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Five Minutes with Kate Eichhorn

For today's Five Minutes with the author, we have Kate Eichhorn, discussing her book Adjusted Margin. Adjusted Margin is the story of 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.

What is Xerography?

Xerography literally means “dry writing,” but it really refers to a dry method of printing. Prior to Chester Carlson’s invention, there were already many copy machines on the market, but they involved wet, onerous and often extremely toxic processes. Anyone old enough to remember the mimeograph will understand what some of these processes entailed. Also, prior to xerography, all copying methods required a master copy. As a method or format, xerography did it least two important things. First, it injected speed and efficiency into the act of making copies. Second, it eliminated the need for a master copy. While this may appear banal, the implications are huge. To begin, unlike earlier processes, with xerography, anyone could make copies—there was no skill or training required to use one of these machine…that is, if it was actually working when you went to use it, which wasn’t always the case. Also, the process was very fast. Finally, with xerography, you could reproduce things you couldn’t reproduce with earlier methods, including body parts, objects and of course, copies of copies. So in essence, xerography changed who could copy materials, under what conditions, and what could be copied and this, as discussed in my book, had a tremendous impact on the types of texts and images that ultimately circulated in the late 20th century. 

What were its impacts on the publics and counterpublics you researched for your book?

Initially, xerography was adopted by businesses and governments. In the 1950s and for most of the 1960s, it was an administrative technology. But as copy machines started to appear in schools and libraries and eventually in stores—including, by the early 1970s, in Kinko’s franchises and other copy shops—this changed. It’s around this time that artists and activists started to embrace copy machines on a much broader scale. On the art side, xerography opened up a new and demographic means of image reproduction. It’s a somewhat forgotten chapter in art history, but for a brief period of time, there were many artists working with copy machines. For about a decade, Sonia Landy Sheridan even had a graduate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that was dedicated to what she called “generative systems,” and copy art was a major focus of this program. But copy art was not restricted to the U.S. In Germany, there were artists like Klaus Urbons who were both engaged in copy art and also collecting copy machines. Although we no longer hear much about copy art, since this book came out just a few weeks ago, I’ve received emails from several people about copy artists; including Barbara Cushman and Pati Hill whose work has been the subject of two recent exhibitions. It’s a very fascinating but neglected chapter in the history of image making that has not yet been fully explored and admittedly, my own book only begins to explore this history too. 

I make the argument that it is really not until 1970s and into the 1980s that xerography started to have a major impact on public culture and by extension, counterpublic cultures, including queer cultures. By this time, copy machines were accessible enough that most people could afford to make copies and many people had access to a Xerox machine at work so they could “borrow” a machine to make copies for free. Xerography, during this period, becomes increasingly the go-to choice of communication for activists. On the one hand, xerography impacted the scale of postering and flyer campaigns. In the era of the mimeograph, you required a master copy, so you also could typically only produce a few hundred posters or flyers at a time. The format put a limit on the scale of any campaign. With xerography, someone could show up at a meeting and hand out copies of copies of a poster or flyer to 10 people and ask them to make 10 or 100 or 300 more copies and distribute them. Because it was easier and less expensive to reproduce materials on a copy machine, it also became easier to poster an entire wall of a building or entire scaffolding. You could occupy public spaces visually in a shorter timeframe and for less money. 

So on the one hand, xerography impacted the temporality of reproduction—it was fast and it was also ephemeral, like other time-based forms of media. On the other hand, it impacted space—it literally changed the appearance of some urban environments. These time and space-based shifts opened up new possibilities for counterpublics broadly defined. 

What role did the copy machine play in the 70s, 80s, and 90s punk, street art, and DIY movements?

I think it’s fair to say that punk would have taken a different form without xerography. When you think about punk—the aesthetic—it’s difficult to not think about the xerography. Punk is fast and it’s driven by a DIY philosophy and xerography was a technology that could respond to both the speed and independence of punk. If punk artists had been turning everything out on mimeograph machines in blue ink, the movement would have looked very different. There’s also a lot of piracy in punk and of course, xerography facilitates this too. You can cut up and pastiche images and texts to create new images and texts, and it can happen very quickly and without any surveillance. No one needed to ask for permission to print once they had access to a Xerox machine, and this was integral to punk on many levels. 

In the chapter ‘Open Secrets and Imagined Terrorism’, you say that there have been instances where copy shops and xerography “have been at times construed as in opposition to the state”, what do you mean? 

In many respects, this is where the book effectively began. In 2003, I was teaching at a university in Toronto and my student, Omar, handed me a business card for his family’s copy shop. I immediately recognized the name of the copy shop—only 2 years earlier, it had been raided as part of Canada’s “counter-terrorist” strategy. Like most Canadians, I’d read about the copy shop raid and the subsequent investigation, but it was only when I saw this 18 year old boy, two years later, still trying to find customers for his family’s business that I decided to dig deeper into the story. As it turned out, there was no link between the copy shop and the 9/11 terrorists, which is what the Canadian authorities had alleged, but for months, this story unfolded in the media. At times, even people who had frequented the copy shop were considered suspect. It was clear that something about the copy shop—the fact that it was already a place we all go to engage in often illegal copying—was helping this otherwise ludicrous story take root in the public’s imagination. Had the alleged 9/11 suspect been working at, let’s say, a men’s clothing store, there would have been no story—the story was entirely connected to the technology and context. Sadly, the copy shop doesn’t exist anymore but the story continues to circulate as a xenophobic urban legend. 

How has the decline of the Xerox machine affected activism? Are there instances of people using the same methods today as they did in the past?

Activists are still making posters, pamphlets and zines, but of course, they are not the only means of communication. Also, no one is xeroxing materials anymore per se. The machines that we now use are essentially digital scanners and printers housed in something that looks similar to an older carbon copy machine. In the past, you could copy whatever you liked—your zine, your face, your ID, your manifesto—and no would know. These new machines scan everything and those images are held in the copier’s memory—sometimes for just a minute but in other cases for years.  So today, copying is not something that happens under the radar. But I would not say that xerography’s decline has impacted activism. The xerox aesthetic is still present in activist contexts but more importantly, I make the case that xerography in fact offered the basis for our contemporary social media networks. To the extent that social media is about P2P methods of sharing, creating and generation information and about community building across distances, xerographic networks laid the groundwork for this in the 1980s and early 1990s.  So in many respects, I think how we do activism in 2016, which relies increasingly on social media networks, is really a direct descendent of the types of networks that xerographic copies made possible over thirty years ago. 

The copy shop is also discussed throughout your book, what is its status in 2016?

As for copy shops, there is no question that the era of the copy shop is over. There was a time when most of us didn’t have copiers or scanners in our own homes, so you’d be at a 24-hour Kinko’s franchise at 3:00 am and there you’d run into someone from a local band making posters or a writer or artist you admired as well as someone reeking of piss asleep in the corner. The crowd was always very eclectic and lighting was always very bad. When I think back to the many hours I spent in copy shops at one point in my life, it’s always under the stark illumination of fluorescent lights. In copy shops, everyone looked bad but anything was possible.  

  • Posted at 10:25 am on Wed, 23 Mar 2016 in art

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The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.