Guillaume Adjutor Provost is an interdisciplinary artist, researcher, and educator whose carefully considered material practice combines installation, sculpture, performance, video, drawing, and text. In his oeuvre, Adjutor Provost creates ethereal landscapes meant for thorough contemplation by his viewer. The artist envisions the space of the exhibition as a container of ideas and sees the act of exhibiting collections as a vehicle for issues such as class consciousness, counter-culture, vernacular imagery, and experiences of queerness.
The figure of the wizard, a cross-cultural fictional practitioner of magic that has inspired young and old for centuries, is a wonderful character that Adjutor Provost has appropriated for himself for years. Not too dissimilar from the romantic archetype of the visual artist, the wizard enjoys a rich and mythical history in folklore. From these, legends of the supernatural have also emerged a sense of opaqueness and the unknown. Adjutor Provost adopts a similar aura, enchanting his audience with the transformation of mundane objects into signs, symbols, and signifiers of a forgotten or occulted past. In doing so, he positions the archive as a repository of knowledge and the activity of curation as an assemblage of disparate ideas. The shapes, volumes, and creatures he manifests in his work find a temporary resting place, always on the verge, edging towards a kind of liveness and movement.
When I met with Adjutor Provost, I could not help but consider the aura of mystery that surrounds him. In following his career, I always found his lime green crustacean-like sculptures enigmatic, his historically informed installations of various repurposed or slightly altered materials like denim shirts, ashtrays, and mind-altering plants, curious, and his kitsch aesthetic of tie-die, zoot suits, and bejewelled boots intriguingly appealing. Through our conversation we moved past this surreptitious veil and dug deep into his interdisciplinary practice, touching on his rural upbringing in the Outaouais region in Quebec, and his early exposure to viewing performance art in Quebec City. We discussed his labour politics and aesthetic precision, as well as the importance of the archive in shaping contemporary art practices and politics. Throughout our exchange, Adjutor Provost was honest and at times vulnerable, showing doubt and uncertainty where many might assume clear intentions and assurance. In our refreshingly candid conversation, I discovered in Adjutor Provost—a master of his craft—a student of history and culture, as well as an artist/wizard straddling the boundaries of various known and unknown worlds in order to generate exciting and novel propositions.
I choose to paint myself as a kind of Dungeons & Dragons character, a wizard of some sort. The archetype aligns well with my practice. I think it is linked with the idea of transformation, how formlessness can find its form over a period of time.
The first time that we met in person was at the 2016 Baie-Saint-Paul Symposium in Québec. I remember you were sitting at your studio booth in this big, hollow hockey arena. You really looked like a wizard. You had this beard, small round glasses, and were sitting amongst all the carefully-assembled objects that you had made throughout the residency. You really appeared otherworldly in that space. I remember thinking, "Ah, this is the mythical Guillaume Adjutor Provost, who I've heard so much about!" I had this impression of you from your Instagram profile: "Visual artist/wizard, based in Montreal, (CA)." Can you tell me about this figure of the wizard in your practice? I think it offers a central element in understanding your work.
You're really observant! I would say that it's definitely tongue-in-cheek. Speaking formally about being a professional is something that is expected of us artists. I tend to downplay my professional title. I choose to paint myself as a kind of Dungeons & Dragons character, a wizard of some sort. The archetype aligns well with my practice. I think it is linked with the idea of transformation, how formlessness can find its form over a period of time. I'm interested in ideas around transfiguration and transformation, I link these concepts with Jungian archetypes.1 One of the main underlying driving forces of the wizard is to leave a tangible mark on the world. It's a transformative and complex figure found in the Jungian framework that manipulates images. For me, being an artist raises the question of what, or who are we manipulating through our work. Making work or being perceived as an artist is also a way of transformation.
Do you find that the figure of the wizard fits into the contemporary art world? Or does it trouble it?
I think it fits well because a lot of references within art history, like the artist, curator, critic, or academic, sometimes speak from the supposed position of a sage or an oracle. It's a role that I have also connected to and toyed with since I was a child.
