Nothing virtual about Philagrafika arts festival

Miller Lago is turning paper back into a tree. He’s taking 5 tons of regional newspapers and rolling them – one page at a time – into a gigantic log 6 feet in diameter.

Apple has released its entry into the e-reader market, joining the growing roster of electronic devices which allow people to read a book while never touching paper. This weekend a citywide arts festival Philagrafika 2010 offers rebuttal.


Miller Lago is turning paper back into a tree. He’s taking 5 tons of regional newspapers and rolling them – one page at a time – into a gigantic log 6 feet in diameter. Just as the rings of a tree trunk comprise an environmental record, the rings of this paper tree are made of thousands of daily stories, compressed into newsprint.

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The Columbian artist calls the sculpture Silence Dogood – a nom de plume of a young Benjamin Franklin.

Artistic director Jose Roca

Lago: The name I found on the internet – a nickname which was used by Ben Franklin when he wrote many years ago.

Lago is one of 300 artists participating in Philagrafika 2010 – and not the first to recognize how fitting it is for the largest international festival for print arts to be held in Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin was a printer on Market Street, and it was here that Thomas Paine printed his revolutionary tract, “Common Sense.” Some of the artists draw on that legacy.

Auerbach: I have one in one of my pockets, but I don’t know where…

Lisa Ann Auerbach is an artist who prints tracts.

Auerbach: You can see they are very physical creatures.

Tracts are associated with Christian groups who proselytize through small printed handouts. When Auerbach discovered a storefront in Los Angeles filled with neatly stacked tracts, she was smitten.

Auerbach: The graphics were really amazing – but the message was all exactly the same – it was all about accepting Jesus or go to Hell. I thought we could do a lot with this medium. Instead of all the same messages, we could have all different messages.

Auerbach got writers and designers to produce tracts on topics ranging from Darwinian theory, to bicycle safety, to environmental advice. Hundreds are available for free at the American Philosophical Society Museum. Auerbach asked her writers to turn up the attitude.

Auerbach: I wrote one about toilet seat covers – it’s called an Insidious Scourge – which is in the style of threatening religious tracts. It’s about how toilet seat covers are bad for the environment and you should just squat.

Curators of Philagrafika say to most people, the printing process is as simple as a keystroke. The purpose of the festival is to stretch the idea of printing as a creative tool.

Take Pepon Osorio – he’s a Philadelphia installation artist who recently found an x-ray image of his mother’s skull. He enlarged the image to 8 feet by 10 feet and had it printed on 100 pounds of confetti.

Pepon Osorio's x-ray image of his mother's skull.

Osorio: It took me only, like, 7 months to convince a printer to do it. Everyone who I went to said forget it, you’re crazy, I’m not doing this. Think of confetti – how after a carnival the streets are covered with white confetti. Printing right on to of it. That’s what I did.

Osorio says it allows him to both celebrate his mother’s life, and prepare for her eventual death. That piece is on the floor of the gallery at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, one of 88 local institutions collaborating on the festival. Many of the curators are staff members of the city’s major cultural institutions.

Artistic director Jose Roca says he could only pull off such a large collaborative show in Philadelphia.

Roca: To make almost 100 institutions collaborate to one common goal – that would never happen in New York, for example. That’s something I’ve experienced only here.

Philagrafika 2010 continues until April 11.

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