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Features / Art

Art as a human right and why creativity is “pushed out of” London: we meet Bob and Roberta Smith

Words:

Emily Gosling

Sitting in Walthamstow, perhaps the perfect distillation of London’s arty/cheap/gentrification trajectory, it’s all too easy to talk to one of the art world’s foremost campaigners about the problems with the capital – its soaring rents, its subsequent forcing of creativity to the fringes, its shrinking arts curriculum. It’s also easy to take these issues and moan about the wider problems of social media, political apathy and the dangers in higher education’s drive to make “artist” one in the same as “personal brand.” But the joy of Bob and Roberta Smith is that for all his acknowledgment of these things, he’s resolutely positive; not simply seeing problems and grumbling about them, but proposing solutions and celebrating them. To use his parlance, he’s Bobtimistic. And after just a few moments with him, he makes you Bobtimistic too.

Unless you hate human rights, abhor art or detest design, it’s rather hard not to be enamoured with Bob. Except perhaps if your’re Michael Gove; the ex-education secretary who forms the target of much of the artist’s recent campaigning work. But maybe even if you are Michael Gove, such is the charm and sincerity of Bob’s work, his utter unwillingness to enter into cheap mud slinging, and his gleeful high-pitched giggle, there’s little here not to love.

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Bob and Roberta Smith: Art Makes People Powerful, 2015

I meet Bob (real name Patrick Brill) at the press opening of his new show at the William Morris Gallery, entitled Art is Your Human Right. Like the campaigning work the exhibition presents, the title is as much a call to arms as a celebration of the power of creativity, and it seems a perfect fit for a space dedicated to the works of designer-cum-artist-cum-political campaigner William Morris.

“The thing about Morris is that he was an incredible, incredible graphic designer,” says Bob. “At some level what I do is all about graphics and visual communication, and that’s the thing Morris understood. Towards the end of his life he understood the power of the mark: when you’re making notes or signing a document or making an artwork, you’re confirming an idea somehow. He understood the power of the individual to make a gesture.

“His ideas are about graphic communication and understanding your own abilities to make some kind of a visual but also a political mark, and that idea is something that really resonates with me. Morris would have been on soapboxes and printing leaflets and things, and that’s what I think the best place for print is: it isn’t in a frame, but in a window, sticking out.”

Indeed, towards the end of his career Morris’ illustrations and designs became synonymous with his political activism, and it’s perhaps fair to say that in the last few years Bob’s work has too become inseparable from his politics. In 2011 he created the huge monochrome piece Letter to Michael Gove, an upbeat, occasionally humorous (“a look at your tie and shirt combination in images of you online informs me you are not a visually minded person”) diatribe against the former Tory Secretary of State for Education. His work largely focusses on the importance of art in the curriculum and its value in society, and even business in the UK. As he points out in the work, “where are our future designers architects craftsmen/women engineers technicians software designers and mathematicians going to come from if no one can draw?”

“People might accuse me of a sort of political naivety but I think it’s a different kind of politics, and I do genuinely believe that there’s a lot more that unites human beings than divides us”

Bob and Roberta Smith

In March this year, Bob stood against the MP as an independent Art Party candidate in the leafy Surrey Heath constituency, with his efforts documented in a film on show in the exhibition, called Art is Your Human Right: Why can’t politics be more fun? The film is a glorious little summary of what makes Bob special: in between shots of his cheery campaign van, emblazoned with his signature bright, “a bit mad and wonky” (his words) typographic creations, we see him discussing how best to get Brian May on board with his views (badgers, obviously) and a brief mention of the surreal musical genius Frank Sidebottom. For all his politics, Bob puts his money where his mouth is – with him, politics are profound, reasoned, without malice and rather fun.

“Michael Gove is a politician I profoundly disagree with, but I wasn’t trying to sling mud at him. I wanted to show him why the arts are important,” says Bob. “Somehow the text [works] are like that – they’re a little bit satirical, but basically I’m trying to get people on board. People might accuse me of a sort of political naivety but I think it’s a different kind of politics, and I do genuinely believe that there’s a lot more that unites human beings than divides us, so I’ve always gone at it from that point of view.

“We all have a stake in education and kids’ futures, and we’ve got to protect our small freedoms that are being torn away from us. If you save the library you don’t need to worry about the book burners. It’s about trying to inspire people to do that: individuals can save their local library or sit on a board of governors at their local school and say ‘we’ve got to get art on the curriculum somehow.’ [The government] can pull a few big levers, but we can pull hundreds of little levers. If you look at it like that, it’s quite empowering.”

