Review of Paranomia | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Review of Paranomia

by Christoph Keller

Spector Books, Leipzig, Germany, 2016
174 pp. Paper, 28.00€
ISBN: 978-3959051002

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
November 2017

Paranomia is a book that offers three perspectives on the artistic and intellectual enterprise of Christoph Keller, whose work covers a wide range of topics related to the arts and science field. First, it is a catalog, yet a special one: less the descriptive overview of his major exhibitions (in Germany and abroad) than a cleverly designed selection of images and events that were part of these exhibitions. Second, it is also a commentary: the words and images from the exhibitions are introduced and framed by a set of dialogues with but also readings by critics, curators, historians, and philosophers (among whom Joseph Vogl, Bernard Blistène, and Horst Bredekamp, three names that immediately gave an idea of the importance given to the work of Christoph Keller). Third, the book is also a kind of exhibition in itself: it builds a new display of the material of the exhibitions as well as the critical analyses that surround them.

In other words, the present book does not claim to be a more window on the work of Christoph Keller and its reception in the word of art and science critics and specialists. Its first goals is to reshape this work and these readings in a new way and to explore the creative possibilities of typography and book design to add a new layer to the work of an artist whose favorite topics such as “ether” have all something to do with the key role of the invisible and the immaterial in the proves of making and inventing new forms and concept, and whose “anarcheological” spirit, following a portmanteau word coined by Foucault in order to bring together the apparently contradictory notions of archive and anarchy, helps foreground new approaches of rereading past, present and future. Keller’s themes and centers of interest are kept together by the umbrella term of paranomaia, a conceptual cluster whose meaning rhizomatically proliferates in many directions and many different fields and meanings which all refer in a way or another to “that which exists alongside the normative.”

The cover art of the book is a perfect illustration of the paranomia explored by the artist in various projects at the margins of art, magic, and science. The structure of this cover is a mise en abyme of Keller’s challenging of what we think we know, his gradual intermingling of the known and the unknown, and eventually the production of a new yet unstable set of balances and unbalances. The book has a dust cover whose front page looks very traditional. On a white background there is the name of the author (on top), the title (at the bottom) and a pleasant illustration (in the middle). Yet the image continues on the back cover, where the reader finds not only the missing half of the image (an Amazonian compound leaf blade with many leaflets) but also a list of key concepts which each specify one of the letters of the keyword paranomia (“P for Paranomia, A for Aphasia, R for Riddle, etc.”). Of course this list of nine concepts does not exhaust the meaning of paranomia. On the one hand, each of these concepts needs further definition, and their visual display on the page, in three rows of respectively four, three and two concepts, suggests that there is more to read (where is the row with only one item, why not continuing the sequence by adding rows of five, six, seven, etc. concepts).

This deepening and broadening of the key notion of paranomia is exactly what Keller’s book is doing. When none takes away the dust jacket, one discovers a black and with cover with only text, divided in nine sections that each define in a different tone and style one of the nine concepts enigmatically presented on the external jacket. The nine concepts appear then as a kind of verbal image captioned by a long but stylistically varying comment that is made in such a way that it can also apply to the eight other ones. Concept “A” is captioned by a Wikipedia quote, concept “B” by a historical anecdote, concept “C” by a micronarrative, but the reader becomes soon aware of the fact that the Wikipedia quote of “A” has also something to say on concept “B” and “C”, etc., in a generalized mash-up of concepts and definitions that produces a gradual enrichment and complexification of the ubiquitous notion of paranomia.

The absence of a general table of contents adds to this general fluidity. Paranomia does not have nine chapters (one for “Paranomi”, one for “Aphasia”, one for “Riddle”, etc.), but a string of multiply overlapping sections focusing on different artistic creations and critical dialogues or commentaries that are simultaneously inextricably linked and definitely independent. Each section also has its own typographical style, but the transitions between sections are so smooth and the echoes and correspondences between them so inspiring that one experiences the reading of this book in terms of flow, not as a linear journey but as a sequence of places that permanently allow us to look back as well as forward.

Paranomia could have been a shattered mosaic, a mere juxtaposition of creations and reflections on the periphery on art as well as science. In that regard, it might even have produced a faithful image of one of the many meanings of the key concept itself. However, Christopher Keller rejects this solution as too easy and therefore he proposes a different way of shaping the margins, the paranormal, the suspect, the dangerous, the silent, the stammering, the noise, the parasite. He does not explore these issues as the other side of the center or something outside it, but as something that is dialectically inscribed in the very heart of “good” science “and “normal” art. It is the transformative tension between the rule and the unbound, the stereotype and the unique, the well structured and the out of joint that makes Paranomia such a strong reading experience.