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Updated: Apr 8, 2022

Although experimental cinema and video art have distinct origins. The first stemming from cinematographic technology, the second developing with the appearance of camcorders– their boundaries have become increasingly porous. Experimental films are shot digitally while video art takes advantage of the Super 8- or 16-mm materiality! Therefore, from now on, my comments will apply to both media.

One main criterion defines the experimental aspect of these practices: the formal concern. Greater attention is devoted to image, sound and duration than in commercial or narrative motion pictures. Editing develops according to similarities or oppositions of shapes and movement. Once started, the work imposes its own structure. I understand this attitude very well and I fully adhere to it in my own practice. To me, this is the essence of an artistic process. It is not the "to be said" that prevails, but the "saying" itself. Experimental cinema and video art are less interested in the «what» than in the «how», regardless of the meaning conveyed. While not necessarily being non-narrative, the issue of narrativity is not a fundamental one.

There are many stimulating examples of art works characterized by the primacy of form. I recognize an intention, which I share, to be freed from enslavement to reality and, potentially, to change life by changing vision. Canadian David Rimmer expanded the possibilities for image transformation in «Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper» (1972, 8 minutes). He worked from an 8-second found footage of a woman in a factory waving a sheet of transparent cellophane in front of her. By making a loop with this simple gesture repeated three times, the video gives the impression of a continuous action. From these 8 seconds, the videographer has developed 8 minutes of meticulous variations according to a frantic rhythm (several per second) on which the soundtrack of Don Druik is tuned. After showing the original shot, he starts increasing the contrast, introducing negative images, gradually adding color. The final sequence becomes polarized into grainy outlines where it is difficult to identify the initial footage. Rimmer considers himself a “bricoleur”, someone who accumulates a bunch of disparate objects, in his case bits and pieces of images that he can draw from as needed. He admits to working very intuitively and although he suspected that his «Variations» had a meaning, he was not too eager to discover it. Having asked the question afterwards, several women interpreted it as a feminist film that was all about a person trapped in a factory where she can’t get out.

This example shows once again that ultimately any image or sequence can be the starting point of an artwork. Formal treatment makes the difference: the way to play with the «material», to manipulate it, to crush it. From the moment the eye or the senses are hooked, simply pull the thread to see where it will lead. Quebecer Vincent Grenier explains his choice of a subject by the conversation that can be established between this subject, the cinematographic instrument and himself. His video «Watercolor» (2013, 12 minutes), starts quite basically with a sustained shot of water under a bridge, with the reflections of people and objects above. At one point, the video switch, says Grenier himself : «The beginning was sweet, but not enough to make it just a contemplation.» So, distorting this representation, he starts adding gradual transitions, employing various cinematic devices (filters, dissolves, superimpositions, color manipulation), playing with contrasts and finally creating moving abstract watercolors.

Experimental cinema and video art both shake up aesthetic habits of seeing “something” and suggest a different view of reality. With “D11 Project” (1998-2002), Irishman James Coleman goes further in that sense. This work was presented as a continuous video installation. Here, a black and white sequence, without sound, placed the viewer in front of a mysterious representation, a strange and indefinable form that changes imperceptibly. And for which there are no suitable words to describe it. The artist did not even give a title to his video, providing no clues for interpretation. The viewer is let without reference, out of a recognizable reality, or perhaps, in many possible realities. An organic shape under a microscope… a phantom tumor… This video hooks me because of its intriguing nature. It makes me experience something disturbing and unusual.

Blurring the visible is also another way of signifying that there is another visible to be seen. I like That !

Watch the video :

Reference clip and stills:

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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