ARTIST INTERVIEW: JUSTIN CHOUINARD

Justin Chouinard’s These Ribbons Are Substratum is a nostalgic installation created with hand-manipulated 35mm film slides and 16mm film loops. Chouinard has stripped the emulsion, leaving the skin of the image folded, layered, torn, and peeled away to reveal the bones of cinema. The installation invites you to examine wrinkled sheets of memory from analogue technology, which serves as both performer and a medium for ghosts of experience past. Chouinard discusses the frailty of memory, his work’s technique, and advice for future artists.


Justin Chouinard began his love of video and media work in high school. “My friends and I were the type of people who would go out on the weekends and make movies,” he says. “I thought for the longest time that I’d be some type of independent film director.” After watching Barton Fink (1991) by Joel and Ethan Coen, Chouinard became more interested in art and conceptual film. After joining the University of Utah’s Film Department of Film and Media as an undergrad, he met Kerri Hopkins, who had gone to SUNY in Buffalo, NY. Chouinard decided to follow suit, attending SUNY and working with the late Tony Conrad. “I was more and more introduced to experimental filmmaking,” says Chouinard.

“I started pulling out films for myself and started scratching on them, seeing what kinds of markers or paint or dye would make a design.”

Through the process of manipulating emulsion, Chouinard’s These Ribbons Are Substratum was born. “These projects, for me, are kind of a throwback to folks like Paul Sharits who wanted the viewer to remember that they were watching a film,” he says. “One of my favorite parts about these pieces are that the projectors are performers themselves, performing and interpreting the films in their own special ways.” His process involves peeling off sections of film, wetting the film down, and reattaching various pieces of the images to create the “bones of cinema” effect.

Justin Chouinard family photo

An interesting fact about this exhibition is that the films are from or of Chouinard’s family. “It’s all my family. It’s my two children and my wife,” he says. “It’s all original. And I don’t have copies of anything in the exhibition, the slides or videos.” These pieces of his memory—family videos and photos—will continue to deteriorate and will remain permanently manipulated. Even though Chouinard intended to manipulate the videos for this particular installation, the emotional stakes are still high.

“It was directly connected to my fear of losing memory of my family and my daughter,” he says. “Most of the emulsion pieces deal with not only the frailty of the material itself—the film as an analogue medium—but also a function of human memory and its frailty.”

These Ribbons Are Substratum is a powerful exhibition, emotionally connecting with viewers through visual art and concepts of nostalgia and memory. “Even though the viewer may not know the video is of my family, they’re still videos of children. People playing on the playground, a family outing,” says Chouinard. “I think nostalgia is directly tied to home videos. Those times when you want to capture a memory, capture an event.” He even mentions his fascination that people photograph small details of events, such as decorations or an image of a punch bowl.

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There were moments when Chouinard pulled back the emulsion, layered it down and stared at the newly distorted image of his family, really considering the meaning behind the installation. “I am taking this material that I will no longer have back and am manipulating it—it won’t be the same again,” he says. “But it’s creation and destruction. I’m terrified of losing my memory of these moments, but working with material in this way is also a coming-to-terms with it. It’s catharsis—a way of dealing with it.”

Chouinard says that his time as a UMOCA Artist-In-Residence was a great experience. “I felt completely at home in the space,” he says. “For my needs, it was perfect. Both John and Jared, and other staff members, were really friendly with the project. The studio was nice to be able to have things in one space and not worry about them being moved. And I would say, were it not for the residency, I don’t think I would have created a mass of anything over the past year. I’m really grateful for that push and encouragement to get some work done.”

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Whether you’re interested in being an Artist-In-Residence at UMOCA or you’re a new media and film artist, Chouinard has some sound advice: “Explore. Learn the mechanics of the medium, be it motion picture or film,” he says.

“Approach a medium with respect for set guidelines of how to use it, but also with the curiosity of how to completely disassemble and break whatever it is that’s in front of you.”

Be on the lookout for Justin Chouinard in the future, whether it be media art installations, original indie films, or expanded ideas of film manipulated. Don’t miss his exhibition, These Ribbons Are Substratum in the A-I-R Space until Saturday, April 22. –Alex Vermillion