An Interview with Artist Samuel Roy-Bois
When I spoke with my editor on the phone she warned me about Samuel Roy-Bois. “He’s a trickster,” she said. “He hires actors to appear for him, to do his talks. He’s got someone living in Artspeak, as part of his show!”
Photo Credit: Miguel Burr
I read a couple of interviews with Roy-Bois and dropped by Artspeak Gallery to check out his show entitled: I Had a Great Trip Despite a Brutal Feeling of Cognitive Dissonance, which ran until Saturday, March 17th, 2012. I discovered that it was true. There was in fact someone living in a walled off portion of the gallery, the lion’s share of the gallery to be exact. When I first walked in I was faced with a long narrow hallway, whitewashed and devoid of anything but a bare bench. A heavy, fetid aroma of eggs and humanity hung in the air, the woodsy scent of the plywood used to construct the partition mixed in. I was met at the end of the hallway by a young, well-dressed man. I assumed he was the mysterious tenant I’d read and heard about. I whipped out my camera; ready to capture a photo of this elusive urban beast.
“Are you the tenant?” I asked. “Can I snap a picture?”
“Uh… I just work here. I guess.”
“Oh, no, that’s all right. I thought you were the mysterious tenant.”
“No, the tenant lives in there,” he said pointing to a doorway in the center of the hallway. “I’ll turn on the audio. You’re the first visitor of the day.”
He turned on the audio and I began listening to a monologue by a terribly bored actor reading Roy-Bois’ words. He talked about waking up late, drinking coffee in bed. “Why the hell doesn’t that print shop have that special paper for my business cards?” he pondered.
The next day I met Samuel Roy-Bois at Langara College, where he is the artist-in-residence, for the following interview, which was conducted inside his installation Nothing Blank Forever:
...Staring at a landscape or just looking through the window can be meaningless, but for me that kind of moment, I dwell on. This sense of being here now, which is absolutely meaningless. And once you put that in perspective, it’s actually… I’m ready to live my life with meaninglessness. I’m absolutely ready for that...
Decoy Magazine: Are you really Samuel Roy-Bois?
Roy-Bois: (laughs) Yes I am. Yeah. Yes. Oh yeah.
Because I’ve heard that sometimes you’ve hired someone else to fill in for you.
Yeah, for artist talks, which is great. It’s great to be giving a talk and at the same time be able to go for a walk, and do shopping and stuff like that. It’s very interesting, knowing there’s something important regarding my work going in a room somewhere and I was somewhere else. I enjoy that.
Did you write a script for the actor?
I wrote a play. It was an hour long monologue basically. It’s all scripted. It’s all wrapped around my work and it becomes a companion piece, crazy stories and anecdotes. It’s also a way for me to say things in a way that I’m not able to say myself, as the artist, as a person. But things that I believe in, and just using this other person, this alter ego.
Absolutely, it’s like a way to say things that to myself seem hokey or bizarre.
Yesterday I visited your installation at Artspeak and it made me feel like I was trapped on the outside of the project, excluded. I felt like maybe if I’d been invited to the opening party I would know more about what was inside, maybe, so is that your intention?
Yeah, this notion of ‘not knowing’ is very important. For me it’s important to trigger the imagination in the viewer’s mind. So it’s not so much about me displaying my technical skill, my sense of trend and colors, but to have somebody sitting in the hallway and thinking about somebody they don’t know living on the other side of the wall, just creating these unexpected moments.
Is it supposed to conjure up a sense of voyeurism?
Well there is nothing to see, so there is no real voyeurism.
I heard something going on in there, and I saw light from under the door. I heard singing and movement.
Well there is somebody living in there.
Can you tell me more about the mystery tenant?
I met her.
You met her?
I knocked on the door.
And she answered?
Is she not supposed to do that?
(shrugs) You know what, we signed a lease, it’s her place, she can do whatever she wants.
I couldn’t help it.
I took a picture of her…
You took a picture of her?
For me, I felt like she was Big Foot… you know?
