Sunday, 16 January 2011

Ghosts in the Machine: Maurice Carlin’s ‘The Self Publishers’, found art from photocopiers

Every two months, Maurice Carlin does a sweep around the photocopying shops of Manchester and Salford, gathers unwanted copies that are left on the glass or discarded around the machines, enlarges them to A3 and collects them into a publication about the cities and the people who live in them called The Self Publishers. As well as including what you’d expect to find scattered around the shops — maps, adverts for rooms to rent, posters for missing pets, failed attempts at reproducing academic texts, sheet music, even a poem by Manchester poet Carol Batton who distributes her photocopied works around the city — some of the material is surprisingly personal. Since it started late in 2009 The Self Publishers has constituted a city-wide scrapbook or diary, with letters and children’s drawings popping up next to Primark pay slips and to do lists. In September Morry exhibited the work at the Pigeon Wing Gallery in London and he was also invited to take the project to Midnight Coffee Preview in Antwerp in December. The Shrieking Violet had a chat with Morry at Islington Mill, where he is based.

SV: What inspired the project? Were people's leftover bits of paper something you had been interested in for a while?

MC: I mistakenly took some stuff that had been left behind in a copy shop and I had it around for a while — I do tend to collect stuff. Sometimes you have something and you don’t know why you’re interested in it then later you realise why. Then later I thought ‘maybe all I need to do is present it differently.’.

I’m interested in the photocopier as a format as it’s democratic — it reduces everything to a black and white image and flattens it all out. Even glossy magazine articles are reduced to a bit of text.

SV: What are the most common mistakes that are made when photocopying?

MC: There are quite often bits missing, pages the wrong size or copies are too light or too dark. In one copy someone’s hand somehow got in there. But the bits that have gone wrong are more interesting.
SV: It’s interesting that you’ve chosen to call the publications The Self Publishers (and chosen quite a decorative font for the title, in contrast to the mainly functional nature of what's inside), as the people who made these copies probably didn’t intend to publish to a wider audience — with a few possible exceptions, I imagine most of the copies were made for personal use.

MC: It is accidental publishing. It would be quite different if I collected all the material I found on the street like scraps of paper — it is found in a place of publication and reproduction. Even if it is being reproduced for one person it is still being reproduced and published.

SV: What interests you about looking through these unwanted documents from other people’s lives?

MC: I’m interested in how meaning is formed. The material I collect is both mundane and vital. A lot of it is things that are really important to people, for example propaganda — people copying 100 posters saying ‘Say no to the English Defence League’— or forms motivating people to do something. It’s a document of a moment just gone. I take all these different narratives and put them back to back.

I’m interested in Chantal Mouffe and the idea of agonistic democracy. The public sphere should be based on dissensus rather than consensus. We should be a community of difference rather than a community of one and acknowledge our differences and that we can still get things done.
SV: What’s the most interesting or surprising thing you’ve found?

MC: There are grievance forms about being sacked, documents relating to harassment and someone’s personal fitness report. Some of it is copyrighted material, and there’s an article about JD Salinger suing Random House and copyright law. There’s a seating plan for a bar mitzvah party which I love as it’s really visual and pages with random letters at the top — I don’t know what they are but they remind me of concrete poetry.

SV: Do you feel voyeuristic, like you’re looking at something you’re not supposed to? What if you were looking through a copy and you found something of yours staring back at you?

MC: The ethics of it is something I’ve thought a lot about. It was a shock when I came across someone’s death certificate. Sometimes I’ve blocked out names and personal information but sometimes it’s an essential part of that story. It’s an internal seesaw but there’s something about wanting to present the material in its purest form.

We leave a trail behind us all over the place — online, on social networking sites. There’s a residue of human activity everywhere and artists are among the few people who take an interest in it and find it poetic. They sift through the refuse to find something that says something about people and what they care about and what they don’t care about and leave behind.

SV: How do you go about putting the material together? Apart from adding a cover and stapling the material together, is there an editing process?

MC: In one way you could look through this and think that it’s a random jumble of stuff one after the other but in the way I do it there is a kind of mechanism. Some people suggested I should take the text and put it into some kind of design format but there is a sensibility. It follows a sort of rule of publishing, for example when I have found an abstract, introductory remarks or contents list I put that at the front and when I have found acknowledgements, conclusions and evaluations or indexes they have gone at the back, even if they didn’t relate to what’s inside. But in other ways it makes no sense at all and things don’t really belong together. It could be quite a surreal experience to read through from the front cover but I always want to find the narrative thread — that’s a natural instinct.

It’s a bit like reading a newspaper, which has a design aesthetic but apart from that it’s a jumble of different information, reports and trivia.SV: If there is too much duplication in the material you collect do you limit what you put in?

MC: I use 90 per cent of the material I find, for example there were four copies of the same photograph but each one was slightly different so someone had obviously been trying to get something right and they were failed attempts. I put them all in.

SV: Don’t you find it frustrating that you only have a part of the story when you include a page that is just one part of a longer article, for instance? Don’t you ever find that there’s a page or scrap that interests you so much that you want to go away and read more?

MC: Through one page you can read a whole story about what might have happened. It reflects my own reading habits — I have five or six different things on the go at once and quite often only read a page or a paragraph at one time. I like that I’ve only got a section of the story or a part of it and you have to fill in the rest yourself.

It’s quite in tune with life, which is full of different voices and sources for information and knowledge constantly competing for your attention. I don’t really want to read all of them but I will take in something of all of them.
SV: How does the project work in other cities?

MC: I had no idea if it would translate into a different place. In Antwerp I had to make more of a choice when deciding which material to put in. There was more material in English than I had expected and I chose more in English than was perhaps representative.

I was really surprised the things I found related so directly to the place. Lots of the material related to Antwerp, for example one person wrote an abstract about Antwerp as a port town.

Someone suggested I should go ask copy shops for the material. I went in to shops and asked if they had any old paper they were going to dump. There’s less suspicion of that kind of thing there and they handed a pile over. I asked copy shops when I got back to Manchester and they said they couldn’t possibly give it out for confidentiality reasons. There is more openness and transparency in Antwerp.

I also spent some time at the Middlesex University Philosophy Department occupation in May and June and did an edition there as they were producing lots of material related to the occupation.

SV: Is there a noticeable difference between material collected from copy shops in different areas of Manchester and Salford and do you have a favoured photocopying shop?

MC: It is a barometer of what’s going on around the copy shop. What you find in Staples in Salford is different to what you might get in the Northern Quarter. The ones on Oxford Road are the best for collecting material as they’re really untidy.

SV: How do other people react to the project?

MC: People either love it or hate it. I’m not sure that the project really works in a gallery setting though. It would work much better if you could buy it like any other magazine.

To purchase a copy of The Self Publishers email Morry at

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