kallat: Public Notice 3). And what would an art book be without photos of the art? Our Imaging Department provides us with a steady stream of incredible and professional art photography.

3:25 AM: Now this:

8:31 AM: Ahhhhh the fresh promise of a new day—fresher than my clothes or teeth. I've been at the plant for 24 hours now, and I'm working with the third press operator of the project. They work in 12-hour shifts, see. We're moving along, but more slowly than we hoped. We've just started a process I mentioned above: "backing up." No, not the thing you've never done to your hard drive, but something FAR MORE EXCITING. This is when we print on the opposite sides of all the sheets we've already printed. Because, y'know, the pages of a book usually have junk on both sides. Wow, who felt it necessary to point THAT out? A GENIUS. LEAVE ME ALONE.

Oh, we printed the cover and it looks great. Printing the cover image as a duotone, a decision we made, you'll remember, during the last minute tete-a-tete-a-tete-a-tete-a-tete (apparently this was yesterday, but it seems like at least yesterweek or maybe even yesterfortnight), was the correct choice. Once you get your hands on this catalogue (available upon release at the Art Institute Shops, Amazon, and, if you get there before it permanently closes, your local independent bookstore [just kidding; that closed years ago LOLOLOLOL]), take a look at the difference between the black tone on the jacket flaps and the black tone in the cover image. What you see on the flaps is a single hit of a "dense black," which is actually a build of 100% black and a tint of 40% cyan for extra depth. On a coated sheet, this would be blacker than, like... a coal fight at midnight. Between bats. Bats hurling coal at each other. But, like I was saying, the uncoated paper sucks up the ink and the black we see is more like that coal fight at duskish, like 7 or 8, depending on CST or CDT and how far north you are.


So like I was saying, compare that to the black on the cover. "Whoa."—You, after comparing. The intense look we achieved on the cover is a primo example of how traditional print media will be saved. Everyone in the industry calls this "The Pizzazz Factor." If we keep turning out books like this, check back at your local independent bookstores soon for their grand reopening.

Printing a cover is often a bigger and/or less predictable challenge from the interior pages because of the variables involved—it's sometimes, as in this case, a different paper stock, or includes added elements like a laminate or varnish, etc. Compounding those challenges is the total lie of not judging a book by its cover. You know who judges books by their covers? Everyone who has ever bought a book or relies on bookselling for any part of their income!

2:57 PM: Hours later. See that break in the action there? That's because I was interrupted and I've been running around busy ever since. All that downtime I was talking about before sometimes doesn't happen. If, for instance, the printer puts your job on two presses simultaneously, you might end up going from one press to the other and back again without a break. This can be exhausting but it keeps you moving and excited and engaged.


12:06 AM: Still on press. Three forms left to okay. Have not slept in forty hours. What will happen to my brain? I went to tweet something about how I must be Navy SEAL material because I've been awake this long and still have my wits about me. But then I stared at my iPad for 30+ seconds literally unable to recall what I had planned to do with it—a plan that had been in my mind just milliseconds prior. Staring. Staring. So maybe I’m not SEAL material. That I even considered this shows that I’m not really at top form right now.

9:42 PM: Okay, quick wrap up here. I finally finished (most of) the press check around 4 AM. I slept. I was back at the plant at 10:30 for one final okay on the special section of the book that prints on uncoated paper. Okay the sheet, jump in the car, fly to Chicago. Done. But that's not how it happened, of course: the job before mine had problems; mine ran late; mine had a problem; another problem; another problem. All eventually solved, thankfully. So I rebook my flight. On the way to the airport I get a call: flight cancelled. That's why I'm writing this in a Winnipeg Holiday Inn, set to go home two days after originally planned, and having slept six hours of the past 60. Why? FOR ART.