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Adjusted Margin: Xerography, Art, and Activism in the Late Twentieth Century. Kate Eichhorn. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016. Pp. xiv + 216. $26.95 (cloth).

Utilitarian in appearance, prone to maddening paper jams, and associated with the banality of office work, Xerox machines have not evoked the nostalgia inspired by typewriters, turntables, or 35mm cameras: it is hard to imagine a Xerox machine lending ambiance to a coffee shop or its parts being repurposed for jewelry. The replacement of xerographic copiers with analogous digital machines over the last two decades has made their obsolescence all the less striking. Not only have we failed to miss them, we may have failed to even notice that they are gone.

This neglected and maligned technology has found a worthy elegist in Kate Eichhorn. Her Adjusted Margin: Xerography, Art, and Activism in the Late Twentieth Century reconstructs a recent past in which the Xerox machine was edgy, innovative, and central to the counterculture. Although xerography was designed for replication rather than creation and was promoted as a way to make corporate and government bureaucracies more efficient, it turned out to be remarkably well suited to artistic invention and political subversion. Eichhorn argues that such against-the-grain uses of xerography shaped the ways that late-twentieth-century counterpublics were constructed and in turn impacted the arts, grassroots organizing, and the experience of urban space. Announcing at the outset that Adjusted Margin does not restrict itself to a “linear narrative of the copy machine’s evolution,” Eichhorn instead assembles a constellation of artifacts and stories, including moments of relevant autobiography, that “locat[es] the copy machine in time and space and in competing histories of ideas, art, and activism” (7). The resulting account succeeds in filling a substantive gap in media history with an eclecticism that does justice to its subject.

Adjusted Margin begins with the official history of Xerox, drawing on Haloid Company advertisements and instructional materials that convey a mid-century optimism about xerography’s ease, speed, affordability, versatility, and fidelity. If this enthusiasm feels overstated to anyone who has physically assaulted a photocopier in frustration (a common occurrence, Eichhorn assures us), it prefigures the sense of possibility embraced shortly thereafter by activists and artists. Among the latter is Sonia Landy Sheridan, whose Generative Systems program at the Art Institute of Chicago placed photocopiers at the center of a novel curriculum that investigated the creative opportunities of new technologies. Sheridan becomes a focal point for considering the broader phenomenon of copy art. A later chapter revisits the artistic dimensions of xerography with a focus on community formation and urban space.

The second chapter initiates an emphasis on place by turning to the copy shop’s ambivalent relationship with the law. Although copyright infringement is par for the course in copy shops, [End Page 206] it is generally understood to serve the public good and therefore ignored—hence the symbiotic relationship between universities and the copy shops that cluster at their edges. Categorizing these copy districts as “abject zones,” both necessary to and disavowed by society, Eichhorn offers the high-profile raid of Toronto’s Best Copy by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the wake of 9/11 as an extreme example of how the copy shop’s marginalization can devolve into xenophobic scapegoating (75). Striking as this incident is, in the absence of other instances of government targeting, it is asked to carry a great deal of argumentative weight in defining how the copy shop is framed in terms of national imaginaries. The chapter is more convincing in its broader claim: if, as Benedict Anderson, Elizabeth Eisenstein, and others have argued, the rise of print culture contributed to the rise of nationalism, xerography exercises a converse power to erode “print culture’s monopolies of knowledge” by threatening the state’s ability to control, or at least monitor, the circulation of discourse (65).

Xerography undermines a sense of national unity in other ways too: by privileging local production and distribution of print and by bolstering the vernaculars of specific subcultures. These features made it a powerful tool in the formation of counterpublics organized around the arts, political action, or both. In its heyday from the 1970s through the 1990s, xerography allowed artists to circumvent gatekeepers, tastemakers, and censors in ways that “blurred the boundary between art making, its context, and its publicity,” whether these artists were musicians promoting their own shows, visual artists seeking audiences outside the gallery or museum, or writers self-publishing their work (93). Here Eichhorn’s claims echo, but do not reference, those that have been made for the “mimeograph revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s, a boom in small press printing that relied heavily, but not exclusively, on its central technology. The mimeograph makes an important cameo in Eichhorn’s observation that xerography freed users from the mimeograph’s laborious stencil-cutting process and the limitations of working from an original; this difference should not be understated, yet seen from a wider angle, the two machines are part of the same story, and their overlapping strategies deserve a nod.

