For 25 years, the Québec City-based collective BGL (Jasmin Bilodeau, Sébastien Giguère, and Nicolas Laverdière) was a dynamic force in the Canadian art scene, exhibiting widely in the artists’ home province, as well as across the country and in Europe. In 2012, the trio’s work was featured in the critically acclaimed “Oh, Canada: Contemporary Art from North North America” at MASS MoCA, and in 2015, they represented Canada at the 56th Venice Biennale. In late 2021, “BGL: Two Thumbs Up Arts and Crafts,” at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, surveyed works from the past 15 years, along with new work. After the opening, the artists announced that BGL would be breaking up, making “Two Thumbs Up Arts and Crafts” possibly the last exhibition of their remarkable collaborative career.
BGL reaches back to Bilodeau, Giguère, and Laverdière’s earliest days as artists. At university in Québec City, Laverdière recalled, “Jasmin and Sébastien were already collaborating when I met them…and they had so much fun.” Bilodeau and Giguère began working together in CEGEP in Sherbrooke (in Québec, students graduate from high school in grade 11 and then spend two years at CEGEP, a kind of community college, to prepare them for university or careers). When they attended Laval University in Québec City, they found that students had to share studios. “Because I already knew him, we shared a space,” Bilodeau said. “So, we started like that.”
At first Giguère and Bilodeau worked as a duo, easing into a full artistic partnership. “Slowly we started to try some stuff on each other’s work,” Bilodeau recalled. “We had an exhibition together in Montreal, and then we met Nicolas.” At first they continued the process of working in pairs, with Laverdière working with Giguère, Giguère working with Bilodeau, and Bilodeau working with Laverdière. But then, Bilodeau added, “Nicolas rented a studio in Québec City, in a big building across the street from the university, and we decided to make an exhibition in his studio. We worked together, combined our solo pieces together, and made new work as a group.”
Theirs was an unorthodox working method, and initially, it caused some consternation. “The teachers were making jokes about how they would grade the works, but at the same time, they could feel the fun that we had, and the energy. We were always at school; we would work until midnight a lot of days. They really encouraged us.” The three young artists fed off of each other, pushing further than each could have individually. “We were like a band,” Laverdière explained, though he was careful to add that, unlike many musical groups, there was no hierarchy, no single songwriter or lead singer.
Their first real success as BGL came when they applied for a residency and exhibition at L’Œil de Poisson, an artist-run gallery in Québec City. Their collaboration evolved opportunistically in response to events. BGL worked in many ways, with individual ideas being brought fully formed to the group and adopted, or developed from the ground up by a duo or the entire group. All three members, however, had to agree on a project in order for it to be adopted as a BGL work. “All the possibilities were existing in BGL,” Laverdière said, “because there were some projects that, say, Jasmin would arrive with an idea, and then we would say, ‘Wow, yes great,’ and then we would start to discuss and make it. Other times, we would be walking together in the city and have an idea. We’d see something, and we’d all think the same thing. Sometimes it’s through duos…all the ways to work have been explored.”
These ways of working introduced each of the group members to approaches that they might not have otherwise explored on their own. “It gave me a lot of experience of materials that I’d never been familiar with,” Bilodeau said, using as an example the rods from bamboo curtains that appeared in several works in Charlottetown. “Nicolas came with the idea to paint a landscape on it, a subject that we like, which I’d never do myself.” They worked on the idea, “playing,” as they consistently describe their process, “and found something very, very fun to do.” They “drew” with the rods, creating scenes as if the viewer were looking at a painting or screen. “It makes a sort of blurry movement, so it’s very fun to see. It’s an effect that we like.”
By working collaboratively, they were able to reinforce each other in terms of getting work done. “It brought me discipline,” Laverdière recalled, “It gave me a routine; and being present at the studio is something that I know is good for my mental health. My way of working would never have been that playful without Jasmin and Seb. I’m pretty sure that now I’m dependent on that. I’m not attracted to a project that seems boring.” Boredom is a feeling rarely felt in a BGL exhibition; the sense of play that sparks the work is always apparent: “Together, we love to play, we love to laugh.”
Humor is a constant strategy. As Laverdière explains, “There’s a big part that is a reaction to dry art. Lots of times, we’d go into exhibitions and be bored. So, we would react with playful stuff. There were some artists in Québec City, a bit older than us, who were already playing with weird materials, and there was a sense of play and humor in their work, and that gave us the energy to keep on this way. I don’t know if it’s humor or if it’s playful; the goal is not to do a joke…it’s more of an effect from our way of working.”
In their first show at L’Œil de Poisson, BGL exhibited three shacks: inside, people discovered different atmospheres. The group concentrated on what they described as the parcours, the path through the work that viewers would follow, using it “to hide stuff and surprise viewers [so they] couldn’t see the whole installation at once.” This strategy became part of their subsequent practice: “For À l’abri des arbres (2000) at the MAC (Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal), you entered what looked like a waiting room. At the end of the exhibition, exactly the same room was waiting for you at the end. You would become completely lost, thinking, ‘Wow, I came back on my way.’ But you never came back. We were really playing with the perception of the space.”
Such humor and playfulness often manifested in works that poke fun at cherished cultural icons of Canadian and Québécois culture, opposing seriousness with radical play. But the artists don’t think of their work as activist or as necessarily bearing a message: “Making art, it’s political in general. We like to generate questions and question our perceptions. Our kind of engagement is just to generate freedom—we like it when art feels free. And yes, we can be against some stuff, but it’s more that we react to our world.”
