CURRENT ISSUE | SUMMER 2017: KINSHIP
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Samuel Roy-Bois: Surreal Estate

If you’ve been paying attention to apartment rental ads in Vancouver recently, you might have come across a surprising call for a roommate in what promised to be a fantastic downtown flat—for free. You wouldn’t have been wrong (or alone) in thinking this was too good to be entirely true. In fact, it was a wry proposition put forth by the artist Samuel Roy-Bois for his latest sculptural infiltration into the physical and mental architectures of lived space, I had a great trip despite a feeling of cognitive dissonance.

Roy-Bois did have space to let and did find a tenant, and the result at Artspeak is one of two installations by the Quebec City–born, Vancouver-based artist currently on view in the city. In this telephone interview, Roy-Bois talks about this foray into subletting gallery space, as well as the inherent frustrations and infinite possibilities of occupation.

Bryne McLaughlin: You have two installations on view in Vancouver right now—a work at Artspeak you’ve titled I had a great trip despite a brutal feeling of cognitive dissonance, and a project residency at Langara College called Nothing blank forever. Both are functional built spaces, but one is intentionally mysterious, the other seemingly transparent. To start, could you describe what someone arriving at Artspeak is going to find?

Samuel Roy-Bois: It’s funny because I just did an interview about I had a great trip… with the local CBC and the first question the host asked was, “So, what will the public see when they get there?” My answer: “Well, actually, not much!” I’m not sure they knew exactly how to take this!

Basically, you get to the gallery and you see this wooden hallway with a bench on one side. Facing the bench, there is a door. Everything is painted white but you can still see the grain of the wood. It’s well built, but rough at the same time.

Of course, what most people would do when they get in the gallery is to try to open the door into the main space. But it’s locked. I think there’s a little initial disappointment from that. So they keep going down the hallway and they end up at the gallery office where they come face to face with the gallery director.

Then people will come back, maybe they sit down on the bench. Now they realize that there is an audio component to the work. It’s a voice-over and I hired an actor to read a text that I wrote. It’s a sort of internal monologue. You can hear somebody thinking, building their thoughts and making comments during a journey. It’s a fictional description of the inner thoughts of the person who has agreed to live in the gallery for the duration of the show.

As people find out more about the exhibition, they will realize that there is someone living in the area that is not accessible. I found somebody through Craiglist who was interested in living in there for a month and a half. What I’m doing is giving over all powers over the gallery space to that person for the duration of the exhibition. So it’s not so much about my work as it is about somebody occupying the gallery and doing whatever they want in the space.

BM: How did you word the Craiglist advertisement? Was it clear that this is part of an art exhibition?

SRB: No, actually there were a couple of advertisements. The first ad was something like: Large downtown space, wooden floors, high ceilings, large windows, looking for a roommate, all utilities included, free. Nobody answered.

BM: A free downtown apartment…sounds nice, but it is a bit suspicious, isn’t it?

SRB: Just a little bit, I guess. I wasn’t asking for anything from the person who would be living there. So then I made up this fake price. It was still quite low, but a specific amount. Then people started to answer. I signed a legal document with the actual tenant and asked for a deposit and everything. So it is close to real life.

Having that signature down was probably the most stressful part for me. The person doesn’t have to be there all the time—or even at all—as long as I know that I’m not the one responsible anymore. I’m not the one who is occupying the space. I arranged for the lease to be signed on the day of the opening. Up to that point, I had no deposit and nothing was binding me to that person so I was kind of nervous. I was afraid that the person would change his or her mind.

BM: So essentially you’re subletting a portion of the gallery space?

SRB: Yes, that’s what it is. The signed document is really between the gallery and the tenant. The gallery is renting a room in their space.

BM: It’s impossible for the viewer to enter or see into the living space. But is there anything you can say about what’s inside that might be important to the work? Or is this better left to the imagination?

SRB: Well, it’s interesting that you mention that. It’s pretty much the journey that I wanted to throw the viewer on, this idea of being in that space, of sitting on that bench and facing a closed door and not knowing for sure what is behind it.

