by ANNA McNAY
Bob and Roberta Smith’s art has long been of a political nature. In 2013, he hosted an Art Party conference in Scarborough, seeking to advocate the benefits of the arts. In the UK’s recent general election, he stood against Michael Gove. His text-based works, often referred to as “slogan art”, comprise placards and banners, letters to MPs (in large, bright lettering on boards rescued from skips) and golem-like structures. With London’s mayoral elections approaching, Smith is once again pounding his drum. This time, he is not taking the frontline, but sees his role as, first, encouraging others to become involved and, second, heckling politicians to include the arts in their manifestos.
Smith spoke to Studio International at the opening of his exhibition, Art is Your Human Right, at the William Morris Gallery.
Anna McNay: The film that you produced specially for this exhibition asks the question: “Why can’t politics be more fun?” What is the answer? Why can’t it be more fun?
Bob and Roberta Smith: Basically, my political premise – and I’m not coming at it from any kind of ideological perspective – is that I genuinely think that what unites human beings is greater than what divides us. But what I discovered, running in the recent election, was something quite different from what I expected – I actually became a fan of proportional representation. One of the reasons why politics is not much fun is that for party politics to function, they carve up the political realm for their own ends – the left, the right, the centre, the Greens, whatever – and that forces disparate, avant-gardist, crazy, joyous opinion to the margins. It just becomes about their agenda.
When I began making this project, I had this other project going along at the same time, which was to try and get people to vote. I wanted people to vote in the election and I was inspired to do this as a reaction against Russell Brand. I thought it was terrible that he told young people not to vote. I still think voting is incredibly important and we’re going to run that campaign again, to get everyone to vote in the mayoral election, but, after the [general] election, I do now actually have some sympathy with Brand and his point of view. I think we need to rethink the way things work and we need to push forward to proportional representation. So, to answer the question, it’s the party system that makes politics no fun.
AMc: When another artist, Gordon Shrigley, was standing for election, the art critic Jonathan Jones wrote a piece saying that he shouldn’t be standing because anyone who did then vote for him would be taking votes away from, say, Labour or the Liberals, and helping the Tories get back in.
BRS: Yeah, well that’s nonsense. I mean, Hackney [South and Shoreditch], where he was standing, is a very, very safe Labour seat. I think more people should run. It is a factor you’ve got to think about, though. I mean, Ralph Nader running in the American election, with lots of New Yorkers voting for him, probably did help Bush win. I don’t know the specifics of how it broke down. But, as a general principle, I think people should run – it would be great if 60 million people ran in the next election. We could all vote for ourselves. I could vote for you and you could vote for me. I think it would be great. I think the way in which the party system closes down the electorate at the election is completely absurd. They’re very brave and interesting people, the independents who choose to stand. I’m interested in all those kind of parties – I think they’re great.
AMc: How did you actually do in the election?
BRS: How did I do? I got 273 votes.
AMc: So that didn’t hit the 5% mark?
BRS: No, I didn’t get my deposit back. I knew it would be very difficult – I would have had to have got around 4,000 votes, I think – about 80,000 people in our constituency. No, it was impossible – I was never going to make it.
AMc: But that wasn’t why you were in it really, was it?
BRS: No, it was a sort of personal journey to think: “I can do this.” I’ve been campaigning on the arts for quite a long time. I made a feature film – The Art Party Conference (2013) – which was released about a year before the election, and I did it because I thought: “This is an opportunity – the election is an opportunity to have your say, if you like, and to really test out your arguments. Go into a space with a lot of Conservative voters and try and convince them that the person they’re going to vote for is wrong.” In the arts community, when I did the Art Party Conference, it was absolutely brilliant – loads and loads of art teachers and people concerned with the arts and artists turned up to that. But that was preaching to the converted and I wanted to come across people who were not interested, or were against me, and try to convince them.
AMc: So that’s your audience?
BRS: That was my audience there. I wrote about three articles for the Guardian during that period, too, and it was a good way to get some traction with the national press, just to try and get the arts into the election agenda somehow. I failed to succeed with the BBC, but I was able to do it with the Guardian and the Independent because they’ve got more elbow room. With the BBC, you only get the coverage that they think is in proportion to the amount of votes and support that you’ve got. So I was never going to get on to the BBC. There was a bit of coverage before the election was actually announced, where we did a piece for BBC London. But it’s just about trying to get people talking about the arts in the election and, similarly, in this election, this mayoral election, we’ve got this art agenda, which I want the candidates to address in some sort of way.
AMc: Have you made contact with the candidates themselves?
AMc: Are you intending to?
