Xerox Art

Examples of xerox art

"Xerox art," a.k.a. copy art or xerography, involves using a photocopier to create new artwork. There are several ways to turn a copy into an original:

  • Creating a "double/multiple exposure," i.e. running the same paper through the copier multiple times to superimpose multiple images on the same page;
  • Copying things not often copied on a machine, such as human hands or faces, clothing, feathers, hair, cardboard, dolls, etc.; 
  • Using a copier, along with other printmaking technologies, to transfer an image to a block of wood, a canvas, a cloth or another surface;
  • Incorporating photocopied images into collages or multimedia artworks; 
  • Copying a copy (or a copy of a copy of a copy) of an image;
  • Moving an object on the platen (glass bed) during the copy process, as in the above images, to create a distorted picture;
  • Adjusting the settings of the copier, e.g. the color balance and contrast, to change the look of an image;
  • Creating an illustration or collage that looks striking when copied;
  • Doing some combination of the above.

The history of xerography begins in the late 1960s, when a few artists, including Andy Warhol, used Photostat machines and other copiers to created distorted copies of their own faces, drawings, and photographs. As copiers became more accessible through the 70s and 80s, a number of artists, such as Ginny Lloyd and Ian Burn, began creating their own xerox art, curating art shows that displayed copy art, and founding organizations, such as Louise Neaderland's International Society of Copy Artists, to promote the use of the copy machine as an artistic tool. 

The term "xerox art" may also refer to art made on a computer scanner using similar methods as the ones outlined above. This is sometimes called "scanner art," "scanography" or "scanner photography." Scanner art has become more popular as access to computer scanners increases.

Xerox and/or scanner art is created by:

  • Music and entertainment venues - I'm talking about the black-and-white flyers advertising shows in smaller venues. This poster is a good example. More of these posters are being made on the computer, so they may lose some of the cut-and-paste feel they used to have.
  • Zine-makers - Many zines incorporate xerox art of some kind or other into their work. Even text-heavy zines may use unusual background patterns and textures, e.g. bubblewrap or cardboard, as background patterns.
  • Artists - The novelty of copying technology has faded since the 1960s, but xerography and scanography are still practiced today. Artists such as Laurie Rae Chamberlain and Raymond Pettibon (designer of the Black Flag logo) have used xerography in their work. Many artists also use photocopiers to make facsimiles of their artwork that can easily be printed, distributed and sold; these are sometimes called artist's books or art zines. Artist's books and zines have proliferated with the growth of copying technology. In recent years, many visual artists have turned to sites like Etsy to sell zines showcasing their work.

 The cover of this 1979 album by The Flying Lizards features xerox artwork by Laurie Rae Chamberlain.

This album cover for The Flying Lizards features artwork by Laurie Rae Chamberlain.

Not everyone considers this art, of course. It doesn't take the same level of skill as painting, life drawing or sculpting. To be honest, I'm a bit inclined to agree with this assessment, although I think that anyone with a good visual sense can create an interesting image with the help of a photocopier. Xerox art can also be used as an element in collages and multimedia projects. 

Honestly, sometimes the copy/scan turns out to be interesting, and other times it looks like some horror taken out of Raskolnikov's brain. Double/multiple exposures can be dicey as well; if you're only printing in black and white, you can quickly wind up with a page of just black (wasted!) ink/toner. Creating a compelling copy/scan photograph is not as easy as picking the perfect Instagram filter, but I won't say it's at the same level as painting the Sistine Chapel (I'm not that postmodern!).

A scanographic experiment featuring distorted versions of the same images.

A basic scanograph.

Unfortunately, the International Society of Copier Artists disbanded in 2003, but their archives are available at the University of Iowa, and ISCA Quarterly back-issues are available at various university libraries around the US. You can also find xerography/scanography on image-sharing websites like Instagram and Flickr.

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