Media Metamorphoses
Tobias Amslinger

The literary, performative, visual and installation-based work of Michalis Pichler is frequently characterized by its serial nature. Individual works are not isolated; they belong to a larger context in which a concept is routinely altered and executed in a variety of media. This principle of variation is particularly pronounced in the series Pichler began with the book Some More Sonnet(s) in 2009.[1]

Appropriating a historical precursor, Pichler’s Sonnet(s) are tied to the artist Ulises Carrión’s work published in 1972.[2] In his artist book, Carrión typed up Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnet Heart’s Compass, a canonical text in British letters, forty-four times with his typewriter, transforming it into forty-four variations.

Carrión entitled every text in a way that identifies the chosen procedure. The book contains, for example, a Mirrored Sonnet, which reproduces Rossetti’s sonnet in a mirrored form, an Underlined Sonnet, in which all the lines are underlined, a Dated Sonnet, which provides the date and location of the publication, a borrowed sonnet, which doesn’t alter the text except for the title. The emphasis of the texts is placed on the paratextual elements: setting, typography, title and date become the center of attention. With this arrangement, Carrión displaces the way the text is to be received. The sonnet is no longer an elite cultural object with a historical hermeneutic function, but rather, following Ferdinand de Saussure’s convulsion of the history of ideas, primarily a sign.

Born in Mexico, Carrión began living in Amsterdam in 1972. There he contributed to the development, regulation and distribution of the modern artist book as an artist, publisher, mail-artist, archivist and founder of Other Books and So (a bookstore, gallery, meeting space and publishing house).[3] As he suggests in his essays The New Art of Making Books, his intention is not to consider books as “containers of (literary) texts” but as “autonomous realities” to be taken as an end in themselves. The artist book for him represents a “sequence of spaces” in time. This gives it an installation-like character to be designed with great variety: “In spoken and written language pronouns substitute for nouns, so to avoid tiresome, superfluous repetitions. In the book, composed of various elements, of signs, such as language, what is it that plays the role of pronouns, so to avoid tiresome, superfluous repetitions?”

By understanding the text as just one element amongst many, a change in identity occurs: “In the old art the writer writes texts. In the new art the writer makes books.”[4] The apodictic differentiation between ‘new’ and ‘old’ art expresses a political objective to aggressively resituate the ‘art book’ outside its status of being a marginal genre at the time. This voices the consciousness of a generation that refuses to simply adopt the body of classical traditions and which desires to cultivate a “critical relation.”[5] Carrión’s artistic procedure is built upon the playful proliferation of interpretations that are no longer geared towards the authority of one reliable text. The ‘classical’ text is not celebrated as a holy, inviolable entity; rather it is used as a material to be transformed and framed anew. As such, Carrión participates in the ‘postmodern’ artistic paradigm that declares the death of the author.

Carrión cemented an artistic identity in his use of Rossetti, who was both a poet and painter, by integrating visual arts and literature. As a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Rossetti defended a strategy of the highest artistry that aimed “to have genuine ideas to express” and “to study Nature attentively.” He sympathized only with “what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote.”[6] This paradigm of unique originality is nevertheless already put into question in the first verse of the sonnet: “Sometimes thou seem’st not as thyself alone.” This line can be read as a commentary on Carrión’s forty-four renditions of the sonnet.

As a genre, the sonnet has always been characterized by its combinatorial, mathematical nature.[7] Carrión expands the playing field of possible variations from verses and rhymes to the paratextual space (i.e. title, date, etc.) as well as to the typographical possibilities offered by a typewriter. Rossetti’s sonnet is of interest for the artist not as a singular text but rather as an example of the genre ‘sonnet’ that demonstrates a particular visual form—hence the title Sonnet(s).

