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Art: Silent revolution
A video work by Johanna Billing is part of the ‘Turn On’ media art exhibition in Tel Aviv.
The jubilee anniversary of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany is being marked by a host of events throughout the year. The latest half century marker is the timebased media art exhibition “Turn On” from the Julia Stoschek Collection, which opens at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on Tuesday and will run until August 29.

The collection principally feeds off a hands-on here and now ethos. As such, “Turn On” focuses on the contemporary part of the collection. The 22 featured works by 17 artists were created in the last decade and a half, a period in which technology-based media have developed at a rapid pace, and this is a prominent element of the show.

The broad spectrum of mediabased art installations showcased in the exhibition ranges from performance and theatrical elements to different means of narration. Many of the works relate to various aspects of animation, such as British artist Ed Atkins’s computer-animated poetic piece that reflects fragmented sensibilities in a studio-inspired world, while Swedish-born pair Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg fuse animation, sculpture and sound to produce psychologically charged scenarios that address dealing with human and animalistic desires.

Johanna Billing brings several disciplines to her video work, having started out as a sculptor before turning to still photography before eventually channeling most of her creative energies into moving images. In Project for a Revolution, the 41-year-old Swedish artist delved back to a masterly crafted movie, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, which came out three years before she was born and offered an intriguing angle on late 1960s American counterculture.

Zabriskie Point is set in Los Angeles of the late 1960s during the days of the American student and civil rights movement. In the opening sequence, radical students discuss their strategy for organizing a revolution against the establishment. The room is full to overflowing, everyone is talking at once, you can hear laughter, objections and heated debate.

Suddenly, a young man named Mark gets up and vents his frustration about the lack of real action and walks out.

Project for a Revolution echoes and amplifies that dichotomous situation. The video begins with a close-up of a photocopier which, rather than ejecting political pamphlets, emits empty sheets of paper. We then see a group of young people sitting around in a sparsely furnished room, basically doing nothing. There is not even any interaction among them. Then the camera zones in on a highly active Mark-like character who runs up and down different flights of stairs until he finally enters the room where the others are passing the time of day. He pauses briefly before rushing up to a chair from which he grabs one of the empty pamphlets and then makes for the exit again. Similar to Mark in Zabriskie Point, he features as an active individualist, but ultimately he does not have a clear goal. The video piece is looped so that the narration goes round in circles. It is not difficult to construe Billing’s message.

“In Stockholm in 1999, when I started to prepare this work, I was part of the young generation, and we were supposed to be active,” she recalls. “We were constantly being accused of being very lazy and not doing anything.”

Billing adds that her and her peer group’s way forward was stymied by their parents’ past.

“The older generation that complained. They had this sort of measuring stick that if you didn’t attend the kind of meeting that you see in Zabriskie Point or in my film, then you were not properly engaged. But I didn’t at all want to show these people and say how passive they all are. It’s more like it’s not there, but I was already interested in showing that this engagement was happening in other places. In 1999, when I started working on this, it wasn’t yet so much on the Internet or on Facebook. It is not about demonstrating on the streets.

There are other ways of doing things,” she says.

While the messages in Antonio’s work also clearly address youthful pontification, Billing says Project for a Revolution does not castigate her contemporaries for not getting up off their rear ends.

“It doesn’t look like something is going on, but there are a lot of things happening beneath the surface. There is some kind of energy, but it’s not coming out.

My video is more like a comment on the image of revolutionary engagement than a document showing apathy,” she says.

Billing feels that her generation may have had it too good and, as history shows, revolutions do not generally happen when things are comfy cozy.

“This film is about my parents’ generation but also about mine.

My generation was a bit trapped and paralyzed. There is the social welfare society that has enabled us to live comfortably,” she says.

But things have moved on.

“I think young people are more active now, but in different ways than in the past,” Billing notes. “I think they are more active globally now. My film is about that, about their activism that cannot be measured.”

Project for a Revolution is a visually arresting work, and one gets the sense that each frame has been meticulously created. That may be down to the fact that Billing has a past in still photography.

“I am not really a filmmaker, and for me it is important that I don’t come from this traditional narrative,” she says. “Also when I started working with video, it was because I set up situations that were live, and I captured them with photographs. But after a while I realized that the sound was very important to capture the atmosphere. That is why I started to use video and also sound. Even though the sound is silent in Project for a Revolution, it is very important; that makes tension which is where things are happening.”

Over the years, Project for a Revolution has been round the global block a few times, and Billing says the work tends to evoke different reactions in different places and cultures.

“It should be interesting to see how people in Israel take to it,” she says. “It is great that the video is still being shown after 15 years and that it is still alive and relevant.”
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