artbeat (2006-03)

Video artist Johanna Billing eavesdrops on Knoxville and the world

“When I started making video I never looked back because it’s so powerful,” says Billing.

Where She is At

by Ellen Mallernee

A man dims the lights as Johanna Billing settles onto a bench. She looks up at Where she is at , the seven-minute film that runs on the white wall before her. With skinny jeans wedged into a pair of boots, the diminutive Billing looks younger than her 32 years; her hands are tiny paws, the ends of her hair tucked into her jacket. Her Swedish accent trips through the American language, which she speaks softly.

Billing has spent little time in the States. Though she’s screened her reels in some highbrow New York and Chicago galleries, it is the KMA show SubUrban: Johanna Billing that steered her first foray into the South, or to any modest American city. (SubUrban is the museum’s contemporary art series.) Last week, Billing stayed in town for five days while preparing the opening of her exhibit at the Knoxville Museum of Art. By day she taught a video art class at West High School, and ate, wisely, at restaurants like The Sunspot, Nama and Tomato Head. Nights she slept in the new Cumberland House Hotel, which she called “fantastic.” Wherever she is, and she’s shown her work in several countries, Billing eavesdrops on its citizens with painstaking attention. Despite her limited exposure to this area of the country, she volunteers that if she were to make a film here, she’s already selected its subject matter.

“What I’ve been really fascinated is to hear as many people from different places in Knoxville talking about the same thing,” she says, that thing being the demolition of a plethora of historic buildings. “I find it sort of scary when you’re moving too fast and you’re not paying attention to what’s come before,” she says. The volume of traffic in Knoxville has also struck her: “Maybe I’d also be interested in doing something with cars. Everything is about traveling in the car.”

By documenting quotidian moments, Billing’s films make a quiet comment about the priorities of society and politics, about the intricacies of human interaction. Where she is at gapes up at a bikini-clad girl on a high diving platform in Oslo, Norway. Wordlessly, the film chronicles the female protagonist’s minutes-long internal wrestling match. As she debates whether or not to jump, she paces the length of the board, at one point resigning herself, even, to a sitting position. Onlookers shield the sun from their eyes and look up at her, she becomes a spectacle, birds squawk. As with most of her subjects, Billing got the idea for the film—which she staged in 2001—from a similar moment in her own life. “I was there that summer,” she says. “I witnessed this woman just standing there, and what I was fascinated by was everybody, including myself, we were almost irritated that she wasn’t jumping. At the same time nobody else dared to go because it was really, really high.”

Billing laughs shyly and says, “And I also kind of fell quite in love with her because I felt I should also be the one ready to throw myself from the highest vessel.”

The film runs in a loop because, Billing says, she wants to undermine the girl’s ultimate decision to jump. “It shows that you’re never finished,” she says. “It’s not like, ‘Oh how good, now you’ve done it.’” Her other film at KMA, Magic & Loss , which borrowed its title from a Lou Reed album of the same title, also runs in a loop, though more seamlessly than Where she is at. As Reed’s album corners death to better pick apart at its effects on those left behind, so does Billing’s film, which runs roughly 17 minutes. In it, a group of people who don’t speak pack up a small apartment with no perceptible sentiment. Billing got the idea for the film following the 10th anniversary of the sinking of the M/S Estonia, which claimed 852 lives. “I started to think about how in an immense accident there are whole families taken away at the same time, and other people, strangers, would come to take down your stuff,” she says.

Billing imagined a dispassionate group, packing things mechanically. In Magic & Loss , a solemn, simple music swells as the anonymous packers lower heavy furniture out of the window and onto the sidewalk with a pulley, like lowering a casket into the earth.

Gifted with sensitivity, Billing finds it easier, and occasionally more awkward, to stay tuned to those around her. Her KMA exhibit, which won the museum its first National Endowment for the Arts grant, required that the artist work with teenagers at a local high school. “You go into the high school and you get the memories from your own education, and it’s like more nervous to talk to this group class than to maybe stand here and talk about my work,” she says. “But it’s really nice because they’re quite young and interested in thinking about film and photography.”

Cars and tumbling buildings aside, this, perhaps, would make a more flattering subject for Johanna Billing’s hypothetical film about Knoxville.

What: SubUrban: Johanna Billing