[On the occasion of the launching of our new blog, we’re going to be reposting some essays from our old Spineless & Stapled blog. The following was originally published in March of 2012.]
The Book is the Weapon
I’ve often been told that the pen (and by extension, the book) is mightier than the sword. But what if the book is the sword?
Uwe Wandrey’s Kampfreime is a collection of rhymed chants meant for use during the German Student Movement. As far as my research can tell, it is also the first book to be designed as a weapon, and as such is a landmark in book design.
The book is small. It can be easily slipped into a protestor’s pocket. The chants are arranged thematically. The red card section dividers make it easy, presumably, to flip to the right chant even under the duress of a violent protest. The book takes full advantage of secrecy and random access – perhaps the two most historically useful aspects of the codex form.
The sharp fore edge of both of the the aluminum boards extend about a quarter of an inch past the fore edge of the text. The book elegantly solves the structural problems inherent in a metal binding in that the upper board is curved at a 90 degree angle at the spine, while the lower board lies flat and is buttressed against the inward curve of the upper. Thus the book lies flat, yet is easily opened.
What is less obvious, but perhaps even more brilliant about this design is that the curve of the upper board rests sturdily on the palm, and the lower board – which juts further out – is buttressed against the metal base. My theory is that this was done so that the metal boards can’t recoil backwards and cut into one’s palm if the book is used to strike an attacker.
Kampfreime had another use as well.
The business end of a book was also intended to tear away posters, flyers, advertisements – to clear an open space in an encroaching universe of bourgeoisie paper. After all, one of the main targets of the student protest was the Axel Springer publishing house. It belongs in the same lineage as another brilliantly designed book which in many ways laid a framework for the ’68 protests – Guy Debord, Asger Jorn, and V.O. Permild’s psychogeographical masterpiece Memoires, which featured a sandpaper dust jacket to destroy any book it was shelved against.
The protests of ’68 escalated because of attacks upon, and killings of protesting students, beginning with the killing of Benno Ohnesorg by a policeman in ’67. Students held that Ohnesorg had been murdered. His name was recently in the news when a study by the German government discovered that the killing was probably premeditated. The cover-up extended as far as the hospital, where a doctor, acting on instructions from a superior, sewed Ohnesorg’s skin shut over the bullet hole in his head and ruled that the death was caused by blunt force.
As elegant as the design of Kampfreime is, it is difficult to imagine that it was ever of much practical use against a baton, or a gun. The lasting power of Kampfreime is as a metaphor. A talisman to protect the bearer and a text designed to destroy other texts. As such it is one of the most provocative and overlooked artist’s books of protest in the 20th century.
Wandrey, Uwe. Kampfreime. Handliche, Mit Scharfen Kanten Ausgestattete Kampfausgaube Fuer Die Phase Des Revolutionaueren Widerstands. Hamburg: Quer-Verlag, 1968. First edition. Oblong 16mo. Mimeographed in black on white paper, with red card section dividers. Stapled into red wraps, which are tipped into aluminum boards with red tape. Illustrated title pastedown to front panel. Binding slightly shaky, with some minor discoloration to the title pastedown and metal, but still near fine. No bloodstains to boards or text of this copy. Rare.