BRS: I would like to, yes. I’m not very inspired by the candidates, I must say. It’s a pretty uninspiring bunch across the board. But, yes, I’m going to try to make contact in the run-up to the election. There’ll be a point when it will get hotter, won’t it? But I find politicians generally quite uninspiring. People like Gove and even people like Corbyn – he’s elected the most useless bloke as his shadow arts minister. I mean, Ed Vaizey is better than him! I just despair of politicians, really.
AMc: What would be the one key point that you would want them to latch on to from your campaign manifesto?
BRS: I’ve got two key points, actually. Can I have two?
AMc: You can have two.
BRS: Well, one would be art in schools. It’s not that I want to promote art in schools and just keep it the same as it ever was. I think it needs to be rethought. We need to think about art and science together in primary education, get that going right from the off, and then develop the teachers so that they understand the importance of that. So science and coding, visuality, space – all of those things – should be taught in schools from the off, like reading and writing, which is a really William Morris kind of idea. People ought to be taught to draw like they ought to be taught to read and write. And practical experience – we’ve got to afford our children practical experience. Practical experience in A-level science classes needs to be brought back in. The government wants to rewrite the curriculum so that there’s not so much practical experience of science subjects, but that needs to be brought back in across the board. And practical experience of sports, and playing fields – space to think and develop. That’s really important, too.
But the other thing that’s really important – the other thing that I’d want the mayoral candidates really to consider – is the relationship between freedom of expression and democracy and the arts, because it’s really important to teach kids to develop their voice. The singing analogy is the best one. If you teach kids to sing, you’ll hear from them. If you don’t teach them to sing, you won’t hear from them and they won’t develop their voices. That analogy is pretty undeniable. And that’s democracy. So it’s those two things – one, practical experience in schools and then get people to develop their opinions and ideas. And you do that by writing, by experiencing drama, by making images – all of that leads to democracy.
AMc: And all of these methods form aspects of your art and your campaign?
BRS: Yes. As you know, art around the world is under threat. The Qataris are locking up their poets, the Chinese are bugging Ai Weiwei’s studio, the Cubans took away Tania Bruguera’s passport. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of what’s going on. In the exhibition, there’s a piece called 23, which I did with Index on Censorship, which is a list of 23 writers, artists, poets and journalists who’ve been locked up or have disappeared. I did that in 2012 and we went round all the embassies and did a little piece to camera, which we’ve got on YouTube. In this country, we’re really lucky. We have fantastic freedoms.
AMc: Has your work been shown outside of the UK?
BRS: Yes. We launched the Art Party in New York, actually. We built an enormous golem. The idea is that this golem character is a kind of votive figure that I’ve constructed to save the arts, much like the Jews in Prague built a golem figure to save them from the antisemites. I suppose a lot of the politics and the figures in my campaign are quite national, so people like Michael Gove may not be known outside the UK. But we showed the Art Party film in New York at the Museum of Modern Art at PS1 and did a show that was about the situation of the arts over there.
AMc: Talking about places that you show your work, you’re here now at the William Morris Gallery, which obviously has a lot of resonance with your political themes. There’s a quote from Morris himself on the wall next door, which states: “I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few or freedom for a few.”
BRS: Well, that’s a great statement, isn’t it? It shows that there’s a precedent for somebody who is enormously entrepreneurial, like Morris was, to think about how ideas can be communicated. He knew that his graphic work communicated an idea about an idyll, which was to do with a forest, a mental picture of a deep, dark forest. But, later on in his life, he understood that this ability to communicate by making a graphic mark had some parallels with trying to communicate in a political way. I think he thought that they were one and the same thing. That’s why this show has a lot of resonance for me, because all my work is about graphics, really, and it’s about colour and, quite oddly, it’s quite a lot about some of the same colours – these deep reds and brown and greens –that occur in Morris’s work as well.
AMc: Where does your palette come from?
BRS: It comes out of the tin, really. There’s an American company called One Shot, based in California, and all their colours are called things like Kansas City Teal and Firebird Blue – they come out of a Californian signwriting tradition. I use those colours pretty much straight from the tin. I do mix colours, but what I do is try to counterpoint them with a different colour palette to do with the tradition of British signwriting, which has a much more Edwardian sensibility – these kinds of colours of, as I call them, blood and custard or chocolate and cream. It stems from a childish interest in trains and all those liveries. When you go to the Railway Museum in York, you see all these amazing colour combinations, which were to do with authority. Those different companies were trying to have a very early sense of branding – the Great Western Railway was green and, I think, chocolate, and London, Midland and Scottish railway was blood and custard, a kind of burgundy and cream.
