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  • Writer's pictureJohanne Chagnon


Here are two major influences that, in different eras, ended up impacting my video art practice.

A completely crazy cinema

When I was young (years ago!), I had no idea that one day I would make art videos. I accidentally saw German Robert Wiene’s movie « The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari » (1920, silent with intertitles, 51 minutes) which impressed me a lot. During a family evening, the movie was playing on television. For fun, we decided that each person would take turns reading one of the captions on the screen. I found the game amusing until I realized, my eyes widening in amazement, that this was not an ordinary movie. I had never seen something like it! It was a revelation! I was facing a work that dared to distort reality in order to create a personal world! This was in line with my aspiration for a different society at a time when the current one was being challenged – I am referring here to the protest of the 1960s to which I adhered.

In « The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari », the characters evolve in a recreated universe, the falsity of which is not hidden. A fundamental element of the film holds in the sets that break with realistic conventions of perspective and proportions. They are distorted and made up of diagonals and multiple angles. The shadows, painted, add to the dark atmosphere. Even the makeup amplifies the characters' expressions. This film twisted visual style creates an emotional state which I found better achieved than with natural locations or conventional design concepts.

It was only later that I learned that the film was considered the quintessence of German expressionist cinema and that it gave rise to various interpretations because of the political context in which the film was created–right after the country had lost World War I. The movie expressed the horror of this war Germany was just emerging from. The main character obeys his master much like a soldier and this master represents military leaders who sent thousands of men to their deaths.

Later, in 2007, at the Cinémathèque française in Paris, I saw exposed elements of the real set of «The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari». I was fascinated by the rustic quality of the materials used–it looked like gouache on cardboard–which could seem magically transformed when transposed to the screen. It doesn't take huge budgets to make a landmark film. The movie was shot in studios where they could employ deliberately exaggerated dramatic lighting and camera angles to emphasize particular effects.

This finding opened up a wide new range of possibilities. It echoed what I felt at the beginning of my practice as an artist : the desire to move away from reality and create from my own inner world. This film still guides me today in designing all the components within the screen rectangle as an aesthetic whole where each element has its importance and serves my artistic intention.

Emotion in slow motion A few years later, I discovered the work of video artist Bill Viola (US), a recognized figure in this field since its first experiments in the 1970s. This artist exploits the properties of the video medium in a way that enthralls me. He has never ceased to pursue his practice in innovative ways.

That is why, in 2017, when I dedicated my energies to video art, I went to see his retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Then I had the opportunity to immerse myself in his work by spending two days watching all the videos presented. I came back more inspired by this artist. Even though I would never have at my disposal the same technical and financial means nor the loyal team that supports him in carrying out his projects, I could learn some lessons.

This experience came at the right moment. At that time, I had the project of making short and humorous videos, for fear of annoying the audience. That attitude has changed since the visit. Viola showed me that I should not be afraid to go where my experiments led me. He himself meditated quite deeply on the complex and universal themes of the human being. He developed an aesthetic inspired by spirituality – various religious traditions inform his imagination (you can find on his website a list of the books that nourished him). He is nonetheless accessible. The cycles of life and death, the intermediate mental states between waking and sleeping are, among others, the recurring themes of his work in recent years. Translating an exploration of the human condition into his own videographic language, he succeeds in establishing a humanist dialogue with the public. I learned from Viola to reach my own depths, no matter how dark they were.

As a master of slow motion, Viola also taught me to be confident and to adopt all the time required by an artwork. He very often uses slow motion to embody emotions in video. For example, in “The Greeting” (1995), inspired by a painting by Pontormo, a 45-second sequence of three women meeting is stretched over 10 minutes. Far from being boring, the projected image captures attention and hypnotizes. The public can read all the emotions displayed on the faces, observe the gestures, appreciate the sensuality of the fabrics - details that usually escape the eye. Viola makes us experience time differently. Slow motion is conducive to introspection and reflection. Considered as a material, time acquires a palpable presence. Furthermore, Viola’s videos often use water, a visual metaphor to express states of mind related to the subconsciousness and dreams. It has been pointed out that this symbolism of water is reflected in the slow motion that represents the changing nature of the videographic medium.


«The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari» of Robert Wiene :

Bill Viola’s site :


About the Author:

For more than thirty years, Johanne Chagnon has adopted a diversified artistic practice that calls on several mediums, in addition to exploring various forms of distribution and various types of presentation venues, often unconventional. More recently, she has turned to experimental video in which she brings together writing, installation and performance to illustrate her symbolic universes. She has been involved for over 15 years in the art magazine ESSE as coordinator and editor. From 2000 to 2017, she also developed the LEVIER and ROUAGE programs of the Engrenage Noir organization, which works to support community action art. She has published a monograph, “Naviguer malgré tout” [Navigating despite everything], retracing her practice from 1986 to 2015.

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