The Photocopier? Really?

When you tell some people that you’re doing a PhD certain things tend to happen. Firstly, there’s the intrigued “hum”, customarily accompanied by the head tilt, eyebrow raise, and head bob. This moment of curiosity is then usually proceeded by the “oh, so what are studying” question. Now at this point the conversation can go one of two ways. Your reply will either spark further interest or cause the other person to temporarily glaze over when they realise they have no response to what’s just come out of your mouth. However, when you tell people that your PhD is about the photocopier you raise the possibility of witnessing the rarer third reaction, actual laughter.

And I understand it, I really do. The idea that anyone would find the photocopier interesting, let alone interesting enough to spend 5 years of their life researching must sound strange. But if you’ll allow I will try and explain why I think the photocopier isn’t quite as dull as it may first appear.

(I fully understand if you just want to skip his post altogether, I might write something more interesting next time).

Now at first glance the photocopier doesn’t appear to be anything to get thrilled about, in some ways it seems to epitomise banality, a grey office box endlessly reproducing copies. But I’ve argued in my thesis that this perceived banality belies a complex device that has had a significance influence on a cross-section of global society. Now that’s a rather large claim but if you’ll allow me to get a touch academicy I’ll try and explain.

In the introduction to Materiality the author Daniel Miller writes that ‘objects are important, not because they are evident and physically constrain or enable, but often precisely because we do not `see’ them.’ He goes on to say that,

The less we are aware of them the more powerfully they can determine our expectations by setting the scene and ensuring normative behaviour, without being open to challenge. They determine what takes place to the extent that we are unconscious of their capacity to do so.’

When the objects that surround are unthinkingly accepted and taken for granted the influence they have on our habits and behaviours becomes increasingly underestimated. How often do you think about a chair when you sit on it, the key you use to open your front door, or the wiring running throughout your home? Yet these objects have a determining influence on our behaviours, something equally true for the photocopier. Most of us have call to use one, some of us use one every day, yet how often do we think about it unless it goes wrong, it fades into the background, and yet its very presence, its function shapes and determines some proportion of our everyday activities.

I imagine that for most of us the photocopier is a workplace object, its sole function to act as a means of facilitating office routine, and it does this well…most of the time. But the office has not been the photocopiers only sphere of influence, the photocopier is, to borrow a paraphrase from author Bruno Latour, ‘a substance, a complex interplay between machine and user, one acting upon the other.’

The first alternative sphere of the photocopier’s influence is something called Xeroxlore. Xeroxlore is material folklore in an era of machine-driven reproduction. Its study is centred on the office but is interested in subversive activities, rejections of corporate banality and the strictures of necessary employment. The study of Xeroxlore studies images reproduced by employees in working hours, on the workplace photocopier, which express some aspect of how the employee feels.

At it’s most basic Xeroxlore may be an attempt to inject humour into someone’s working day. But it is also an act of subversion, an appropriation and repurposing of an employer’s resources. At the other end Xeroxlore is also able to give voice to moments of genuine frustration, real feelings of dissatisfaction and anger, sometimes aimed at challenging socially or political entrenched positions.

The second example of alternative uses of the photocopier can be found in a wide range of subcultures such as British punk in the 70s or the 90s American Riot Grrrl movement. These groups often put the photocopier to use creating fanzines, posters, flyers, sometimes furtively, and in low numbers. A good example of this is the first issue of Mark Perry’s Sniffin Glue, a seminal punk fanzine from the 1970s. Sniffin Glue became one of the most important British Punk Fanzines of the time, in many ways it set the trend in its writing, content and aesthetic style for punk zines. Much about the creation of the punk and Riot Grrrl zines was subversive, including the content, which, as a reflection of the movements themselves, was aimed at undermining the dominant culture, and establishing a new counter-culture and community.

The third alternative use of the photocopier, and the one that is the most difficult to define is the photocopiers use as an artistic tool.

The artistic uses of the photocopier connects to lots of areas of social, political, and visual culture, and raises questions about authenticity and authorship, originality and value; at what point does a photocopied artwork became the artwork.  The photocopier was also central to the creation of its own artistic movements. Copy art or Electrography developed as an art form in the late 70s and although not as prevalent today is still practiced by a number of artists around the world.

Finally, I want to include one more, slightly unexpected use of the photocopier, in Disney films.

In 1959 Disney released Sleeping Beauty. It had taken a team of 500 illustrators, 6 years to make and was a financial flop. It was such a commercial failure that Walt Disney actually considered about shutting down Disney animation.

But that same year a Disney animator who had been experimenting with the photocopier came up with a way of transferring images using the electrographic process and made it possible to copy images to film cells rather than each cell having to be drawn on by hand.

The first film to use this new process was 101 Dalmatians. It was released in 1961, it took a little over six month to make, cost a fraction of what Sleeping Beauty had and was a huge financial success. Such was its success that this new process would be used by Disney for the next 20 years, a period that has become known as the ‘Disney Xerox Era.’

These much more I could say, and have said in my thesis, but I’ve bored you enough (if you’ve made it this far) so I’ll finish. Marshall McLuhan wrote that

“No technology has its meaning or existence alone, but only exists as a sum of different experiences and associations coming together to make something significantly more complex than it may first appear.”

The photocopier is a complex piece of technology that has changed corporate culture, helped shape a myriad of subcultures, and added to debates surround art in the age of mechanical reproduction, and even after more than 5 years thinking about it I still find it fascinating.

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