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Bob and Roberta Smith: Letter to Michael Gove MP, 25 July 2011

Bob traces his conflation of art and politics to his love of punk growing up, leading to a fascination with movements like the two-tone scene, which were inherently rooted in having a political as well as a sonic voice. “It was about politics and enterprise: no one gave 2 Tone Records [a ska/reggae punk label founded in 1978] an Arts Council grant or anything, and if they had it would have been rubbish. It was about making really great graphics and really great music about politics.

“You understood that when you tapped into that you were tapping into a whole world of stuff, if you bought a record by The Specials you were signing up to a sort of humanist politics. That was my childhood and teenage years, writing out those lyrics and record covers have been a big influence on me, and re-emerged in my work later. A dense surface with loads of meaning on it and how it looks has a sort of ident. Once you’ve read the text you can look at the page and somehow have an idea of what it’s about. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”

“I think if Virginia Woolf’s ‘room of one’s own’ had a mobile phone or computer in it she’d have got bugger all done.”

Bob and Roberta Smith

Tracing Bob’s work through graphics and punk isn’t hard, and with his recent focus on young people and their value in the creative world, you have to ponder on how the young respond to anger, inequality and politics today. Disillusion was once a catalyst to creativity: the punk born of 70s hardship, the placard banners created in the face of desperation at coal mine closures. But today, as we hear so constantly, aren’t youth utterly disengaged? Too busy playing with Instagram to bother to vote, or at their most political, just blindly retweeting Russell Brand’s wordy but ultimately nonsensical ramblings?

“I don’t think people should be too pessimistic about the ability for young people to get engaged in politics, but there are a lot of things to preoccupy young people, and they’re things you can’t escape from,” Bob muses. “I think social media enables a lot of strategies for protest, but I think the idea of creative space is important. It’s like Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: to have the space to sit alone is an amazing privilege. I think if her ‘room of one’s own’ had a mobile phone or computer in it she’d have got bugger all done.”

Instead of regurgitating rants about the yoof’s over-reliance on technology and its zombiesh enslavement by screens, Bob sees the larger issues of exam-based curricula and financial difficulties as the things thwarting creativity. “The way the education system works is a bit like having high land prices in London – they stop you working creatively,” he says. “If all you’re thinking about is working towards exams and jumping over hurdles, it pushes away creativity; and high land values are pushing creativity out of the capital.”

He continues: “When you think about British art there’s been one or two great artists that have come along since my gang, when the YBAs came out which I was sort of on the coattails of. There are some really great artists about but there hasn’t been a new wave like that. The YBAs was 20 years ago now, and that’s coincided with a certain change in society – land values going through the roof, studios closing down, rents changing, and there’s some danger there. I look at London and I do worry about it being ripped away from us.”

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Nicola Tree: Art Is Your Human Right: The Artistic Campaigns of Bob and Roberta Smith 16 October 2015 – 31 January 2016

Courtesy Bob and Roberta Smith

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Naturally though, coming from this cheerful, charming, supremely friendly man (he doesn’t balk when I embarrassedly ask him to sign a postcard for me), it’s not all doom and gloom. London, he points out, has a diversity that places like Berlin doesn’t; and he suggests that the future of the art is bright, but could be in the margins. Places like Central Saint Martins, he reckons, will move to “somewhere like Barking and Dagenham, or Ramsgate,” but creativity will in no way be lost. So how should we read his work? As social commentary, as political activism, as performance, as graphics? As straight up fine art?

“I don’t mind, I think people should come at it with their own thoughts and ideas and enjoy it for what it is,” Bob decides. “Enjoy the colours, the graphic sensibility of it…That’s how I enjoy art – I’ll see a political poster and I’ll think ‘that’s a great piece of graphics, and I sort of agree with the idea’, or ‘that’s a great piece of music, I’ll dance to that.’ I come at it in lots of different ways, so people should look at it in the same way they look at any other show. The last thing I want people to do is come at it wanting to be brainwashed by Bob.” Even if it’s Michael Gove, I ask? “Well I’d like him to come and take on a few ideas!” There’s that characteristic chuckle again, and with it we hear a certain sincerity. This isn’t art for the elite, this is art that’s democratic, and that seeks to democratise. For that reason, coupled with bright, bold colours and even brighter ideas, we reckon that as long as Bob and Roberta Smith is about, we’ll be dancing at the art party for a long time yet.

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Bob and Roberta Smith: Hands Off the BBC, 2009

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Nicola Tree: Art Is Your Human Right: The Artistic Campaigns of Bob and Roberta Smith 16 October 2015 – 31 January 2016

Courtesy Bob and Roberta Smith

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Bob and Roberta Smith: This Campaign Is An Art Work, 2015

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Young people from William Morris Gallery visiting Bob and Roberta’s studio, Ramsgate, August 2015
Image credit: William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

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Paul Tucker: Bob and Roberta Smith’s campaign van 2015

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Bob and Roberta Smith: ‘Dear Mayoral Candidate…’, 2015