Bob and Roberta Smith
Bob and Roberta Smith has been making waves in the art world for decades.
The creative persona of Patrick Brill, his work is explicitly political and uses studied craft letter-writing techniques to produce signs, banners and posters which convey his ideas. Yet for an artist who is widely perceived to be anti-establishment in sentiment, you could argue he’s surprisingly orthodox in his approach.
On first glance, these phrases might seem too reasonable to be polemic activism and too polite to ‘stick-it-to-the-man’. Statements such as ‘I Like Art Being Taught in Secondary School’, or ‘Do You Want to Hold On to a Few of Your Ideals?’ aren’t particularly strong-worded. But the power of Smith’s slogans is in making you realise just how ridiculous and extreme the established laws and ideologies he is working against must be, if his work is seen as a protest against it.
Some of Bob and Roberta’s most notable works came when, in 2006, The New Walsall Gallery in Birmingham acquired the archives of early 20th century sculptor Jacob Epstein. From 2009 to 2012, Smith helped the gallery delve into this material. The residency culminated in a number of different projects, not least with Smith devising a new system for proportional representation from every constituency of both genders in parliament, which he then presented at the ICA in London. Although Epstein is a celebrated sculptor, he’s renowned for his turbulent personal life and complicated relationships with his wife, mistresses and children. Smith chose to fixate on a sculpture made by Epstein of his daughter, Esther, with her breast exposed, belying an uncomfortable relationship between father and daughter; artist and subject. Smith then enlisted a group of talented female artists to explore these relationships in the New Walsall’s exhibition The Life of The Mind.
One of Smith’s slogans reads ‘Let People Do Their Thing’, and what he is advocating is as simple and as complicated as that. His works are a call to arms, only he believes that the weapons should be creative rather than destructive. His maxim ‘Make Your Own Damn Art’ is one of his more forceful instructions and is at the centre of his agenda. It’s a step further from the idea that everyone should have access to art and culture, towards one that demands that everyone is able to represent themselves. Now, to mark GCSE results day, the ICA are presenting a screening of Bob and Roberta’s film Art Party, produced alongside Tim Newton, followed by an Art Party of their own, including performances from Bob and Roberta, Andy Holden, The Fucks and many more.
Firstly, who are Bob and Roberta Smith?
Well, that’s me! Really the idea behind Bob and Roberta Smith is that anyone can be Bob and Roberta Smith, a bit like 007 or Doctor Who, and the essential idea is that people make their own damn art.
That’s great! So you’ve got your show on at Plymouth Contemporary Arts at the moment, would you like to talk about it?
Yeah, that’s called Art Makes Children Powerful and the show is three works – a banner on the outside of the building that says ‘Art Makes Children Powerful’, a painting which is about the Arts Council and the other work is this letter to Michael Gove. At the opening I read the letter to Michael Gove and sang the work about the Arts Council. Basically, the show is about education and how to take art more seriously. If you teach the arts properly to children in primary schools you improve their cognitive learning and fill them with self-confidence. In secondary education, I think it becomes more problematic. Since 2010, 14% less children have chosen to study art because they’re being told that it’s not important as it’s not in the EBacc selection of subjects. With the show I’m trying to exhort that this is the wrong move by the government and that they should give art the same parity as any other subject.
Public galleries like the Walsall in Birmingham and the Baltic in Newcastle have very dedicated education sections for young people. Do you think the job of arts education is shifting into these kind of public gallery spaces, and do you think that’s a good idea?
The reality is they’re not geared up to teach art in the way schools are, because school is a compulsory activity whereas going to art galleries isn’t. Also physical access to galleries across the country is not universal whereas school access is. A gallery’s mission is about getting people to understand and appreciate culture, which is a great thing, but it’s not about practical activity and making culture. I think the art world, and art generally, should be made by as broad a group of people as possible, from all walks of life. But my fear is that certain groups of society won’t think that art is their thing at all. If you’re a kid from Brixton and you’re being told about the Avant-garde, that’s great, but you’re also being told that your culture is shit. There’s always been this issue with the art world about ‘Whose culture is it?’ but the current debate around education flags this up again. I think it should be everybody’s culture, it should be a big conversation about who we are.
A lot of the works you make are signs and adopt that style of vocabulary. How do you utilise that to compete with the advertising images, slogans and billboards that people see all around them? People feel that they have to approach art, whereas advertising comes to you.
