Artist: Hans Schabus
EAST WEST SOUTH NORTH
With the title of his video installation East West South North Hans Schabus draws on a convention of locating and mapping in space: the four coordinates of the compass, a fundamental instrument in cartography and a symbol of a certain “world order.” The geographic coordinate system is not merely a means of exploring and charting territory, it is also a reflection of economic and political power interests and the distribution of resources.
Hans Schabus draws on this canonized regime of the gaze and the established order, but with critical refraction. The title of the three-part projection East West South North does not adhere to the customary way of writing or listing the cardinal directions, N-S-O-W or N-O-S-W, but indicates the directions of major migratory flows and highlights economic factors as the true agents of the global order. A supposedly neutral notion of space, which suggests homogeneous expansion and is translatable into a grid, is revealed as ideologically coded. The geographical system of coordinates does not merely refer to an authorial subject as a center of perception; it helps to manifest this. In Schabus’ work the free-floating gaze of the cartographic eye does not always function in a manner analogous to a subject who is capable of creating a projection of the world. Instead space and spatial order are subjected to a critical interrogation within the interdependent context of the image, the gaze, society, and economics.
In Schabus’ configuration of East West South North as a synchronized multi-part projection, three walls of the exhibition space are covered by projected images. One wall is left “empty,” void of any image. Thus one cardinal direction, that is, the fourth coordinate in the orthogonal system, becomes a diegetic gap. Viewers are challenged to supplement the missing coordinates, to negotiate the installation from the perspective of their own gaze and to test the situation.
East West South North Schabus confronts the viewer with images of urban emptiness and absence. The three simultaneous seven-minute projections show extended shots of buildings such as a post office, police station, and perfor-mance hall, the most socially relevant sites belonging to the small city of Yeso, a ghost town in New Mexico. Until the 1950s Yeso was an important transfer site for the cattle trade and agricultural products. When the trains of the Atchinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway no longer stopped in the city in favor of another economic center, it suddenly lost its logistic and economic significance, which led to the departure of almost the entire population.
At first East West South North seems to be a truly symphonic visual ode to a non-place. The gaze of the camera pans across the empty buildings and rundown public spaces of the small city, as if Schabus were introducing Yeso as a setting for a potential film story. The color, light, and sound of the film material evoke visual dimensions that at times undermine the documentary aspects of the footage and cause the real site to fade into the background, while its filmic qualities are highlighted. The initial calm of the apparently contemplative scene is sharply interrupted by the roar of a seemingly endless freight train, eliminating any hint of contemplative escapism. Over three kilometers long and with double-stacked boxcars, the trains of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which are loaded with products intended for international trade, are the last indication of the once flourishing Yeso and its formerly advantageous location along the rail line. Today a train crosses through the city every thirty minutes without deigning to make a stop. The train thus becomes a transient but hyper-present sign of the constant expansion of the globally oriented movement of goods and the associated functionalization of space. At this point, if not sooner, it becomes clear that Schabus is not interrogating Yeso for its visual qualities that are so evocative of film, but that he is concerned with the story of its economic demise. Schabus by no means assumes a nostalgic stance, since the town, laid out on a grid, is proto-typical of an urban model oriented towards expansion. Schabus pursues the semiotic investigation of the town on two levels. On the one hand he shows individual buildings of administrative and social significance, and thus also the architecturally represented hierarchy of the city, as “inoperative.” On the other hand he allows the city to be seen as the "victim" of an idea and metastructure which gave rise to the city's very particular form: an orthogonal system that is indebted solely to the logic of expansion and economic growth and that subsumes or simply overrides any ecological or social contingencies.
In East West South North Schabus combines historical coordinates with the canonized images of a mythologized West, but not without undermining its visual language and its codes. The artist creates a perceptual situation, which draws the attention of the viewer to their own projections and ideas, destabilizing them at the same time. The myth of the West or, in more general terms, the phantasm of conquest, of discovering “pristine nature” or unoccupied places seems to collide with the given situation of Yeso or its immanent future. Ultimately, in Yeso the desert is the only conqueror. By focusing his gaze in a semi-documentary manner on the economization of the space of Yeso and its urban collapse, Schabus creates an apparent ode to the desert that becomes legible as a critical statement on economic realities.
Viewers find themselves in an ambivalent situation. The images of this non-place and abandoned site arouse the hope of discovering an untouched or at least a forgotten site waiting to be rediscovered. However, Schabus causes viewers to reflect on their own modes of seeing. The naive and sovereign gaze of the viewer, which is here contemplatively enjoying an aesthetic of absence, is unmasked as the “mastering eye;” the gaze of the viewer is thus carried over into a regime of a gaze that looks at precariousness from a secure position and that in this very situation helps to establish and stabilize its own elevated position.
The most striking aesthetic and physical aspect of this work, the sudden and almost “sculptural” presence of the train, leaves behind a spatial and acoustic vacuum that resemanticizes this site of emptiness. The stillness at the end of the seven-minute film is not the same as the silence at the beginning. Even if these two moments do not differ significantly on iconic terms, this “coda” of what ini-tially seems to be a filmic composition of a visually symphonic nature now seems infused with socio-economic critique. Schabus thus places a focus on the unconsciously romanticizing aspects of the gaze directed at this city and landscape, a non-place and wasteland. Not the instance of subjectification but the unconscious regression to collectively preserved romantic notions is the subject of the spatial and socio-aesthetic reflection.
By leaving open the fourth coordinate in the spatial constellation of the projections of East West South North, he makes the position of the viewer into a spatial variable. These phenomenological components, the position of the viewer and the viewer’s relationship in space to the three synchronously projected films, are not only constitutive of a process of spatial diegesis but are also changeable and always renegotiable. Given that viewers are intentionally interrupted in their contemplation, Schabus is clearly neither focusing on the deconstruction nor the affirmation of what has taken place but on an intermediary space. The intended experience of space is oriented towards the dimension of a third space, a transitory space, which fluctuates between the historical coordinates of the place referred to and imaginary elements of and collective imprints on the gaze. Thus Schabus does not present the or one space or location but refers to the given space of perception as a space of kinesthetic experience, in which the dispositive and object of perception inextricably refer to one another.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Laura Schleussner