We often talk about wonderlands where magic happens and too readily throw around the phrase 'you have to see it to believe it'. This is our attempt at describing something that has no word to accurately define it - things only become really 'real' when we name them.
It's the phrase we jump to as we scramble to find a term more apt. I tried to find such a word or phrase for IDEM Paris, a well-hidden printshop founded in Montparnasse in 1881, and I couldn't without slipping into cliché. David Lynch called it 'paradise' and credited it with helping to reignite the American director's passion for painting again. Perhaps that fact is powerful enough to go some way in explaining the place. At least it's somewhere to begin.
IDEM is situated at the end of an alleyway behind metal doors. There's a small sign but nothing more to betray what's behind it. The first room, a semi-outdoor space, has tattered posters on the walls of artists like Munch and Picasso - originals from their time.
Founder of the factory, Emile Dufrénoy, also built two apartment buildings attached to it - incidentally the one on the street displaying very Parisian architecture was built the same year as Picasso's birth. This is the first fact of many that current owner Patrice takes the joy in telling me. These facts are his own attempt to convey to me the same feeling I had on entering. To him they are 'miracles'. It's hard to disagree.
Patrice is an embodiment of the place - calm, yet bestowed with a boundless energy. His youthful eyes and gentle demeanour contain within them the same spirit for life and art that a child often has, unburdened with everything that's happening outside. Unsullied joy that manages to find wonder where to others there is none.
The staff are young, the torchbearers of this craft that lives in this Parisian institution. Everybody has a job - some are separating colours, others transporting the blocks of limestone around. These are unfamiliar processes to those not well acquainted - I've stepped into a new world.
As we walk upstairs, we stop on the landing - there's a window looking down onto the huge heavy machines below. From here you can imagine the place one hundred years ago - the boss looking down, making sure that everything is running smoothly. Patrice confirms the fact, pointing out that it is indeed very similar to what it once was. He extended his arm through the window, pointing to a far away corner. One of the original chimneys that helped provide steam-power for the machines still stands.
Even further upstairs we find ourselves on a roof platform, looking at the tops of all the segments of IDEM operating below. It's not a beautiful view - they are nondescript roofs. Patrice doesn't come up to this spot for what he can see though, instead it's about what he can hear. He lightly lowers his eyelids and gestures to our relative north-east. It's a school and what we can hear is a playground full of young children screaming and playing - the 'next generation', Patrice says.
He finds awe in the fact that a school bell creates the same feelings anywhere in the world. Excitement if a break is beginning, sadness if it's coming to an end. Of all the generations of great artists that have passed through the presses below our feet - we might be listening to the next one as we speak. It seems that this cyclical nature is something that gives him hope. Life never stands still or stops, it just keeps going around. The same goes for art.
I ask him about the future of the place - what IDEM will be doing. Instead of answering directly, he does so in a roundabout way. He reminds me that this place facilitates artists ideas and desires. This sometimes means that projects turn into collaborations and other times they make only simple prints. The most important thing is that the artist will always retain this control. Therefore, the future of IDEM is in the hands of the artist - something that he has strong faith in. The endless possibilities and the need for art in society are always going to be explored.
One such work that could be seen as a collaborative process was with photographer/artist JR. He had digital photographs that he wanted to print, yet was afraid that through printing with inkjet the photographs would lose their essence - the feeling that makes them seem human and real. The team at IDEM decided to embrace this problem and develop a solution that maintained the artwork's integrity whilst experimenting with the outcome. They extracted the digital files and built up a layered print. As the inks are printed onto paper, they have a certain degree of organic flexibility - meaning they might bleed or merge. As a result, layer after layer, the image takes on a unique resonance - no two will be exactly the same. It is the vinyl record to inkjet's MP3.
This innovation, present in much of what IDEM does, unites with their emphasis on retaining the traditional methods of printing whilst also using the past to look at the future. In doing so they're keeping something very important alive. Patrice is no technophobe, he's grateful for modern appliances - but he realises that they have a place. It's not that the don't belong in IDEM either, it's just that some things don't need to be fixed unless they're broken (he then laughs that it only seems to be these new things that break, by mistake or design).
The whole space is about creation. The walls are covered in modern and classic prints, the staff come from diverse backgrounds pertaining to art, design or manufacturing. Creation is the essence of humanity, it is at the core of our being - from Genesis to genetics. Patrice tells me that staff work from the maxim that 'creation is permanent' - that they are doing something deeply significant, a feeling many have lost in thankless careers.
He might be talking about the prints with this remark, but I don't think he was. It seems like he meant something more than just artistic output, perhaps a lesson for life. If we keep creating then we keep moving forwards, growing and improving. It's only when we stop that we start to move back.
Looking at IDEM now and how important it is in the Parisian art scene, it's scary to think that when Patrice arrived it was about to be forgotten. An earlier owner, Fernand Mourlot, kept the artform alive with his brothers by working with artists like Miro and Matisse until his son, Jacques Mourlot finally left the business in 1997. It is with their perseverance and dedication that the original lithographic presses that printed such modern classics are still in use today.
It was never a question to Patrice whether he should take the place - he couldn't bear to let it die. His life is art, but I wanted to know more - I asked why art? why is it so important? His answer was just as simple yet complex as the question, "It is to breathe".
This studio, an organ in the artistic body of Paris, is essential not only to keep the old process alive and forward-looking, but also for the people in it. They all share Patrice's love.
As I left, there was a girl covered in roughly outlined tattoos working by the door. I asked where she got them done and she told me they were all by her - she was her own printing machine and work of art. Creation is the life of this place, it permeates everything. To think, it could just as easily have been a museum of times gone by, although having experienced its unique allure, I'm certain that there will always be someone that loves it enough to keep it ticking-over - until the next person comes along. IDEM is a beating heart of artistic expression, one that in many ways belongs in the chest of everyone that works there, everyone that passes through, and every print that's made. It's a beating heart that's full of love for what it does.
That's the only way I can describe it.
More like this:
Please, check your email.