Johanna Billing’s Each Moment Presents What Happens, 2022 is a collaborative project that reimagines Untitled Event (Theatre piece number 1, 1952) by John Cage – the first known happening or multimedia art work held in Black Mountain College, USA. The film captures students mostly from Bristol Grammar School, UK engaging in an experimental, improvisational and multidisciplinary process open to failure, exchange, and imagination.
The film was commissioned by Bristol Grammar School to commemorate the opening of the 1532 Performing Arts Centre, and to create a bridge between the schools separate artistic departments, the new theatre and wider audiences. In the film, the new centre is seen in the context of the historic building facades, its grounds and great hall. Testing the differences between educational systems, as well as what qualifies as knowledge, the project creates a dialogue between the School, founded in 1532, now selective, independent and fee paying and the defunct Black Mountain College, founded in 1933 specialising in liberal arts education. The Untitled Event was originally held in the dining hall of Black Mountain College and although Cage arranged time slots, the event was primarily informed by chance with activities taking place simultaneously. The event featured dance, painting, music, film, live readings and performance created by Merce Cunningham, Franz Kline, David Tudor, Robert Rauschenberg, Nicolas Cernovtich, MC Richards, Charles Olsson and John Cage.
In lieu of photographic or video documentation, the original happening lives on today through imprecise memories, audience testimonies and recollections. These contradictory memories, gaps in historical revision and the anonymity of Cage’s content serve as a proposal from which the students project, create and imagine. Experimenting across disciplines, the project encourages a practical and poetic approach to learning, which challenges the values of failure and success, process and outcome. Collectively, the students were invited to imagine what could have taken place around, before, during and after this event through dance, music, theatre, poetry, painting, philosophy, photography, dj-ing and film production. The project thus encourages a means of thinking the past through the personal, coincidental and relational. The work’s title directly quotes Cage’s Lecture on Nothing, 1959, which becomes a poignant motif throughout the film. The performers recite this titular lecture as well as Cage’s Lecture on Something, 1951 alongside poems written themselves. By revisiting Cage’s historical texts, the performers consider the meaning of improvisation, success, authorship and artistic autonomy in relation to everyday experience and chance events.
The work features a reconsideration of Cage’s Prepared Piano Pieces, 1938-1954. The act of preparation was designed to contort the instrument’s sound by inserting bolts, screws, erasers and other objects between the piano strings. In this Cage sought ‘to place in the hands of a single pianist the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra’, the prepared piano serving as a precursor to his later experiments with chance. In the film, participants collect material across departments, inserting a myriad of objects such as: toys, art utensils, cutlery, science equipment and office stationary. Notably, Cage’s Prepared Piano Pieces had been removed from the A Level music syllabus as the work’s ambivalent status challenged conventional academic assessment. The revival of this exercise, however, encourages the instrument to function as a site of collective ownership in a cross-disciplinary creation. By disrupting the piano’s configuration, participants relate to and interact with the object anew.
Formally, Each Moment Presents What Happens, is distinguished by its attentive negotiation of time. Taking place over a single day, the work’s sensitivity to the passing and structuring of time is redoubled by a self-reflexive approach to the camera. In the film, students are recorded preparing work, speaking publicly in the dining hall, and playing the piano, all as parallel performances embedded within the reality of the school day. Correlational performances occur within the black box theatre, recorded by a camera installed upon a track in a 360 degree formation. The lens observes the students’ action and supporting film crew in a circular orbit. This recording structure relates to Cage’s original event in which performers framed the audience, themselves seated centrally and facing outward – each viewer observing different systematised activity. The camera functions as both participant and structuring device, offering a viewpoint in the round which acknowledges parallel and peripheral action. In this way, the camera becomes comparable to a clock face or timepiece. Collectively, the students interchange their handling of the camera, allowing the speed of recording to be determined by the body. In permitting a different activity to enter after a number of rotations, the camera becomes an imperfect device to organise time. By physically relating to the camera’s movements in space, the performer’s become conscious of ‘keeping time’ only through a dynamic estimation and felt sense of its very passing. The project deconstructs the conception of recorded time as simply a line, limit or mark, the circularity becomes symbolic and encourages a thinking of time as a gyre, unsteady and oscillatory.
