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Interview with Johanna Billing by Angela Serino 18 September 2005, Istanbul

AS: Here at the Istanbul Biennial you present two video works, "Magical World", which shows a Croatian children's choir singing the American song by Sidney Barnes and "Magic & Loss", in which a group of people pack up the contents of a house in Amsterdam. Do these actions take place in real contexts or fictional sets?

JB: I would say that it's a mix of both. In general I always arrange situations that are real, in which I invite people to participate. They are present as themselves and, at the same time, they are all somehow acting. The scene shot in "Magic & Loss", for example, is a real event. Somebody was moving out for real and we were documenting the actual event. But then I also set up the situation. I invited a group of people to take part in this action, where none of them knew the space before, nor whom the house belonged to. In this specific work, I was interested in engaging with the particular situation when somebody dies and you have to pack everything away. Quite often, an individual can be so isolated that they don't have friends, or people who will come to help. So eventually somebody else comes, and the activity has more to do with a job than really participating in the loss. In this case I was interested in capturing what happens among the people involved in this specific situation. The act of packing up the belongings of somebody who has died, with whom you have no relation, is an action that happens without emotions and without nostalgic feelings. It has its own peculiar identity, and I was interested in capturing just that moment, that feeling.

AS: And in the case of "Magical World"?

JB: In the case of "Magical World" we were filming a real event (those children were really singing) so the scenario is real, but at the same time, through the editing I recreated a kind of fiction, something totally different.

AS: I really enjoy the montage of this video. Through the combination of the images I could read your personal narration, so strong and at the same time so subtle...

JB: That's nice, and I think it is important. It is important that you see that there is a kind of 'fiction' in it. That there is a 'recreated situation' ­ seen in this case not only through the editing, but also by asking these children to sing Sidney Barnes' "Magic World". I don't want to give the feeling, in fact, that I entered the place and that I just filmed what was happening inside. I feel the need to make some kind of 'fictional frame' around my works and to give them some...

AS: Some signifiers that could help convey that you are on the edge between a fictional story and a narration of a real event?

JB: Yes.

AS: And what is this 'fictional note' in "Magic & Los"? Watching this film I had more the impression that the people were asked to be there. In particular, I found that one of the protagonists was really overacting. The expression on the face of the girl suggested a kind of interpretation of what was going on in the flat. And at the same time the camera seemed to focus on her. Is this the fictional element you are talking about?

JB: Yes. In my films I always have somebody that I follow a bit more, a character that I like to stress more. In "Magic & Loss" it is the girl that enters the house last. I wanted people to see the space and experience the situation through the eyes of this person.

AS: What is the origin of your research on fiction and reality, and, in particular, your close attention to body language?

JB: It is very simple. In all my projects I usually choose to represent interior space, in which a group of people is gathered. I set up such contexts because I'm always interested in portraying very concentrated situations. Such contexts have a particular atmosphere that is about tension among people. Sometimes I feel that there is so much captured inside people. I would say that my work has to do with capturing some lost emotions with which you donąt have contact anymore. I think it is very much related to hidden things that we forget, or that we donąt let out. And maybe this is also something very much related to the Swedish culture I belong to.

AS: Do people that you involve in your project act according to your instructions or are they 'free' to improvise?

JB: "Magic & loss" is quite different because there you have a kind of narration. The scene opens with people starting to pack and ends with the complete removal of furniture and objects from the house. However, here again I didn't tell these people to act, because they are not actors. I just wanted (and asked) them to be themselves. In other films, I shoot existing situations. In "Magical World", for example, the child protagonists are regular students of the school and they usually have music classes. I didn't ask them to do something extraordinary, except sing a specific song. In all my films I portray people partaking in simple actions. And this happen by asking people to come and play in situations that are related to them, but that still are different because of a few details. I do ask people, in fact, to make specific actions, actions that are not usual for them. I set up situations in which people come and have to think by themselves about how they can do what they have been asked to do. In the music project "You donąt love me yet", (a music project and a video made in 2003), I gathered musicians from Stockholm, and I asked them to play this song together. They were not used to playing together, nor had they ever played "You donąt love me yet" before.

AS: What is the role of music in your work? In "Magical world" it is clearly not only an element that affects the editing of the movie, but it also adds another level to the work. Why do you usually use pop-music in your films?

JB: In Sweden I have a parallel project, "Make it happen", that is a record label that I run together with my brother. For many years I've been working arranging concerts and other stuff around music. I want to make films that you feel with your body, and have the same feeling as when listening to music. Music is so physical. I consider it more powerful than art in a way, because it can really change things in your life. You feel it in your heart, in your system. Sometimes when you deal with art you have to think or read. Art can be less immediate. With music you don't need to read, you can just have an emotional experience. (It is interesting if you can read more and add more levels to the work, but it should just start as a feeling in your stomach). In my works everything is related to music, but in a broader sense. It is not like I'm relating to popular culture, as people often think or ask me, it is more that music is a part of my everydaylife, and I try to make art that it is as close as possible to my life. I want to make art that my friends who don't usually go to museums or art exhibitions can relate to. And I think that music and songs really help in this sense. Beside that, for me the editing of the images is such a musical thing. Even if the film is silent, the editing always deals with rhythm, and that means sound.

AS: Do you have a personal relationship with people involved in your projects? How do you choose the protagonists of your works?

JB: It varies. In my previous films about Stockholm, most of the protagonists were my friends whom I asked to do something unusual. In other projects, like for example the projects in Croatia ("Magical World") and in Amsterdam ("Magic & Loss"), it was quite different. The girl protagonist in "Magic and Loss" was a friend of mine from Sweden. In this case, I was working in a completely new context, and I wanted someone who knew about me and my projects, and with whom I had a close relationship on a personal and even physical level. (We live in the same building in Stockholm so we know each other, have a lot of discussions, and also know perfectly how to place a glass and things like that. I didnąt need to explain anything). And also, she has experienced for real what I was trying to portray in the film, ­ the loss of people to whom you are close. I wanted someone that didnąt need any explanation, because I really had no control over the situation. I imagine that if you look at my films you might think that the protagonists are cast, but it is often just the opposite. I invite everyone I think can be close to my research-theme to participate.

AS: You told me before that you see these two videos as parallel projects, they complement each other. In which sense? Could you explain this more?

JB: In a way these two works are different and separate, but if you consider my previous videos then you will notice that some projects, like "You donąt love me yet"(2003), or "Graduate Show"(1999) are very close to "Magical World". Others, like "Look Out!"(2003), "Missing Out"(2001) and "Project for a revolution"(2000), are very similar to "Magic & Loss". The first group of works are more into music, and they are more Śwarmą or direct for some people. The second group's works take more time and can look in a way more seriously, or better differently.

AS: Do you mean that when they are silent, they might ask viewers for more concentration, while when they have music, they are easier to follow?

JB: Yes, I do mean that. And here at Istanbul Biennial I'm very happy that I can present both works. I feel that in this way I'm well represented: this is what I am, how I work. They are both sides of me.

AS: If you could create one of your 'fictional' sets here in Turkey, what would you focus on? Which detail?

JB: Here I'm fascinated by the fact that everybody is constantly working on something: renovating buildings, transporting objects and materials. And you don't even know if it will ever be finished! It is just continual work. This is a striking contrast with the Swedish rhythm. I can imagine this is something I would work on.

Angela Serino