Tag Archives: Signs



Railway Click to view larger image

Even before the time that the railway reached Goulburn in 1869, there were calls for the line to be extended into the Monaro. The line to Cooma (through Queanbeyan, Michelago, Bredbo and Bunyan) was eventually opened in 1889, with later extensions through to Nimmitabel (1911) and Bombala (1921).

The arrival of the railway had a huge social and economic impact, and really served to ‘open up’ the region to the outside world. However, despite a boom during the construction of the Snowy Scheme, when Cooma was the base of operations, the line always ran at a loss. (One justification for the railway had been that it would allow for shipment of wheat grown in the Monaro to other markets – but it had quite the opposite effect, with the marginal Monaro grain unable to compete with the cheaper wheat that could now be shipped in from other regions.)

Cooma Railway Station 1925

The line closed in 1988 – exactly one hundred years after its establishment. The billboard signs now have no rail passengers to talk to (though they still ‘serve’ the adjacent highway traffic).

We tend to look at billboards in terms of the messages they display, rather than as large constructions plonked onto the landscape. They (almost) never draw attention to themselves as objects. We are so accustomed to their presence as we travel that we don’t really take notice of their physicality either.

In this image, a scene along the closed Cooma rail line, the signs have nothing to say about fast food outlets, ski resorts or car repairs. Their only function is to declare their own ‘sign-ness’.

Monaro Merino Ngarigo Snow Hydro

Monaro Merino Ngarigo Snow Hydro Country

Monaro Merino Ngarigo Snow Hydro Click to view larger image

The base photograph for this image was taken on The Arable Road, just at its junction with the Cooma-Jindabyne Road near the Cooma Airport. The ‘real’ sign marks the boundary of the ‘Brookfield Park’ property.

Like the Cooma Welcomes You image, it was inspired by another sign, whose message is “Monaro Merino Country”. I’ve made a few additions to that message (there could have been more) to allow for some alternative designations of the land.

No message

I’ve been reading a little about the functions and mechanisms by which ‘signs’ (in the broadest sense of the word) operate. Icon, index and symbol, and the often impenetrable language of the semioticians. But some of the most obvious and bluntly direct signs are all around us in the form of advertising in public spaces as posters, advertising hoardings and billboards. In public urban spaces they are so ubiquitous that most of the time we don’t even notice their presence.

I have been looking at a lot of them lately, both in downtown locations and alongside highways, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the sheer number of them. Normally, they reach us (if at all) as just an element of background visual noise. Our gaze, the gaze of the contemporary citizen-consumer, both sophisticated and distracted, is usually directed elsewhere. Combating our neglectful tendency to ignore, these signs vie for attention through size, shock, visibility, repetition or saturated presentation. Through their style or location they attempt to reach (though ‘target’ is perhaps a better word for it) their desired audience/market segment.

Usually they are straightforward, even crude, in their expression of a simple message from the source (advertiser) to the recipient (viewer). The message is: “You need/want this product. Buy it.” Or:; “Change your behaviour or attitude take action in line with the advertiser’s wishes.”

No message

"No message" (5616 x 3744 pixels)

In this image of a standard (14′ by 48′) roadside image in a wilderness snowfield near Mt Kosciuszko, I wanted to make the billboard to itself become visible as an object, rather than as the almost-invisible vehicle for delivery of messages to a mass audience.  In a way it’s a McLuhan-esque effort to put the message to one side and focus solely on the medium.  I also sought to ask two questions of the viewer.

Firstly, if removed from its audience, and relocated in an environment without viewers, what happens to the sign? Does it continue to have meaning? It retains a physical presence and the capacity to express a message – but can it be said to have a message if it has no audience? This resembles the old pop-philosophical question:  if a tree falls in a wilderness forest with no-one there to hear it, does it make any noise?

It could of course be said that the billboard sign does have an audience i.e. us, the viewers of the reproduced photographic image. However we view only a picture of the billboard and its message. It is a ‘sign-within-a-sign’, or a ‘sign-about-a-sign’ i.e. a ‘meta-sign’. It is  at least one degree of abstraction removed from the ‘real’ sign and its message. (In fact it is even less than that, as it is only a contrived Photoshop 3D model of sign,  an ‘object’ which has never had existence in physical space!)

And the second question is: what might this then reveal about the mechanisms by which these objects function in their conventional human environment?