On one hand we have the artist suggesting an identity for the tenant and the space itself, but at the same time it’s up to the viewer to create their own image of that tenant and of the space. I think that’s the important thing, for the viewer to have to imagine how it might look and who is the person that is living there.

People are really trying to find out who is living there. The first question many ask is whether it is a man or a woman. It’s not that it’s a secret, but I don’t want to reveal anything. It’s not impossible for someone to be sitting on the bench and for the tenant to open the door and walk out.

If the tenant wants to disclose his or her identity, they are free to do so. I did not make any restrictions on that. But I made it clear with the gallery that we would not tell who is living there, or if they are in the space or not.

BM: So someone is sitting on the bench, they’re listening to the audio monologue and their mind can just drift anywhere thinking about that mystery behind the closed door that’s right in front of them?

SRB: Yes, and I really wanted that. The way I directed the actor who was reading the text was not to be too alive, or too engaging. I didn’t want that to become the show. I wanted this other voice to be like a landscape or a background, one of the many elements that comprise the work. Not too entertaining, basically.

BM: When I first read about the project, it made me think of other works where artists have effectively closed the gallery as the point of the show. For example Rirkrit Tiravanija’s performance/installation at the Ontario College of Art and Design in 2007 where he walled off the gallery so it was completely inaccessible. What’s the difference between that and I had a great trip…?

SRB: Well, many things. First of all, the way that the hallway has been built and the perception of space it creates. You know right away that there is more than what you are experiencing. So you are immediately put in the position of the spectator. You may have expectations before coming to see the exhibition, and then realizing that you cannot see everything creates new expectations: you make up stories, you have to fill in the blanks.

So it’s not just a conceptual gesture. There is a playful dimension. If I had just blocked off the gallery, it would have simply been a gesture. I wanted to have more generous elements in there. The voice-over is one of them. The way the hallway has been built is another. The bench as well, we invite people to stay there instead of just passing through.

It’s funny, because some elements in the work are informed by conceptual art but I see this piece, and many of my earlier pieces, as an amalgam of many influences. I really like some of the positions of conceptual artists in the 1960s. Michael Asher’s work has been a big influence on me. But it would be pointless to redo that today, so the question is, how can I keep some of that spirit alive but add other elements too?

BM: Looking back through some of your earlier projects, it seems that they are leading to this installation. You’ve constructed works that people could enter and inhabit, even lock themselves into if they cared to. In other pieces, you might have had a window or other kind of opening that allowed a viewer could look into the space and at the objects it contained, but not enter. Here, you’ve invited people in, to a limit. You can walk through the hallway and sit on the bench, but you can’t see into or participate physically in that unknown living zone behind the door. Do you see this as a progression from those earlier positions?

SRB: I think you’re right. Maybe this is the first work that engages the public in a more frustrating experience. Often in the past, my works have had no absolute satisfaction, no ultimate pun, but there has always been some kind of physical involvement that gave a sense of completion.

This one is a bit different. The hallway leads you across the gallery. You end up at the gallery office and you realize that this is not what you want to see or where you want to be. So you come back, you sit down and you’re kind of left on your own. I don’t know, I just thought that this position of not showing anything was good.

That frustration of not being able to open the door and be amazed by something, it brings you back to your initial intentions and expectations in going to the gallery. No matter how complex your artistic experience is or how sophisticated your expectations are, you’re still left chasing something. I wanted to play with that a bit.

BM: Nothing blank forever at Langara College has an equally mysterious but opposite effect. It’s a Plexiglas-walled room built on the grounds of the college that is intended to be highly functional; it’s designed to invite collaboration.

SRB: Pretty much. It’s basically a studio that I built to produce a movie as part of a year-long artist residency. The point of this residency is to engage students and try to create work that involves them to a certain extent. So for me, this idea of shooting a film was an absolutely collaborative project where you obviously cannot do everything yourself. You need participation.

It’s a bit of a utopian project as well in the sense that the built structure/studio is hosting the entire production of the movie. I use the space as a sound studio and I bring my band in there to record the music for the film. Every scene of the film is being shot in that 16-by-16-foot glass room.

