Risograph zines are publications with much aesthetic hype, but they’re also a medium that allows for a democratic and attainable distribution of content, ideas, forms, and techniques. Because Riso-printing tends to favor experimentation over perfection, can be done with relatively inexpensive materials, and is best for small batches, it’s a common tool for self-publishing projects like chapbooks, comics, design specimens, and zines. Then there’s TXTbooks, a Riso-collective run by Robert Blair, Thomas Colligan, Nichole Shinn, Rose Wong, and Kurt Woerpel, founded in 2014. TXTbooks uses the Risograph as a means of self-publishing, but its founders also make a point to reach artists, writers, and designers for whom zine-making is not their usual practice, and to expand the outputs typical to a Riso machine. In their words, the goal is to “create dumb jokes and passion projects with as many people as possible;” TXTbooks is unique in both its humorous tone and open approach.
I sat down with two of the collective’s founders, Kurt Woerpel, who’s also art director at Interview, and artist/illustrator Nichole Shinn to talk about their origin story and collaborations, the kinds of ideologies and aesthetics that get wrapped around Riso communities, and how hacking digital and physical drawing tools can allow for a new visual vocabulary around zine-making.
How do you describe what TXTbooks is to your family?
Nichole Shinn: I basically describe it like: it’s a group of friends, we make cool books and zines, and we like to work with other artists and just try to have a fun experience. It’s really hard to explain [to my family] if I go into the details of Riso printing or the specifics of it being a self-publication project.
Kurt Woerpel: My mom and dad are both independently employed, so they think of it as “you’re starting a business!” And I’m like, no, it’s not really a business, it’s a project. But they’re still like, “it’s so great you’re starting a business.” I actually invited my entire family to the New York Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1. My mom is an interior decorator and has an eye for aesthetics so she got it, and my teenage brother was so excited to get a bunch of T-Shirts.
How and why did you start TXTbooks?
Woerpel: Rob [Blair, co-founder of TXTbooks] and I took a class in 2013 that was all about zine-making that really inspired us. Rob would make a zine every week, which showed us how quickly you can do things and get ideas out. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It can just kind of be made. We would sometimes sneak into our college’s studio the first two years we started TXTbooks. Going to college should be like a life-long marriage contract where they commit to letting us use the facilities forever. Eventually all of us decided to pitch in and get our own Riso.
“Going to college should be like a life-long marriage contract where they commit to letting us use the facilities forever.”
Shinn: Rob, Kurt, Thomas, Rose, and I were all worried about post-graduation, how scary and stressful it is to be thrown out into it. You don’t really have that kind of community of your peers anymore. We all enjoy doing this thing together and knew it would be very easy for us to just keep doing it. Kurt and Rob had the idea to apply for the New York Art Book Fair in 2014, which is when we got more serious about making TXTbooks an actual collective and coming up with the name and structure.
How did you come up with the name?
Woerpel: When we applied for the New York Art Book Fair it felt like “NYABF is a cool person club thing and I don’t think we can do that.” But we wanted to do it together, and we got curious about what name could live within a range of believability but still be a bit weird. [We wanted] people thinking that we’re good at what we do and we’re legit, not just a bunch of students. Rob and I came up with a list of like a hundred different names that made us laugh. We all landed on TXTbooks because we were just graduating and textbooks are really boring and institutional and also really expensive.
The decision to abbreviate T-X-T came from a time when my co-workers were complaining about how many new start-up companies take the vowels out of their names—i.e. Brooklyn as BKLYN. I thought it’d be funny to do this because, what if they see it? TXT is also funny as a shorthand for text message, because it’s so ‘internet-y,’ kind of like a web forum or chat room language.
How would you describe TXTbooks’ aesthetic?
Woerpel: Rob and I talk a lot about the Outback Steakhouse slogan, which is “NO RULES JUST RIGHT.” It makes no sense for a steakhouse, but it makes a lot of sense for a publishing press. That’s how we’ve framed TXTbooks, at least amongst ourselves. We have two parallel approaches going: we try to do really interesting and visually-rich books on the one hand and then in the opposite way we try to do really simple conceptually-driven graphic projects inspired by more traditional zines.
“Rob and I talk a lot about the Outback Steakhouse slogan, which is NO RULES JUST RIGHT… That’s how we’ve framed TXTbooks, at least amongst ourselves.”
Shinn: A motif that holds up is: breaking drawing tools to create interest. A bunch of the projects that we’ve curated, especially the ones that are drawn are about that. We want to encourage the way various input methods translate to Riso. The curiosity of seeing the variations of illustration and variations of mark making and image making, translated through Riso is really beautiful. They tend to be more elaborate and visually rich. We try to give our collaborators carte blanche.
What kinds of creative intelligences does Independent publishing and risography demand?
Woerpel: Riso printing touches on this obscure older process of digital reproduction: taking something that was specifically made for offices, churches, and schools and using it for technical experimentation for artists and designers. With DIY stuff, most of the equipment we use are second hand tools. We always joke, “how hard can we make things for ourselves?” It’s always like, fucking it up one way or the other. We’re in a Riso Slack channel and we talk and trade our lessons and tricks with a bunch of other Riso printers and people in the community.
Riso is best made to be used for quick one color prints. So anything beyond that begins to push the method and the machine to try to do things it wasn’t really built for. You can do a lot even though the image starts to misalign, colors start to get either too dark or too light or weird overlaps begin to emerge.
George Wietor of Issue Press in Grand Rapids once told me that before CMYK printing was invented, people would have to use more on-the-fly color theory to separate colors out for a project. If there was only enough budget for two colors, but they wanted the images to look lush, you could start playing with things like tints. You test your limits and see how to push.
