“THE WHOLE WORLD IS AN ART SCHOOL!” is the emblazoned across press releases at von Bartha Gallery. This motto is typical of the work of Bob and Roberta Smith, who has been a guiding force for activism in the arts since the early 2000s. The preferred medium for this activism is painting catchy taglines in vibrant typefaces, resulting in works that bear a resemblance to circus memorabilia. At von Bartha, these canvases-cum-placards are accompanied by brightly coloured Christmas lights, illuminating slogans paying homage to Captain Beefheart, Ian Curtis and Amy Winehouse. Arranged throughout the space are benches filled with paper and pink paint, inviting audiences to paint “pink on pink”. Smith’s still life sculptures, implicitly meant to stir audience members’ own creativity, take up the rest of the space; made up of gherkins and pear-like shapes, they look more like balloon animals than any traditional memento mori classroom set-up. In the middle of it all is Patrick Brill, a.k.a. Bob and Roberta Smith, strumming a ukulele in a porkpie hat.
As an artist-cum-activist, Bob and Roberta Smith has recently found himself in hallowed company. We live in an age where Nan Goldin has declared war on Sackler Pharmaceuticals; where the work of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer has been inseparable from the #notsurprised and #metoo movements; and where Glasgow’s Transmission Gallery hasn’t been afraid to take its fight against funding cuts to the public. Art activism is ever present, and it’s definitely becoming more than posturing and aesthetics confined to the white cube. When Sleek sat down with Bob and Roberta Smith, not only was he opening his working-art-school-cum-retrospective in Basel; he was also fresh off the back of declaring “art is a human right for children” on BBC News. Who better — and when better — to discuss the changing and integral relationship between art and activism?
Bob and Roberta Smith is a pseudonym or character duo that you created about 20 years ago. It has been in flux throughout your practice, and even at times embodied or co-opted by others. Who is Bob and Roberta Smith now?
Well at this moment in time it’s really me. I created them to avoid this ego-maniacal way that artists have of presenting themselves, but I guess over the years, it’s come back to just being me (laughing). Saying that, it did all come out of looking at fiction and the way in which you can make up stories in fiction. I wanted to take this tool and make art instead of writing a book. I’ve noticed that the way art is viewed is always based on what the artist experiences — a person sees something and then they articulate it. Whereas in literature, you are not hampered by that scenario. So my work was really about making up a lot of untruths with a certain amount of authority. However, I have to say that on some levels, this whole backstory of Bob and Roberta Smith was too complicated for the art world, especially when I got my sister involved, or gave the characters away to people in Japan or Germany.
In what sense was it too complicated — is it because art is first and foremost a visual experience?
To be successful in the art world, you have to play it straight: “I’m Tracey Emin this is my bed, this is my experience” or “I’m going to cut this cow in half”, and that’s your work. Nothing cryptic there. The dynamics of success in the art world do not depend on complexity or funny poetics directions, unfortunately. So as my art career advanced over the last 20 years, I have created layers of complexity so you can read the work on various levels and through various voices, depending on how much you want to take away from it.
These voices are not limited to the gallery — you have a fondness for public debate, right?
Yes. I’m often tapping into social media, TV and opening my works up to the public. In fact, with the exhibition aligning with the public art cuts in the UK, we managed to get on BBC News with a banner that announced that “art is a human right for children,” which was great. Obviously its complex the way this came about, but I’m definitely not an artist who wants my work to end up in a freezer in Geneva, unseen.
This act of participation goes beyond just informing your work, though you have been known to create working art schools as your practice, explicitly saying “they are not just for children”. What’s your ethos on art and the masses?
Well let’s take painting — to engage with a painting meaningfully, you don’t have to have drawn it, it can be quite an intellectual process of merely seeing one or hundreds of paintings. I have been trying to bring the mechanics of creativity into my work for over 20 years now. I know (and I’m glad) I’m not unique in this discourse — many artists have done this too. In fact, Nicolas Bourriaud’s text on Relational Aesthetics highlights this notion of art in the late ‘90s.
Do you see yourself fitting into this category of Relational Aesthetics?
Not entirely, because I try to grab hold of the news media when I can. I write occasionally for The Guardian and have an active role in politics. Just the other day I was in parliament speaking against Brexit. I think artists should really speak out, and that’s not really within the context of Bourriaud RA idea.
It’s actually quite novel in the art world to step beyond the safety of the white cube and bring art activism into “real” life. It doesn’t seem to happen as often as it should.
Well I have found it can be a very successful modus, but I think it’s all about believability and authority when you start talking about these subjects. If you’re speaking about something you don’t know anything about, the public and the media sense that. So I always talk about politics from an art perspective and people rally with me. 2010 was a key moment for this in the UK — we had a change of government and the financial crisis was eminent. They cut funds and squeezed the arts in schools curriculums. The latter wasn’t about money, that was a political move for them to say something different. They wanted to make the schools more utilitarian and less humanistic and I just felt that was wrong, and I do teach and work within this field. So I created the “Art Party” in Scarborough 2014, which attracted a huge amount of artists — including Jeremy Deller, Cornelia Parker and Richard Wentworth — and all sorts of people and teachers. We had 2,000 people show up and talk about the importance of the arts in education.
Did it have any knock-on effect in changing policy?
Well the real political effect was that is galvanised people, and it connected people. I also went on to stand against the education minister in the election and called it an artwork. It was very Bob and Roberta — lots of signs and colour, very non-threatening, but it gave me a chance to speak very directly to him and tell him what I thought of him. On a personal level it led me to think more severely about creative freedom of expression and how that’s discussed all over the world, but especially in places where they want to clamp down on human speech. It can be horrific, such as the case of the child that was shot after wanting to sing on “Turkey’s Got Talent” or the incarceration of Pussy Riot. It’s always the writer, poet, dancer who ends up in prison first. As they have a media profile, the state wants to crush them in front of everyone as a warning to all others not to speak out, and that’s how the system works.
I guess for many people, in such dark political times, the last thing on their minds is art. Can you tell me why it’s so important to hold onto that, and how can we do it?
Art always looks forward. Contemporary art is a kind of future gazing. The arts create a new languages which frame the world in new ways allowing new things to be said. In the depths of Americas 1930s depression, Roosevelt devised the New Deal, with the arts central to its mission of hope… Invention in all ways brings hope, but artistic invention brings not only hope but joy, insight and, with a bit of luck, fun.