In 1967, the author was declared dead and the reader reigned supreme. In his famous essay on the topic, Roland Barthes wrote that: ‘Like Bouvard and Pécuchet, those eternal copyists […] the writer can only imitate a gesture forever anterior, never original.’ This was also the age of xerography, when the authority of the bound printed page was usurped by the flagrancy of the photocopy – the very aesthetic of which seemed to demand the reader to scribble their input in the margin. The first automated plain paper copier was launched in 1959 and, within a decade, the machines, which could now produce one copy per second, had become indispensable to office culture.
‘Xerography’ was an ambitious exhibition about artistic uses of this technology, marking 75 years since the first photocopy was produced by the American inventor Chester Carlson in Astoria, New York. Bringing together more than 125 works by 39 international artists, this was firstsite’s largest exhibition to date and an impressive feat given that the subject matter often doesn’t lend itself to display. Photocopies, by their very nature, look insubstantial; so-called ‘copy art’ particularly so, since the cheap paper stock and smudgy, toner-saturated images have often been prized as visual indicators of the ease and instantaneity of the process. Mel Bochner’s use of the photocopier in 1966, for example, as curator Michelle Cotton dryly remarks in her catalogue essay, ‘was so ordinary that it could have passed for school administration’. But Cotton carefully sidestepped the dreaded litany of sheets of A4 by including a good variety of media and arranging works into thoughtful tableaux.
Take the opening: Josh Smith’s Untitled A4 Wallpaper (2013) created an engaging backdrop for the ten framed components of Matias Faldbakken’s Untitled (Screen Test) (2010), which features a xeroxed image of the first televised presidential debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. These duplicates of duplicitous men, which recalled the photocopier’s instrumental role in the 1971 ‘Pentagon Papers’ scandal that led to Nixon’s impeachment, are appropriately positioned alongside two of Jenny Holzer’s ‘Redaction’ paintings (from 2006 and 2007), in which US intelligence documents relating to Guantanamo Bay are silkscreened onto canvas. In this context, Gabriel Kuri’s Inverted Lightbox (2011), a beautifully tactile photocopier clad in tar roofing sheets, stands like a mausoleum to the death of a medium that paved the way for our post-WikiLeaks world.
The exhibition dramatized well the conflicting appeals of xerography. There were those in the 1960s enamoured by the speed at which they could produce original prints, such as Alighiero Boetti, whose hauntingly beautiful Nove Xerox AnneMarie (1969) sees him photocopy his face and hand, while signing the name of his wife for a machine that ‘can see but can’t hear’. Others were invested in the process, such as Ian Burn, whose Xerox Book #1 (1968) involved a blank sheet of paper being photocopied and then used to make the next copy, until a 100-page book was produced. Many capitalized on the copier as a cheap means of distribution, such as the band Destroy All Monsters who launched a fanzine in 1976. In the 1990s, Sarah Lucas used the photocopier to blow up tabloids in a mocking derision of their crass culture; and in the new millennium, xerography became deeply nostalgic, with Wolfgang Tillmans’s video Kopierer (2010) offering an homage to the texture of ‘interference and unevenness’.
Perhaps in an anxiety to keep the walls uncluttered, most of the interpretation in ‘Xerography’ was ciphered into a catalogue, which was printed on demand on photocopiers in the foyer. While the sounds of this production were a nice addition, it seems a pity that Cotton’s remarkably rich essay was not more freely available, especially given the topic. But then, as Marshall McLuhan encouraged in The Medium is the Massage (1967), you can always ‘custom-make your own book by simply Xeroxing […] instant steal!’