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Billy Bultheel and James Richards

Workers in Song

Workers in Song is the latest iteration of an ongoing collaborative project by composer Billy Bultheel (b. 1987, Brussels) and visual artist James Richards (b. 1983, Cardiff). Their immersive audiovisual installation and performance takes visitors on a journey through a whirlwind of original material and citations, spanning the pleasures of online hookups, underground films and subcultures of bygone eras, as well as the darker dimensions of romantic subjectivity. At Mudam, Bultheel and Richards present a choreographed performance with live music and film on 28 March 2024, alongside an installation that probes the tension between liveness, sentimentality and desire in the absence of the living body.

Conceived as an open-ended, modular structure, Workers in Song operates as an constantly evolving organism which adapts to the specific context of each presentation – the present version staged in an environment the artists specifically designed for the large curved space of Mudam’s West Gallery. Informed by the early days of cinema, when silent films were conceived to be presented with live music, and more contemporary forms including mix tapes or expanded cinema events, Bultheel and Richards present a dynamic musical score as a framework to bring their original material into dialogue with work by other artists – without subsuming any part into a uniform whole. Their own footage, taking viewers through nocturnal landscapes and dystopian brutalist interiors, is mixed with poems, films and scores by other authors.The atmosphere of the installation is dark, although decisively rich, almost excessive. Many elements of the live event insistently return to the conflicts of human intimacy and the fraught boundaries between self and other. Nevertheless, the work’s episodic nature invites viewers to bring their own experiences to the table and connect the dots, allowing discrete elements to smudge and blur ones perception.

A central thread running through the presentation of Workers in Song is “Der Leiermann” from Franz Schubert’s Winterreise (1827), which the composer wrote while suffering from syphilis toward the end of his life. It sings of a spurned lover’s journey to the night and, more specifically, his encounter with a derelict hurdy-gurdy player who repeatedly performs a song which seemingly no one cares to hear. In Bultheel and Richard’s installation, a restrained video rendition by Sebastian de la Cour suspends the sentimentality of Schubert’s original piece between longing and disillusionment. At the same time, the titular hurdy-gurdy is translated into a computer-controlled piano player, constrasting the song’s lush emotional register by lack of human presence. With this conceptual twist, Bultheel and Richards seem to underscore an almost machinic dimension of human desire – one that keeps us constantly searching, though for what is never clear.

Deepening the convergence between the installation and performative aspect of the work, the presentation at Mudam questions the boundaries between liveness and the pre-recorded, between presence and absence, between ghosts and the archive, in an intimate and intuitive encounter between the audience, music and moving image. Workers in Song seeks to confront the viewer with paradoxical sensations of pleasure and discomfort. It alludes to the depth of human existence; beauty, death, sex, loneliness, nostalgia, togetherness and their intricate relationships.

Biographies

Billy Bultheel (b. 1987, Brussels) is a composer who incorporates his music into large-scale performance installations. His work Athens Songs I-IV was recently exhibited at the 7th Athens Biennial (2021). His work UNTER KAMMERMUSIK has been presented at the Halle für Kunst Steiermark, Graz (2021) and the Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin (2021). His work The Minutes of Olomouc was shown at the PAF Olomouc – Festival of Film Animation and Contemporary Art (2020). In 2019, he held two important performances in Berlin: Spat from My Mouth: Piano Concerto at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art and When Doves Cry at the Schinkel Pavilion. He lives and works in Brussels and Berlin.

James Richards (b. 1983, Cardiff) has recently held solo exhibitions at Haus Mödrath – Räume für Kunst, Kerpen (2021); Castello di Rivoli, Turin (2020); Malmö Konsthall (2019); Künstlerhaus Stuttgart (2018) and Secession, Vienna (2018). His work has also been presented in significant surveys at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2023); Camden Arts Center, London (2020); V-A-C Foundation, Venice (2019); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2018); KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (2018); Tate Britain, London (2018); Whitney Museum of Modern Art, New York (2017); Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover (2016); Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (2016) and Kunstverein München, Munich (2015). In 2017, he represented Wales at the 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. He lives and works in Berlin.

Credits

Curators:
  • Joel Valabrega, assisted by Clémentine Proby

Workers in Song is a joint commission between WIELS – Centre d’art contemporain in Brussels, Batalha Centro de Cinema in Porto, Mudam Luxembourg – Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, and KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin.