Xerography, Art, and Activism in the Late Twentieth Century
How xerography became a creative medium and political tool, arming artists and activists on the margins with an accessible means of making their messages public.
This is the story of how the xerographic copier, or “Xerox machine,” became a creative medium for artists and activists during the last few decades of the twentieth century. Paper jams, mangled pages, and even fires made early versions of this clunky office machine a source of fear, rage, dread, and disappointment. But eventually, xerography democratized print culture by making it convenient and affordable for renegade publishers, zinesters, artists, punks, anarchists, queers, feminists, street activists, and others to publish their work and to get their messages out on the street. The xerographic copier adjusted the lived and imagined margins of society, Eichhorn argues, by supporting artistic and political expression and mobilizing subcultural movements.
Eichhorn describes early efforts to use xerography to create art and the occasional scapegoating of urban copy shops and xerographic technologies following political panics, using the post-9/11 raid on a Toronto copy shop as her central example. She examines New York's downtown art and punk scenes of the 1970s to 1990s, arguing that xerography—including photocopied posters, mail art, and zines—changed what cities looked like and how we experienced them. And she looks at how a generation of activists and artists deployed the copy machine in AIDS and queer activism while simultaneously introducing the copy machine's gritty, DIY aesthetics into international art markets.
Xerographic copy machines are now defunct. Office copiers are digital, and activists rely on social media more than photocopied posters. And yet, Eichhorn argues, even though we now live in a post-xerographic era, the grassroots aesthetics and political legacy of xerography persists.
Kate Eichhorn's Adjusted Margin is a marvelous media archaeology of the copy machine and the subcultures that proliferated around it over the last fifty years, a profound meditation on the fate of the 'recently outmoded' in the age of digital replication, and a toolbox of strategies for activists working with the weird materiality of copies today.
Marcus Boon, Professor of English, York University; author of In Praise of Copying
Well-researched and highly readable, Adjusted Margin sets the photocopier, that most ubiquitous and unnoticed artifact of twentieth-century life, within new histories of activism and artistic transgression. Kate Eichhorn's book will take its place alongside other superior examples of the new media archaeology, like Darren Wershler-Henry's The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting and Sumanth Gopinath's The Ringtone Dialectic.
Will Straw, Professor of Communications, McGill University
This is a compelling and well-researched book that offers vivid examples of the deep political significance that became attached to these concrete acts of reproduction and dissemination.
LSE Review of Books