Trace Elements: The Work of Maurice Carlin

Philip Auslander

Commissioned by Castlefield Gallery to coincide with Maurice Carlin: First… Next… Then… Finally… 8 Feb – 17 Feb 2013

Shreds of an old poster on a wall. Discarded pages left behind at the copy shop. The imprint of a knee on a soft surface. The texture of asphalt on the high street. The transient, flickering images on a television screen. Things not meant to last. Things that have almost disappeared. Things not meant to be noticed in the first place. Things pretty much forgotten. These are among the traces to which Maurice Carlin draws our attention, like ghostly deleted files on a hard drive that have been marked to be overwritten but are still accessible. His uncovering of these traces is not anxious, the way the search for a lost file can be. Neither is it nostalgic or sentimental, though it often implicitly involves retrieving things stored in memory. Through methodical art-making processes that simultaneously reveal and transform these unnoticed traces, he poses the question of whether things that have slipped out of our frames of reference can be made meaningful.

Although Carlin makes his work primarily by hand, he situates it within the context of digital culture. He points out that his practice of reconfiguring his work as framed pieces, installations, and publications may reflect our current cultural condition in which art (indeed, all expression) needs to work across multiple platforms. The title of his series Corrupted Images (2012) suggests the bad news we sometimes receive about our digital files—that they are no longer readable. He refers to these images as resembling ‘glitches’, products of systemic error or failure. He creates them by passing ink over sheets of card with a squeegee to create impressions of the surface texture on which the card rests, sometimes that of a city street, a process designed to yield results that are not fully predictable. He takes a similar approach to other series: in his Primed Displays (2012), the ink reveals textures and imperfections already present in blank sheets of boxboard, while his Manipulated Images are printed from the impressions left by his body on a sheet of foam. The resulting images are corrupted in the sense that they contain noise as well as information: they do not simply provide transparently readable visual records of the traces they reveal. But it is also the case that the same process that generates the noise is what renders the traces visible at all.

Carlin’s work often establishes a dialectical relationship between site-specificity and abstraction. The Corrupted Images are tied to the specific places whose surface textures they capture and Carlin’s situated action of making the work (especially during his public publishing events), yet the images appear abstract. For his ongoing project The Self Publisher, Carlin collects, collates and publishes collections of detritus retrieved from copy shops in particular locations as issues of a bi-monthly journal also frequently presented as a gallery installation. Through this work, the copy shop becomes a site of cultural archaeology. Carlin’s excavations produce portraits of the daily life, concerns, and activities of people in a certain place at a certain time, concerns that were in all probability fleeting, yet important enough at one point to warrant copying. At the same time, The Self Publisher also entails abstraction, albeit of a somewhat different kind from the Corrupted Images—the abstraction of removing documents from their immediate context of use and recontextualizing them as art for another audience.

Perhaps copy shops provide such a rich lode of material because the act of copying has come to seem trivial. That we can copy at the press of a button or the click of a mouse allows us easily to lose sight of the significance of doing so and we attach little value to the resulting copies, which we discard at will. Carlin cites the early Chinese practice of replicating written records by making rubbings of the stone stelae on which they were inscribed. Although multiple copies of a given original were produced in this way, each one was done individually by hand. Each rubbing, like Carlin’s Corrupted Images and Manipulated Images, is thus not just a reproduction of an original image but also a record of the action of making the reproduction. Although Carlin’s images often resemble photographs or digital prints, he describes them as suggesting the possibility of “a photography of ‘touch’ rather than light.” His physical engagement with them is fully evident in the gestural quality of the marks made when he pulls ink across their surfaces.

Human presence, whether his own or that of others, is the ghost in Carlin’s machine, like the spectral body whose actions are hinted at in the Manipulated Images. Upon discovering fragments of a poster from the miners’ strike of the mid-1980s still present on a wall in Salford, he invited others to witness them with him and photographed their visits for Support the Miners 1983-2009. In a related vein, he produced t-shirts by printing images of shirts from a collection of protest t-shirts from the 1970s and 80s onto them, then invited viewers to swap their own shirts for one of his (T-Shirt Exchange, 2010). Carlin uncovers traces of the near and not-so-near past on the floors of copy shops, on public walls, and on shirts, and makes them visible by reproducing them. But the process of reproduction does not simply entail pressing a button or cloning a file. Rather, he brings traces of where we are and where we’ve been to the surface through physical engagement with them, whether it is the engagement of his hand revealing the unremarked textures around us by pulling ink across them or the engagement of witnesses to the traces of the past that are still present, even if marked to be overwritten.

Writer’s Biography

Philip Auslander is a Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. He teaches in the areas of performance studies, media studies, and music. His books include Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture and Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music. He has reviewed art exhibitions for ArtForum International, Art Voices, and other publications and has written catalogue essays for exhibitions in the United States, the United Kingdom, Austria, Switzerland, and Norway. He is the editor of The Art Section: An Online Journal of Art and Cultural Commentary (