Commissioned by Bristol Grammar School to commemorate the opening of the 1532 Performing Arts Centre. Produced by Josephine Lanyon in association with Bristol City Council. Supported by the University of the West of England.
In Purple, 2019 is a public art commission that originated from the activities of the Mix Dancers Academy: a group of self-organised women and girls who for 12 years have run a hip-hop/afro and dancehall group and accompanying dance school. The group is based in Råslätt, a suburb of Jönköping in central Sweden. This area is notable for its concrete block buildings that were part of the ambitious public housing programme, known as the Million Programme, and were constructed during 1967–72 by the architect Lars Stalin. Råslätt was built around a centre, comprised of schools, sport fields, a church and other public venues. This concentric urban design was informed by the then radical thinking around the function and needs of neighbourhoods. Much like other estates of the time, a vast majority of outdoor spaces have predominantly favoured male activity and presence. Billing’s work strives to highlight the lack of foresight in designing more inclusive spaces for diverse representation and participation in sport facilities, leisure activities and cultural expression. The input of the target group for whom the sporting arenas were sketched into life were never taken into account in the original urban plans during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Today, Mix Dancers are powerful members and role models of their community, providing hundreds of children with dance lessons. The school runs on a voluntary basis from a rented basement, praised by the local media and politicians who cite the group as an imitable example of a self-governing initiative.
Pulheim Jam Session, 2015 investigates notions of locality, the logic of staging and participation. A car jam and a jamming session are two distinct kinds of activities yet in Billing’s film their respective freedoms and constraints are explored simultaneously. In its first iteration, Pulheim Jam Session took place as a participatory act within the confines of Stadtbild-Intervention: an outdoors project supported by the city of Pulheim established in 1998. Billing’s intervention consisted of more than 60 cars carrying over 100 people from the Pulheim region of Germany. A staged procession marking the short commuting distance to Cologne constructed a traffic jam in a countryside area. During the ‘70s, Pulheim’s 12 constituting villages were brought together and amalgamated into a single municipality, a constructed city that today largely consists of rural in-between spaces. According to local statistics the city is affected by a very high car dependency among the residents averaging at 2.7 cars per household.
With a similar organisational structure of a music festival, involving a Red Cross safety van, outdoor toilets and volunteers in yellow jackets, the traffic jam here turns into something opposing the frustrating incident it usually is: a pause, a hiatus, a temporary stop in time. Set by an industrial backdrop of rising plumes from consumption of fossil fuel, punctuated by wind turbines and surrounded by fields of corn and turnip, the film shows people spontaneously loitering: eating fruit, doing crosswords, playing with their dogs in the fields and simply talking. In parallel to the car jam, in a nearby barn, the Swedish musician Edda Magnason is improvising on a grand piano. Forty years earlier, on 24 January 1975, in Cologne, in the same year as Pulheim’s reform, the American pianist Keith Jarrett held a live improvised concert in Cologne Opera House: the now-famous Köln Concert. The film aims to fuse the history of these two seemingly unrelated events by virtue of their geography and by individual’s melodic memory and experience of the area. For Billing, with her sociological interest in the phenomenon of the traffic jam and the intertwining of private and public space, these connections as well as the idea of a music record serve as aides-mémoires: a time-space constructed between document, memory and repetition. Throughout the film, Magnason’s improvised piano performance emerges as a ‘soundtrack’ generated from within the film itself, guiding the editing structure and rhythm of the work.
