Thursday, 6 December 2012

Patriotic Shopping

Is This Place Great or What? © Brian Ulrich
When I was about 10 or 11 I discovered two things that made my teenage life more complicated in school and society. The first was that God and The Bible was a fairytale and the second was that the whole USA deal was bullshit. At that time I was attending a strict Roman Catholic school and living in Argentina, where every governmental decision was dictated to by the American government. I rapidly became disillusioned with the media portrayal of 'living the American dream' whilst behind the scenes they always had their own agenda. America has always intrigued me, this amazing country with vast expanses of beautiful landscapes and full of…shopping malls.

Is This Place Great or What? © Brian Ulrich
Last month I met up with Brian Ulrich in Switzerland, I was really interested to know a bit more about his beautiful book 'Is This Place Great or What?' A great reflection on consumerism in America. As soon as he started to talk about it all my childhood memories came back to me:

Brian Ulrich: I've shown this project and people have said, 'aren't you afraid that the government will come and take you away, because you're talking about this stuff? Patriotism of shopping.' No I'm not afraid…one of the reasons that I'm doing this project is because I hate being afraid. It's not because I hate the place where I live …in fact I love many things about American culture and specifically the American people.

After 9/11 we started to get messages from the media, which had moved away from a grieving process. Most of them were based around fear, built around the idea that 'The Terrrorists' are coming again, don't sleep too deep… along with this came these directives for the citizens of America to go out and fight the terrorists by shopping.

SK: Can you explain patriotic shopping?

BU: The idea was that, especially in NYC, the economy of tourism was hit really hard. Giuliani was the first one to come out and say "come back to NYC, come back to Broadway, spend and it will all be ok, we need to re start our economic engine". And other politicians started to adopt this rhetoric, and of course as it gets reiterated it changes and then all of a sudden the president said, "We need to call on the nation's best shoppers to fight the terrorists". So, you are supposed to use your credit card to go out and buy shit so that it would build the economy and again it became so clear how fragile this economic model is to me.

I was thinking when I started the project that whatever I was going to potentially photograph will be the end of capitalism… like capitalism finally catching up with itself and the economic model being totally unsustainable, just crashing… that the crash wasn't going to be Armageddon but it was going to be: 'WE have to find the solution to the capitalism problem'. But what I didn't realise at that time is that capitalism is more like a virus that adopts whatever it needs in order to survive and grow, so for me that's what these pictures are about.

SK: You include objects and archival material along with your images, can you tell us more about it?

BU: I started to come across objects. Once I wanted to take a picture of a sign and I was really frustrated because I couldn't take an interesting picture of it. I got so angry that I went back one night with a ladder and ripped the thing from the front of the mall and I took it back to my studio and I got a guy to make me a new neon and then I started to show it as a piece. Another thing that I collect are credit cards expired from stores that they don't exist anymore.

Prosperity © Brian Ulrich
I found a huge archive of photographs in the mall and that takes me to another thing, the great prosperity, which was a time in American economic history when the middle class had the biggest growth and the greatest amount of surplus cash. It was right after WW2 up until the 1970s. And then there was a concerted effort to steal money from the middle class to the point where now the middle class has no money. So I started to notice that these press agencies are selling all their old 5x4 negatives on e-bay. And I think the power of them is that they were anonymous pictures, re-contextualised.. What became clear to me was all this great trajectory and that just extended my project backwards. In a sense I was able to photograph the past by collecting these pictures.

Prosperity © Brian Ulrich

After our conversation I had another look at the book and a quote from the great comedian George Carlin came to my mind;

"…This magnificent landscape that we inherited… well, we actually stole it  from the Mexicans and the Indians, but hey! it was nice when we stole it! it looked pretty good, it was prestine, paradise, have you seen it lately? Have you taken a real good look? Its fucking embarrassing. Only a nation of unenlightened half wits could have taken this beautiful place and turned it into what it is today: a shopping mall, a big fucking shopping mall".

Seba Kurtis (Foam Magazine #25/Traces)


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