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Johnson, a Florida native who attended Maryland Institute College of Art with “art star” aspirations, was gradually drawn away from traditional forms toward event installations and collaborative efforts. While focused on video during her senior year at MICA, she found herself inspired by projections at scratch DJ concerts, like Kid Koala and DJ Shadow. “I don't know what's going on,” she told herself, “but I want to do that.”
Rather than hustle to get her work into sterile, silent galleries, Johnson began putting her efforts toward live projections at concerts in Chicago, her newly adopted city. Johnson was only 25 when Wilco hired her to transform their formerly simple concerts into multi-media spectacles during their A Ghost Is Born tour. The first year was spent “throwing spaghetti at the screen,” she says, recalling the creative process, but after a year on the road and “a lot of humiliation and learning” she became comfortable as a visual performer.
After two more years of work with Wilco, Johnson headed to New York where she set up her first apartment in Clinton Hill and began working with Lambchop and Calexico. Eventually that work led her to a meeting with Sufjan Stevens, her longest collaboration to date and one that is still on-going. At first Stevens just wanted Johnson to do a straightforward slideshow of photographs he already had. “Oh, you don't really need me for that.” she said, “You could use PowerPoint.” But once Stevens understood the breadth of Johnson's skills, he changed his tune. That collaboration birthed several more, including her current project: a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music entitled Planetarium, with Stevens, Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner which premieres at BAM March 21. From the decorative and ornate visuals of Steven's Avalanche and Illinois tours to the “apocalyptic space rock opera” of The Age of Adz, Johnson appreciates the chameleon-like requirements of teaming up with one of the most prolific and admired musicians working today.