Shinn: Riso printing is an accessible form of printmaking, which makes it very popular. There’s a rise of professionalism within the self-publishing scene, where people feel a pressure to have to be like “this my one shot.” From a self-publishing perspective, I want to protect people from that pressure. What’s the best way to keep things reasonable in a workload sense? It’s [also] sometimes nice to have some rules to push back against, so you can have some decisions taken away from you as an artist. You don’t have to think about those things. I think of it as a graph: more pages equals less colors and less pages equals the ability to do more colors. It can also be hard to think in multiple-colors when you have to think of separations in that way. You can devote that brain space into thinking of powerful imagery or humorous and strong themes.
I find the way you seek collaborators is so unique. Does the medium itself inherently provoke collaborative modes of making?
Shinn: We were inherently collaborative amongst ourselves when we started. We want to see as many projects and as many styles represented through Riso printing as possible, because it’s fun for us and for the artists that we’re working with to have that experience.
“We want to see as many projects and as many styles represented through Riso printing as possible.”
We started with our immediate friends, but over time we would find collaborators through meeting someone at a fair, or artists and designers would reach out to us with a good idea. We would also go on Instagram and try to find artists who don’t seem to be involved in the Riso printing community, but we were curious what they would make on a Riso with their techniques.
Woerpel: We made a poster to this effect a really long time ago. It said: “No one can fire you from your own independent publishing project…” We usually collaborate with four to five artists a year for solo projects, more for our reader series. However, there’s a risk of burnout doing projects that are back-to-back and setting really high-expectations. We also need to internally negotiate if we can do a self-published project or need to focus on printing something as a job, since we also operate as a print service.
What is an example of a project that articulates your values and aesthetics as publishers the best?
Shinn: I would say the Txtreader series. It feels the most egalitarian and open. The core of what we do is trying to not be specifically one thing or the other, but rather to gather a lot of different aesthetics while talking about one subject.
We came out with the third iteration of the project and it’s all themed around video games. The front and back covers are supposed to be like the Nintendo switch colors for a joint controller on the sides of them.
Woerpel: Txtreader always helps us to return to embracing simplicity and quickness and fun. It helps us in deescalating some of the stakes of self-publishing. Humans can instinctually tell when someone’s coming up with a joke on the spot versus when it’s been pre-rehearsed and overthought. Self-publishing is a place where that gesture of swiftness is valued the most. We love printing Txtreader, cause we can print each contribution in an afternoon.
How do you find space, time, and motivation for projects that let you stay true to your ethos?
Shinn: Having five people be able to discuss any aspect of the project makes it feel like a cooperative. Everyone’s opinions are heard and it’s not up to just one person to do the same kind of stuff over and over again. We all share a little bit of the load, whether that’s curatorial, financial, or the physical kind.
Woerpel: We actually bought our machine from a government auction website of the Colorado school district—it had an exploded drum inside it. The way Riso got into this art and design ecosystem was by people buying them second-hand and finding others like them to try and figure out how to fix them. Which makes me think about what would happen if we applied that logic to everything we bought: you learned to fix it and then bought it. If you’re going to code a website, you gotta be ready to Google some code, and if you buy a printer, you have to look up how to maintain it. Assert the right to repair—everything is incentivized to break and planned for obsolescence. Finding time to do everything is challenging and we definitely fight against burning out…we are trying our best
“Assert the right to repair—everything is incentivized to break and planned for obsolescence.”
The writer John Komurki has dubbed the Riso as a “tool for freedom.” What kind of ideologies do you think get wrapped around Riso Communities? How do you resist, subvert, interfere with, and explicitly refuse to play by institutional rules?
Woerpel: Design projects that only speak to designers can feel exclusive or boring. We think a lot about the idea of being intentionally bad in a confident way. So it doesn’t just end up being about cool design and technical mastery, but there’s another element that can still be appreciated by many.
The aesthetic of Riso can also become the underlying goal to produce a style or an image, which can be troublesome. There’s this album by the band Spacemen 3 that’s called “Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To;” some people make designs that look Riso-printed to end up on mood boards to make Riso-inspired designs. I’m a visiting instructor at Pratt Institute, and I actually had a student refer to a specific kind of half-tone as “Riso-texture” rather than color half-tone. I think there’s always a danger in the Riso aesthetic becoming what people exclusively strive to reproduce, which undercuts the actual value of being able to print your ideas easily and cheaply to begin with.
Shinn: The more people self-publish and the more people are exposed to self-publishing, the more they question the kind of rarefied art object. Coming from the fine art background, the way you make money in fine arts is based upon really weird and absurdist notions of a rarefied object. Self-publishing in general has been a really amazing method to avoid getting into those conversations. A level of attainability is the value, rather than scarcity.
Woerpel: For most people, success and those other metrics seem really impossible. Self-publishing gives you autonomy, and pushes your voice out there. Every publisher has the autonomy of setting their own rules and building their own structures on how they want to exist in the self-publishing ecosystem. It feels tangible, empowering, welcoming, and let’s people come at it any way they want.
Do you have any favorite Riso Memes?
Woerpel: There’s inherent humor in the community because we are working with this weird outdated technology in these quixotic ways. We have a lot of inside jokes in the Slack group. There is also a meme page called @risoproblem which gestures at how often Risos break, or how many problems come with it. A fellow printer joked with us “A Riso ruined my life.” Everything anyone says about printing Riso… it’s true. That it has become in the negative sense fetishized, but in the positive sense super appreciated again.