Interview with Johanne Chagnon about Promenade en forêt
By: Darida Rose
Today we are speaking with Johanne Chagnon, an artist who works with film, photography and writing, among other mediums, and has been doing so for over thirty years. Most recently, Chagnon has turned her attention to experimental film, and Promenade en forêt, which we are discussing today, is one example of this. It is a striking and thought-provoking film and we’re happy to be speaking with Johanne today.
Darida Rose, Phoenix Journal (PJ): First of all, can you tell us what inspired you to make this film?
Johanne Chagnon (JC): At the start, there is my interest, my very fascination, for the forest, this place full of mystery and darkness, this reservoir of legends and myths. At the same time, I had started to write a story of the beginning of a world, a kind of personal quest, in which I was born in a disturbing forest, still to be discovered and traveled. From there an image of the trees of this symbolic forest became clearer, which also became a representation of myself in the form of wigs suspended like tree trunks - in connection with my own long, white hair. At the same time, I had started carving a large organic black tree, also representing another part of me, my reel hair caught in the red veins that irrigate it.
(PJ): Can you tell us about the process of making it? Was this all done in a studio?
(JC): Yes, I did everything in my studio, in addition to working on video and audio editing. I work alone, which leaves a lot of freedom and allows me to fully immerse myself in my personal universe. If I worked with a team, even a small one, I would have to structure my process more, which is not my way of doing things. My process is intuitive. Other than the starting point explained above, I didn't know where I was going. I consider that I work with videographic material in the same way as any other material: juxtaposing, associating, superimposing elements to end up making a poetically coherent whole. I like the fact that, despite the constraints of a small interior space, it is possible to create complex and evocative universes.
(PJ): On your website, you mention that you are interested in ‘artivism’ and social justice. Can you discuss this? What is the relation between your films and your concerns about inequality and the state of the world?
(JC): At the beginning of my artistic practice, I was concerned with always transposing into my works my socio-political concerns, my feeling of indignation in the face of social injustices, regardless of the nature of the projects. The integration of these issues could seem at times a little too stilted or constrained, a little too didactic. Then I worked with advocacy groups and community organizations, and I developed a close involvement with people living in exclusion, while always favoring art as a means of social intervention. I then adapted my creation to the needs of activism. For the past four years, I have returned to my personal practice, with a different approach that integrates my past experiences and with the confidence that these issues that continue to permeate me are reflected in my work, in a more natural and sensitive way. My concern for social justice now encompasses the crucial reality of the ecological disaster which threatens to destroy our planet and which means that it is people living in poverty who are suffering the most of this situation. It is possible to see in Promenade en forêt the transposition of this concern for a nature, and a humanity, in danger.
(PJ): A major theme in this film, and your work in general, seems to be the ever-present threat of death. Do you think we, as a society, avoid too much thinking about death?
(JC): Yes, just as we socially don’t acknowledge the imminent collapse of our world which will bring major social, economic and environmental crises, the consequences of unbridled human activity. It would be too late for the situation to improve, on the contrary, it is getting worse! This denial prevents us from taking the true measure of what is happening to us and acting accordingly, with grieving to do and privileges to lose. On a personal level, this increased interest in death is undoubtedly an effect of age, of time passing by. I realize that I am taming the idea of the end of life, very slowly, like a natural phenomenon and not something to be feared. This is what we can deduce at the end of Promenade en forêt: a form of serene appeasement occurs, just as the final horizontal position evokes an immobility, a kind of gentle death where dangers and constraints no longer exist. In another project, I did some creative explorations with decaying bird bodies that were absolutely not morbid. They revealed to me, to my own surprise, the beauty that can be hidden behind death, as well as the bounty of nature in the smallest of its forms.
(PJ): The colour palette in Promenade en forêt seems quite deliberately to focus on black, white and red. Can you speak about this choice?
(JC): As this video has multiple layers of elements, choosing a narrow color palette plays a unifying role. Black has always appealed to me because its dark aspect matches my view of a deteriorating world. It also contains a depth into which one can enter and discover, and an opportunity to face and overcome one's fears. The white offers a very marked contrast with the black, while personifying a human presence (mine in particular) which wanders in this universe. White also represents the color of mourning rituals in Asia - the transition to another state. And through, there is the red: the blood which irrigates the wounds, circulates in the veins of the black tree, tints the bare branches.
(PJ): A fruit, I believe, appears near the end of the film, and provides a striking contrast to the white, black and red that dominates the rest. Is this meant as a symbol of life? Of hope?
(JC): This element comes from the fact that I need to work with my hands, and not only with the computer, to build imaginary objects which most of the time have an organic appearance inspired by nature or the human body, without being able to identify them. Like eerie growths to live with. While making this yellow object, I thought of a still bloody tumor, extracted from the tree (and the character), which I am trying to keep at bay. This is not without reference to my personal experience with cancer.
(PJ): You’ve worked in a number of different mediums. What led you to focus on experimental film?
(JC): The main reason is that experimental video gives me the opportunity to integrate several disciplines of my diverse artistic practice (installation, sculpture, painting, photography, writing, performance, movement, voice). Although it lacks the "direct action in front of an audience" component of performance art, video allows me to develop more complex symbolic universes. In addition, video makes my work more accessible and allows it to be distributed more widely, while not requiring storage of bulky items – an important consideration nowadays.
(PJ): Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
(JC): I will again work according to the intuitive, non-preconceived process that has guided me so far. Several ideas are germinating right now, I let them emerge without pressure, but I surely will persevere in the same spirit of interdisciplinarity that has guided my previous videos. But above all, a great challenge remains for me to overcome the observation of our deteriorating world and to create new stories to envision the future. At this point in our collective history, it is important to build new inspiring fictions, to imagine contagious ways of living together, other than those focused on turning the economic machine. So we can expect more white and colors, and less black!