Learning How to Drive a Piano features a striking and immersive presentation of two films and their accompanying albums by Johanna Billing at Kavi Gupta's Elizabeth Street space. The exhibition marks the U.S. premiere of her newest endeavor, Pulheim Jam Session, 2015, alongside I'm Lost Without Your Rhythm, 2009. These films use cinematic imagery to show the transformative capabilities of live events staged by the artist.
For both projects the Stockholm-based artist was invited to European towns and worked with local residents as untrained actors. Billing often uses music and dance as structures for communal activities-placing forms such as jazz, pop music, and postmodern dance slightly out of context. By creating these happenings and letting them unfold, the artist asks "is a place the physical locality, or is it the people within it?"1 Rooted in improvisation and spontaneity, the films possess a warm, familial tone. Group actions provide the potential for exchange, intimacy, learning, and experience.
Pulheim Jam Session is both a musical jam and a traffic jam. The artist invited locals to willingly join a traffic jam out in the countryside in Pulheim, a cluster of villages outside of Cologne, Germany, with one of the continent's largest number of cars per resident. As the film begins, the cars grind to a halt and the scene evolves into an exercise in waiting: participants snack, listen to music, read, doze, and wander. The traffic jam is interspersed with scenes from a nearby barn where Swedish musician Edda Magnason plays a grand piano draped with a tarp. Improvisation is expanded out into its essential qualities; whether a musician finding their way in an impromptu performance or a commuter temporarily waylaid, drivers and musicians create in whatever their circumstances.
Acting as a bridge between public and private, the vehicle has been explored by many filmmakers including Jacques Tati in Trafic, in the iconic traffic jam in Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend, and the dreamy traffic jam of Federico Fellini's 8½. Billing's Pulheim Jam Session and its accompanying album also act as a tribute to another piano concert that occurred in the nearby Cologne Opera House in 1975, Keith Jarrett'sThe Köln Concert. Jarrett, who drove all night beforehand, was presented with a substandard piano, yet managed to record what would become the bestselling solo album in jazz history.
In I'm Lost Without Your Rhythm, young residents in Iasi, Romania, rehearse everyday movements inspired by the choreography of Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown. Initially typing away at typewriters, the performers begin pacing and leaping in the pedestrian movements characteristic of postmodern dance. Performing across an institutional school campus in various levels of formality, the loop feels like an eternal rehearsal. By staging these actions in Romania, Billing asks if these genres are transferable or even universal. Can the ideological movements of the body provide useful ways of relating between individuals and groups in a post-totalitarian climate? I'm Lost Without Your Rhythm's soundtrack "My Heart," written by Wildbirds & Peacedrums and performed in a new arrangement made just for the film, has lyrics that provide the work's title as well as a guiding statement for both the actors and viewers:
hey cause there is so much time to kill
there's so many holes to fill with anything, something
Vinyl albums of both soundtracks will be available for sale as well as the catalog of Pulheim Jam Session, which was produced by Verlag der KHM - Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln.
Pulheim Jam Session was produced by the Cultural Department of the City of Pulheim (as part of the project series Stadtbild.Intervention) in co-operation with the Academy of Media Arts Cologne and with the kind support of the regional cultural funds of Nordrhein-Westfalen, The Ministry for Family, Children, Youth, Culture and Sport of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, The Foundation for Culture and Environment of the Kreissparkasse and nctm e l'arte.
Johanna Billing's work has been exhibited throughout the world in various group and solo exhibitions. Recent major solo exhibitions include her Keeping Time, Villa Croce, Genova, (2016); Pulheim Jam Session, Hollybush Gardens, London, (2015); I'm Gonna Live Anyhow until I Die, The Mac, Belfast (2012); I'm Lost without your Rhythm, Modern Art Oxford; Moving In, Five Films, Grazer Kunstverein, Graz, (2010); Tiny Movements, ACCA, Melbourne; I'm lost without your rhythm, Camden Art Centre (2009); Taking Turns, Kemper Museum, Kansas City; This is How We Walk On The Moon, Malmö Konsthall, Malmö (2008);Forever Changes, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel; and Keep on Doing, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee (2007). She has participated in survey shows such as 4th Auckland Triennial, Last ride in a hot balloon, Auckland (2010); Documenta 12, Kassel (2007); Singapore Biennale (2006), 9th Istanbul Biennial; 1st Moscow Biennale (2005) and 50th Venice Biennale (2003). Johanna also runs the record label Make it Happen with her brother Anders. She attended Konstfack, International College of Arts, Crafts and Design, in Stockholm, where she has lived and worked since graduating in 1999.