The Strathcona street on which Kyla Mallett lives is a surprise. Quiet and picturesque, its two residential blocks are tucked between warehouses, a railway cut, and a major traffic artery. The setting is curiously like Mallett’s art: an unexpected cultural conversation is happening here, murmurous and marginalized. Not marginalized in the sense of being disadvantaged, but in the sense of being outside the mainstream, hidden from everyday view. Whether focusing on the notes passed between suburban schoolgirls or remarks scribbled in library books or the weird end of self-help culture, this interdisciplinary artist is interested in what she calls “unsanctioned language”.
Mallett was still an art student when her series “Legendary Teens” ushered her into the realm of critical and curatorial notice. First exhibited in 2000, it consists of 50 diptychs, each composed of a colour photo of a Tsawwassen high-school student and a corresponding questionnaire. Mallett queried the teens on a range of subjects, from their taste in music, film, and celebrities to their weekend activities and career plans.
“I did the work in ’99, so it was this weird moment of premillennium fear for teenagers,” Mallett recalls, sitting in her study. “There was this interesting content that was quite specific to a time.” It was also specific to her creative process, which melds a documentary or archival form with a fine-art impulse.
At art school in Vancouver—she earned a BFA at Emily Carr and an MFA at UBC—Mallett was exposed to the ways art production could intersect with cultural theory and “pseudo-sociological” methods. “I wrote my thesis at UBC on language and communication in adolescent girl culture,” she says. A parallel body of work saw her photograph real-life notes, the kind written by bored teenage girls on torn pieces of paper and passed secretly in class. “I was thinking about an invisible kind of network that really dictated their social existence.”
The youth-culture element has subsided in Mallett’s work, but her interest in unsanctioned language and the unseen cultural fabric has endured. During a 2005 residency at Threewalls, an artist-run centre in Chicago, she created an audio piece out of gossip phoned in to an anonymous voice mailbox. In 2006, for a public-art commission at the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library, she photographed margin notes and graffiti found in library books. This project segued into a multicomponent photographic and screen-print work that she created while perusing discarded publications in the Vancouver Art Gallery library. (She exhibited it this spring in the VAG’s survey show How Soon Is Now.)
One of the books she turned up there, curiously titled The Assertive Librarian, has launched Mallett into a new project, its completion date and exhibition venue yet to be revealed. She’s reading advice and scanning charts and diagrams from an eclectic array of self-help books—found objects, really—starting with a battered old paperback, How to See and Read an Aura.
“I’m not approaching this stuff with irony,” she says. “I’m looking at it as a cultural phenomenon.”
For Samuel Roy-Bois, art clearly intersects with life. Less than 10 years into his career, he is critically acclaimed for his interactive installations and performances, together with his drawings, paintings, sculpture, and music. (He plays electric bass, composes, and records.) He has had solo exhibitions across Canada and in Europe, and has toured half the world with the Montreal-based performance group PME-ART. Roy-Bois’s most recent project, however, is the renovation of his East Side home.
When the Straight shows up at his door, he and his young family have just moved in, and it’s impossible to resist drawing analogies between the ambitious home improvements he’s single-handedly undertaken and the architectural installations he’s constructed in galleries near and far. The design and construction skills he acquired while assembling his art-world projects have come in handy while he’s making his real-world house more livable.
In the exhibition catalogue for the Vancouver Art Gallery’s recent survey show How Soon Is Now, curator Kathleen Ritter notes that Roy-Bois’s “immersive installations” often blur “the boundary between the work of art and the exhibition space”.
Roy-Bois agrees. “Immersion is an important word,” he says, sitting in his back yard. “I like it when people feel like they are stepping outside the art venue”¦that they’re experiencing an object for what it is, without the filter of art.”
His newest boundary-blurring works include Polarizer, a complex, mazelike exhibition on the theme of a quest. It opened at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery this past spring and is touring to venues in Ontario and Nova Scotia. They also encompass Ugly Today, Beautiful Tomorrow, the sound booth that he built for How Soon Is Now and equipped with old guitars, drums, bass, and amplifiers. Gallery visitors could enter the soundproof room and make music, which was broadcast in the VAG’s main-floor lobby, mixing opposing impulses of public performance and anonymity.
“I got a lot of feedback regarding that piece,” Roy-Bois says. “I heard about families finding themselves in the booth and playing together. Or two old friends meeting there and playing music. Or bands having rehearsals there.”
In his late teens, while hitchhiking around Europe, Roy-Bois thought about becoming a carpenter. Instead, he enrolled at Laval University in his native Quebec City. He majored in anthropology before having an important realization. “Instead of studying other people making things, I needed to make things with my own hands,” he says. “So I went to art school.”
Still, the anthropological and sociological theory he encountered resonated in his developing art practice. “I’m always interested in social dynamics and cultural realities and how people interact with form.”
Roy-Bois landed in Vancouver in 2006, after graduate school in Montreal and a two-year stint in New York. He’s already participated in four shows in the city and is planning another for the Republic Gallery in April 2010. In the meantime, he’s got more building to do: a studio in the basement of his new home. It promises to be an immersive environment. Wholly immersive.