Yeah. I’m glad to hear that she actually opened the door, ‘cause some other people are knocking. And I wonder if she opens the door to everybody. I wonder if she heard you somehow and figured out that…
I felt a little bad, like maybe she might get harassed a lot by people.
She knew what she was getting into.
She was very gracious. She was also very cute.
She… she… she… yeah.
A very attractive young lady. Which brings me to another question…
How did I pick my tenant?
Well, kind of. I’ve only seen two of your works now, I saw that installation and this one, and aside from the motorcycle, it seems very sexless or neuter. Is there anything sexy about your work other than the fact that you’re employed?
You know what, it’s funny because most of the time it’s pretty dry, but somehow there are some sexual references. I like to show underwear… mine or my wife’s.
Show it where?
Well, I will build display cases, hanging on the wall with neon.
That’s very Japanese.
I lived in Asia for a long time actually, and in Japan they have vending machines with underwear, used underwear—people fetishize it. I’m not saying you’re doing that but…
For me it’s not so much the fetish aspect, but more about absurdity, because there is nothing much about underwear. It’s not that much closer to my cock than my pants are. When you see underwear, it’s way more outside… I was kind of playing with it.
This is a theoretical question. I’m going to try it out. It’s an experimental question…
Are we done with the sexy part now?
We’re past the sexy part. Do you have anything else to say?
Um, no, my work is pretty hard…
It’s not sexy (gesturing around the room). It’s all edges, and I build stuff…
Samuel Roy-Bois. Installation. 2012. Langara College. Photo Credit: Miguel Burr
Oh, right, it’s not like the room is in the shape of a nude woman or something. Do you think anybody has had sex in here?
No, I don’t think so. I have the key, so…
A lot of people, if they see a place that they know nobody had ever had sex in, they’ll have sex there just to mark it.
To mark it?
Just to ‘christen’ it, I think.
I think they have a sense like, ‘Nobody has ever had sex here. It needs to happen.’
I’m making a movie in here, I guess I could…
You could, you’re filming a road movie right?
I’m filming a road movie.
There could be a sex scene.
There is actually a kissing scene. Maybe I should bring it up to the next level… But a four minute kiss is enough.
A four-minute kiss is a form of sex… like mouth fucking!
Let’s talk about the road movie since we’ve already brought it up. Will it be watchable?
It will be watchable. My aim is to do a feature film. I want it to be watchable like you watch a movie on Netflix. It’s going to be seen in here. The structure has been built to produce the movie and everything… to make it and show it.
Do you have a title for the road movie yet?
It will be called Nothing Blank Forever.
Nothing Blank Forever, the movie. Nothing Blank Forever II!
(laughs) The sequel.
What are some of your favourite road movies?
I’m a sucker for Easy Rider. I know I should come up with something more original than that.
No, it’s a classic for a reason. Do you know who wrote that? My favorite American writer of the last hundred years, Terry Southern. He wrote Dr. Strangelove. He wrote Barbarella. He also wrote some novels, he wrote a great novel called The Magic Christian…
He co-wrote it (Easy Rider) with Dennis Hopper?
Dennis Hopper wrote about three of his own lines and then got rights to it and screwed Terry Southern out of the money. It’s documented in history that he was cheated and died penniless. But he wrote that. I’ve read a good bit about it. I love him. He actually is credited with the first piece of Gonzo journalism, which was a piece called, ‘How I signed Up for $250 a Day for the Big Parade Through Havana Bla Bla Bla and Wound Up Working for the CIA in Guatemala’. It’s a great story.
(laughs) I want to read it.
Having seen your other installation and this one, there’s a real sense of emptiness.
And maybe even meaninglessness.
Possibly. If someone mentioned these works in their suicide letter, how would you feel?
Oh my god, this is a trick question because, what are you going to say? That you’d be flattered? You cannot do that. It is impossible, so I’ll leave it at that.
Would you characterize yourself as a careerist?
No, it’s weird because I am ambitious, but what I want to do is put myself in a position where I can make more work. It’s not that I want to have a ‘Big Career’ but just because I want to make more work.