Set to a whistling violin soundtrack of improvisations inspired by the ‘70s experimental musician Franco Battiato, Billing’s video follows a group of Italian children roaming the streets of Rome, seemingly free to do what they like, having left their parents behind at Al Biondo Tevere (the restaurant where Pier Paolo Pasolini had his last meal before he died). After running through the park of the Roman Aqueduct, a courtyard in the 1930s working class district of Testaccio and Ostia’s Seadrome, the children finally arrive in an empty school in the centre of Rome, where time seems to have ceased. In a classroom that has been turned into storage, they start to play around with troves of outdated educational tools and equipment in an attempt to understand what to do with them. Little by little, each child begins to compose black blots on sheets of drawing paper folded in half, creating blots that resemble those of the Rorschach test. Influenced by her time in Rome during the protests against university reforms in 2010, Billing’s work queries the future of the younger generation and the undermining of the education system by the harmful politics of populism. Elsewhere, the work alludes to psychoanalysis, to Pasolini and his thoughts on Italy’s social and cultural changes. Billing’s film mines Italian history of progressive pedagogy, conducted by leading figures such as Bruno Munari with his tactile workshops for kids. The work foregrounds the early tradition of Italian filmmakers who, in their biographical films about the ‘40s and ‘50s, captured the freedom of children exploring their city as a way to reflect upon historical and societal changes.
I’m Lost Without Your Rhythm, 2009 documents a choreography workshop involving amateur Romanian dancers and acting students at the Periferic 8 Biennial of Contemporary Art in Iasi, Romania in 2008. Led by renowned Swedish choreographer Anna Vnuk, the movement of bodies do not coalesce into a singular performance. Rather, the itinerant dance is weaved by Billing’s film into several days’ activity and continuous process of live improvisation between the choreographer, dancers and local musicians—observed by a sporadic flow of onlookers. The project guides the participating individuals and the audience to explore contemporary choreography and its significance within the cultural context of a small city such as Iasi where there are few opportunities to enter the field of contemporary dance. With a nod to the work of choreographers such as Yvonne Rainer and her explorations of everyday movements, Billing’s film investigates individual subjectivity and how one might perform being. Paying tender attention to minute details, the work centres the mind on the social body—the body among others, the body aware of itself. The work’s soundtrack combines percussive elements of improvised, live music performed at the Biennial in Iasi as well as a version of the song ‘My Heart’ (originally written and performed by the Swedish drum and vocal duo ‘Wildbirds and Peacedrums’ in 2009). The dancers’ movements, the activities taking place around them and the rhythm of the music are reconstituted into a new kind of choreography: motions that are akin to the everyday struggle and the labour in overcoming institutional obstacles.
Look Out!, 2003 takes as its starting point the rapid transformation of East London as a result of gentrification. The film features a prominent film studio turned luxury apartment building—Gainsborough Studios—during the autumn of 2003. An estate agent shows an incongruous bunch of youngsters around a new luxury development, starkly contrasted by frames of old council housing and dilapidated public spaces which come into view.
Set against the backdrop of singing cicadas and barking dogs, Another Album, 2006 takes place from dusk-to-dawn on the Krapanj island off the coast of Croatia. The film is a staging—and an album recording—of a group of students and musicians who appear as part of a regular gathering. They play and sing songs from the Novi Val (New Wave) music era of the 1970s and 1980s of former Yugoslavia. What at first glance appears to be a nostalgic activity soon becomes solemn in tone upon closer inspection of the liner notes on view. The writings detail the origins of the songs which the group recite on film. Personal interpretations, trivial discography facts of the various bands, and the players’ vocations all converge to reveal the vestiges of a historic musical period. The film hearkens back to a music scene which, due to the outbreak of the Yugoslav Wars and the subsequent dwindling of the pan-Yugoslav market, was suddenly put on hold and to this day has not yet recovered. Billing’s record of this microcosm captures the aspirations of a generation who turn to music to navigate the social implications of a vibrant network decimated by the advent of war in 1991.
In the video This Is How We Walk on the Moon, 2007 a group of local musicians learn to sail in the Firth of Forth, off the coast of Edinburgh, Scotland. Set to the 1980s song of the same title by the late experimental musician Arthur Russell, Billing’s video explores the romanticism of the sea and the novice seafarers’ first steps into uncharted territory.
A nostalgic convergence shapes the dialectics of the individual versus the collective in Billing’s film You Don’t Love Me Yet, 2003. The film shows a group of Swedish musicians producing a cover of the work’s titular song by Texan singer-songwriter Roky Erickson. The project also featured an ongoing live tour from 2002 to 2013 where local musicians in various cities were invited to cover the same record. As a result, a polyphony of personal styles emerges from each participant’s unique interpretation. The film and archived records of the tour scrutinise notions such as originality and artistic integrity.