Nearly forty years after Carrión’s book, the battlefront of ‘old’ and ‘new’ art is passé. Quotation and appropriation have long been a part of the canon of procedures. Accordingly, Pichler’s artistic strategy is characterized by chance operations and playing with quotations and not by a manifesto. For his Statements on Appropriation, “six one sentence statements originated by the ‘artist/author’ for the purpose of this piece were mixed, in a container, with eighteen one sentence quotes taken from various other sources; each sentence was printed onto a separate piece of paper. Eighteen statements were drawn by ‘blind’ selection and, in the exact order of their selection, join[ed together] to form the ‘statements on appropriation.’”[8]

His book Some More Sonnet(s) is not aimed at a tradition that is perceived as obsolete but rather it affirmatively contributes to the literary tradition and practices the contemporary conceptual style of writing. Pichler expands Carrión’s work with forty-four more transformations of Rossetti’s sonnet, using the new technical possibilities of digital text editing.

The first poem, Times New Roman Sonnet, already indicates the power technical media has on the production and perception of texts. The font named in the title has long been the standard font in Microsoft products, thus shaping how countless PC users see their texts. Poems like Leftbound Sonnet, Rightbound Sonnet or Red Sonnet call to mind programs like Microsoft Word, which allows alterations of a text’s alignment and color; possibilities that Carrión’s typewriter couldn’t offer. Further media can also be found in Pichler’s book: besides a facsimile, an Emailed Sonnet, a Faxed Sonnet and a Photographed Sonnet have also been printed.

Pichler not only rewires the use of various media but also amplifies the references to other works. Whereas Carrión draws directly on only one sonnet, the reference to Rossetti is mediated through Carrión for Pichler. Other references from experimental and conceptual practices also appear: Sonnet (Image) recalls Marcel Broodthaers’ famous appropriation of Mallarmé and Ur Sonnet is a play on Kurt Schwitter’s Ursonate.

Pichler heightens the level of complexity as well as the mediated intervention and artistic reference. Whereas Carrión limits himself (out of necessity) to the technical possibilities of the typewriter and then staples the resulting typescript together in the end, Pichler makes use of computers, software, fax, Internet, photography and printing presses. Even if they were previously faxed, mailed or photographed, these nevertheless result in printed form in his Some More Sonnet(s).

On the last page of his book, there is an alphabetized list of a further 153 possible transformations entitled “Other Sonnet(s).” This list ends with a comma, thus suggesting further continuation. The procedures suggested here evoke printed text (such as Diagonal Sonnet or Hieroglyph Sonnet) and even make reference to well-known literary predecessors (such as Oulipo Sonnet or Sonnet with Seven Words In a Line, which, in fact, is given its own line and refers to Gertrude Stein’s Five Words in a Line).[9] Others, however, evoke other, non-print media and artistic forms of expression: such as, Abstract Expressionist Sonnet (painting), Broadcasted Sonnet (television), Pissed Sonnet (performance), etc.

The list stimulates the reader’s imagination and pushes it to its limits. For, what would a Sonnet on the Rocks or a Neoliberal Sonnet look like? Is the list to be taken as evidence for Conceptual Art and Conceptual Writing’s persistent assertion that only the idea or concept is of importance and its realization is but secondary?[10] The contrary is however true of Pichler’s works: their strength resides in the fact that the artist compulsively brings his ideas to completion and doesn’t merely relinquish them to mere though experiments.

For various exhibitions in Paris (David Thiery, 2013), Rotterdam (PrintRoom, 2013), London (X Marks the Bökship, 2014) and Stockholm (Oei, 2014), Pichler has shown his sonnets as sculptures, installations and performances that extend well beyond the reach of a book. As early as the exhibition announcements for Paris and Rotterdam he intervened in a realm foreign to literature: a sonnet was printed as an advertisement for the exhibition by the galleries. Hence, the gallery PrintRoom commissioned a printing in the Dutch art magazine Metropolis M. On the one hand, these announcements were advertisements but on the other hand they captured the spirit of the work since they became part of a series Seven Advertised Sonnets, of which five are still to be expected. The status of this piece alternates between non-work and work, thus expanding the spectrum of Rossetti transformations that Carrión had begun. There is a reference moreover to Dieter Roth’s Inserate (1971-2) here. Roth’s work estranged the readers of the newspaper Anzeiger Stadt Luzern und Umgebung by printing aphorisms amongst the regular advertisements every day. By publishing in art magazines, Pichler, however, doesn’t leave the art world and is thus more concerned with a subtle play on the quotation than with the perturbation of readers outside an art context. It nevertheless remains unclear as to what is being quoted: is it Rossetti, Carrión, Roth or Pichler? Depending on the context, the reference changes.

