Originally posted 3/27/06 on sammcpheeters.com
As violations go, “gettin' ganked” - pirated, parroted, parodied - packs a surprisingly weak punch. It has none of the emotional wallop of a mugging, none of the sting of defeat in a rap battle. When, a few years ago, I learned that a young man in Florida had been making record covers in a design style suspiciously close to my own, I took the counterfeits in stride. Being ripped off artistically isn't much of a compliment, but it's not much of an insult, either. Like a pharmaceutical company, my propriety style rights had simply expired. The time had come to develop a new style. I set out to find an old childhood friend: the Xerox 6500 Color Copier.
The 6500 has always held the allure of obsolescence. By the time it debuted in 1973, 3M's Color In Color machine had already been in business for half a decade, acquainting the world with rich color copies by way of a futuristic infrared dye transfer process. In contrast, Xerox's entry to the Color Race was a huge, groaning beast, capable of less than two prints a minute. Designed for business presentations, not art, the 6500 developed a reputation for sporadically setting copies on fire while still in the machine.
But Xerox made the technology affordable for the consumer. Where 3M had created a luxuriously priced novelty, Xerox simply modified the electrostatic technology of its own black and white machines. This is why 6500 copies so closely resemble their monochrome cousins. Electrostatic charges are, by the laws of the universe, weaker in the center of an object than at its edges. On an electrostatically charged copy, toner will cling greedily to the charged area at the edges and drop back into a pale ghostliness in regions of heavy coverage. At the same time, each of the 6500's three drums - magenta, yellow, cyan - used a heavy dry powder development process that rendered the colors in a jarring gloss. Solid objects obtained a corona of lymph that is impossible to precisely replicate in Photoshop, at least in color. Nothing else looks quite like it.
The late 1970's and early 1980's reveal themselves through this visual style, in the same way that the Civil War speaks to us through its daguerreotypes. Color xerography's biggest drawback is what gave this medium its look; the world, washed of depth but strangely insisting on vibrancy. The machine's limited output lives on in record covers from this period: Foreigner' "Head Games", Television's "Marquee Moon", Billy Squire's "Don't Say No", Def Leppard's "High N Dry". The first Flying Lizards LP features some abstract Color Xerox art from this era, as does Chrome's "Third From The Sun" (although not "Alien Soundtracks", which was a black and white Xerox colored by hand).My dealings with the 6500 date back to the early-1980's, from several enjoyable outings to a Soho arts supply store with my mom. Preadolescent memories enlarge the size of everything, so I have a hard time figuring out if the machine we used really was as enormous as I remember (somewhere between an MRI scanner and a combine harvester). The clumsy, colorful collages I'd piece together strongly adhered to the budding Copy Art scene that had sprung up around this new technology, and which I was familiar with from Patrick Firpo’s Copy Art. Some 80's copy art remains weirdly impressive in 2006 – the fake stamp collections of Doo Da Post and Buster Post will never grow stale - but most now seems creepily amateur, unfocused, like the sad fumblings of scrapbookers and patrons of the Arts And Crafts.
Canon's four color laser copier arrived in 1986, ending the brief reigns of 3M and Xerox. The pre-laser color copy joined the ranks of the dead medium, like albumen prints, and black and white photobooths, and PXL-2000 camcorders (the ranks grow; just last year, Kodak announced the discontinuation of Kodachrome Super 8 movie film). In the case of the 6500, early retirement came with a small irony. Xerox itself invented the graphical user interface and personal laser printers that would seal copy art’s doom. By the late 80’s, artists could do with several mouse clicks what their early 80’s counterparts had labored for hours to accomplish with X-acto blades and acetates.
Back in the 21st century, my own plan hit a snag. Operation Outgank The Gankers had seemed foolproof: render photoshopped-doctored photos as high resolution prints, locate a working 6500 online, send off my prints for duplication and thus create a medium that defied replication on a technology that no longer existed. But this all depended on a working 6500. The machine may have gone extinct. Several emails to different curators within Xerox lead only to news of an inoperable 6500 at Xerox Historical Archives in Webster, NY. Several hints of 6500 sightings in Toronto lead nowhere. No one seems interested in selling an obsolete, 500+ pound copier on eBay.
This is probably good. Ganking – graphic design and otherwise - is part of a natural order, like fire in old growth forest. Whatever slights have been visited upon me, I have long since earned with my own liftings and cribbings over the years. More importantly, there is something comforting in knowing that the 6500 is, apparently, beyond reach. Maybe I can’t capture the exact feel of the early 80’s, but thousands of crummy designers and bands currently emulating this era are also out of luck. All of our fancy future-computers are powerless against the 6500.