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It might sound strange, but the Risograph is the latest tool being used by Dallas artists organizing for social and civic impact. Never heard of a Risograph?
That's because they're commonly out-of-use today. The Risograph machine is a digital screen-printer that uses soy-based inks and rice paper to create a unique printing style. The machine rose to popularity in the 1980s by way of churches, schools, clubs, and political campaigns. Now in 2020, RISO BAR, an arts exhibit and collective centered on a Risograph machine, is using the power of printing to spread the movement messages of underrepresented communities in the Dallas area.
"We want to amplify POC voices within Dallas that typically won't get amplified because of where we are," explained Soomi Han, an artist, curator, and member of the eight-person RISO BAR collective.
In a time when discussion around social issues like racism, incarceration, and budget injustice have increased and the world feels turbulent amidst a pandemic, I spoke with RISO members May Makki and Soomi Han on their experiences with the collective, and how RISO BAR is spreading new perspectives through the art of vintage printing.
Alex Temblador: In 2019, May, you, and fellow artist Finn Jubak decided to revive the Risograph process for an exhibit at Southern Methodist University. What fascinated you about the Risograph?
May Makki: Risograph machines are generally cheap and easy to use. It's an older technology that prints imperfectly, but artists have been able to play with the "constraints" of it in creative and beautiful ways. In developing the exhibition, we were thinking about how these aspects of riso printing could liberate content and allow for anyone to self-publish without needing to make their content or stories "commercial." They could be local, personal, and experimental.
When RISO BAR opened, workshops and programming were a key component; however, we've had to pivot away from that approach due to COVID-19. It's caused us to develop other projects through which we aim to amplify the voices of others without them necessarily being in the space as we originally intended. It's shaping how we think about building community through publishing.
See also: Carrie Mae Weems and arts institutions step in where Southern governments fall short on COVID-19
AT: Can you tell me a little bit about the nature of some of RISO's programming? How do they work?
Soomi Han: I think one of the more recent projects that's been really exciting for me is ["Survival School"] which started when the pandemic started. It's this idea about the community helping itself and featuring artists who we wouldn't conventionally consider artists. We had reached out to a bike shop, for example.
MM: The Survival Schools we have done to date: How to Make Syrian Coconut Cookies (Break Bread Break Borders), How to Change a Tire (Eduardo Lopez), How to Make a Mask Out of Bedsheets (Nour Alkhatib), How to Catch Up With a Friend During a Pandemic (Adrianna Cole), How to Grow Your Own Food with Hydroponics (Greg Ruppe), How to Move (Hailey Summers), and How to Make Art When You Don't Feel Like Doing Anything At All (Lone Star Darkroom).
As of now, there will only be one more survival school pamphlet, How to Communicate, which is in progress now by KayCee Choi (incredible Dallas librarian).
AT: It sounds like Survival School draws on communal expertise. In the art space, most of the work is the result of solitary practices. Why was it important for you all to start a collective now?
MM: We always wanted to work collectively and collaboratively, and I'd say that was a core idea of the project initially—for RISO BAR not only to be a workspace but a network of individuals and groups invested in building alternative models. The collective or core group of people running RISO BAR developed rather organically. Early on, several people took interest in the project and have since shaped it in major ways. Today RISO BAR is facilitated by Sofia Bastídas, Harris Chowdhary, Sophia Haid, Finn Jubak, Mylan Nguyen, May Makki, Taro Waggoner, and Soomi Han.
SH: I really love the structure of RISO BAR because it is a collaborative learning space. There are no hierarchies, it's always influx. We all end up being well-versed in every aspect of the job—curating projects, designing/illustrating, seeking out various artists we want to collaborate with, [and] learning the technical skills of riso. I really love working in the collective because I think it encourages learning, even though we're in this position of being the facilitators.
AT: I'm curious, Soomi, how did you get involved with RISO BAR?
SH: I recently graduated from Southern Methodist University with a Studio Arts degree and a minor in Art History. Right at the end of college, I got really into curating.
I was starting to research memes as a form of art and as a new developing language, and I had curated a show Me2 at the Pollock Gallery. Risographs were previously called "mimeographs" and share its root word with the word "Meme:" the Greek word mimeomai or "I imitate." Mimeographs enabled large quantities of prints to be produced cheaply that could distribute information to a wide audience for an affordable price. In the same way, memes are spread in wide quantities to anyone with access to a screen and internet. That's when I decided to pursue RISO BAR with that project and that's kind of where the overlap happened.
AT: RISO BARcreated signs this summer during Dallas' Black Lives Matter protests. How did you all use the idea of memes and replication for the purpose of social mobilization?
SH: I had been going to protests beforehand, and at some point, I felt like I could be contributing in other ways. Something I realized during the protests was how people are being handed a lot of things and the retail space of our physical bodies. I could contribute to the visual impact of the protest by creating this visual repetition of signs—the same color, the same message. The challenge was how to get people to accept these signs in a high-tension, stressful moment. I approached my friend Mylan Nguyen who's an illustrator. She made these beautiful drawings that I thought would carry the message and [protestors] would accept it.
I did not collaborate with organizers. However, the majority of the members in Riso were active during the protests and would help in distributing signs at various protests. We were not actively telling people the signs were from Riso because the priority was to help protesters visually emphasize their messages.
The whole interaction of me handing someone a sign was interesting because of how Mylan had illustrated it. There was a moment of relief, and they would be like, "Oh, thank you. This is cute," or like, "I love this." Seeing the signs multiply throughout the protest, I thought was very powerful.
For RISO, this project brought to light what it can look like for RISO to respond to the current needs of our community in Dallas.
AT: RISO BAR is working with Healing Pieces Project & Ignite/Arts Dallas to produce a calendar of programs for 2021. Can you explain what the calendar is designed to do and how you are partnering with Healing Pieces?
MM: Healing Pieces is a collaborative multi-year arts and initiative led by SMU Meadows School of the Arts' Ignite/Arts Dallas, in partnership with a coalition of groups throughout Dallas. The overarching themes are mass incarceration, budget justice, policing, and issues of local governance in Dallas. The Action Calendar is meant to be a printed component that complements these themes, taking the form of a calendar for 2021 with specific dates highlighted that relate to the history of incarceration in Texas.
Dates for City Council meetings, voting info for next year's local elections, and budget information are also included to encourage civic engagement. Illustrations include poems and drawings by formerly and currently incarcerated people along with and graphics created by grassroots organizations. As part of our close relationship with Ignite/Arts, RISO BAR is printing the calendar and it's being designed by RISO BAR member, Taro Waggoner.
AT: If an organization and/or an individual wanted to work with RISO BAR or experience the Risograph machine, how does that work now in the pandemic?
MM: Reach out to us through Instagram @riso.dallas or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. In terms of facilitating visits to the space or one-on-one workshops, it's best to reach out directly. With so much influx, we are constantly monitoring what feels safe for the space and group under the current conditions.
We want to collaborate with like-minded people and organizations as much as we can. We take on printing jobs for-hire and are always interested in the potential to develop more experimental projects too.
The uncertainty of what lies ahead still weighs on our communities, but over the last year, RISO BAR has shown that, with innovative practices and a dusty old printer, Southern artists can rise to meet the challenge.