Perhaps not surprisingly for a collective, the physical space in which the collaboration happens—the studio—is often a subject of thought and work. In Venice, and earlier in an exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, BGL created versions of studios as installations. For the 2006 Sobey Art Award exhibition in Montreal, they re-mounted Le discours des éléments, where viewers entered the gallery through a kind of “studio storeroom,” a large space packed with elements from past works and, presumably, materials that could become future sculptures. The show was, perhaps, more exemplary of wish fulfillment than it was any representation of their actual working space: “We didn’t have a huge place. We had a little barn…nothing like what it was at the museum.” Nonetheless, they were able to use small spaces to conceive expansive projects. The studio was where the playfulness had its first outlet. They recalled that “Sébastien always said [of the studio], ‘The best show is here.’ For Venice, we had to get another place. The city was gave us a place for six months, but our studio was super small. The room where we would try stuff was 15 by 20 feet, so we would have to clean it up and then arrange the work in stages.”
The facilities at the artist-run L’Œil de Poisson were just as important as the studio: “We had access to great metal and wood shops. We started there in 1997, because we got a residency. We worked intensively over three months, and it became our studio. The technicians became good friends, and we did lots of projects there. This is a big part of our production. If L’Œil de Poisson didn’t exist, BGL would be very weak.”
As much as the members of BGL describe their process as “fun,” play can be serious. “Sometimes we are in the moment, and intense. Getting ready for Venice, we decided to take out the window from the back door and try a component in it. We put in some Plexiglas and started to put some screws, then we did a little test, about two by three feet, and convinced ourselves that it could work. And then it became huge for the pavilion.” At the Canadian pavilion in Venice, BGL’s two main installations—known as l’atelier (the studio) and le dépanneur (the grocery store)—were separated by an area supported by scaffolding, with coins rolling through pipes and channels like some sort of fairground attraction. Working out the mechanics of these three spaces in a tiny studio was a huge challenge: “Everything was intense because we didn’t have much time. Every day was important. We had six months to make it in Québec, and then five weeks in Venice.”
The Canadassimo Studio (2015–17) was included in the Charlottetown show, loaned by a private collector who purchased it after the Biennale. The dépanneur element was bought by the National Gallery of Canada. BGL had to make a new structure, “because it had been made in the pavilion itself.” The installation was made to replicate the look of a convenience store, but there was an element that the artists feel hasn’t been given enough attention: “The important part about the grocery, which is not documented, is that the products were blurry. We printed new labels for everything, which were blurred, and we stuck them on all the cans and boxes. It was a huge amount of work, but for us, it was the goal. We did the piece to produce this phenomenon. If it wasn’t for the blurring, you would have had the surprise of the store in the pavilion, but the experience would have been a bit boring.”
Venice was not BGL’s first international exhibition. In 2006, they were included in the Havana Biennale; and in 2007, they participated in the inaugural Bienal del Fin del Mundo (End of the World Biennial), in Ushuaia, Argentina. Comparing the experiences, Laverdière said, “I liked Venice, I liked the experience, but the Bienal del Fin del Mundo and the Havana Biennale were a good chance to meet other artists, to create contacts, and to have fun with other artists.” They went to Venice hoping for a similar experience: “We were sure that Venice would be a good chance for us to connect with artists from other countries.” But that didn’t happen. “We had a lot of work to do, but the atmosphere in Venice is competitive, and it’s really weird. When you walked into the Giardini, they’d hide what they’re doing. Everyone there wanted to win the Golden Lion.”
While Venice didn’t live up to BGL’s expectations, what happened when they returned to Canada was even more of a surprise. “For friends and for artists, it’s prestigious. But people think that you’re rich now, and no one calls you. You feel more alone,” Bilodeau recalled. “We were dreaming that it would open doors. And it did open doors in London, Ontario, and in Switzerland—two invitations that came from Venice.” Sales increased though, and they were able to purchase a studio building, La Patisserie. But they didn’t receive opportunities to show in other countries, and at home “people thought that we had lots of invitations, so they didn’t even try to approach us to do anything.” It was a not wholly unexpected letdown from the spotlight. In fact, the disconnect between making art and making a living was, in part, the subject of Canadassimo: “It’s kind of what we wanted to talk about in Venice. The idea of two jobs. You have the convenience store, to make money, and its background is the studio for making art. Between the two spaces is a space with falling money. I think people missed this message, but it’s not our problem.”
With “Two Thumbs Up Arts and Crafts” at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in 2021, BGL announced their end as a collective, a surprise to many in the Canadian art world. The decision resulted from a culmination of factors: “There were many reasons. First, Covid-19. There were many people that we were supposed to do works with, big projects that started with great enthusiasm, but got cancelled,” they said. “There was a competition for a public sculpture in Montreal that we didn’t win. That would have helped us. After that, we had to find the money for three salaries, and our studio was pretty big, so we had to find the funds to keep it running. It brought stress, and the stress generated conflicts.”
In part, ending their collaboration was a defensive move. “We felt that the synergy we had was becoming fragile. It was more difficult to find the enthusiasm. It’s taken lots of effort to survive, and these last years, we felt that, ‘OK, maybe we should stop before we produce a really bad show.’ This was an obsession for us—don’t make shit,” said Laverdière. “But maybe that’s what’s in store now for each of us, all alone we will produce some shit shows.”
That seems unlikely. Bilodeau, Giguère, and Laverdière are all focusing on solo projects and exhibitions, but they don’t rule out a reunion for “the band.” “It would require serious effort from the three of us, and we would need to get a studio going, so it couldn’t be just for the weekend, but yeah,” they say. So, while the band has broken up, BGL may be back, should it prove to be enough fun.