Yeah, making more crazy stuff. But if I were curious I would have chosen a more clever way to make art and get it out there. Like this, for example, is a kind of project that doesn’t travel easily. I think if I could, I would do photographs. You can charge as much as paintings and you can edit them on a computer, and you just ask the printer to make them.
You wish you’d done photos?
If I were a computer guy, especially working in Vancouver.
Are you familiar with the word ‘insipid’?
Yeah, why? Nobody told me that before.
Do you think that something can be so inoffensive that it becomes offensive?
Yeah, I aim to do that. I’m looking for that sweet spot. It’s hard to offend people without being obvious, or walk down charted territory. So, yeah, if I could do that, I would reach my goal somehow. Do you think I’m getting there?
Yeah, well I think…
Like right now, it was a little messy for a while, then I got the motorcycle, and it looked like a finished installation, and people were very happy about that, like it had reached a moment when it came to a conclusion. They had no idea about what it could mean or what it was. Just that it wasn’t messy, it seemed under control, and for most people this was enough to create meaning, or to get this impression that it’s ‘meaningful’ and that the artist knows what he’s doing and that nobody’s wasting their time. It brings closure. But I think this piece works best when there is no sense of closure. When it’s always like right now; there’s 2x4s and student paintings around, and the motorcycle’s there and people in the room chatting, and there is no moment when it’s over. When you’re a big artist, you work in your studio, you do stuff and you finish your sculpture and bring it to the gallery and that’s it. I’m kind of like, there’s no moment when that’s it, it’s over. And people are always asking, ‘Why this room? What are you doing in there?’
They’re asking questions.
They need to resolve what that object is, otherwise they feel that they’re being cheated or laughed at or that they’re being manipulated. Or that the artist is overusing his power. And I kind of like that.
Well, it’s engaging them, really. I’ve read in your interviews you mentioning occupying or reclaiming space. Were you part of the Occupy Movement?
Do you think that the Occupy Movement saw you and got any ideas?
No, absolutely not. I can understand where that feeling of disillusion comes from, especially in Vancouver. It’s a very frustrating place to be. It’s very expensive, it’s hard to get decent… you have to work like a dog if you want to just survive. But what happened in Vancouver came out of mimicry. They were just mimicking something that was cool in New York. Just this wish of being part of a bigger movement took over the actual discourse or the actual goal.
I would say you’re not alone in that thinking. Are you sucking on the teat of Michel Foucault? He was into gay S&M, so I think he would like that question.
(laughs) I read a lot of his work when I was taking my Masters. Like when I talk about this project, the text he wrote on trying to define spaces with multiple identities. So his text is very important. Although I would secretly like to rewrite it, to narrow down the definition of Heterotopia. I think it is too broad. I think it could be narrowed down.
Sites which fulfill many roles. This notion was crucial to me for this project because I wanted to create this site that would be a movie set; that would be a garage space, a recording studio, a meeting room; it’s been used for a theater play as well. It’s got multiple identities, and people walking by could never resolve the true nature of this site.
They don’t get one answer.
Exactly! And they struggle with it. Because when you walk, everywhere, and you go downtown everything is conveniently done for you. Everything is founded on identical premises. With permanent structures, when people lose interest, they lose value very quickly. So I wanted to have this place that doesn’t need to define itself.
Let’s talk about fiction or fictions, which you’ve mentioned in interviews. What fictions have you created or wish to create?
I see each installation as a piece of fiction to a certain degree, in the sense that they always involve people walking through a site.
Of an imaginary place?
It isn’t like when you look at a sculpture or a painting and you perceive everything at once. My pieces mean that you’re going to see part of it and then discover a bit more and once you are in another section of the installation the first part that you have seen won’t be visible anymore, so you cannot have a full view of the work at once, it is just impossible. Like I mentioned, that musical pieces, you cannot listen to Iron Maiden’s piece…
I love Iron Maiden!
Or Carcass. I listened to Carcass just yesterday. I haven’t listened to death metal in years, but yesterday I was happy to listen to it. But any piece, you cannot listen to it in one second. You need at least three seconds. You need some time, and once you are at second number three, second number one is over. My installations are like moments…
Sequences of moments… What fiction do you read?
I don’t read fiction.