Magical World takes place over a summer’s day in 2005 at an after-school community centre in Dubrava, a suburb of Zagreb. A group of children and musicians recite a cover of the song ‘Magical World’ (written by Sidney Barnes), originally produced by the American psychedelic soul band Rotary Connection. Active during the social upheavals and the civil rights movements of the 1960s, the work of Rotary Connection reflected a desire for change without articulating an explicit politics. The film juxtaposes the historical context of this song with the prospect of a new generation growing up in a relatively young country, faced with the daunting demands of a capitalist future as a new member state within Europe. The children, who are all born after the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s, deliver both a haunting and hopeful rendition of the song with reservation and pride. A young Croatian boy sings the first verses, enigmatic and defiant tone: ‘Why do you want to wake me from such a beautiful dream? Can’t you see that I am sleeping? We live in a Magical World…’. The recording shifts on occasion from the interior setting of the music rehearsal to exterior views of its surroundings, where Billing captures the time-worn location of the cultural centre, constructed in the ‘80s yet left incomplete. This architectural environment mirrors a community still recovering from the break-up of former Yugoslavia.
Where She Is At, 2001 chronicles the fate of a seafront leisure centre near Oslo, Norway and its local inhabitants. One of the few remaining examples of functionalist architecture in Oslo, the open air centre was built during the 1930s by Ole Lind Schistad and Eyvind Mostue. After years of neglect in 2001, an order of demolition threatened the centre’s survival in contrast to the building’s original ethos incentivised by health and well-being ideals of its time. Enhanced by its looped presentation, the narrative of the film centres on an ambivalent young woman who ponders the fearsome prospect of jumping off a high diving board. The camera’s altering viewpoints probe notions of public and private space while the woman’s inner struggle and hesitation is foregrounded by the minimal reaction from lounging sunbathers.
In Magic & Loss, 2005 a group of workers pack and remove the furnishings of a seemingly unoccupied apartment. Using narrative reduction and documentary precision, Billing’s film constructs a choreography of the methodical movements employed in hoisting and pulleying the apartment’s furniture out to the familiar streetscape of Amsterdam. Referencing an album by Lou Reed of the same title, the film adopts similar themes of loss and death to question dwelling conditions among an increasingly anonymous society.
Made in Stockholm in the beginning of 2000, Project For a Revolution opens with a view of a photocopier producing a pile of white pages while a group of students silently congregate in a classroom—avoiding eye contact and wary of snatched glances. Billing’s film is made in reference to the introductory sequence of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film ‘Zabriskie Point’ (1969) which shows revolutionary debate among students and a call to arms in a university. With this reference in mind, the artist stages a comparison between the history of opposition to military violence in the United States during the Vietnam war and the ‘safe haven’ of the Scandinavian welfare state of the late 1990s. This contrast is compounded by an additional difference, the experience between two interior educational settings: one rampant with protest and violence, the other secure and welcoming to international students; one consumed by arguments, accusations and reconciliations, the other saturated with lethargic, consensual silence.
Missing Out, 2001 begins with a bird’s-eye view of individuals lying down across a floor in an irregular formation. The space is idle and devoid of any discernible activity. What may first appear to be a fashion editorial photoshoot is in fact a staging of a collective breathing exercise. Billing’s film draws inspiration from a childhood memory of a group relaxation activity commonly performed in schools and kindergartens across Sweden in the 1970s. The work questions the implied permanency of learning as a child with the process of re-learning as an adult. The notion of performance as a staged event and the pressure to achieve is closely scrutinised. Missing Out is permeated by the perpetual anxiety of the need to perform and participate.
For her graduation project, Billing invited her fellow graduating students from various disciplines at Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design, to take dance lessons during the spring of 1999 together with the choreographer Anna Vnuk. In the final film that deals with learning and becoming, the pedagogical aura of the art school is pitched against the more rapaciously aspirant desire witnessed at a talent show. Students hastily run through corridors and staircases from their respective departments to the art school’s auditorium to perform a rehearsed dance routine to the soundtrack ‘Moody’, 1981, by ESG.
