Conversation about You Don't Love Me Yet with Johanna Billing, Situation(s) Mac/Val, Paris, 2012
How does the work that you are exhibiting at MAC/VAL fit into your oeuvre?
You Don’t Love Me Yet (2002-2012) is a live performance work that has during the last ten years been running a bit parallel to my work with video and films. I have a background in working with music in various forms. During many years I used to work parallel both with a record label, and with lots of live music events, as well as working as a DJ and a music journalist. In my films I have also come to work a lot with the musical soundtracks, which I arrange together with musicians whom I have an ongoing collaboration with. In the films there is always some kind of performance, but then the performance is most of the times only for the camera. The natural live element that is the very core of the You Don’t Love Me Yet touring project has been an interesting way for me to continue my ideas about how to work with live events, in the music world – as well as in the art scene, and to explore this in different places and venues.
How did this project come about?
I just happened to hear this specific song You Don’t Love Me Yet by Roky Erickson (1984) and it got immediately stuck in my head. It’s not a very well known song, its meaning is very ambiguous and I was interested in the way that the lyrics seemed both disillusioned and hopeful. I remember that I had just heard on the radio that Sweden had the highest number of people living in single households in the world. And I was thinking about the scepticism involved around love, independence and relationships, but I was at the same time thinking about the scepticism that many times occur within the structures in the relationship between music and art. I’d been working on a lot of collaborations within these fields. So I started to think about a tool that could explore the relationships between these two specific genres. A project, that in the shape of a cover, could deal with getting out of oneself and the structures around and which could at the same time operate on these different levels, the personal and the professional one. It all started in autumn 2002 when I invited 20 musicians and bands from the Swedish alternative pop and rock scene to perform individual interpretations live of You Don’t Love Me Yet in the basement of Index – The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation in Stockholm. In theory, it seemed like quite a ridiculously simple form, but during the course of the evening an intense and almost indescribable atmosphere was created once the artists started to repeat the song one after another, and the audience started to take in and listen in a different way than during a normal rock concert, and the over all feeling was to be part of a search for something together. In 2003, a film recording was made, featuring the same musicians who took part in the first live event, in a recording studio in Stockholm, making one version together with string arrangements and choirs. The film somehow turned out to be my personal arranged version of the song. The plan was then that the film would go on a tour within Sweden and that in each place, one local performer would add a version of the song; I thought my first live event was really a one off event. But funnily and perhaps luckily enough (!) there was a huge misunderstanding right there from the start in the communication, and it turned out that the smaller cities in Sweden did not want to make anything less than the similar big live event with 20 local bands! So, this is how the tour once started, quite organically, a bit out of its own need so to speak, and most of all never designed to become a spectacle of this size or to have this long duration. I was terrified about the logistical problems, knowing what a job it was to arrange these enormous concerts. But this is also how it was decided that in every place there would always be collaboration with a local music venue, or with somebody with a close relation to the scene. And the project developed in such a way as to allow the venues to arrange the event themselves, which turned the event itself into a cover.
Since then the project has been repeated in 23 cities around the world where local artists continued to interpret the song, which exists in a maddening 2-300 versions, which is now beyond countable. But what is important to underline when talking about the collected recordings is that the project’s focus has always been the local and the live aspect. The documentation of it has been rough and in the background, and the material was originally never meant for presentation. After a couple of years, and when the project refused to die off and continued to live, people started to demand to see the archive of the documentation which had grown to have a life of its own, and that is how the display table of the filmed concerts took form, and it also gives a lot back to have it made public again, as well as it is lifting forward the communal aspect in a wider sense, the value of taking part in something that other people have done before you.
In what way does your use of cover versions raise questions about identity?
I have been very interested in the potential of the cover version. And kind of always envied musicians this format to step in and out of. I like the way they’re most of the times made as tributes, as declarations of love and how this enables the artists to be generous and to offer their inspiration and their references to the audience, and not try to hide it. It is also interesting that the actual set up, that you are working on somebody else’s original, paradoxically can allow the musicians to be more free or let go of oneself which many times results in music that is more experimental than the music the artist normally creates. So, sometimes, the act of making a cover can be almost like a trick that enables more individuality. And this is perhaps one of the things that for many people come off as quite striking after having attended one of these live events. When being submitted to such a crazy and large number of versions like this, it is interesting also to find out that the more versions that are added, the more you start to pay attention to the small nuances and the personal differences in each contribution. Which is really the opposite of what one might think when hearing the same song over again and again like this.
What impact has your involvement in the music industry had on your work as a visual artist?
I think the influence has been working both ways, and perhaps it has been more visible, how my role as an artist have been influencing my work in the music world and the alternative ways of thinking about how to start up a record label (make it happen 1997-2012) and how to really think alternatively about distribution and formats where these structures and formats have been quite fixed and conventional. But during a long time, before 2002, I used to actively separate my work in art, with the work I did in the music world and I was actually almost trying to refuse the invitations I got as an artist to set up these musical events in various art contexts. This had to do with the systems and the hierarchies in the art world, which at the time tended to treat the content of the music that was presented more as a representation of music rather than on its own merit, which was, of course, the opposite of what we were trying to pursue with the label.
But coming back to the You Don’t Love Me Yet project again. This was at the same time also one of the reasons why I felt I wanted to create a project that could work with the sceptical approaches, and the differences in these two systems. And as the project has equally been happing in music venues as in art institutions, this has been an interesting space/gap to explore these things in, especially when one has the possibility to do this live together with people who are involved in these things. It is really a catalyst project in that sense. Something that takes shape and develops and where you can find something out on the way, while it happens, together with the participating musicians, artists, organizers and the audience.