x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Individual in the collective

Johanna Billing's films document partially choreographed events, with groups of young people congregating in a half-manipulated, half-spontaneous project.

Johanna Billing's films document partially choreographed events, with groups of young people congregating in a half-manipulated, half-spontaneous project. The dissemination of ideas becomes secondary to the communality of the setting, as her work focuses on collective response and shared experience. It's fitting, then, that the title piece of her exhibition entitled I'm Lost Without Your Rhythm at London's Camden Arts Centre was created as part of the 3 Series of new commissions, a collaboration among Camden Arts Centre, Arnolfini and Modern Art Oxford to bring three artists to three venues in three years.

And it comes as little surprise that the Swedish artist, who runs a record label with her brother, underscores her work with music. Cover versions of forgotten songs toy with notions of reception and originality and provide an interesting parallel to the art world's obsession with novelty and creation. Elsewhere, upbeat pop songs are juxtaposed against greying environments, providing a strangely arresting spectacle and casting new light on the imagery employed and the lives of the participants.

These subjects are given the dual roles of actor and spectator. Billing's lens travels between the individual and collective, enabling her to subtly point to a face in a crowd, a split-second reaction, a member of the collective that is both interior and anterior to their activities. This double focus is helped by the prominence of music and dance in her films, which allows for defined periods of participation and exclusion. Within these moments, Billing's audience is made aware of the fragility and vulnerability of the individual performer.

In the film I'm Lost Without Your Rhythm, amateur Romanian dancers improvise to some local musicians' performance of My Heart by the Swedish duo Wildbirds and Peacedrums. The film possesses a casual, dynamic cuteness, but this seemingly trivial sense belies an underlying concern with the challenges of location and the identity crisis that post-Eastern-bloc countries face. Geographical insecurity transforms into increasingly acute spatial uncertainty in Where She Is At, filmed at Ingierstrand Bath in Oslo, Norway. Once popular, the baths are now run down and abandoned, an architectural altar to a changing city. Billing explores the environment dialectically, using the tension between flowing and stagnant water to drive the narrative forward. As the film's protagonist stands rooted, static, but poised for action, the viewer is left wondering if she will jump.

The palpable anxiety experienced in the run-up to this cliffhanging moment is central to Billing's project. Her concern is not just with the final product but the process of its realisation. The creative journey to a polished, completed "end" that a conditioned audience might then recognise as "art" becomes an important element of the work, so that her notion of performance extends beyond the boundaries of conventual cinema. Billing neglects the cutting-room floor in favour of a more honest and lengthier edit.

This process is reflective of Billing's commitment to artistic democracy. Working closely with groups of dancers, performers and musicians, she is given backstage access to a world of rehearsal, ritual and routine. The participatory nature of her work enables her subjects to function in an open, flexible way. Wholly interactive, Billing's work is less voyeuristic and more social commentary. Without being asked, her subjects tell her a little of their lives through performance and include the spectator in their narrative. In tracing their stories, we become another individual in the collective, indulging in private experience in a public setting.