As more and more of our books become digital, and more of what we read comes complete with the glare of a computer screen, Signal Return has its stake in traditional printmaking. Letterpress machines, book binding supplies, and drawers of metal type line the inside of the Eastern Market press shop Megan O’Connell presides over.
It’s a much needed structure to support our blooming art scene, especially in light of the recent swell of interest in letterpress and book arts. Reflecting on changes in the art world that have transpired over the last 20 years, this newfound curiosity seems to make sense to O’Connell.
“Now a designer can be anyone with an iPad who can hit send… Letterpress brings us back into a visceral understanding of what print is,” she explains. “People love it because it does create limitation, which is the total opposite to whatever propagates on the computer… I think there’s a comfort in that and a kind of joy in saying ‘this is enough…’ in stretching and bending and seeing what you can do with it.”
O’Connell spent time teaching in Oregon and Maine, but jumped at the opportunity to relocate to Michigan and run Signal Return. “Detroit is a place that people internationally are paying attention to,” she insists. “It’s a kind of currency we have and it’s not going to last a long time. This is a crossroads and a meeting place.”
Which is why they’ve taken on some prestigious projects here, working on prints for the DIA, and working with internationally renowned artists like Mark Dion and Alison Knowles. Knowles, who has collaborated with art world giants like John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, just held the inaugural exposition.
“But we’re also kind of the neighborhood print shop.” O’Connell points out. Some people want business cards. Others want to learn to make paper goods in their workshops. “We love that there are so many ways people want to support and engage with us,” O’Connell says. Upcoming workshops will focus on printing posters, making valentines, and hand-binding books.
In their first few workshops this winter, the focus is on the foundations of printing and binding… but they’re open to people who have had experience too. “We start with the assumption that people don’t know anything about printing or binding books,” O’Connell says. “If they do, that’s great because the way our workshops are set up is that it isn’t just about imitating what the instructor is doing. It’s about co-learning.”
Their first class is already sold out. But fear not, there are few more scheduled and they have plans to expand their milieu of classes and work shops in the future. “Our programming of workshops will just concertina out and get bigger according to demand,” she reiterates. “We’d like to do more intensive 6-18 week classes that are more like college level courses.”
So maybe people are pushed into letterpress by a twinge of nostalgia… but the air over at Signal Return is anything but schmaltzy. “One of the things we’re pushing against is how sentimentalized the letterpress can be,” O’Connell explains. “So we want to make sure that people have some challenging and interesting content. We’re much more interested in these meaty conversations that problematize things and make us rethink what printing matter is and what it means and how it’s valued.”
O’Connell thinks that this is pretty obvious from the get go. “Everyone understands when they walk in what the ethos of this place is,” she insists. “We’re making things because we believe in the power of the tools we have at hand. We just want to be a conduit.”