The thing is that the film itself, or at least my initial intention for the film, was to produce a road movie. It’s an absurd idea, if you take the idea of a “road movie” literally. But you can bring it back to something very simple, something that is more about the nature of crossing two metres. Or even just this idea of the internal journey, or shifting through identities as being a kind of travel. So it’s not so much about moving through landscape as moving through your inner thoughts, or your shifting identity.

Also for this project, I was inspired by Zeno’s paradoxes. If an archer shoots an arrow, the arrow will never meet the target because before getting to the target it has to cross half the distance to the target, and before crossing half of that distance it has to cross half of half of that distance, and it can go on like that forever. Every segment can be divided in half forever. There is technically no limit to that because there is no rational limit to these subdivisions. The arrow will not move because it’s impossible for it to move.

I was interested in this metaphor, this idea of people trying to move but not being able to go anywhere. There is no real possibility of movement because there is nowhere to go.

BM: Is this that idea of an intentional frustration creeping into the work again?

SRB: Well, I didn’t conceive it like that, but that’s definitely how I feel right now! It’s kind of hard to shoot in there and try to come up with something that basically makes you feel like your somewhere else.

I want to shoot this movie that is rather long and add some kind of diversity. How do you do that within these limitations? It’s not so much about building sets in there; I want the space to be another character in the movie. I could just block it off and put something on the walls or paint a landscape but that’s not so much the way I’m going. I’m trying to maintain some kind of integrity of the set and try to cross it through other strategies.

I’ve been working with people from the visual art department, but the college also has a very good theatre department, Studio 58, which is probably one of the best in Canada. I’ve been working with these students as actors, builders and musicians but the space is also being used for other purposes. The students from Studio 58 were putting on a play and they used my structure as one of the elements for the play, where a live feed coming from my studio was broadcast in a theatre. Right now, I’m working on a couple of exhibitions with art students; one with sculpture and another with painting.

So the space continues to be shifting and transforming. It’s a bit like Michel Foucault’s idea of heterotopia, or sites with multiple identities. You can project an identity according to your involvement with that site. Somebody walking by my structure at night might think it’s a big lantern, but somebody else who is involved with the production of the movie would see that as a set or as a rehearsal space.

Fundamentally, that structure is a modern ideal made out of cheaper materials. Instead of using glass and steel, it’s Plexiglas and lumber. So it’s like this modernist wet dream, but a cheap version of it, though it is well built.

BM: So in these two works—I had a great trip… and Nothing blank forever—you have these mysteries of concealed and shifting identities, closed and open spaces, all interacting and playing off one another. Did you intend one project to inform the other? Or is all of this a happy coincidence?

SRB: Those connections weren’t intentional. I guess once I completed the show at Artspeak, I realized how much of an opposite it is to the project at Langara, or how many connections there are to be made between the two works. So it wasn’t intentional, but I’m glad they can both be seen in the same city at the same time. People can draw connections and make parallels, but they were not conceived to respond to one another. It’s a coincidence.

BM: In the Artspeak press release, there’s a hint at the end that the work relates to “an ongoing discussion in Vancouver about how land in the city is divided, occupied and used.” How much does that play into either work?

SRB: Well, it’s not a central element. I rarely speak of very specific issues in my work. I’m more grandiose; I’d rather address abstract concepts. But the situation right now is pretty rough for artist-run centres in Vancouver. Galleries have to reconsider their locations. It’s a rough patch, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to change for the better anytime soon.

I guess I’m mostly interested in how people manage to occupy spaces and the types of exchanges that can occur through occupation. In the case of I had a great trip…, I’m not asking anything of the person living in the gallery. I’m going in the opposite direction. I’m just opening up that space for free.

But there’s this thing for territory, this idea that we are fighting for this piece of land. It’s not like we conceptualize that on a daily basis, but we all feel it. You have to work more to pay your rent and just survive; it’s a direct effect of that ongoing battle. You definitely feel the effects.

A public lecture by Roy-Bois takes place February 25 at SFU Woodward’s. An open-house event follows on March 2 at the Langara College Centre for Art in Public Spaces.

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