Chris Orr interview

During his ten-year tenure as Professor of Printmaking at the Royal College of Art, Chris Orr morphed the traditional with the digital. Sarah Frater talks to the master of the ‘tradigital’ at the print show marking his retirement

Five giant etching presses greet you as you walk into the Royal College of Art’s printmaking department. The hulking machines are bolted to the floor and their huge black wheels and industrial hand-cranks fill the sightlines, while the tang of oil and ink fills the air. It’s a mix so heady you almost miss the department’s Apple Macs sleekly buzzing with printmaking’s new possibilities. Put the two together, and you have what Professor Chris Orr, artist, MBE and Royal Academician, has dubbed ‘tradigital’.

‘Once upon a time, printmaking meant etching and lithography,’ he says. ‘Now we’re interested in the dialogue between traditional printmaking and the digital realm, and the many hybrids that might emerge.’

Orr is well placed to comment. Although he officially retired as head of the RCA’s printmaking course in August, his ten-year tenure saw the evolution of a curriculum that features both media, as well as the cross-overs between the two. It’s a diversity matched by Orr’s pattern of student recruitment, which includes architects and digital designers as well as etchers and fine artists.

‘Our policy was to open up the whole notion of what print can do,’ explains Orr. ‘Our students come from all sorts of backgrounds, and at the start of the academic year they complete courses in all disciplines and become fluent in each.’

Orr sees this technical mastery of craft skills as essential. ‘A big problem, it seems to me, is that we are detached as a society from making things. To be a creative person you have to have a discipline, to be able to control something. With printmaking, there is the equipment. You have to master how it works, and what it produces.’

But doesn’t digital by definition lack this element of creating something physical? Orr reflects on the question, and his answer reveals a keen understanding of visual culture. ‘I do think [digital] can become divorced from the long tradition of typography. You have to know what type is, and understand its values. I go on a lot about Gutenberg. Movable type began with the fairly crude function of being repeatable, but then it became very beautiful and capable of conveying complex messages.’

Another doubt Orr harbours is the way computers are sold, something he laughingly describes as the most wonderful system for extracting money from art schools. ‘You have to keep buying new stuff,’ he says. ‘Our old etching presses don’t need replacing. One of them was made in 1851.’

However, just as Orr jokes about the computer’s planned obsolescence, he is quick to acknowledge its creative possibilities. ‘The screen has a different language that is very powerful,’ he says. ‘Its connections are unrivalled. You can go anywhere, any time and print something out.’ Although officially retired, Orr is back at the RCA for the exhibition that marks his ten years at the college. The aptly named 10 show features work by students from the past ten years, plus work by staff who have taught alongside Orr in the printmaking department. Then there is work by Orr himself, and ten specially commissioned limited-edition prints by ten artists, including Paula Rego and Tracey Emin.

The work is wide-ranging in its style and scope, from Michael Craig-Martin’s virtuoso digital typography to Katsutoshi Yuasa’s atmospheric woodcut. Thirty-five prints from each of the ten invited artists are for sale, with the proceeds going to the RCA Printmaking Appeal Fund.

‘Print publishing is very important,’ says Orr. ‘Original printmaking, where the artist fully controls what is printed, is unlike other branches of fine art, which feature a singular thing in a gallery. Limited-edition prints are multiple originals with all the qualities of art, in multiple form.’

When the exhibition concludes, Orr returns to his own work and shows, something he’s always done alongside his teaching. There are also the multifarious commitments that come from being an RA, plus a renewed interest in painting urban en plein air. And there’s a recent book of his illustrations, The Multitude Diaries, that intriguingly contain no introduction, dedication or captions. There aren’t even page numbers. ‘The idea is that people look at the images,’ smiles Orr.

The exhibition 10 runs until 26 October at the Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7

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