Standing next to an army of waiting screens, Jo Watanabe explains that the first step in creating a stencil is to coat the screens with a light-sensitive liquid emulsion, which must be applied in the dark. “It’s called a direct emulsion system,” he says. “We put this material called emulsion—it’s sort of cream-like, like yogurt—onto the screens. Then we dry it and and shoot the film.” By film, he means the transparency or photostencil of the artist’s image, which is exposed onto the screen on a light table. Afterward, the screen is rinsed in water because the emulsion will harden wherever it has been hit by light, and where light has been blocked the emulsion will wash away, leaving behind an image.
“This is an exposing table,” Watanabe says as he lifts the cover to a giant industrial light table, revealing rows of UV bulbs under glass—like a tanning bed that takes up the entire room. After a screen has been coated with light sensitive emulsion, it is placed inside the light table on top of an artwork transparency, which becomes tightly sandwiched between the glass and screen using a rubber blanket and vacuum. “This is a rubber surface,” he explains, “because the screen is three-dimensional, because of the frame. So when the switch is on for the lights, the vacuum also goes on.” This causes the rubber to mold itself to the shape of the screen and adhere the image to the emulsion so that it remains in place during the exposure. “Because the shooting time requires at least a minute, two minutes, three minutes,” he says. “Not just a moment.”
Photographs by Alex John Beck