Since Johannes Gutenberg first had his idea of abstracting writing from the hand and devised the West's first printing press, the history of modernity has been a history of duplication — of taking the particular, doubling it, making it universal.
Aaron Cohick, the so-called "printer of the press" at Colorado College and head of its book-binding operation, is having none of it. "There are traditional notions of what a press does," he says. "And then the question is, how can you play with those, how can you tweak those?"
He points to one of his works. "This book was originally an art history book," he says of the odd, papery object. "The alteration was this process called 'delamination,' where I cut into the surface of the sheet, and then peeled that surface away, so all the text and images are removed, and a new text that's written subtractively [cut-out letters] from the middle is put into the bottom [of each page]."
Works like these — which Cohick calls an "altered book" — will be displayed alongside others printed by the Press at CC and Cohick's own imprint, NewLights Press, at CC's Coburn Gallery for the upcoming exhibition, Any thing that Is strang. And yes, you read that right.
"That's actually a quote that I found in this book, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, which is about this strange museum in Los Angeles called the Museum of Jurassic Technology," he explains. "You're never really sure if the displays are real or not." Therein (apparently) "strang" appears as an obsolete spelling of the word "strange."
The exhibit will feature posters, broadsides and ephemera — artifacts of the entire printing process, including inspection slips, receipts and forms, all displayed as art. As for the content within Cohick's perennially altered forms, writers from Baltimore, New York and even Australia will be published in the works on display. Words from local writers including CC's Jessy Randall, KRCC's Noel Black, and state Poet Laureate David Mason will also be found between the hand-printed covers.
Cohick, 33, began NewLights Press in Baltimore nearly 13 years ago as a student. "I didn't know what this was the first time I came into a classroom," he says, pointing to the machinery. "Books are so complicated — to be able to control all that stuff and experiment with it, is really just a fantastic thing."
Founded in 1978 by an art professor, the CC press has been ahead of the curve ever since. "There's definitely been a huge renaissance in the last 20 years in letterpresses and making books by hand," Cohick explains. "And this Colorado College press played a big part in that."
The lurking question is "Why?" Though it's tempting to chalk up the letterpress revival to some anti-digital backlash, Cohick argues that "this renaissance has been going on for longer than computers have been a part of our daily lives."
Something else, it seems, is the hidden source of this new desire to print, not stacks upon stacks of the same thing, but a few uniquely altered ... what, exactly? We couldn't call them versions, much less copies. They are what they are: singular products of a serpentine modernity.