The Past is Never Dead. It’s Not Even Past
Ariane Müller

Books exist in a fantastic, secret world somewhere between the material world and the world of ideas. They exist simultaneously as a document and instrument, a reservoir, a battery for knowledge. The majority can only be entered through initiation, through learning how to read. This makes them secret and distinguishes them from images, because, as Vergil has suggested, even birds try to pick painted grapes from the vine. No matter how vividly grapes are described in a book, birds will never notice.

Cathedrals with intricate passageways, hidden spaces and magnificent halls, have been built for this fantastic world of books—they’re called libraries. And distributors deliver books to the farthest corners of the Earth. There is a description of Montaillou—a small medieval town in the Pyrenees famous for its entire population, accused of heresy, being brought before the Inquisition in Toulouse, and whose lives we can learn about in the Inquisition’s protocol stored in the Vatican Library—that notes that every household possessed at least one book. A book brought over the mountains by shepherds. This book that almost every household possessed was not, to the great disadvantage of the inhabitants, the Bible, but rather the Decameron.

That was in the fifteenth century. Looking around at the world of books today, there’s a mass e-mail in my inbox electronically protesting the acquisition policy of Berlin libraries, or to be exact, the selling out policy, which would give a private purchasing agent complete control over the selection of new books as well as over the destruction of infrequently borrowed ones. Should a small press try to bring its book into distribution, it would be surprised to learn that bookstores in train stations and airports for instance are bound to a print run when purchasing titles that hardly any bookstore could comply with. Those who want a book for their trip may discover that this selection is controlled by a few publishing catalogs, which are all increasingly distributed by just one company, the book wholesaler Relay, making it impossible to select a good title in the badlands of this assortment at train stations and airports. Bravo! Once again man has prevented something from being possible, namely, to find something interesting with the intention and time to read it at such places. Kafka attributes this process not to people but to the world of ghosts, whose protagonists continually attempt to interfere with the connections between people; who attempt to make exchange impossible between them by only simulating communication and leaving all essential matters aside or even purposefully distorting them. He calls the telephone one such invention of ghosts. Furthermore, he writes that people, clever as they are, always discover new ways of avoiding coming into contact with one another. He mentions steam locomotives. And so, man invented something to combat that dismal cave of ghosts called Relay bookstores, where bricks wrapped in brightly colored paper pretend to be books, namely independent book fairs. So that people can see what can also be done with books. Michalis Pichler is one such inventor. But in the case of the fair—which is one of the oldest forms of coming together, where, on a special day, at a single location, the buying and selling of products is coupled with amusement and drinking—this invention is more performative than inventive, something which is only done or has to be done so that it exists. This performative aspect (more than the inventive one), which is a kind of continuation, an imitation, so that it keeps being thought and keeps existing, also distinguishes Pichler’s own publications.

Books have loose ends that, further unraveled, can be seen at book fairs. At first glance, their appearance and weight, the paper they’re printed on, the boxed sets, their size, the covers intended to impart their content—all of this, as they lie in your hands, is supposed to define them; and the same is true for their setting, font and leading, to the extent of editorial care and illustrations; and we can keep unraveling until we get to that which still remains of a book, even in the form of the books that are less bound by their material, such as the internet or e-books, that is, to the book’s content. And, in another paraphrase of Kafka, it continues to unravel what is actually meant by this content instead of another one, and so on, until we finally reach the deepest depths of the author’s subjectivity. Each of these elements can be developed to excessiveness, unraveled further and further, and that people do this can be observed not in the excessive emptiness and hollowness of Relay, but in book fairs. Books that are barely ten pages, books that weigh fifteen kilos, books that exist only because of the splendor of their cover, and books that end, above all else, in a single sentence. To realize what comes from an inner necessity and what is merely design is part of the attraction of such events, book fairs, where small presses unthreatened by financial success present their publications. Michalis Pichler ties together many of these only shortly sketched loose ends of the world of books time and again, searching, for example, for the appropriate plastic cover for his version of the Langenscheidt dictionary as well as for the appropriate font for his version of Ed Ruscha’s gas station book, and designing the proper wrapper for these activities, namely the independent book fairs—in his case Miss Read in Berlin—that are independent of the publishing industry’s lobbies and interest groups and are always first occurring and then reappearing as ghosts of themselves. Whether it be Publish And Be Damned in London or the New York Art Book Fair, it’s a strange trait of the world of books that these events, where the essence of a book is compelled to take on various forms of excessiveness in its morphology, always occur in the realm of visual art, and that the institutions interested in the essence of the book, such as Printed Matter in New York or Motto in Berlin, come from the fringes of the visual arts and that the people who design the books are often artists. Perhaps their memory is better, or their sentimentality or sensibility concerning the wealth of possibilities in the world of things is greater. In any case, the artist book as a category has been created from this—as if authors weren’t artists.

The majority of Michalis Pichler’s work is at home in this world. It is a quiet world and one recognizes this by its metaphors; and its loudest formation, the fairs, is always a clue into the existence of an unbelievably large network of people that, otherwise, systematically receive very little attention.

But ever since the invention of printing, the advantage of books has been their ability to be duplicated; and that they receive their own materiality when duplicated—which suggests they still possess a greater independence than the distribution of content in the internet (which requires electricity). A desire for them feeds off their materiality and a greater possibility to satisfy this desire feeds off their ability to be duplicated. Perhaps the idea of entering this world is created from this possibility. And so it’s neither clear nor important whether Michalis Pichler is primarily interested in conceptual art, whose protagonists made the book their own, or in those strange books primarily created by conceptual artists in the 1970s, which called his attention to their thinking. Entering this thinking, Michalis Pichler designs the books that this kind of thinking already induces. He organizes fairs for the world around him. So that all this happens at the same time. Art can do that.


Translated from the German by Shane Anderson