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Patrik Metzger, translated by Alison Shamrock
In Northern America the railway lines symbolised mobility, settlement, the departure towards the West. Once the Pacific had been reached, the West, rather than remaining simply a direction on the compass, was transformed into a mythological, salutary location. The railway lost its importance and the highway took over. For the settlers in those days, the land was a promise; the dream of a happier future was inherent in a plot of land which one had to convert into a farm. Those not blessed with vision, without a plan, whose faith was weak were lost.
Today, long after the appropriation of the land came to an end, there is a particular magic to the highways, the magic of departure, like one of these mirages which shimmer above the road surface in the summer. What has been lost is the notion that one’s own existence has to be wrested from a plot of land and is, as such, the result of years of hard work. The giant billboards alongside the road announce the great (not just American) short circuit. They scream at the non-searcher: The gates of paradise lie just beyond the next exit. Redemption is available for every traveller who has money. Shopping malls, motels, restaurants, banks beckon and nobody has to revert back to being a settler in the suburban spaces hostile to man.
In Centres Commerciaux Josef Schulz, as early as the middle of the 1990s, dealt with the exorbitantly large shopping centres in the French suburbs. The individual photos, computer edited into long travelling shots, expose the resemblance to backdrops and the architectural inconsistencies. In the works created both then and at a later date (sachliches / Formen) lettering and traces of everyday life are removed digitally. The architecture of the factory buildings and logistic warehouses, the multi-storey car parks is reduced to their large dimensions. The landscape is cleared and flattened to function as a mere background. The buildings lack scale; only the horizon– lost in the blurred, bright distance – might give some clue as to the eyelevel of the observer.
In SIGN OUT this point of reference is also missing: Josef Schulz always photographs the billboards alongside US highways and in the shopping centres from below, in front of a uniform sky. What these boards refer to lies outside the sphere of the pictures; we can only speculate. In addition, the billboards were also stripped of their writing and logos during postprocessing. Deprived of their message and their function they are turned into empty speech bubbles. At first they seem to be merely surface and colour. The observer's perception wanders and – eventually – discovers something three-dimensional: The billboards are anchored, in every weather, by scaffolding and rods. They have volume, black edges, they harbour electrical things. They are objects. But let us not be misled: They painfully bear the message they have lost like a shield. These are not simply new billboards yet to be imprinted, they are old and used. Therefore these boards raised to the sky tell the tale of shattered dreams. This comic-strip of empty speech bubbles is haunted by the spirit of the contemporary gold-miners, now buried out of town by the great economic crisis.
Sign Out means, to remove oneself from a list, to log off from a system, to stop participating. This refers quite specifically to the signposted shopping centres which are struggling with the impact of the economic crisis. Reduced turnover leads to the closure of businesses and branches. Employees are laid off. And since they no longer go shopping near their place of work, the turnover decreases further still. This is just the superficial result of a calculation which shows that costs are higher than income. An economical chain-reaction threatens: Firstly, because the system is dynamic, and only generates profits when it is in motion, that is when it grows. Secondly, because it presupposes trust in an economic sustainability which cannot always be guaranteed.
And precisely this is the uncertain foundation upon which the longing for a new departure thrives and prospers. Regardless of how big the international recession turns out to be, nowhere is it more precisely revealed than alongside an American highway. Somewhere behind the wordless warnings of Josef Schulz' billboards the New West must start. Never have the praises of American pop been sung in a more matter of fact way.