john henry tweets

a cumbersome multiples project

JOHN HENRY TWEETS is a mash-up of Twitter and real-time printing in moveable type. With a Line-O-Scribe press and antique wooden type, we set broadsides and print them from an on-site portable studio. The posts are made during public events or from the Cumbersome Multiples studio. Prints are photographed as they dry and then uploaded to @johnhenrytweets. Tweets start conversations. Physical language intrudes into this virtual world. How does meaning change through typography? During 2014, this project travelled through a chain of Portland events to create connective tissue between the words spoken; thereby creating a larger conversation through the filter of John Henry. A printed John Henry archive has been compiled to create a paper trail that may outlive the digital record.

EVERY CHARACTER MATTERS: One weighs this when setting type, when writing poetry, while watching the Twitter character countdown. This project resonates with the Cumbersome Multiples printers — as artists and designers. John Henry, the steel driving man of folk legend inspires us to challenge the “steam-engine” of digital communication with the analog technology of wooden type, ink, and brayer. We like racing the machine (by typesetting during events, against the tide of the tick tick tick of Twitter posts) to the physical limitation of creating a message with the finite set of type on hand. We introduce a broader audience to the physical work of typesetting while we intersect online conversations with the visual impact of the printed page. Do ideas seem more concrete, durable when typeset and printed? Where is the place for wooden type in a world of small plastic devices?

THE GENESIS of the John Henry project was in Porland, Oregon at the Museum of Contemporary Craft Lab Residency in the summer of 2013. Cumbersome Multiples set up a temporary print studio. At one point during the residency visitors from Northern California came into the “studio” and helped compose a broadside based on their travels through the Redwoods. The intersection between museum visitor and artist sparked something fresh.

Twitter is a public conversation. Long before Twitter printing presses addressed the public Commons. We want to engage all the levels of conversation afforded by locating a studio practice in public. It is powerful to communicate with strangers — and even more so when that conversation is face to face. This project benefits from interaction with people (whether it is a speaker, a panel, or museum visitors) and conversation becomes the medium from which we extract and broadcast.

John Henry print, DO Lectures, Campovida, Hopland, CA, 2013

The project further developed when we proposed to set up a mobile print shop at the DO Lectures USA hosted by Campovida (an organic winery in Hopland, California). The DO gather is a four-day conversation fueled by story, the dry air of Mendocino county, wine made on site, and a spectacular group of 100 people willing to be cracked wide open. Much of the conversation pulls at the thread of making meaningful work. Speakers gather to tell their creation myths. From those stories powerful, interwoven themes arise. John Henry set up the print shop in the back of the Hops Barn and listened with our hands to extract ideas. We helped create a visual vocabulary on the back wall. The labor of pulling prints only acted as a reminder that work is physical. In 2014, we returned to document another DO gathering, filling the wall with prints thus constructing another narrative layer.

Wall installation of John Henry prints at DO Lectures, Campovida, Hopland, CA, 2014

THROUGH THE 2014 PORTLAND SERIES, the John Henry project uncovers the connective tissue between the public talks. Audiences generally attend a lecture based on vocation — architects listening to Metropolis publisher Susan Szenasy, writers to poet activist Joy Harjo. The speaker’s words mix with the audience’s enthusiasm and interest, all the while we capture the texture of the talk. Across the lectures, the voices from different sectors created a choir of discernible themes from privacy, storytelling, to the built environment. In the spirit of cross-pollination, we excerpt and recombine these conversations.

Exhibition image selection of John Henry prints at Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland, Oregon

In 2014, Regional Arts and Culture Council awarded John Henry Tweets a generous grant to allow the printers to partner with local organizations and run alongside complimentary programming. An exhibition of the prints is running at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland, Oregon from November 2014 through January 31, 2015.

A print collective led by artists Daniel Duford and Tracy Schlapp, Cumbersome Multiples collaborates with artists and writers to create limited-edition multiples. | @johnhenrytweets