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Can Yang on the Materiality of Printing in the Digital Age

London-based multidisciplinary artist, designer and lecturer Can Yang defines materiality as “an emphasis on interaction and connection among artist, artwork and audience.”


It’s a key focus of her practice, stemming from her 2018 degree project that explored the reformation of Chinese superstition - how it formed and transformed into commercial products, and its future design implications.


“I collected many Chinese printed ephemera from the past and present days in order to seek the stubborn obstacles that traditional culture posed to achieving economic development. The mass-produced and cheap flyers on the street, advertising stickers and joss paper provided a microscopical peek of a broader capricious circulation pattern for the economically-efficient goal. The plebeian grassroot prints document and evoke renewed approaches to our tradition and they inspired me to rethink the established hierarchies and principles within graphic design and the visual communication industry.”

Speaking more broadly, Can neatly defines graphic design as “the practice of creating daily artefacts for visual communication, using forms or typography based on certain rules and principles.”


Not just a useful medium for carrying a message, it can also facilitate cultural and historical values. “I’m specifically interested in the formation of these rules and principles that shape our design in the present time and future.”


Punch card documents were singled out by Can as an especially interesting type of printed ephemera, as they chronicle a time when printed material was designed to be read by machine rather than humans. “The rhythm in its layout, grid system, physicality and visibility of the process storing tangible data…all these things fascinate me as it centres around the topics that we still go on about analogue and digital nowadays.”


With an ever-increasing emphasis on screen-based communication, along with the development of open-source software, artists and graphic designers tend to favour digital modes of design. This has mixed implications with regards to the materiality of the work.



“I’m aware of this shift and how it would affect communication, circulation, value and preservation” says Can. “Traditional printed materials are meant to circulate by hand, which could be a more considerate gesture with care. It is a quite different experience compared to reading a JPG or PDF online, approached by a quick click on hyperlink. In some theories, the accelerating dematerialism could be a progressive decay of the aura in endless recreation of the original work, or in other opinions, the digital medium has its specificity in fusing time and space, past and future, self and audience - a fugitiveness that refuses the binary inscription. A message or a thinking process embedded in the artwork can be preserved in the network and exist in various states with new technologies and even digitising the artwork can open up public access to such.”


Another point of reference is self-published punk periodicals, produced before the age of the internet. These, according to Can, demonstrated “an extraordinary visual expression of political and sociological thought” and generate questions around what different modes of production could bring us.


“Could analogue printing processes create a bond or a linkage that organises both the creators and viewers through unconventional forms of distribution, collective editing, information and data sharing beyond mass-production? Is a printing machine capable of freeing the restrictions of privileged information that projects the value defined by institutions, and provide context for not only the well-selected, good quality images that are a representation for predominant culture?”


These questions, thoughts, and references manifest in Can’s PRINT. It was inspired not just by early forms of printed ephemera, but also by the process of Riso printing. “Oddly the message I try to communicate is the message itself (if Marshall McLuhan’s “Medium is the Message” is still legit). It is a print that talks about the printing process through which it has been printed.”


She signs off with some advice for those actively trying to retain materiality in their work. “Think about the space for presenting your work and also one key element that constructs your work, and meaning out of your work. To whom you’re presenting, in which criteria, any supplementary text for interpreting and in which space?...These are the questions that I imagine to bring awareness to the care and criticality.”


Follow Can Yang's explorations here.




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