Is it a matter of principle or just time?
I’d love to say that it’s a principle, but I won’t, I’d be lying, it’s really time.
Is it possible that the fiction you’ve created is that you are actually an artist?
Uh, that I’m not a real artist and I just pretend? It’s funny because that came through my mind, and actually in the script I’m writing for this piece I say basically the same words, ‘Uh, I’ve been to art school and I became an artist, but for me this whole art thing was really just a way to avoid talking about stuff… it was just working as a smokescreen.’
It’s not that you’re a phoney, but maybe you’re something else.
I could be something else…
Do you control this space? Is it open for others to use?
It’s available for use. Students had a sculpture show here last week, see all these paintings around here, like this beautiful muffin painting (displays a small painting of a muffin with a pencil sticking out of it). This art show I invited students to be a part of. It’s not curated. I have this space, I’d like to organize a painting and drawing exhibition, so if you have work, bring it in. Whoever wants to be in the show.
(laughs) Can’t have guys off the street walking in.
Well, I would like that. I don’t like the whole curatorial thing. It’s overplayed.
Why not let homeless people dry out in here at night while no one else is using the space.
The initial idea for my show at Artspeak was about that. I remember an anecdote when I was about nine and so candid, I would be asking my mom while walking downtown in Quebec City of all places, and I would see this homeless guy. And I would be like, ‘Mom, we have an extra room in the basement. Why don’t we let that guy live in there, he’s on the street, freezing, and we have space. Why don’t we?’ And I could not understand that we were not doing that. It did not make sense to me.
There’s so much space.
Any building when you look around it, you have all these empty rooms. It seems like we’re having a problem defining spaces. And I think that kind of naivety is missing. We need that. There is no progression without this kind of candid attitude and naivety. If it’s not existent, we just follow the fucking rules and whoever is the strongest gets everything. There’s no real change.
Are you hiding something?
I am. All the time. I won’t say what.
No, you’re still hiding it. Is everybody hiding something?
Oh yeah. Are you hiding something?
No, I think it’s a failure throughout my life, I should have hidden more.
You’re not hiding anything?
(makes high-pitched noise) Ahhh…. I hide some things. (laughs) Everybody hides something. I’m sure I hide something. Yes. Yes. You got me there.
I didn’t kill like fifteen people and hide them in that room, but we need that.
I guess we need that. Do you consider yourself lazy?
No. I’m not lazy. Why? Do I come across as lazy?
No, you don’t come across as lazy, but a lot of times artists… like I always feel like I don’t write enough. Sometimes I consider myself lazy… so I’m just wondering, are you self-critical?
Yeah, but I’m not lazy. I don’t like being lazy and I work hard. Some people come in and are like (gestures around the room), ‘oh you just put up a wall with a fucking door and…’ No, it’s a lot of work. It doesn’t look like it. But I build everything myself too. Like this structure here I did myself. Sometimes I have help, or on rare occasions somebody will build something entirely, but most of the time I like to be involved and make stuff. It doesn’t look artistic, anybody could build this basically, but I like to do it myself.
My idea for that question came from your monologue at Artspeak, because you were talking about how, ‘I like to sleep in, I like to sleep in late, I like to drink my coffee in bed. But when I get up I do a lot.’
(laughs) I don’t like to sleep in.
I can’t sleep in. In fact I’m compulsively early. I was here at twelve (for 2:30 pm interview).
You were here at twelve?!
I was here at twelve… I’m so afraid… I know why though. Because my father was in the Air Force, he was a military guy and he put this fear of being late in my head. It drives my girlfriend crazy. I want to go to the airport four hours early.
I like to do that. I like to be at the airport early because then you can do nothing and not feel guilty about it. I can do anything, just people watching and not feel guilty about it.
Do you think modern art can leave people with a sense of emptiness or aimlessness?
Modern art… a lot of things were done in modern art.
Staring at a landscape or just looking through the window can be meaningless, but for me that kind of moment, I dwell on. This sense of being here now, which is absolutely meaningless. And once you put that in perspective, it’s actually… I’m ready to live my life with meaninglessness. I’m absolutely ready for that.
