With resurgent interest in things such as letterpressed invitations, silkscreened gig posters, and Risograph publishing—relatively benign tokens of print’s post-Internet afterlife—the exhibition Fredy Perlman and the Detroit Printing Co-op at 9338 Campau Gallery in Hamtramck, Michigan, comes as a timely reminder that all printing was (and is) political. The connections between politics and printing shouldn’t surprise us since its fundamental rightness is enshrined in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as a founding trope of American democracy.
It wasn’t always the case. The colonial governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, in 1671 decreed: “I thank God there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these [for a] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!” He pretty much got his wish. Because, as several social commentators have pointed out and certain publishing magnates have aptly demonstrated, freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one. Thus, an elemental principle of democracy often collides with a fundamental law of capitalism, as ownership offers both the power of control and the privilege of access.
The Detroit Printing Co-op existed from 1969 to 1985 in southwest Detroit, and as its founding manifesto decreed, offered printing facilities and equipment as “social property” to “provide access to all those individuals in the community who desire to express themselves (on a non-profit basis), with charges made only to maintain the print shop (rent, utilities, materials, maintenance of the machinery).” Perlman was not by training a printer or a designer. He had studied subjects such as philosophy, political science, European literature, and economics at places like UCLA, Columbia, and the University of Belgrade, where he received his doctorate. He went on to become an author, editor, publisher, printer, and designer. Despite a brief period in academia, Perlman was what designer Jan van Toorn calls a “practical intellectual,” someone engaged in ideas and issues but whose vocation is materially productive—more blue collar than ivory tower. Such a figure seems like a chimera today. However, in the fervor of the 1960s with its blend of Left politics, social activism, and union strength many more alliances across classes and races seemed possible. Working outside of systems, whether military, industrial, or academic, seemed less idealistic and more necessary.
In 1969, Fredy Perlman and his wife and partner Lorraine Nybakken moved to Detroit, a hotbed of countercultural activities and alternative publishing, including the Fifth Estate, an underground newspaper where both would become longtime contributors. Shortly after their arrival, Perlman and a group of kindred spirits purchased a printing press from a defunct Chicago-based militant printer and shipped it to Detroit. The Detroit Printing Co-op was born, which included the Black and Red Press, Perlman’s and Nybakken’s own imprint.
The large window that fronts the 9338 Campau Gallery in Detroit’s Hamtramck neighborhood displays a greatly enlarged union seal, or “bug,” which declares in all caps: “Abolish the Wage System, Abolish the State, All Power to the Workers!” Such seals were used to identify those goods produced by union represented shops, although few were emblazoned with such slogans. This act of political defiance reflected the Co-op’s choice of belated membership in the Industrial Workers of the World, a union first formed in the early twentieth century with strong socialist, anarchist, and Marxist roots.
Perhaps the best known publication of Black and Red Press is Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, for which Perlman and others had provided the first English, albeit unauthorized, translation of the Situationist philosopher’s influential 1967 treatise on the conflation of advanced capitalism and mass media. In Debord’s view, authentic social relations had been replaced by its representation. Illustrated with striking black-and-white images culled from various archives (the original text contained no illustrations), Perlman it could be argued performed a détournement of sorts, using the cult of the image against itself. A first edition of the book from 1970 shows the front cover depicting, like windows onto a soulless landscape, the exterior of a banal office building, its workers visible inside through a grid of illuminated windows; on the back cover a crop of an rather impassive audience watching a film wearing 3D glasses—their dark lenses obliterating the eyes. Readers may remember the book’s 1977 revised edition better, when the back cover image became the front cover.
The Co-op would print journals like Radical America, formed by the Students for a Democratic Society; books such as The Political Thought of James Forman printed by Carl Smith of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; and the occasional broadsheet, such as Judy Campbell’s stirring indictment, “Open letter from ‘white bitch’ to the black youths who beat up on me and my friend,” the victim of an assault after leaving a Gay Liberation Dance. The work of the Co-op reflects both the agency and urgency, to borrow a phrase from designer Lorraine Wild, of the period’s tumultuous times.
If one is expecting to see a series of dry, colorless political texts or propagandistic tracts, then you would be pleasantly surprised. What is perhaps most striking about the work on display is its engagement with the processes and materiality of printing. The exploration of overprinting, use of collage techniques, range of papers, and so on underscores the point that behind the calls to action and class consciousness there is innate sense of experimentation and pride of craft. As the curator of the exhibition, Danielle Aubert, a Detroit-based designer and educator, duly notes, Perlman’s works “illustrate the evident joy he took in the act of printing.” Working with a printing press that was, in 1970, already 50 years old meant that the final product would retain a certain roughness and inexactness, which nevertheless got the job done. It’s impossible not to view the work through today’s Risograph printing revival or even the Gestetner-fueled mimeograph revolution of the 1960s.
Lining the walls of the gallery are color enlargements of portraits of revolutionary leaders throughout history overlaid with blackletter drop capitals. The images are culled from Perlman’s satirical critique, Manual for Revolutionary Leaders (1972), a text that expresses the disdain Perlman had for authoritarian ideologues of all stripes. As Aubert relates: “When leaders proclaimed ‘All power to the people,’ Perlman heard ‘All power to the leader.’” Perlman’s use of collage and overprinting is also on grand display in his text influenced by his former teacher, The Incoherence of the Intellectual: C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action (1970). Perlman’s interest in materiality as an expression of labor as well as the power inherent in self-publishing was already apparent in the early 1960s, before the Co-op was founded, when he authored, and with his wife Lorraine, printed and published, The New Freedom: Corporate Capitalism (1961). A simple chipboard cover with a decal wraps a stack of hand-cranked mimeographed signatures—humble materials for sure, but a painstaking process of production yielding just under 100 copies. Inside, they note: “The choice of materials was influenced by the extremely limited financial means of the author and artist, but both hope their attempt to make a book whose outward shape was consistent with its content has been successful enough to encourage others to follow their example.”
The exhibition that Aubert has assembled is refreshing on at least two levels. First, it adds to the history of graphic design a seemingly unlikely contributor working from not only outside the mainstream profession and economy, but also from the ground up. Secondly, it offers a counterpoint to the thinness of content that too often circulates in the design world of self-publishing. After all, the point shouldn’t be just to “make” something, but to also say something. Many graphic designers have taken up the printing press in its varied forms in recent years, and the motivations undoubtedly vary from person to person. The social dimension of independent printing, evidence of its current evolution, was on display in one of the public programs that accompanied the exhibition, which focused on skill- and tool-sharing enterprises. However, I’m left to wonder if the cult of the entrepreneur and its lone disruptor model that has governed twenty-first-century life thus far has not displaced the potential of cooperative action and collective invention. At the heart of the Detroit Printing Co-op was a radical economic model that opened a space for personal experimentation, and not the reverse. As Aubert rightly surmises: “I would argue that some of [Perlman’s] experimental energy stemmed from the political and economic structure of the printing co-op itself—the decision not to work for wages or monetize his time. The concerted attempt to work, to labor, as a printer, but not for money, led to design and printing decisions that would not be rational in a for-profit environment structured according to the rules of capitalism.”
—Andrew Blauvelt is director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.