The Swedish artist Johanna Billing (born 1973) represents the approach to contemporary art which assumes that the final “work” – in this case, few minutes long videos – are merely a part of a real social process which should be triggered by art. For the needs of her works, In preparing the films, carefully deciding on the context and setting, Billing constructs peculiar micro-societies (group of friends, musicians or children attending workshops in a culture center) united by the common goal set by the artist (a sea cruise, a furniture removal, a group song recording). Thus, her works hover between the documentary and fiction, and, at the same time, depict common undertakings as a metaphor of more general social and political processes. “Everything is about a society that is changing and people in it”- comments the artist.
The world constructed in Billing’s films is full of widely known contemporary dilemmas. There is no doubt that her work can be seen as a peculiar (almost entirely devoid of spoken language) “voice of her generation” – the first generation born after the 1968 revolution which reached maturity after 1989. In a simple way, rather recording the ongoing process than creating new narratives, the artist touches upon such issues as participation, community feeling, one’s engagement in group undertakings, or its lack, manifesting itself in passive stance, silent resistance and indecision.
The private confronted with the collective, seen as a characteristic microcosm of social life, is a recurring motif in her works. The turn towards the private and individual is an attempt to look for authentic emotions which could serve to break the deadlock, the stagnation which extinguishing all impulses of social activism. The characters featured in Billing’s films (shot in Scandinavia, Holland, Great Britain or former Yugoslavia) are predominantly young people, 20- or 30-year-olds, wearing similar clothes – the contemporary European youth international. On the one hand those people are eager to engage in group activities or spending time together, on the other hand however, they seem to be convinced that all “important decisions” are made somewhere else, and the “grand history” has already come to an end. Such is the case in “Another Album” (2006), where a group of Croatian youth spends a night together singing cold wave Yugoslavian songs form the 1980’s. Played in loop, and thus lacking a clearly marked end and beginning, Billing’s films bear a timeless quality, where subsequent actions are repeated without any conclusion, following their own, unhurried pace and avoiding simple closing or finale. Soundtrack becomes the key aspect of her videos – almost entirely devoid of dialogues, ranging from the mere ambient noise to works completely filled with music, in which it functions not only to construct the dramatic narrative, but also becomes a meaningful element of even a leading motif. Such is the case with the “Magical World”, where we witness a group of children from a culture center in Zagreb singing the title song composed in the 1960s by an Afro-American singer Sidney Barnes. Music, in Billing’s works, appears to be a very particular activity which generates group experience. The artist herself is a founder of an independent Stockholm-based record label named Make it Happen.
However, the exhibition “Silent Running” organized in Raster features three video works entirely devoid of both music and dialogues. This peculiar image of an emotionless, “silent generation” is accompanied by a sound recording from the “You Don’t Love Me Yet” project – a series of several dozen performances of the same piece by musicians from various European and American cities.
Over the last two years Johanna Billing’s works have been presented at a number of international exhibitions, such as the Istanbul Biennial (2005), P.S.1, New York (2006), Museum fuer Gegenwartskunst, Basel (2007) or this year’s Documenta 12, Kassel. The artist works with the Hollybush Gardens gallery in London.