Why should the arts be fostered and funded if artists tend to leave viewers feeling empty?
It’s not… I would disagree with leaving viewers feeling empty. I think people get something out of very unexplainable experiences.
Not always. I think you have to be mentally available for that. And ready to play the game. And trust the artist, which is lacking. And I can see that with your own perception of contemporary art. I think you have to trust the artists.
Really? Even when artists are tricksters?
Why are they tricksters? They are no more tricksters than Steven Spielberg is. E.T. never existed for real.
But on a sound stage in Hollywood, E.T. the dummy, did exist for real.
You have to suspend your disbelief for a while when you are going to a movie. And the funny thing is that more and more, even Spielberg tries to take that out of the equation. Though, new medias and technologies are getting closer and closer to the real thing. For me and my work, I’m going in both directions. I’m interpreting things as they are, and I’m asking the public to come all the way into my world and trust me. Steven Spielberg isn’t asking for the public’s faith.
He’s terrible now anyway. I think he’s an example of a once-great artist who betrayed his talent.
Well, he’s become encapsulated by the whole machine. He’s become a plutocrat.
He built a machine and then it swallowed him.
I can see the reason why.
Maybe he had no choice in the matter; it was his destiny. What has the public’s general reaction been to this project?
Very diverse, and that was my goal, to have people walking by and not noticing anything at all. To people walking by and knocking on the door to asking me what it is, to people complaining because they don’t know what’s going on, to hearing from my wife that somebody’s saying that it’s bullshit because there is nothing happening, or I’m not there. People expecting that I will be in here every day from nine to five.
In here? (laughs)
RB: Yeah, and the public working with me doing stuff. So it’s the whole range. This is a very unique project in the sense that it spans eight months. Usually I work on a project, then comes the show and that’s it. But this one is…
Over a span of time…
Yeah, always changing and always progressing, somehow.
How about the reaction to the installation at Artspeak?
It’s been much better than what I expected, I must say. I expected more reactions like yours.
People have been enjoying questioning. Which is a great thing, I guess. I feel like we live in this commercial world, where you have a need and the need that you have should be fulfilled right away, and it should be easy for you to find a way to fulfill that need. I’m horny, I get porn right away. I’m hungry, I get that. I want to look a certain way, I get it right away. I don’t want my nose, I want to change it. I can have that done next week. Anything can be done, and answered very, very quickly. So I need something which is not necessarily answering a need, like people coming to a show, looking for contentment, and not getting that right away. Who’s in that door? I can’t see. That’s what I’m here for. And there is nothing, it’s a disappointment. And the recording reflects that. And if you listen to it carefully, you realize that. That the person doing that monologue is actually my point of view of the person living on the other side, and that whole routine of wherever in the city, walking, running errands and ending up there, and discovering that space on the other side of the door. And there are a couple of versions, the first one is the person walks in and absolute disappointment, ‘I thought it was going to be this great experience, and would feel like a meaningful place, this is bullshit, and whoever invited me here is just a fucker’, but when the loop starts over again, the person goes in and says, ‘This is a great spot. Look at this, maybe this isn’t what I had in mind, but it’s this big place and maybe it’s going to be a transformative experience.’
The movie. I want to finish the movie. It’s going to be presented here at the end of April. I don’t have an exact date to give you, but if you could do a great promo. Finishing it, finishing the shoot, finishing the music, because I do everything.
What’s the music like?
I have a band I put together for this, somehow. With cello, I play bass, there is guitar, and there is flute. So, kind of improvised. Chamber music, I’d say. Repetitive.
I’m going to publish the photo of your mystery tenant. How does that make you feel?
I’m a little surprised. It’s not a mystery tenant. It’s just somebody living in there; as mysterious as your neighbour can be mysterious. Like the people living across the street, I’ll never have any idea what the people living across the street, a couple houses down, look like. And we talked about this person right now, and I don’t know what this person is looking like. So it’s the same type of experience. Living within close proximity, but never knowing anything about…
As boring as life.
Check out Samuel Roy-Bois at http://www.samuelroybois.com/
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