A lot of the background colours I use are household paints, the kind of paints you’d paint a fence with, and in Britain we still paint fences green or brown – we have a very old-fashioned sensibility about things. I’m trying to counterpoint those kinds of colour combinations with these more 60s, psychedelic kinds of combinations. I try and jam it all together in a sort of uncomfortable juxtaposition. There’s a funny conversation going on there between those worlds, if you like.
AMc: Do you have a colour or a set of colours that you associate with one point or one theme, which you then carry over?
BRS: No, I don’t. I’m very intuitive. Sometimes I try and keep it to a limited colour palette, just to do with the aesthetics – if you have too many things going on, it becomes too complex. Then, at other times, I think: “Well hang that! I’m just going to make it purely visual and have a lot of different colours going on and make it confusing!” And I just surf that really – it’s almost like I’ve drunk too much coffee or had too much to drink the night before.
AMc: Your works do generally have the look of something that’s been done off the cuff.
BRS: Yes, although some of them take a long time. Letter to Michael Gove (2012) took me months to paint – it was meticulously done, but still a bit wonky.
AMc: Deliberately wonky?
BRS: Well, yes, but it’s interesting: I wouldn’t want to make it an affectation. I did the best that I could do, given the time and skills that I had.
AMc: How long did it take to script the works first?
BRS: I think about it a lot, actually – although there’s quite a lot of misspellings in them. I think a lot about the phraseology and the pentameter. It’s like a GCSE English exam, really – like reading the text before you actually write it. I think a lot about how they are when they’re read. One of my big heroes is William Burroughs, and I love his spoken word records. He has this incredible dry tone. I love that sense in which those written and cut-up texts were voiced by him. So spelling doesn’t bother me. I am a little bit dyslexic, but I know what the word is and where the word occurs in the phrase and that’s the important thing. I know where the phrase ends and the point that the phrase ends on. Those things I think about endlessly and I rewrite things before I paint them.
AMc: Just to pick up on the point of spelling: given that a lot of your work is about the importance of education, do you not think…
BRS: …I should improve my spelling?
BRS: There’s no excuse, really, is there? Not with spellcheck.
BRS: The other thing that happens with signwriting – and this is a thing that interests me as well – is that you’re painting the form and you’re not thinking about the nuts and bolts of the spelling. So, quite often, you become word-blind and that interests me as a cognitive thing in itself. I don’t want to eradicate it. It’s an interesting thing that the brain does. If I were a brain scientist interested in dyslexia, I’d spend a whole lifetime trying to work out what’s actually going on when you spell something. It’s not to do with lack of knowledge – it’s to do with where the word exists, where the lexicon of words exist in the mind and in the mind’s eye at that particular time. So although that’s not the principal subject of my work, it is something that I am interested in as well. If it completely undermines what I’m trying to do, then sometimes I will correct a spelling, but usually I’ll leave the correction visible, written in above, like a child might do. It’s the same with the height of the font – sometimes it creeps up, sometimes it creeps down.
AMc: I suppose it’s like an emphasis creeping in that subconsciously you’re trying to make that point.
BRS: Yes, and sometimes the emphasis is in the wrong place.
AMc: How can the public get involved with your campaign? I know you’ve got cards here in the gallery for people to make a pledge for the mayoral election.
BRS: Well, I think, like me, if you have a specific area of knowledge or an area of concern that you have a particular purchase on, then you should argue for it. I do know about the arts: I teach at art school and I’ve got kids at school and I see them doing less and less art as time goes by. If I set any kind of example, I’d hope that it’s to show that it’s OK to lobby on those things.
But the other way that the public can get involved is to send a card to us with a pledge that they want the mayor to talk about in the election. If there’s a particularly good idea, we’ll put it out on Twitter and send it to the mayoral candidates. We want them to come and visit the show.
I was talking to somebody earlier who was a designer and he was saying he’s gone into schools to teach coding. I think that’s brilliant. I think if you have a particular skill or a bit of knowledge or want to sit on a board of governors with the school or something, that’s all there on offer and people should do it. It’s the same with the political system. The political system is there for people to use. I used it in the last election, but I think in the next election, or in the mayoral election, other people should stand. I’m not going to.
AMc: Are you not even tempted?
BRS: No, I’m not going to stand again. I want to lobby all the parties to get the arts on to their agendas. Put all those rotten politicians under pressure – that’s what we should do.
• Art Is Your Human Right: The Artistic Campaigns of Bob and Roberta Smith will be showing at the William Morris Gallery, London, until 31 January 2016.