As counterpublics used xerography to construct identities and audiences, the resulting posters, fliers, and ephemeral publications became a mode of inhabiting and claiming urban space, and they changed the face of certain (typically low-rent) neighborhoods. That xerography altered the landscape did not go unnoticed by municipal governments, and the late 1980s and 1990s saw aggressive “cleanup” campaigns that targeted xeroxed posters along with graffiti (94). Polished corporate posters, thought to be more visually pleasing, were more often allowed to stand. The legal battles recounted in Adjusted Margin highlight the intensity of the desire to suppress DIY postering in the name of beautification and “broken windows” policing but also the desire to preserve this practice as a vibrant form of urban sociality. As Eichhorn makes plain, at stake in this debate is how, where, and even whether counterpublics have the right to assert ownership of public space.

The stakes for counterpublics using xeroxed ephemera to intervene in wider public life become even higher in Adjusted Margin’s most compelling chapter, which makes a case for the significance of xerography to AIDS activism and the queer rights movement in the 1980s. The chapter includes an extraordinary wealth of narratives and artifacts, many drawn from the ACT UP Oral History Project. As these sources testify, the photocopier’s ability to reproduce printed matter without a record and without an original made it an ideal resource for organizing around causes prone to stigmatization and censorship. Informational documents on topics such as gay health could easily be replicated and passed hand-to-hand, and workers could covertly borrow the company copy machine to make political flyers or posters without leaving any evidence. Joy Episalla, co-founder of the artist collective Fierce Pussy, quips that in this manner Condé Nast unwittingly “underwrote a movement” (quoted on 143). Episalla and others also affirm xerography’s power when it came to visibly claiming public space: “For a certain moment, we could own a whole wall in Soho. We could own a whole wall in the Lower East Side” (quoted on 114). [End Page 207]

The fact that professional-quality posters by the AIDS activist-artist group Gran Fury (famous for its “Silence = Death” campaign) resurfaced in degraded photocopied form for many years after their creation attests to the viral power of the medium and to xerography’s persistence as “a signifier of a specific style, attitude, and politics” (163). Indeed, Eichhorn proposes that the Occupy movement took a page out of the same book when it papered Lower Manhattan streets with posters, fliers, pamphlets, and zines in a complex entanglement of digital printing, post-xerographic photocopying, and social media. In the digital age, the technology for replication may be less important than the aesthetic: advice abounds on the web for how to make a digital document look like a photocopy, confirming that the “xerox effect” has outlived its source.

Yet the notion of a xerox aesthetic, referred to several times as “gritty” and “DIY,” is under-developed. Despite its significance to several of the book’s argumentative threads, the specific look and feel of xerography goes largely unexamined. Noting early on that “[o]nly rarely are we unaware of the fact that we are looking at a photocopied text or image” and “[p]hotocopies are marked by the machines that reproduce them,” Adjusted Margin does not move beyond an intuitive sense that Xerox machines produce distinctive kinds of visual and material documents (10). This limitation is especially regrettable since many of the book’s images are ripe for visual analysis. We would benefit from deeper investigation of what sets xeroxed documents apart—for instance, the distinctive black border and shaded gutter produced by copying page spreads; the possibilities for collaging disparate elements, including handwriting, drawing, typography, and photography; the eerie distortions of deliberately or accidentally copied body parts; or the tendency of copied copies to become grainy, fuzzy, and flecked (as so vividly demonstrated by George Gessert’s 1987 artist book Dust and Light, created by reiteratively copying a blank page).

Ultimately, however, Adjusted Margin is a work of cultural history that focuses on people, spaces, and discourse rather than aesthetics. Eichhorn so fully captures the powerful ethos of xerography and its loveable quirks that by the book’s conclusion, when she finds herself in the storage facility of Berlin’s Deutsches Technikmuseum surrounded by the dusty, uncatalogued contents of the world’s only copy machine museum, our popular and scholarly disregard for the Xerox machine seems truly lamentable. Her media archaeology of xerography is a key chapter in the longer history of how textual reproduction technologies have shaped culture over time, and it may prove all the more essential as we drift further from the Xerox era. With its lucid prose and engaging examples, Adjusted Margin is well poised to be excerpted and itself photocopied for a course reader, with the benefit of adding gravitas to the task of extricating mangled copies of its pages from the inner depths of the Xerox machine’s digital successor.

Chelsea Jennings
Independent Scholar

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