In Rotterdam Pichler also showed 10 Ohp Sonnets for the first time. Ten overhead projectors (“Ohp”) were lined up and projected a text on the wall that fulfilled the content of Rossetti’s poem but once again raised the question as to what was being projected: Rossetti, Carrión or Pichler? The context that is being called upon and alienated is that of a conference room. If the overhead projector normally serves to direct one’s attention to a single text or image, then with Pichler the focus is no longer clear. It doesn’t seem to be concerned with the texts but rather with the pattern of light and shadow created by the projectors, depending on their distance. Just as the references overlap, the projections do as well, falling into a shimmer.

But it is not only a mosaic of quotations, of light and shadows on the wall that emerges; the spatial arrangement of the projections is also bewildering. In a typical conference situation, the viewer sits amongst others behind a single projector. When a single viewer can suddenly step in front of many projectors, Pichler has flipped this arrangement. This formation quotes the form of a group, in which every member, the projectors, reproduce the same characters—admittedly with slight variations of size and brightness. In a way, this is true of Pichler’s work in general: the singular work never stands alone but is part of a chain of transformations, of constantly new projections of the already available, seen through new lenses, on new screens.

Pichler’s Thirtysix Lithographed Sonnets (2009), whose title calls to mind Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji or Ed Ruscha’s Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles, also plays with the tension between simultaneous difference and identity within a series: thirty-six sonnet panels hang from the ceiling like an exhibition of information. They create a forest of signs that upon the first glance seem to give information about a number of things, but which nevertheless keep revealing the same characters. In his Nine Swimming Sonnets (2012), the artist animated another spatial context, namely, that of the bathroom. With green water shimmering in the bathtub and nine DIN-A4 pages slowly becoming saturated, the scene is anything but inviting. Sooner or later, they will sink and the identical sonnet printed on all nine pages will blur into illegibility. The text loses its virtual shape here for good, it becomes matter, goes underwater. There is little of Rossetti to be felt here; this seems more to be a quote from a murder scene in a Hollywood film or from The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David.

In addition to such installations and sculptures, Pichler also explores performative realizations of his sonnet series. He presented the Missing Sonnet during his reading in Paris by remaining silent. His Rembetiko Sonnet(s) consisted of a sung presentation in Rotterdam based on a classic Greek rebetiko song by Markos Vamvakaris. The intention was to have the Braille Sonnet translated in London from Braille into British Sign Language but since no translator could be found, it remained only as an idea.

Although Pichler quotes and explores a wide spectrum of technical and artistic media in his series, he nevertheless always returns to the printed form. In his 1111 Risographed Sonnets, Stapled, Numbered and Sold In Chunks of 11, there are, as the title suggests, booklets stapled together, each containing eleven of the 1,111 copies of the sonnet. On the first glance, a transformation bringing the text back into the center of attention seems to be the purpose. But the text is identical on every page. It makes the impression that the booklets were printed as a product to read only secondarily. The texts are undoubtedly texts, but they also gain a sculptural character. The booklets make the impression that they are objects out of paper, less than as publications to be read.

This object-like nature of copies also emerges in Pocket Edition, which is identical to 1111 Risographed Sonnets, except that they are printed on A5 instead of A4. This edition was the unplanned result of a manufacturing flaw. Like many of his artistic predecessors, Pichler makes productive use of chance operations.

For his latest work, Pichler has stapled his stacks of sonnets together as booklets, but this time uses the much older ditto machine, also known as the spirit duplicator (in German, a Schnapspresse) instead of a risograph. A further difference is that the booklets’ pages are folded in the center. During the production of 555 Schnapspresse Sonnets, Stapled, Folded and Sold In Chunks of 5,[11] it was not possible to use computer printouts as a source material for printing. Pichler thus resorted to an old typewriter, typing the original by hand and then mimeographing it with a ditto machine. Consequently, the typical dirty typeface that ‘bled’ through the backside of the pages and created a strange pattern reminiscent of Rorschach images resulted.

