You can’t miss the Paper Machine when you’re driving down St. Claude Avenue in the Lower 9th Ward, toward Arabi.
Described as a “two-story kinetic sculpture house,” the Paper Machine occupies a brightly painted former used clothing warehouse at 6330 St. Claude Ave. at Delery Street, just across the street from the Jackson Barracks.
It’s an art gallery, a print shop, a studio space, an archive, an interactive art installation and a collaborative art project — and it’s unlike anything New Orleans has ever seen before.
The facility is a project of the New Orleans-based nonprofit arts organization Antenna in conjunction with the Atlanta-based curatorial and arts production agency Dashboard, which together converted the formerly derelict property at 6630 St. Claude Ave., over a four-month period beginning last summer.
Its exterior wall decoration is the work of artist Carl Joe Williams, while Rontherin Ratliff created the three-dimensional lighted mechanical piece over the door that serves as a sort of street sign. Seven other artists are also credited as collaborators in the project.
The facility opened to the public on Nov. 29 with “Roll Call,” an exhibition spotlighting the history and diverse range of printing presses in New Orleans, from large commercial enterprises to smaller boutique and artisanal presses.
Featured prominently in the center of the exhibition space is a massive wooden type set donated to the project by Troy Moore, of Gosserand Superior Printers, a New Orleans family-run print shop that created promotional material for music venues like Tipitina’s and the Dew Drop for decades before closing in the 1990s. The set, which Paper Machine executive director Bob Snead says is still fully operational, is a low-tech reminder of the rich history of typesetting and printmaking in New Orleans.
Behind the exhibition space is a large workstation area with room for several manual and digital typesetting operations. Upstairs is more studio space as well as living space for resident artists and an artist book library/archive that will be open to the public.
But it’s the machine component of the building — the one that gives the facility its name — that’s the most distinctive component of the setup. (It also happens to be the most fun.)
Designed by Christopher Deris, the machine rises 20 feet across the two floors of the building. Pressing a red button mounted next to the machine starts the contraption and begins its printmaking process, which begins with a digitally projected virtual stream of water running along a conduit that sets the gears of the machine into “motion.”
A large gear at street level is outfitted with self-inking metal plates, currently featuring designs by Amanda Cassingham-Bardwell and Kiernan Dunn. (The designs will be regularly swapped out with ones by different artists.) As the gears rotate, the plates stamp against fan-shaped pieces of coated paper that are affixed to another rotating surface of the machine, creating an assortment of individually unique prints every time the machine is run. Visitors to the machine are invited to take the prints they create home with them at no charge.
Nearby, motion sensors set into a column of books respond to the presence of visitors and set the books opening and closing like a flock of birds when someone approaches it.
While Deris’s contraption is the most visible printing apparatus in the facility, Snead says that the Print Machine will also serve as a community print resource for smaller professional and artistic projects, pointing to the freshly printed examples of the Paper Monuments project affixed to the walls of the workstation area as an example. Printing classes and other community outreach projects will also be offered in the coming months, and Paper Machine will serve as a venue for the next installment of Antenna’s “live arts magazine” Signals in late January, appropriately focusing on the history of paper as both a medium and concept.
“Paper Machine will provide a space to enhance, amplify, and explore New Orleans’ rich printing heritage, while providing significant opportunities for artists and residents of the Lower 9th Ward and beyond,” said Snead in a statement accompanying the opening of the facility. “We’re honored to receive this opportunity, and we look forward to welcoming the public through our doors.”
Paper Machine, 6330 St. Claude Ave., is open Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit dashboard.us/paper-machine