We at ARTnews have long explored the who, what, where, and why of art collecting. We’ve also touched on the very nature of collectors: their idiosyncrasies, their motivations, and the simple notion that, for many of them, it’s not the value of the objects themselves that drives them, but rather their inherent meaning of those things. One such collector is Robert Schmitt, a Berlin resident whose uncontrollable passion is newspapers. Last year, Schmitt displayed his bountiful collection at Grzegorzki Shows, artist Gregor Hildebrandt’s exhibition space in the German capital. We wondered:
Was it your idea or Gregor’s to show the collection in the gallery?
Robert Schmitt: In spring 2017, I invited the artist and gallerist Gregor Hildebrandt and his assistants over for a visit to my flat in Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg—around the corner from his atelier in Wedding—to look around.
This was a period of personal, mental, and organizational transformation for me. Stacks of printed matter had piled up: newspapers, magazines, and books. However, this accumulation did not look like waste to me. It reminded me of a living, philosophical sculpture.
Gregor was fascinated too and agreed immediately that these towers of paper were the perfect, raw ingredients for a conceptual artwork. As luck would have it, he planned to open a new experimental art space to be called Grzegorzki Shows—in neon pink lettering—in the autumn of the same year. He invited me to do the first exhibition there.
Shortly thereafter, I came up with the title for the installation “I paid for content and I’m proud of.”
Gregor liked this title very much.
When did you begin collecting? Was it conscious—or just a case of not throwing the papers away? Are you a compulsive collector (or saver) in general? What else do you collect?
I know a lot of collectors and collections in the broader sense of the word. They collect some type of object that is meaningful or valuable or not. Or, in a more restricted sense, art collectors focus specifically on artworks. The collector always has some form of passion or obsession with the object or the artist involved.
So you could call this a collection and call me a collector.
But my passion and obsession are not only with the object and its producers but even more with the activity of buying and reading. This installation is a monument to the newspapers and the craft of journalism, and it is a love letter to the readers.
Printed matter, newspapers, magazines, and books deserve and require monuments to praise them as sensual, touchable cultural objects in contrast to the bodiless digital world. That is quite straightforward.
But there is also a more intimate story. Since the exhibition, many people have approached me and whispered conspiratorially to me about their own assemblies. And I want to tell them: Be proud of it! It is your love of reading and your reverence for the author, the journalist, or the illustrator which this installation is secretly dedicated to. This love made you buy this newspaper or that magazine. This love supports the often-precarious living of journalists, illustrators, publishers, and printers on the creative side.
And, how will you decide when to stop accumulating? It’s like that joke: If you could have everything in the world, where would you put it?
Unfortunately, compared to some books or artworks, newspapers are not for eternity. Or should I say: fortunately? Only the love for supporting the creative cultural techniques standing behind them should be everlasting.
You can never read a newspaper or a magazine as a whole. So you store it for a later time, which often never comes. A mixed bundle of papers grows.
But let these works not become waste in a trivial sense. Make a ritual of it, take the necessary time to read, clean, slim down, and reorder your stacks of content.
This is symbolically represented in my installation.
Was it a way of storing information—that is, paralleling memory?
In German, we have the two words for memory: Gedächtnis and Erinnerung. Gedächtnis refers more to the retention of facts, whereas Erinnerung has more to do with the narrative of the past.
The Gedächtnis can be compared to an archive and can possibly be stored in a computer memory. It is related to facts and about information. The Erinnerung is more mysterious and human. It changes, adapts, and evolves in unknown ways. It represents your being and gives the sense to your life. It will never be possible to store it in a computer memory.
I am interested in both and admit the narrative is much more fascinating than the facts in many cases.
My installation represents ten years of buying and reading quality journalism. It celebrates manifested artful storytelling. The best stories are true, and it takes craft to string facts into valuable non-fictions.
As Gregor put it in the Leitschrift [a book printed after the show]: “The paper room: ten years of Robert Schmitt, ten years of Germany and also in part ten years of the whole world.”
Had you considered it akin to saving websites and digital news? How is it different? Clearly, with digital material, you can search for whatever you wish to revisit. Isn’t that an advantage over print?
Of course, I have to use digital technologies. However, in most cases, I do not appreciate them because I do not want to live in a world where digital reading replaces analog reading practices, or turns these reading rituals into an elitist practice of leisure.
There are two aspects of the digital that I will never come to terms with. The digital world will always have an office flavor. The virtual world does not have a sensual component. So I never was interested in saving any digital content except for very defined goal-driven utilitarian reasons.
As a person with a high affinity for and some understanding of mathematics, I have a very intuitive feeling of what is won and what is lost if you enter the abstract, arithmetic or algorithmic, world of thinking. The social context in which these technologies are embedded is also important. And there is a subtle link between senses, meaning, and humanity.
You can possibly search digital material for facts but not for sense. You can retrieve information from your digital archive, but it makes sense only in the context of your thinking.
In my installation I wanted to create an atmosphere appealing to the human senses because there is so much more involved in reading a printed newspaper than just gathering information. It is a pleasure!
You say you love print—I do too, obviously—but what are the characteristics you most treasure? Do you process information differently?
I love paper, print, and printed matter of all sorts. The aspect of physically touching or feeling paper cannot be replaced by a screen. I guess you could call me, instead of a tree-hugger, a newspaper-hugger. I am an environmentalist, concerned about our culture of democracy and touch.
I love print as intellectual notation, and it is still almost as magic as the Egyptian hieroglyphs to me. By the way, the technology has not changed that much up until now. It is only now, after 5,000 years, that it is disappearing into the digital.
Digitally, you process information. Print on paper embraces the narrative and the sensual memory.
I am not very interested in information or news for itself, but in the aesthetics in a holistic meaning. This is best illustrated by the Leitschrift, a collaborative hand-tailored artist publication, produced in the aftermath of the exhibition.
After getting such astonishing resonance with the opening of a small showroom, I decided to document the story. I had the idea for a print product and collaborated with the visual artist and cultural journalist Nina Prader.
She congenially captured the ease of a late summer evening in Berlin, the sensuality of an installation, admiring printed newspapers and magazines, and the charming, serious, intellectual statement made in favor of buying all this stuff. The 24-page publication in English and in German, printed in Risograph with Inkwell Press, uses a specially selected rough paper, calling to mind packaging paper, the underground, and the feeling of old-school newspapers.
Did you always consider what you were doing art? Albeit conceptual art?
I think I work as follows.
I have a hopefully substantial conceptional idea which is the soul of a project.
Afterwards, I follow emergent processes with a team, believing the result is more than the sum of its parts. I represent the intellectual core of the project but I am open for contributions compatible with it.
Very often I am astonished by the course things take. In respect to the success of the work with Grzegorzki Shows, everybody later said: This could have never been planned.
Do you get a sense of national differences from the gestalt of print? Seeing the words as art in themselves?
This is interesting. I never focused on these questions when reading newspapers or magazines from different countries. And quite obviously there are national differences in the gestalt of print.
I think this shows how much my motivation relates to the social technique of newspaper reading and does not go into reflecting the design of newspapers or magazines.
All newspaper readers are quite the same while reading, transcending national differences, like chess players.