What is the everydayness of your practice? What does a day in the studio with you look like? You obviously wear many hats, as an educator, an artist, a thinker…
I find these hats are what being an artist is all about in the twenty-first century in Canada. You're asked to do a bunch of different activities that are somewhat outside the production of your own artwork. I don’t find these other activities in competition, I feel them to be nourishing or to influence what I'm working on.
A word that I really like is "fermentation." The process of fermentation requires time and space to get a sense of life or essence. If I work too quickly I feel like there is probably something missing. My process is really present and obvious in the work that I do using dye vats. The dye that I use to transform fabric changes the essence of the material itself. There is this sense of surprise, wonder, and the unexpected in this process because you are not always exactly sure how it will turn out. You set out with one intention, but there's a strong probability that it will be different from what you anticipated. Through this process in my studio, I’ve learned to relinquish control and let go of things.
Most of the work that I do is layered, meaning that it is constructed through a succession of decisions, both intentional and unintentional. The work is rarely resolved through the course of one day, but rather initiated and paused, so the studio is always in different states because there are things that are waiting to be finished.
You describe a very organic ecosystem with this “fermentation” in your practice that is alive and unpredictable. And yet, a lot of your installations get framed by others in the contemporary arts milieu as relatively ascetic, static, or in a kind of pause.
Maybe there's a maturity that I'm looking for? Things are maturing. This is when the work is done and is able to be in its finished state. When I started my exhibition practice, it was really influenced by performance art, and I was mostly putting forward objects that you could wear, interact with, or transform in some way. At the time I was asking a lot from the public when they interacted with my work. I think I was giving away the final interpretation to everyone else as an open gesture. But now I'm reclaiming this final decision of determining where the work ends and what it might mean.
How has performance art been important to your own practice, and do you see it as an entry point to other explorations within contemporary art?
I spent half a decade working almost exclusively as a performance artist. Other mediums that I was working with at the time, like sculpture or drawing, were always in support of performances. Performance is the art of presence; it's the art of setting out intentions, and of cultivating attention. It's about being observant and attentive, which is who I really am, so it was the right medium and I really connected to it at a younger age. I never gave up on the idea of the performative, so the exhibitions that I have done since then were always working through this idea of presence and the performative in objects and materials. I have also collaborated with performers in other exhibitions that I curate or create, and in the last two or three years I have started doing video performances to reconnect with the liveness of performative gestures.
When you first started making these performances, who were your art historical references? Who were you looking at for inspiration, direction? What models did you aim to emulate and/or surpass?
At the undergraduate level, I had a very basic understanding of the fine arts, but I possessed a real hunger for culture. It's important to understand that I was coming from the countryside and I had no contact with contemporary art. Everything had to be learned. I was drawn toward practices that were interdisciplinary, but also connected to the everyday lives of their creators. The first name that comes to mind is Massimo Guerrera, a local Montreal interdisciplinary artist. Massimo’s work, for me, is the absolute epitome of creative freedom. I was trying to put forward a similar sensibility. I embraced how his installations were alive with communities co-living, eating, performing, and working together. There is also the photographer Raymonde April, again, because she was working with the quotidien in her art. Ken Lum, Louise Bourgeois, and Mike Kelly also come to mind. They are all great storytellers. Another important influence is my experiences at Le Lieu, a notable performance art centre in Quebec City. There, I was exposed to and had the chance to meet in person preeminent performance artists like Carolee Schneemann and Orlan.
You mention coming from the countryside: you were born in Gatineau, Ottawa, received a BA in Graphic Design from Université Laval in Québec City in 2009, an MFA in Visual Arts from the same university in 2011, and a PhD in Studio Arts from Université du Québec à Montréal in 2017. Walk us through this trajectory.
