The Artist Robert Schmitt on his Passion for Printed Matters

“Reading the Newspaper has Style”

Robert Schmitt in front of his installation "I Paid For Content And I'm Proud Of"

Robert Schmitt buys five newspapers every day and keeps them. Currently, he displays his collection of printed matters as an art installation at an exhibition in Berlin. An interview about the pleasures of reading, the smell of paper and the impending loss of a cultural technology. 

It smells like paper and the sheer mass of newspapers and magazines is impressive, almost overwhelming. On the ground floor of an industrial complex in Wedding, at the Berlin artist Gregor Hildebrandt’s new exhibition space Grzegorzki Shows, Robert’s newspapers are stacked: tons that he has collected in the last years. For this conversation, the artist set up a little bench between the monumental piles. From his functional rucksack, he pulls out a bottle of water and two glasses. Then, he begins with a flaming homage to print, quality journalism and the gesture of reading a newspaper itself.

Mr. Schmitt, do all these newspapers, and magazines belong to you? 
Yes, a volume of this decade. I bought all of this at a kiosk or newsstand. I don’t have any subscriptions. It’s about quality journalism, I want to underline that. I buy "Die Zeit" as a weekly newspaper. On the weekend, I buy the "Guardian", the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung", "Financial Times Weekend" and I especially like "taz". During the week, I buy "The Süddeutsche", the "FAZ", the "Tagesspiegel", and the "Berliner Zeitung", regionally the most important and journalism-wise the two most established newspapers nation-wide in Germany.

Is there a newspaper or a magazine that you remember especially or does everything just drown in the great mass? 
Here, I want to discern between newspapers and magazines. With the newspapers, it is an ocean, yes. Except maybe here…(he pulls a newspaper from the stacks). This is a complete weekend edition from the real "New York Times". A beautiful format, more than 100 pages thick. I consciously laid this one on top. With the magazines, there are certain covers that remain in my memory. Tarantino on the cover of Monopol, Warhol on "Vanity Fair", Sinatra on "Interview". Every 10th magazine that I take into my hands, convinces me with its cover. 

Does the cover influence your consumer decisions?
No. Or let’s put it better: only in some cases. There are newspapers that belong to my monthly shopping, these include Monopol, "Vanity Fair" and "Spex". On a weekly basis, I buy "Spiegel", sometimes "Tip" or "Zitty". My favorite publications are "Lettre International", the "New York Review of Books" and the "Rochade", a newspaper about chess. Additionally, I indulge in publications, depending on my daily or monthly mood. But, and I want to emphasize this: it needs to have a certain quality. In my entire life, I have never bought a "Bild" newspaper and never a "Bunte" or similar publications. Of course, there is the aspect of the sensuality of the paper, but for me the journalistic content of the publication is decisive. 

How does someone like you who has so many newspapers read the newspaper?
I read the newspaper based on the structure of my day, I would say. There are days on which I leaf through my five newspapers in a few minutes because I am busy. And there are days on which I treat myself to two large cups of coffee and I read one article after the other. I engross myself in "Seite Drei" of the  "Süddeutsche Zeitung" and maybe skim the last theater critiques of the Volksbühne, across the different papers. It’s different from day to day. 

What prompted your passion for collecting?
I really don’t know. I just could not throw the newspapers away. Somewhere there has to be an internal connection. Often the logic is of course: I could read it again. However, that rarely ever happens. But somehow I still hold on to them. At the age of thirteen or fourteen, I began to read these newspapers. Through them, my understanding of the world was shaped. Out of this emerged a sort of love that I express through collecting. 

How do you store these newspapers at home?
In the past, I stored them quite heterogeneously here and there. Compiling them for the exhibition was a catharsis. Now, my apartment is in a certain in-between state of order. 

The exhibition is called "I Paid for Content And I’m Proud of". Is it a problem of our times that so much content is accessible for free on the internet? 
It’s hard to say which business model a newspaper should follow. Personally, I can only say, I think it has style to buy the newspaper and then, read it. I really want to underline the style aspect. And, I also want to underline that behind the landscape of every newspaper and magazine lies a whole ecology of intellectually writing and journalistically hard working people. It can either be nurtured or dry up. Our society is not only loosing the quality of newspapers but also a cultural technology when we don’t have takers for the writers’ written product anymore. These people often have to do other jobs as well. However, it is a vocation with which they must make money. It is not a hobby. Through all these blogs and the free content on the internet, it becomes easy to think writing is a hobby. This is a misconception. For me, the best intersection for the user with the journalistic product is the newspaper. You hold it with open hands and create a field of vision, that also represents a certain size, to read and receive. The reception from a small screen produces a narrow-minded aura. 

Do you write yourself? 
I myself have never written for a newspaper. Indeed, I also write, here and there again, more or less. Maybe someday there will be a publication of mine out, but I have to judge my own quality correctly. When you come from the receiving end, and I always did, I was a reader, a listener, viewer, then you know how good things are on the other side and you have a certain reverence for it. To write a book or to publish a theater play just to have done it once, just out of a certain narcissism, I would not allow myself to do that. But readers are always potential writers, in this respect that question is legitimate. I would like to stay on the receiving end but that may change, seeing as I am so unhappy with the cultural developments, the trivialization and the difficult relationship with honesty and loss of sensuality and sense. You can’t touch digital content. You can, however, do that in this exhibition and many people did it at the exhibition. It smells like paper here. These are sensual components here and as far as sensuality has to do with sense, I think it is an important question. 

How do you earn a living?
I have and had a high mathematical talent. It can be applied to different technology-oriented problem-solving. 

How long will we still be able to buy newspapers?
That is an interesting question. I think in a few years things will change in a way we can’t quite imagine at this time. Digitization has reached a pinnacle, it is a sweltering higher power and many think: enough is enough. Facebook is not cool anymore. It was cool five or eight years ago. But the approach to digitizing everything and having people run around with their smartphones out must trigger a counter-reaction. People will indulge in new forms of purism or at least zones of tranquility. What will happen we will only know first when it happens. In general, I think magazines have it easier than newspapers. Magazines like Vinyl can be a niche-format. The magazine format was always marked by a larger fluctuation than the newspaper format. There is a possibility that a post-digital time will set in with an important space for newspapers. Or, everything crashes completely. Everything is possible.  

Is it painful to separate yourself from the newspapers now after seven, eight years?
I don’t have any archival intentions in the sense that I want to answer the question posed on September 7. 2004 in the "Süddeutsche Zeitung". Indeed it is a sensual connection that lets me hold onto the content. Out of completely fundamental reasons, it is advised to draw a balance every few years in one’s life to see what is really important. It is about sorting things out with a certain pain but also a certain freedom and then liberated to enter into the next stage, where there is space again on the shelves and room in my apartment is free. For me, this giving-away is connected with a certain nostalgia and melancholy, but also with a perspective towards the future. By the way, we could have had the newspapers from the last thirty years here, if my friends and colleagues had not refused to move the newspapers every time I moved. Thus, my newspapers were thrown out from move to move. 

Is the next collection in the making?
Yes, the next work will be in ten years. 

Is it possible to buy your newspapers and their magazines, now that they are here? How much do they cost?
That is a question best solved with the collector. Just like the question how to deal with the work.  This is an installation, so it would be possible to rebuild it similarly.  

Are you a madman or a fetishist?
I am not a fetishist. I am a little bit of a madman, a self-admitted, hopefully, humorous madman. Unfortunately, there are too many loud, shrill dark madmen out and about and unfortunately, especially in politics, so one should not flirt with madness. Rather, call me an eccentric gourmand!


Translation: Nina Prader