Charlotte Biszewski // Learning to speak Snakish in Estonia

It was a pretty impressive first impression, witnessing a huge industrial proofing-press hoisted into the air on a snowy afternoon. Arriving in the middle of the museum move meant that there was only time for a quick introduction to equipment and staff. Within a week- and what was no doubt a few sleepless nights for the everyone, it was complete. As the dust settled, I was able to explore to get to know the amazing collection of printing presses and the equally amazing volunteers and staff within the building.

When people asked why I came to Tartu, it was for this. The Paper and Print Museum.

I work as a technician in Bristol at Spike Print Studio, and 2016 ran my own project researching the Bristol Print Industry, so needless to say this was the motive for my application. Until the residency started, I was admittedly not so well-versed in Estonia. Estonia is snowy. This was the first thing to hit me as I stepped off the plane. It could feel pretty overbearing at times, with the clouds hanging low in the atmosphere,  the sun feels so far away, fighting through so many layers of air. I did love it though, the cold was a great place for peaceful meditation and nurturing new ideas. The thick cloud coverage gives a fantastic colour at night, Tartu skies never entirely darken and emit a purple-pinkish hue. I was amazed by this phenomena, naively believing it was related to the Aurora or other mystical things of the Northern countries. Then a past resident informed me it was a cucumber farm – the greenhouse lights run throughout the night.

Initially, I felt a bit stuck with the residency. With only two months, I thought I was unable to justifiably create work based on a place which I knew such little about. This residency also found me at a critical point in my career, when I am exploring new ideas and approaches. I am currently researching into underground printing in Poland during communist censorship so I wanted to use this residency as a way of testing ideas which I could use later on. The collection of typewriters at the museum had to play a part. Early forms of samizdat (self-published books and pamphlets) were forbidden texts reproduced using carbon paper, either by hand or on a typewriter. I wanted to incorporate this with the anonymous sharing of stories. So I began leaving typewriters at various locations across the city, these asked participants to answer the question found on the typewriter and respond with a further question. I liked this anonymous approach to sharing stories and ideas, which reminded me of a kind of old-fashioned twitter feed.

At this point, the project split into two halves. One was using cyanotype and photographic processes to respond to the typewriter texts. The technician, Jörgen has been investigating Carbon printing (one of the most difficult pre-silver forms of photography). I was keen to try, and fail, many times. However, I did manage to develop a way of combining cyanotype with Van-Dyke Brown prints effectively. I fell in love with mixing the industrial rust contrasting a dark blue. I felt proud of being able to find ways the images could effectively overlap.

The second idea was a bit of a hair brain scheme of creating an automatic typewriter. Yes, I thought with one month and little electronic experience this would be an achievable endeavour. You can’t fault me for trying…

I had the idea to try to set up a typewriter which could replay the messages collected from Tartu, using actuators and an Arduino to pull the keys. I found it had been done already, a few times actually. I became entranced by this video of Harvey Moon https://vimeo.com/63481843. So, car door locks, 50 transistors and one dodgy circuit board. I managed to occupy a small corner at the Spark Makerlab, a communal open-access studio with laser cutter, woodwork, electronics corner and some of the smartest, most creative and most fun people I have ever met. I have never enjoyed being so sleep deprived in all my life, and I am in awe at how hard these guys work! I was significantly assisted by the guys from Degritter and can’t wait to see the launch of their product and Indiegogo video. So I’ll put you out of your misery… the typewriter failed. I made a few fatal errors of judgement in the circuitry department, and it meant the night before was spent burning myself on over-heating components. The guys stepped in and tried to save me from impending doom. But it was too late.

Overview of Charlotte’s exhibition “In Cyan and Type” at the Print and Paper Museum gallery

If the aim of this residency was to learn and experiment, then it was a complete success. I got to meet some great people; it gave me the needed space to fail without fear. More importantly, I found a reason to return. I am still set on the idea of completing this typewriter project, improving my programming skills, in Python and Arduino, as well as printed circuit boards. It also gives me a chance to visit Tartu in the summer…

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