I grew up in a rural setting with very limited exposure to culture and almost no contact with visual arts. I remember an event: I was fifteen years old when we got a satellite dish; before that, we had two channels that were really glitchy. It's weird because I was born in 1987, but it wasn’t until I turned fifteen years old that we got our first connected TV. I begged my parents for a subscription to the new channel in Quebec called ARTV. I would stay up late and watch foreign movies. There was also this program where Catherine Pogonat, a young journalist, would present a series of TV commercials and comment on them. And another one called Mange ta Ville where she focused more specifically on culture in the city of Montreal. This idea of publicity as an art form really captivated me. As a result of this, when I started my studies in graphic design I was sure I would work in publicity. Quickly, I drifted towards studio arts, but everything I learned about typography, editing, and writing came really handy as an artist.
I spent eleven years studying at the university level and I can say that the University as an institution did not always know what to do with me. In both my degrees I worked and researched between departments: visual art, museology, art history, and literature. I found my voice at the intersections of disciplines and mediums. I'm definitely privileged and lucky to be where I am, but this is also a result of being connected with a lot of different scenes.
...like everyone else, I have a lot of doubt and insecurities about what I try to explain as an artist because there's no language for it. I'm searching for a language that doesn't exist.
Some of these scenes involve your interests in folklore, science-fiction, and certain otherworldly phenomena. Tell me more about these intersecting fields.
I love folklore because I want to understand humans living in different settings, times, and narratives. An example of this is one of my recent projects, the video-performance Zooter (2019) which took as its starting point the figure of the mid-1940s zoot-suiters in Montreal. Ostensibly working through an archive of fashion, I was able to draft a portrait on representations of anti-heroes in the collective Québecois unconscious of the period: Mafiosi, criminals, pimps, and the devil. Given the tense wartime atmosphere in Canada, combined with Ottawa’s exhortations for social cohesion, the actions and appearances of the zooters took on “unpatriotic” overtones in the eyes of many Canadians, especially those in other official state uniforms. This small piece of provincial folklore, the “zoot-suiters” becomes an entry point to explore broader questions about the dress codes of that period and how they might relate to the underlying construction of antagonist relationships and its many public representations.
Have you heard of the concept of psycho-history? It appears in Isaac Asimov's work as a fictional science, which combines history, sociology, and statistics to make general predictions about the future behaviour of a large group of people. If we step out of fiction, it's considered a pseudoscience because it operates between different forms of science and borrows loosely from ideas that sit between fields of knowledge. I would argue that art tends to also incorporate ideas that are not yet attributed or fixed into solid disciplines. Psycho-history is interesting because it positions emotions and affects at the core of historical evidence. To work with archives and to work with the past means that I am always zooming in and out of what I'm looking at. Seeing the bigger picture. It's not always easy, because eventually there are troubling situations, and we tend to see past events through the lens of what was commonly the way of looking at them.
How do you move so fluidly between hyper-local context or historical figures to a more universal idea? From the individual to the collective?
I believe we can strive for common experiences while avoiding equating these as some kind of universality. The perspectives of what belongs to the individual versus the collective are perpetually shifting when I create. Growing up, I didn't have the (mis)guidance to distinguish high-culture from low-culture, so there's this mismatched perceptual transition between the two that is still in my work. Perhaps your question is more about the scale of what I put forth? Reading Spinoza helped me get in touch with important concepts that I apply in the selection of subjects, namely the conatus, which is the impulse of a “thing” to exist and to enhance itself. This “will to live” may be applied to living subjects, but also to ideas or to shared worldviews. Whether hyper-local or global, the subjects that appeal to me have in common a palpable sense of being alive.
This “will to live” translates quite nicely into your interest in the history of labour movements, specifically in your piece Cent-trente-trois, which was exhibited at Bikini, Lyon, France. Here, you presented seven pairs of dyed canvas trousers with SPVM (French acronym for the Montreal Police Department) logos. You explore historical principles and models of self-management, Montréal Police Union negotiation protests which ran from 2014 to 2017. Can you expand on your ruminations on labour and how this thinking functions in this work?
