Johanna Billing’s first screening of work in Ireland was jointly programmed between the National Sculpture Factory and the Cork Film Festival. This, in itself, is indicative of Billing’s practice of collaboration that eludes any single catchment. Her staging and filming of participative situations, has –in recent years – coincided with the post-object discourses of public art, resulting in opportunities for her work to exist fluidly across cultural platforms; particularly arts institutions and initiatives that have outwardly sought direct public engagements and project-based works. Scheduled on three consecutive evenings, the programme at the National Sculpture Factory provided an introduction to her work that an exhibition as such couldn’t have done any better. In fact, there was something particularly fitting about the large screen installed on the ‘factory floor’, co-existing with the lathes, welding equipment, and other expectant apparatus of sculpture caught in the shadow light of the projector beam. Additionally, the National Sculpture Factory’s Mezzanine space –normally given over to talks, meetings, and presentations – was converted for the presentation of Billing’s work, allowing for two works to play simultaneously on each evening of the three-day programme.
It’s a Magical World (2005), shown on the first night – presents a group of young children from Zagreb, rehearsing a song written in 1968 by Sidney Barnes of the band Rotary Connection. Billing might have devised the situation and chosen the song, but the work’s participations seem relatively unenforced. There is something raw and plaintive about the children’s open and unsuspicious involvement, in fact. Sung in a language that they barely understand, their lips following the song’s enchanted lyrics (‘Why d’you want to wake me from such a beautiful dream, can’t you see that I’m sleeping… I live in a magical world…’) – the film has the makings of a metaphor for Croatia’s new sense of future and impending Westernisation. It’s a Magical World, like most of Billing’s films, is looped without pause or break that induces the film to be seen more than once, indeterminately or otherwise. This sense of circularity not only emphasises the rhythmic patterns of the situation and song (their codependency, also), but somehow encrypts the sense of time passing; the magical world that the children sing of, kept perennial.
While the collaborative nature of the work and its quasi-documentary mode is both typical of Billing’s work, It’s a Magical World is something of an exception in the participation of young children. The greater majority of Billing’s work involves the participation of an older, more independent bunch. In works such as Project for a Revolution, we see a group of students listlessly and silently sit about a large room, as if waiting for something (a revolution, perhaps?). Or, I’m Lost Without Your Rhythm, featuring a group of similarly aged dancers in an experimental choreography workshop led by the eminent Anna Vnu.
Is it a cynical mis-appropriation to make anything of the cutely spectacled and quirky-fashioned students that populate these films? Is it a travesty on the part of this writer to be recognizing the good looks hidden behind the fringes of arty middle European boys and girls? In recognizing the way that Billing’s participants assert and submit their particular individuality in the dynamic of group situations, these questions might have some validity after all. The individualities and identities that are often present in Billing’s works are the modern, dialectical type. They are the fashions of new freedoms in one sense, but also fashions learnt from another generation’s coy aesthetics of arty collectivity. Billing’s films are delicate in how they involve participation, and though the situation is orchestrated by the artist (often in conjunction with musicians and other practitioners), it comes across that the participants do more than simply participate, but actively negotiate their subjecthood.
A similar negotiation takes place in Billing’s ongoing project, You Don’t Love Me Yet. Presented as an archive of documentary materials at the National Sculpture Factory for the entire three-day programme, You Don’t Love Me Yet is a multipart project that invites local musicians in different cities to perform a cover Rocky Erickson’s 1984 song of the same name. As the title suggests, it’s song about love and its anticipations of return, which in the different versions seems to renew its particular address. The documentation of these various performances might allow us to compare styles, instrumentation, and competency between one version and the next. And yet the project is less a musical typology, and more a conduction of the subjective spirit that lives and repeats through popular music.
Perhaps doubly because of its muteness and its focus on a single individual, Where She Is At first of all seems like a very different work. In the 7 minutes 35 seconds of the film’s duration, we witness the hesitation of a young woman at the high diving tower at the Ingierstrand Baths in Oslo. The diving tower itself is one of the last remaining examples of functionalist architecture in Oslo, designed in 1934 by Ole Lind Schistad and Eyvind Mostute. As the woman wavers at the edge of the board, deliberating the jump into the water below, we could read the situation as a metaphor for the historicity of individual action, set against the collective consciousness of the public architecture and baths. Like much of Billing’s work, Where She Is At postpones the delivery of what seems imminent. Eventually and significantly, she jumps.
Johanna Billing was on view at the National Sculpture Factory, 11-13 November 2011.