BY Robert Barry in Reviews | 28 MAY 15
Featured in
Issue 172

Johanna Billing

Hollybush Gardens, London, UK

BY Robert Barry in Reviews | 28 MAY 15

Johanna Billing, poster for Pulheim Jam Session, 2015

We see the clapperboard: ‘Scene one, take one’. It’s the only indication the film gives that we are at the start of the loop. No curtain, no credits, no black screen, no closure. Johanna Billing’s Pulheim Jam Session (2015), on show for the first time at Hollybush Gardens, deals with a different experience of time to that found in classical Hollywood narratives.

A young woman (the Swedish singer-songwriter Edda Magnason), casually dressed in plaid shirt and trainers, sits down at a Bechstein grand piano and begins to play in sweeping, flowing gestures of pealing arpeggios, breaking off now and then to take stock and find a new path. We know she is improvising because we see someone carry off her music stand. When a second board is clapped the pianist carries on playing, oblivious. Clearly she is in the midst of what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed ‘flow’: a state of complete involvement in an activity. But this second clap declares something else: not that the action is beginning but, rather, that we are entering a particular space, a kind of zone.

Prosaically, that space, the site of Magnason’s performance, is Pulheim, a semi-rural municipality formed from several small villages within commuting distance of Cologne, in western Germany’s industrial heartlands. Due to the aggregated nature of the city, car ownership is high (a staggering 2.7 vehicles per household) and in-between spaces are plentiful. It is in one such interstitial area that another kind of flow is being arrested.

On a stretch of road between two fields pockmarked by pylons and wind turbines, with a power station looming in the middle distance, a line of cars accumulates, producing a ‘jam’ of a quite different sort to the piano improv session that we have just seen taking place in a nearby barn. Shortly, motorists and passengers start to step out of their vehicles. They play games, chat, read books and walk their dogs through the fields. Children run free and we are shown lingering shots of the wind moving through the wheat fields, clouds drifting past overhead. All the while, the flowing, then faltering, piano music carries on over the top, the tumble of notes seeming to sway with the breeze.

A musician herself, Billing understands well the altered sense of time that music can create. Previous works, such as This Is How We Walk on the Moon (2007) and You Don’t Love Me Yet (2002–ongoing) have focused on diverse groups coming together to produce pieces of music – cover versions of the titular records. Pulheim Jam Session started life as a performance in the summer of 2011: the people coming together are motorists not musicians but, soundtracked by Magnason’s piano-playing, their actions take on the qualities of an extempore choreography. The jam becomes a jam session. The spontaneous gathering of people creates a curious kind of temporary utopia, with strangers talking to each other and helping each other out. Jump leads are stretched from one motor to another, people join together to push start someone else’s car. Before long, people are driving off and it’s all over, ready to start again as the film loops round.

Working together, the improvised community of drivers and passengers have achieved something – overcome a blockage – whilst also creating a fragile space of freedom and togetherness. Caught between town and country, motion and stasis, something quietly magical opens up. Pulheim Jam Session is a film in which almost nothing happens. We watch time pass. The experience is quietly revelatory.

Robert Barry is a freelance writer and composer from Brighton, England. His book The Music of the Future is published by Repeater.