Adjusted Margin: Xerography, Art, and Activism in the Late Twentieth Century
by Kate Eichhorn
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2016
216 pp., illus. 22 b&w. Trade, $26.95
Reviewed by Mike Mosher
This book concerns an exciting topic to me, for I first saw copy machine art at an impressionable age. Back home from college one Christmas, friends introduced me to Cary Loren and his Destroy All Monsters collaborators Mike Kelley, Niagara and Jim Shaw. Among these four student-age young artists, all sorts of media were tried, manipulated, mashed up and recombined. Loren gave me a couple of his photocopies, grainy ad hoc collages, each as much his legitimate "artwork" as any other. His Destroy All Monsters magazine (its 2013 anthology reviewed in this publication) sometimes was photocopied upon already-printed paper found discarded at the copy shop.
A "salon des refusés" independent show was held that spring at my college, which was kind of funny since most of us were also in that year's official student show. Inspired by what I'd seen back in Michigan, I entered two Lorenesque photocopied collages that included imagery from lurid old National Enquirer newspapers (found in an Ann Arbor attic), including a woman in Africa who had nails driven into her skull by neighbors as she slept and a boy whose mouth was swollen from an exploding firecracker held in his mouth. Later, when I worked at a bookstore in Ann Arbor, I felt vindicated to see an art book (the 1978 Copy Art that Kate Eichhorn cites?) come in that included work by Jim Shaw.
Chester Carlson invented xerography, what was first called the Haloid process, really just electrostatic-fixed dust. After this introduction, Adjusted Margin's author Eichhorn then discusses how the copier, seen as a tool of controlling information within an organization, was soon appreciated by artists like Sonia Landry Sheridan as a liberatory device for re-thinking, creatively manipulating and hacking the production of imagery. Sheridan's Generative Systems program at the Art Institute of Chicago produced many leading tech-art academics of the 1980s, who then influenced and mentored subsequent generations of grad students. One semester in grad school I presented my own work in a photocopied 'zine, my advisor Stephen Wilson, one of Sheridan's students. I was also fascinated by the image degradation that ensued, once one made the copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, etc. The medium's simplicity and low-resolution graininess fit with the era's Punk aesthetic, soon carried by the early 72 dpi black-and-white Macintosh into Cyberpunk.
For the copier's effect on aesthetic and political culture, author Kate Eichhorn calls up Michel de Certeau's image of a "perruque", a disguising wig upon activity, not interrupting the flow of the political economy's assembly line the way a sabotaging sabot, or wooden shoe hurled into the machinery, would. Once copiers appeared in offices, they were soon generating xeroxlore, office cartoons and funny texts as ubiquitous and author-less as the memes that populate Facebook today.
And people were copying their body parts! At their mention, I was reminded how, at my first computer graphics job, one Monday morning in 1985 the female art director lined up her three male graphic designers and silently showed the gray and grainy image of naked male parts that had been left in the copier that weekend.
Eichhorn's chapter "Eros, Thanatos, Xerox" concerns a margin of society that made use of the copier in young activists' publication of flyers, booklets, posters around issues of AIDS, feminist and gay politics in the 1980s and 1990s. While Gay Liberation of the 1970s allowed for the creation of relatively autonomous zones where gay men could live in mutual support, love and entertainment, the 1980s AIDS epidemic then wasted away previously healthy young bodies before their eyes but received little sympathy from the greater society or government. Many sympathetic activists had day jobs in offices with unguarded copiers; the witty San Francisco political magazine Processed World was largely produced by temp workers. Eichhorn found much copied ephemera at New York University's Downtown Collection (which sounds somewhat comparable to the University of Michigan Libraries' Labadie Collection on Youth and Politics), graphics, flyers, booklets and newsletters produced by ACT UP, Gran Fury, Fierce Pussy, Queer Nation, Lesbian Avengers, and others.
Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews edited the photocopied poetry journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E from 1978 to 1981, whose featured Language poets were bricoleurs who used words in a spirit not much different from Cary Loren's pack-rat attitude towards imagery. One of the Yippie notables, either Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin, once proposed anyone create and publish their own book by simply photocopying and assembling parts of other books. Publisher William Jovanovich predicted, in a 1967 "Future of Books" project, photocopiers might lead to the fragmenting of audience and readers to the point of every person both a publisher and their publications' sole reader. This book skims over the world of 'zines, but Kate Eichhorn rightly notes that they are well documented elsewhere. I complimented a student in my beginning design class on her teenage 'zine that I'd picked up in a used record shop a couple years before. As my early-'70s art gang made use of our high school's Ditto machine to reproduce our comix, 1990s teenagers made use of photocopying as a means of independent expression and opinion.
Forty-five years ago, Daniel Ellsberg adjusted the margin while copying the Pentagon Papers, obscuring their TOP SECRET stamping. Recent copiers have hard drives, keeping a digital copy of every document copied until destroyed. The book documents the terrible harassment of a Canadian copy shop owner dubiously linked to someone already in custody as part of a possible terrorist plot. Ahmad Shehab's Best Copy shop in Toronto was not far from Ryerson University where author Eichhorn taught was raided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in September 2001 only a couple weeks after 9/11. With the seizure of machines, business equipment and records, Shehab's business was destroyed on the pretext that his nephew Nabib al-Marabh had once worked there; Nabib had once shared an apartment with some Arab suspects who possessed stolen airport badges.
Perhaps the Mounties recalled how in 1991 activists used color-copied fake IDs to into a New York city studio and shout "Fight AIDS, not Arabs!" during a news broadcast. Suddenly a hub of publication becomes a threat to society, something seen in dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. Copy shops may be where false documents are made, but are often located in urban "abject zones" among immigrants, marginal laborers, publics and counter-publics. A copy shop may also be near universities where students and bohos in art and punk scenes may be making band flyers too. Eichhorn examines the phenomenon of the corner copy shop Kinkos, and how it served as venues for artists and activists, much as movie Director Quentin Tarantino has credited video rental store employment for his cinematic education (has there ever been a lighthearted movie set in a copy shop, as there have been fast food restaurants, convenience stores, bookshops and record stores?). I sat in a Palo Alto Kinko's, a local communications hub, for a cross-country teleconference interview in 2000 that secured me the university teaching job in Michigan that I hold today.
In a final chapter that reminds us of the transitory nature of the electronic tools around us, Kate Eich
horn baffles the staff of The Deutsches Technikmuseum by asking to see the clunky old copy machines (donated by artist Kaus Urbonsi), now in a back room gathering dust. Her likable and informative narrative ends, as the electrostatic copy medium began, with dust. Adjusted Margin is not the last word on the copier as facilitator of art and activism, but a thoughtful one. It's an introduction and good contribution to the literature of the field, a field of research that's worthy of further study. And reproduction.