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The history of American printing runs deep in Philadelphia, from Ben Franklin's press to the first U.S. currency. Now, the city is seeing a very different take on printing and printmaking. A huge festival called Philagrafika is filling museums, galleries and public spaces across the city.

Elisabeth Perez-Luna of member station WHYY reports on some of the artists and the question they're posing.

ELISABETH PEREZ-LUNA: When artist Oscar Munoz works on a print, he uses trays of water and floats graphite powder on its surface. Regina Silveira cuts enormous plastic shapes of insects that invade a room. Gunilla Klingberg uses corporate logos to design a huge mandala that pits spirituality against commercialism. And Carl Pope creates billboards for communities. So, with all these variations, when is a print a print?

Mr. JOSE ROCA (Artistic Director, Philagrafika): Contemporary art has done one good and bad thing to reality: It has blurred the boundaries.

PEREZ-LUNA: Jose Roca, the artistic director of Philagrafika, worked for five years with a group of Philadelphia-based curators to develop the festival. Roca used his experience as curator and judge of the Sao Paulo and Venice Biennales to organize Philagrafika. He says that in spite of the liberties artists take with the concept of print, some basic principles apply.

Mr. ROCA: In my opinion, a print has to have at least three components, in some way or another. One, a matrix. Two, an ink, between quotation marks or some kind of way of transferring the information from the matrix to a support, which would be the third component. And support or the surface that receives the imprint can be paper, can be the walls, can be, for example, the skin.

PEREZ-LUNA: Or it can be a video.

(Soundbite of music)

PEREZ-LUNA: Follow the sound inside the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

(Soundbite of music)

PEREZ-LUNA: To a small screening room, where an unusual music video is projected on a large screen. The images are entirely done with stop-motion animation by the Indonesian art group Tromorama.

(Soundbite of music)

PEREZ-LUNA: The artists couldn't afford to travel to the festival, but Julien Robson, the academy's contemporary arts curator, points out that the video was created using an ancient print technique: woodcuts. Four hundred and two of the blocks are displayed outside the screening room.

Mr. JULIEN ROBSON (Contemporary Arts Curator, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts): There is a sort of democratic balance between the video and the prints, and they represent very different senses of time. You know, video is real-time and it's moving very fast, and then you think about the process that they used to make it. And presenting these wood plates, you realize that, in fact, it's a very laborious way of making things, very hand-crafted.

PEREZ-LUNA: In fact, the common denominator among all the works in Philagrafika, created by 300 artists from all over the world, is the use of traditional print technologies with a contemporary twist.

Deborah Wye is the chief curator of the Print Department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Ms. DEBORAH WYE (Chief Curator, Print Department, Museum of Modern Art): For one thing, people who work in traditional workshops, where there might be, you know, lithography studios and printing presses and things like that, those studios all have computer capabilities now so that an artist can have the computer as part of the whole process, in other words, as another tool. Just like he or she might have had a gouge for a woodcut, now there's a computer there to help them translate that into some kind of a print form.

PEREZ-LUNA: Another variation is the work of Colombian conceptual artist Oscar Munoz. It's centered on the distortions of memory and the trickery of time. For his work "Narcissus," he floats an image of himself on top of a tray of water.

Mr. MUNOZ (Artist): (Through translator) I was very interested in the systems man has invented to remember and retain, even in distorted ways. With "Narcissus," I wanted to explore the graphic and poetic possibilities of water. So I took graphite powder and silk-screened my image on the surface of the water in a shallow white tray. Time, weight and subtle vibrations in the room created different portraits - some blurred, some unrecognizable - as the graphite settled at the bottom of the tray.

PEREZ-LUNA: "Narcissus," then, is not only about the fragility of memory but of the very image itself. It's also a way to move printmaking away from the limitations of paper. Subverting and questioning, after all, have always been the artist's job.

For NPR News, I'm Elisabeth Perez-Luna in Philadelphia.

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