By using a typewriter, Pichler returns to the origins of Carrión’s transformation of the sonnet and (on the surface) rehearses his method of production. Thus, we come full circle and can clearly see the similarities and differences between Carrión and Pichler: whereas Carrión strictly limits himself to the realm of possibilities that the typewriter and book offer, and attempts, within this realm, to create variation from page to page, Pichler’s works also gain strength from the proliferation of variation, as well as the formation of ever new variations. The strong framework Carrión established with the typewriter and book is not reduced to print for Pichler: his artistic work tends to incorporate a variety of media, creating a kind of archive of appropriative procedures through its diversity. Pichler unswervingly makes recourse to canonical texts, and after Rossetti, he has experimented with poems by Constantine Cavafy (Η Πόλις, The City) and Rainer Maria Rilke (Archaic Torso of Apollo), which have inspired new works. As a result, it is not only formal deviations in a variety of media that occur in the perpetual variations, but also a surprising way of reading tradition: “You must change your reading.”

 

Translated from the German by Shane Anderson

 

 

 

[1] Some More Sonnet(s) was first presented as a unique book in the Drawing Center in New York as part of the exhibition fax in May 2009. The printing of a sample of the texts was then included in the exhibition catalogue. Two and a half years later, the book was published with a larger print run in its book form through Pichler’s own publishing house: Michalis Pichler, Some More Sonnet(s) (Berlin: “greatest hits”, 2011).

[2] Ulises Carrión: Sonnet(s) (Amsterdam: in-out productions, 1972).

[3] See Léonce W. Lupette, “Edition. Distribution. Programm. Appropriation und Verlage,” in Wiederaufgelegt. Zur Appropriation von Texten und Büchern in Büchern, ed. Annette Gilbert (Bielefeld: transcript, 2012), 391–405, 393–6.

[4] First published in Kontexts 6–7 (1975). Repr. in Ulises Carrión – “We have won! Haven’t we?”, ed. Guy Schraenen (Amsterdam: Idea Books 1992), n.p.

[5] Theodor W. Adorno, “On Tradition,” Telos 94 (Winter 1992–3): 75–82, 80.

[6] “The Preræphaelite Brotherhood,” in Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family-Letters, with a Memoir, vol. 1, ed. William Michael Rossetti (London: Ellis and Elvey 1895), 135.

[7] Strict, mandatory variations of rhyme schemes and recombinations of verses are included in this; ranging from a crown of sonnets to Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems). See Erika Greber, Textile Texte. Poetologische Metaphorik und Literaturtheorie: Studien zur Tradition des Wortflechtens und der Kombinatorik, (Cologne, Weimar, Wien, Böhlau 2002). See also Annette Gilbert, “Geliehene Sonette. Appropriationen des Sonetts im Conceptual Writing (Ulises Carrión, Michalis Pichler, Dmitrij Prigov),” in: Sonett-Künste. Mediale Transformationen einer klassischen Gattung, ed. Erika Greber and Evi Zemanek (Dozwil: Edition Signathur 2012), 455–89.

[8] Michalis Pichler, “Statements on Appropriation,” in: Fillip 11 (2010), 44–7. Online at: http://www.ubu.com/papers/pichler_appropriation.html, accessed November 9, 2014.

[9] Pichler has made a number of works with reference to Gertrude Stein. Using the letters of a Scrabble board, he layed out “Five Words In a Line” and then created anagrams from it (this appeared in print form in Crux desperationis 2 (2012), Montevideo). In addition to this, there is a series of Steinian paraphrases that use similar words, demonstrating a teleological character: Five Words In Thirty Seconds (spray painted on the wall of a house), Five Words In Three Minutes (stitched onto an apron), Five Words In Five Colors (in five colors), Five Words In Five Lines (in five lines).

[10] According to Kenneth Goldsmith: “In conceptual writing the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work.” Kenneth Goldsmith, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” online at http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/goldsmith/conceptual_paragraphs.html, accessed November 9, 2014.

[11] Michalis Pichler: 555 Schnapspresse Sonnets, Stapled, Folded and Sold In Chunks of 5 (Leipzig: Lubok Verlag, 2014).

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