I understand labour and identity as intertwined concepts. Sometimes, I try to imagine what world could have been possible if we weren't entrenched in the current capitalist, neoliberal system. This is a system that ultimately influences our thoughts and emotions and how we manage our relationships. In the project you describe, I produced fake police uniform trousers similar to the ones worn in a strike that ran for three years in Montreal. While the police were denied the right to protest against a law amending municipal employees’ pension plans, police officers decided to change their uniforms by wearing modified colourful pants. In the vein of other pieces I have created about the broad definitions of labour movements, it was asking if the police can be rightfully considered to be part of the working class. I wanted to explore how this event wasn’t publicly well received by the general population, at a time when the individuals in question were under scrutiny for racial profiling and other forms of police violence. There was an inherent tension between the playful aesthetic of that protest, wearing colorful silly trousers instead of a police uniform, and the growing calls to defund the police.
I've heard you be referred to as a flâneur or even a dandy. Someone more engaged in intellectual reverie or wandering and perhaps less involved in craft, handiwork, and manual labour. But, from what you’ve described in this interview, you seem more of a cobbler or a bricoleur. Is there an intersection between these traits? Or, are the two characters unable to coexist because the flaneur is economically independent, able to wander without worry, and the bricoleur, isn't because he’s restricted by the labour of toiling with his hands and making a living for himself?
The figure of the flâneur became really present for me towards the end of my master’s degree. I was really impacted by certain Victorian ideas, without realizing that to be a flâneur and to be free to simply rêver comes from financial privilege. This was ultimately not the case for me, so I’m conflicted with the figure of the flâneur. As artists, we have inherited an economic and professional system that requires you to come from wealth to survive. I grew up in Québec, I was able to obtain higher education with student loans. I had a certain safety net, but this doesn't mean that becoming an artist is any easier. That's something that bothers me, because you just want to find the best vessel for your ideas, but sometimes you don't have the financial means to produce them.
Alongside your more spatial and sculptural work, you maintain a regular drawing practice. Tell me more about the ongoing Flux series that you started in 2018.
In 2018, I started working on the exhibition Vapeurs at Fonderie Darling and I became interested in ideas of self-consciousness, psychedelics, hallucinations, and science fiction. I took classes on auto-hypnosis, which might also be called meditation. After these sessions I would begin to work on something. It became a way to transcribe a state of mind during a specific day. At first, it started as a private practice, it wasn't meant to be exhibited or shown, but after a while I started to show them to friends and their interest in them and excitement became contagious. They’re very haptic, repetitive, and the sequences of form develop a language that I elaborated from moments of self-awareness.
Connected to this self-awareness and sense of the haptic, I’ve felt a performative presence in viewing your installations, although I'm not always sure what that presence is. Can you describe this intentional aura that you set in your installations?
The physical presence of the public is at the centre of my work. I think about the exhibition in terms of circulation, scale, as well as the position of the viewer when in the space. It's something that I needed to understand when I was a performance artist. How do you move around the space? How do the elements move you? I work in situ. This word is a bit overused, but you have to work with the space you are given. You could say that I am attentive, and that I have similar expectations of my public. I try to set the correct setting for this attention to be developed. There are long videos, a lot of text, or various details that I utilize in my work so I want to create the best possible situation for it to be received. Because it's a gift. An exhibition is always a gift.
In addition to the persona of the wizard, you adopt, adapt, and transform some of the tropes around what it means to be an artist—such as the artist as an intellectual, the artist as a researcher, or the artist as mad. What is the artist in the 2020s as a social, cultural, political creature?
The question speaks to my tendency of collecting and connecting subjects. I feel a deeper connection with artists and thinkers who work self-consciously and who can position themselves and their contemporaries in a meta-historical discourse. Your question is particular because it sets the tone for me to know myself and be inspirational about my position as an artist and human being. But, like everyone else, I have a lot of doubt and insecurities about what I try to explain as an artist because there's no language for it. I'm searching for a language that doesn't exist. I'm setting the bar pretty high. I have to learn to talk and transmit my position. I apply this attention to the work I make, and to the life I want to live. I want to be an experimental partner, an experimental artist, and an experimental teacher.
That’s a very honest and revealing answer. Returning to where we began, the wizard is a mythical and mystical figure who sometimes seems impervious to doubt, who seems to know everything or at least, if he doesn't, he doesn't show it—but, here you expose your own doubts.
[Laughs] Yes, there is doubt at times.