Johanna Billing: Each Moment Presents What Happens
Whitechapel Gallery, London, UK
11 October 2023 – 14 January 2024
Johanna Billing: Momentum 10, Nordic Biennial of Contemporary Art
8 June – 9 October 2019
EXHIBITIONS AT HOLLYBUSH GARDENS
Johanna Billing: Each Moment Presents What Happens
Review by Robert Barry, The Wire, Issue 478, December 2023
Johanna Billing: Each Moment Presents What Happens
Review by Adam Heardman, Art Monthly, Issue 466, May 2023
Purplewashing: Claiming Ambiguous Space in Johanna Billing’s In Purple
Essay by Chris Fite-Wassilak, Afterall Art School, July 2020
The artist has the word: Johanna Billing about Råslätt
Interview by Elias Arvidsson, Statens Konstråd, 2019
Jamming in Traffic and Other Orchestrated Scenarios
By Mark Sheerin, Hyperallergic, 25 August 2016
Keeping Time At Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Villa Croce
Review by Kristian Skylstad, Kunstkritik, June 2016
Keeping Time with Johanna Billing
Interview by Giovanna Repetto, ATPdiary, 26 April 2016
Pulheim Jam Session
Review by Louise Darblay, ArtReview, May 2015
Review by Robert Barry, Frieze, No. 172, June-August 2015
Review by Freire Barnes, TimeOut, 8 April 2015
Review by Michael Wilson, Artforum, Vol. 48 No. 3, November 2009
Feature by Philipp Kaiser, Parkett, No. 76, 2006
Johanna Billing (b. 1973, Jönköping, Sweden; lives and works in Stockholm) has been making video works since 1999 that weave together music, movement, and rhythm. Solo exhibitions include Each Moment Presents What Happens, Whitechapel Gallery, London; Hollybush Gardens, London (both 2023); In Purple, Kalmar konstmuseum, Kalmar, Sweden; Each Moment Presents What Happens, Jan Mot, Brussels (both 2022); In Purple, Riksidrottsmuseet, Stockholm (2021); In Purple, Hollybush Gardens, London (2020); In Purple, Stadsbiblioteket, Jönköping, (2019); 15 Years of You Don’t Love Me Yet, Teatro Garibaldi/Galeria Laveronica, Modica, (2018); I’m Lost Without Your Rhythm, Trondheim Kunst-museum, (2017); Keeping Time, Villa Croce, Genoa (2016); I’m Gonna Live Anyhow Until I Die, the MAC, Belfast (2012); I’m Lost Without Your Rhythm, Modern Art Oxford (2010); Moving In, Five Films, Grazer Kunstverein, Graz (2010); Tiny Movements, ACCA, Melbourne (2009); I’m Lost without Your Rhythm, Camden Art Centre, London (2009); Taking Turns, Kemper Museum, Kansas City (2008); This Is How We Walk on the Moon, Malmö Konsthall (2008); Forever Changes, Kunstmuseum Basel (2007); Keep on Doing, Dundee Contemporary Arts (2007); and Magical World, PS. 1, New York (2006).
She has participated in significant group exhibitions internationally, including World Classroom, Contemporary Art through School Subjects, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2023); Controra Ep. V, curated by Like A Little Disaster, Palazzo San Giuseppe, Polignano a Mare; Çanakkale Biennial (all 2022); Seoul Mediacity Biennale (2021); MOMENTUM 10, 10th Nordic Biennial of Contemporary Art, Moss (2019); It’s Time To Dance Now, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2010); 4th Auckland Triennial, (2010); Documenta 12, Kassel (2007); Singapore Biennale (2006); 9th Istanbul Biennial (2005); 1st Moscow Biennale (2005); and 50th Venice Biennale (2003).
Her work is held in numerous museum and public collections, including MOCA, Los Angeles, United States; Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden; Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, United States; Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo, Seville, Spain; Malmö Konstmuseum, Sweden; Jönköpings Museum, Sweden; The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel; FRAC Bourgogne, FR; SMAK, Ghent, Belgium; Sørlandets Kunstmuseum, Kristiansand, Norway; Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands; Julia Stoschek Collection, Dusseldorf, Germany; Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita, United States; Museum Sztuki, Łodz, Poland; and Museum Współczesne, Wrocław, Poland.