Dexter Sinister recently established a workshop in the basement at 38 Ludlow Street, on the Lower East Side in New York City. The workshop is intended to model a ‘Just-In-Time’ economy of print production, running counter to the contemporary assembly-line realities of large-scale publishing. This involves avoiding waste by working on-demand, utilizing local cheap machinery, considering alternate distribution strategies, and collapsing distinctions of editing, design, production and distribution into one efficient activity.
At the beginning of the 20th-century, Ford Motor Company established the first widely-adopted model of factory production. Breaking down the manufacture of a Model T automobile into its constituent processes and assigning these to a sequence of workers and inventories, significant efficiencies could be realized. This Assembly-Line approach utilized increasingly specialized skills of each worker on a coordinated production line as the manufactured product proceeded from beginning to end. Large inventories, skilled laborers and extensive capital investment were required. Design revisions were expensive (if not impossible) to implement and the feedback loop with its surrounding economy was largely absent. Complicit with its early-Capitalist context, manufacturing at this scale remained necessarily in the hands of those with the resources to maintain it.
By the mid-1950s, Toyota Motor Corporation of Japan began to explore a more fluid production model. Without the massive warehouse spaces available to store inventories required for an Assembly-Line, Toyota developed the Just-In-Time production model and inverted the stakes of manufacturing. By exploiting and implementing a fluid communications infrastructure along the supply line of parts, manufacturers, labor and customers, Toyota could maintain smaller inventories and make rapid adjustments. A quicker response time was now possible and products could be made when they were needed. All of the work could be handled by a wider number of less-specialized workers and design revisions could be made on-the-fly without shutting down production and re-tooling. The result was an immediate surplus of cash (due to reduced inventories) and a sustainable, responsive design and production system—smaller warehouses, faster communications networks, responsive and iterative design revision and products made as they are needed: Just-In-Time.
It isn’t difficult to imagine a correspondence between these two models (Assembly-Line, Just-In-Time) and contemporary modes of print production. The prevailing model of professional practice is firmly entrenched in the Fordist Assembly-Line. Writing, design, production, printing and distribution are each handled discretely by specialists as the project proceeds through a chain of command and production. Recently, laserprinters, photocopiers, page-layout softwares, cellphones, and word processors have split this model wide open. A project might reasonably be written by the publisher who begins a layout and works with the designer who commissions a writer, and sources a printer that will produce fifty copies by Wednesday.
In the basement at 38 Ludlow Street we will set up a fully-functioning Just-In-Time workshop, against waste and challenging the current state of over-production driven by the conflicting combination of print economies-of-scale (it only makes financial sense to produce large quantities) and the contained audiences of art world marketing (no profit is really expected, and not many copies really need to be made.) These divergent criteria are too often manifested in endless boxes of unsaleable stock taking up space which needs to be further financed by galleries, distributors, bookstores, etc. This over-production then triggers a need to overcompensate with the next, and so on and so on. Instead, all our various production and distribution activities will be collapsed into the basement, which will double as a bookstore, as well as a venue for intermittent film screenings, performance and other events.
There is a certain sense in which we are wholly involved in metaphor and in which a small construct such as this—local to its context and wholly a one-off—may show some value also as a model, which will then be a model of address, of attitude and approach, rather than one of outcome or consequence. I do not want to strain its credibility further than that. In a more diffuse way, the same might be said of a small workshop. I hope however that by veering so alarmingly between the general and the particular, and between the realms of metaphor and practicality, I have suggested to you that every technical possibility has a wider equivalence, and a positive need to seek relationship with its neighbours. There are many roles for your own future workshops, and I hope you will occupy them with devotion, intelligence, and high good humour. Good luck with your inheritance!¹
¹ This paragraph borrowed from Norman Potter’s Models & Constructs, Hyphen Press, London, 1990