Copy No. 1
Edited by Vanessa Norton and Steven Trull
6 × 7 in. closed
74 pages plus a single-sheet insertion
Copy No. 1 is the first issue of a new periodical, a “magazine of recycled materials,” published by Wasted Books. As a celebration of plagiarism in all aspects of creative production, this debut issue includes art, poetry, music, pop culture, and profiles of notorious copycats. It concludes with a manifesto-style letter from the editors — a diagnosis of this late capitalist pandemic moment where every activity is monetized, and every object or relationship is commodified. There is no introduction; a book of copies about copies is sufficiently self-explanatory.
In the spirit of copying, the cover of this first issue of Copy is taken from the first issue of another periodical: Semina. Editors Vanessa Norton and Steven Trull have swapped out the title text from Wallace Berman’s 1955 Semina cover, which features a photo of the artist known as Cameron (Marjorie Cameron). Berman’s 1957 arrest for obscenity seems to foreshadow Copy’s own brush with censorship — an erratum reproducing a printshop’s refusal to reproduce artist Johnny Ray Huston’s contribution, A Look at Nighthawk in Leather, is slipped between the blacked-out pages where Huston’s work should have been. Copy’s spine is taken from yet another publication, Paul Virilio’s Popular Defense & Ecological Struggles, but with “wasted” pasted over the MIT Press logo. Along with the editors’ manifesto, one can perhaps locate the politics of Copy between Popular Defense & Ecological Struggles and Semina.
Visually, Copy reminds the reader that the word copy shares an origin with copious. Starting with the inside covers, it is bursting with full-bleed text and image. In a few cases, text is swallowed by the perfect-bound gutter, but most of the critical content is easily accessed. The maximalist aesthetic enhances the wide variety among the issue’s ten contributors. Amid the chaotic copiousness, each contributor is clearly announced with a name and title in black text on a white verso. A brief synopsis of each contribution is also included toward the end of the issue, which is especially helpful given the range of disciplines represented. However, the authorship is (fittingly) less clear when it comes to the profiles of forgers, copycat criminals, and other artists, which serve to expand the cultural context of copying from art per se and make connections between the issue’s contributors and other artists. Cribbed, naturally, from Wikipedia, these profiles may be key in shaping future issues of Copy to address different aspects of creative plagiarism.
For this first issue, Norton and Trull show their commitment to unoriginality by opening with a contribution called Copy by Stewart Home. Home’s Copy is a copy of pages 62–66 from a book called Copy by Chus Martinez, a collective pseudonym adopted by numerous artists and activists. Distributed authorship, whether anonymous or attributed, is a key feature of Copy No. 1. An obvious example is Norton’s After Michael Mandiberg, which rephotographs Mandiberg’s rephotograph of Sherrie Levine’s rephotograph of Walker Evans’ Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife. If the piece elicits an eye roll, it also provokes deeper questions about appropriation and originality. A similar dynamic is at play in contributions by Derek Beaulieu and Eîlot Tuerie, both of whom appropriate turn-of-the-century composer Erik Satie’s composition Vexations, which was first published by John Cage in 1949.
A more surprising dynamic is introduced by the editors’ profiles of an entirely different order of copying. Forgers like Lee Israel and Mark Landis perhaps bridge the gap between artistic copycat and criminal, but we see a darker side of imitation in references to the Tylenol Murders, the Manson murders, and other so-called copycat crimes. Copying, it seems, is something done by people who are not in their right mind. The dismissive reaction that often meets uncreative works is not unrelated to this deep-seated mistrust of copying. Plagiarism is seen not only as unethical but as an affront to an entire culture that prizes originality and self-sufficiency. The artist Elaine Sturtevant, whose work is featured on the back inside cover of Copy No. 1, upset the art world as much for rejecting the avant-garde mandate for originality as for (intentionally imperfectly) imitating iconic artists who embraced that ideology.
It is this unsettling of the usual values of the art world — originality and commodification — that drives Copy and connects its contributors with more established artists like Levine and Sturtevant. The artists seem united more by what they oppose than by any particular aesthetic program. Indeed, the letter from the editors is mostly a manifesto of what Copy will not do. Copy is not, strictly speaking, a pandemic project, but it positions itself as a diagnosis of and logical response to the various intersecting crises that characterize 2022. Copy gives an account of why plagiaristic practices arose in these cultural and economic conditions and how they contribute to contemporary art. The editors not only sidestep any futile “is it art?” debate, they remind the reader that copying remains provocative in the broader culture beyond the art world.
At the same time, though, Copy No. 1 is undeniably self-reflexive. It is a work of piracy and plagiarism that explores the potential and limitations of appropriation and distributed authorship. It is no surprise that the first issue of a periodical would stake out its territory and reflect on its own methods. The future success of Copy rests in its ability to be about more than copying and more than art. If Norton and Trull continue to position their contributors within, against, and outside of the discourse of contemporary art, Copy will fill an important gap in a publishing landscape that is overly concerned with brand identity and monetization.
This first issue shows the importance of producing and distributing such a publication, even if it only remixes existing works. The dialogue among contributions clearly illustrates the intertextuality that underpins uncreative art practices, while the spat with the printer shows that every copy introduces friction, entropy, and chance. What remains to be seen is what comes of the connections the publication will forge among its readers, contributors, and publishers.
Leave a Reply