Paper in the Age of Industrial Print

Curator's Note

In the age of electronic media, paper positions itself as deliberate and traditional. It may be slower, more expensive, and require more work than television or the internet, but it's smarter, more thorough, and altogether more valuable for society. Right?

What I love about paper media in the early twentieth century is that it was fast, cheap, new, efficient, ubiquitous, popular, groundbreaking, sensational -- everything digital enthusiasts love about the internet and modern computing.

Paper was a central part of a new world of modern communications. Wood-pulp paper, the fast press, newspapers, typewriters, carbon paper, vertical files, photography, cinema, the telegraph, the telephone, cars, electricity. 

These clips, from Walther Ruttmann's 1927 documentary Berlin: die Sinphonie der Grosstadt (Symphony of a Metropolis) introduce us to the chaos of that world. In the first, office workers show us the tools of their trade -- the height of 1920s information technology. In the second, we follow a newspaper, the B.Z. am Mittag, from printing to reading. This scene concludes with a celebrated shot sequence dramatizing this hypertrophy of text: a burly man in a dark coat and hat purchases and reads a copy of the B.Z. In the reverse shot, what initially appears as a first-person point-of-view shot of the man reading a text transforms into a stylized presentation of newspaper reading.  A wide single column of text spins rapidly along an infinite vertical axis. Then, individual words in blackletter font leap up prominently from the page, zooming out at the reader/viewer: first "Krise" (crisis), then "Mord" (murder), “Börse" (stock exchange), “Heirat" (marriage), and then six times "Geld... Geld... Geld" (money, money, money). 

In effect, the rotary press machine has become a rotary reading machine (just as the cinema is a rotary photograph machine). And I don't think we can separate the innovations happening in "new media" in the 19th and 20th centuries from those that were happening in paper. It really was the first and most significant of all of them -- spurring innovation in photography, computing, phonography, telecommunications -- you name it.

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