Samuel Roy-Bois: From Private Life to Public Art

In late February, Samuel Roy-Bois gave a packed-room talk at Simon Fraser University. Tall, slim, and handsome, the Montreal artist kept the crowd hanging off his every charmingly accented word for exactly 60 minutes, after which he left on an enigmatic note: “For obvious reasons, I will not be answering any questions.”

The following week, at Langara College on West 49th, I see two men chatting by the room-sized Plexiglas cube that is Roy-Bois’s new installation, Nothing Blank Forever. One, with curly hair and deep olive skin, walks over. A cold wind is whipping between us; dark clouds threaten overhead. The man introduces himself as Samuel Roy-Bois. I stare back, puzzled. “You’ve changed quite a bit since Saturday.”

He laughs. “Oh, you thought that was me?” He explains that he hired an actor to speak for him at SFU. “I like to think that those artist talks are just a continuation of the work, that there’s no real ‘take the mask down’ kind of thing,” he explains. “I wrote the talk like a play, an hourlong monologue with my work as the structural element.”

We enter Nothing Blank Forever, and a gust makes the walls creak. “It was really windy on Saturday. I started to worry that it wouldn’t stay up.” Roy-Bois, who is 38 but appears much younger, points out little pencil marks on the wooden ceiling, the way screws are placed to remain visible. He likes to do the construction himself, to make sure evidence of the process is not erased. “All those little things that build up the story.”

His built-up stories have been shown at Point Ephémère in Paris, the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Montreal, and, in Vancouver, at the Contemporary Art Gallery, the Republic Gallery, the Or, and, most recently, the Artspeak. His work tends to be concerned with architecture and the built environment-the way that spaces are lived in and understood.

For Ghetto, at the Contemporain in 2006, Roy-Bois built a room with a large window, and a door through which viewers could come and go. Filling the space was a bed; in this very private space, gallerygoers found themselves the focus of the installation. “It was this impression of being in a safe environment,” he says now. “But you were also on display.”

At Artspeak in February, for I Had a Great Trip Despite a Brutal Feeling of Cognitive Dissonance, a wall was built to isolate part of the gallery, which was turned into a makeshift apartment. He put an ad on Craigslist, advertising free living space for the duration of the exhibition. No information was divulged about the resident who was found. When I visited that installation, I followed what was left of the public gallery space-a narrow corridor with a thin layer of white paint, the wood grain showing through. I was surprised to end up in the gallery’s office. “It’s in there,” a man behind a desk offered, directing me toward the corridor. “I’ll turn on the audio.”

A small bench had been built in front of the resident’s door. I sat and listened to a monologue, read by a male actor, that described what moving in may have been like. I couldn’t help but try to tune out the recording as I listened for sounds from within, as I looked for shadows beneath the door. When another visitor arrived, as disoriented as I’d been, I felt like I’d been caught red-handed. He went straight for the door. When he stepped back, confused that it wouldn’t open, I looked up from the notes I’d been pretending to take and said, “We can’t go in. Someone lives there.”

For the artist, privacy is the product of architecture. It’s about “making you believe you are alone.” Against that notion stand the transparent walls of Nothing Lasts Forever. In a corner of the space rests a black motorcycle that looks as if it’s covered a lot of pavement. It will be part of a sculpture that Roy-Bois will feature in the road movie he’s filming inside the space. The movie will be understood mainly through a voice-over. The visuals and audio will not exactly match up, but he doesn’t think that’s going to be a problem; he believes it’s a genre most viewers can intuitively follow. After all, this idea of “motion,” of “a trip,” is as negotiable as any of his other conceits. “Somebody walking across a room could be a road trip,” he explains, “or somebody changing clothes. Somebody trying to become somebody else could be a road trip.”

From all corners the room emits a series of high squeaks. Roy-Bois walks around, inspecting. “This is bending a lot. I’ve never seen it bend so much.” He pushes against the Plexiglas, testing it. “It won’t collapse,” he says.

I don’t know whether to believe him.