I suppose on some level I could be accused of preaching to the converted a lot, but what I try to do is genuinely open up a space that is different to those that have been thought about before. I’m interested in this idea of art as a bit of a campaign. I like things which try to gently awaken people to the idea that they are powerful and that they have a certain kind of power. A lot of power structures are set up to remove power from human beings. The exam system is set up so that you have some people who get power and some who don’t, and it tells them the reason that they don’t is because they’re stupid. Advertising tells them they haven’t got power because they can’t afford any of this stuff while they’re completely bombarding you with a lie that somebody can. A lot of religion is set up to tell women that they will never be the head of whatever organisation, and actually they don’t deserve power. I think art is key is telling people that they do have power. I don’t really want to browbeat people with my ideas and thoughts really, I just want them to think ‘Actually, I could come up with my own.’
It’s great that you do things in regional locations.
The art world is so London-centric it’s ridiculous, and it’s important that across the country everybody gets to do their thing and have their voice. Where I grew up in Yorkshire is a completely, radically different culture from the South East and actually our visual culture doesn’t reflect those things. I want art to be a genuine reflection of what Britain is like.
We’d like to talk about your residency at the Walsall Gallery and your work with the Epstein Archive. Was it only when you started looking into the archive that Esther became your focus?
I was delighted to do it, but I didn’t know on earth what I would do to begin with. It really was a journey through this amazing archive and coming across this rather grim story about his children. One of them committed suicide, one died of a heart attack and although some of that information had been out there, sort of fleshing out the reality of it was in this archive. You put the dates together, begin to find things out and it makes you think ‘My God! What was he thinking?’ He made this sculpture of his daughter Esther and we worked out that she wouldn’t have known at the time that he was her father. It just seemed to be a really unequal relationship, with him as an artist doing this thing and her as his daughter being sculpted by him. It seemed strange and uncomfortable, although it is an amazing piece of sculpture. It really reflects his genius in revealing something about her, even though the thing he brings out doesn’t show him in a particularly positive light. We then did this show with a larger group of female artists who have made work about the relationship with the inner world and the relationship between women and men. We had this really incredible cell sculpture by Louise Bourgeois alongside work by Helen Chadwick, Yayoi Kusama, Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas. It was a great show to make.
You have a Twitter account, do you think that’s a better, or maybe a more universalising way of communicating?
The downside of it is that you’ve got 5,000 people looking over your shoulder, and I think that can mitigate against creativity. However, it does bring people together and certainly in terms of campaigning for the arts it’s been enormously useful. Loads of people have been trying to stop Tower Hamlets council selling this Henry Moore sculpture and that was very interesting because I did a flash mob where we all went down, and I did a lot of tweeting about it in the run up. When the event happened, half of the people were my students but the other half were genuinely people who had found out about it via Twitter. I think it’s good.
Do you see your role as a teacher at The Cass [part of London Metropolitan University] as separate to your role as an artist?
Art education is very important to me, partly because my dad used to run the Chelsea School of Art in the 60s and 70s. I grew up in art schools, so in that sense I’ve had an extremely privileged upbringing. The Cass actually is a really unique institution, and I’ve taught at Goldsmiths and the Royal College, because we have a really broad range of students. It’s pretty wonderful. It has this tradition, which comes from when it used to have huge departments for furniture making and teaching tradespeople and craftspeople, of broadening education and who makes culture, so I really like it in that respect.
How do you split your time?
I do about a day and half teaching, and then the rest of the time I spend in my studio trying to make my work. I live in London, but I also have a studio in Ramsgate which I go to once a week and I work there sometimes for three or four days and then I’m charging around doing exhibitions and things.
But you also have a studio in London?
Yeah, I wish I could show it to you. I’m sitting in it now. It’s completely bonkers. It’s a shed that I built that’s called the Leytonstone Centre for Contemporary Art. We used to do exhibitions in it but I haven’t done one in it for a while. At the moment it’s looking a bit sorry. It used to have all these grapevines in it but now it’s just full of spiders and sultanas hanging around.
You have more affordable works that you sell through the iThink Gallery. We know you want people to make art, but how do you feel about people being able to buy or own art?
I like the idea of art being an economy, I’m not somebody who eschews commerce at all. I do think there’s something intrinsically entrepreneurial about making art. If you’re trying to campaign you’re trying to come up with ideas that people understand and resonate with, and if you make art objects you’re trying to make images which do that as well. You can have a visual art campaign and a political campaign and it’s the same thing. If you make your own money selling things, it allows you to advance things which you couldn’t advance in other ways. I’m very pro trying to sell stuff, but I try and do it on a fairly reasonable level if I can. What’s amazing is that there are people who have bought my slogan for £150 or £250 and then there’s somebody who’s paid an awful lot of money for a much larger slogan, when actually it says the same thing.
You can get your hands on some Bob and Roberta Smith at ithinkgallery.com, but he’d rather you made your own.