This week I had the pleasure of talking to British conceptual artist Patrick Brill, better known as his alter ego Bob and Roberta Smith. Smith, who held a lecture entitled “I Should be in Charge” at the RISD Museum of Art in conjunction with their latest show Made In The U.K., talked with me about visiting the Occupy Wall Street protests, starting a new political party and the history behind his alter ego. The conversation was charged with one powerful message—art can, and must, be valued and nurtured for its social and political potential. Through art, we can all be in charge.
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Ana Alvarez: You’re most recent show “I Should be in Charge,” also the title of the lecture you will be giving at RISD today, is very intriguing.
Bob Smith: Yea it’s a bit of an on going campaign. It was the title of a show, which is about getting people to write to politicians in the U.K. and demand things to do with climate change and transportation regulation. So every Saturday I would sit down with people and we would make drawings. So we would send the Environment Minister and the Art Minister and the Prime Minister these drawings with “Save the Planet” and things like that. It was quite a serious workshop. And it was very funny because as things have gone on, occasionally I do run into these people, certainly the culture minister, this guy called Ed Vaizey, and it’s quite funny because I said, “Oh I am Bob and Roberta Smith,” and he said, “Oh god I got all those letters!” Which is quite funny cause that probably wouldn’t happen in America, but the U.K. is not such an enormous country and actually it does make an effect if you write, constantly bombard, your officials. That’s been part of my thing the last few years, to use the democratic mechanisms that exists because I think sometimes people get frustrated and think that we can only protest in particular ways like demonstrating and marching. I think its all good, but you know you can also write to all these people.
AA: This leads really well into my next question. You’re work deals with who has power and why you don’t have it. I am sure you are aware of the recent Occupy Wall Street protests going on, where people have been actively demanding that the 1% stop being in charge of the other 99. What is your take on these protests? And more importantly what role can artists and the artistic process take in this struggle to reclaim power?
BS: Art has a really useful role to play in all of that. But basically I think the current situation is very problematic and those protest—I went down there to have a look at it the other day, and all those kids—well I think its quite exciting. And one of the things art can do… well this is a long story. I think I should start thinking about the U.K. because that’s what I know more of. In the U.K. since the financial crisis all the politicians have been driven by deficit reduction. We have a much more conservative government where all they talk about is deficit reduction all the time and also they are increasing student fees and all that nice type of stuff, so there is no narrative of hope basically.
One of the things I find interesting about America—and I know in America liberals are a bit disappointed with Barack Obama—but during the summer I worked in Brooklyn making an exhibit to do with saving the world. We are going to create this “Art Party.” One of the things about working in America over the summer which is very interesting is that actually [America] hasn’t gotten quite into this ferocious deficit because there is still an idea about stimulus and trying to hold things together for people. That made me think that it would be quite interesting to propose an idea about art which would be like the WPA [Works Progress Administration] movement in the 1930s where you had young Jackson Pollock and lots of artist who didn’t restart the economy by any shape and means, but they did provide a narrative of hope and showed that art provides something worth living for. It’s not art that only does that, there’s also sport and religion too, but it would be interesting to think about art in that sense. So basically in November we are going to have the “Art Party,” which would then be a website where people who have written interesting things about the importance of art will be featured. Also we are going to interview different artist and ask how they got into art, and that will be collected into a type of website. So it will be like, I am saying like a political party—its not really—it is going be more like a place where people can go to find out the reason why other people think art is important.
I think that kind of protest [Occupy Wall Street] can be really good. And the thing about people who do protests like that is that they also give power in a weird way to people who are trying to be more pragmatic about things as well because it is a balancing act. So you got a load of people with diverse opinions sitting outside city hall or whatever, and then you say, “Well why are they there?” It forces government to address those sorts of issues and I think its good. I just hope that they look after them because they are kids
So I guess this connects with “I Should Be in Charge” because it is not saying who is in charge—it is not necessarily that I should be in charge—but it says that people should have more power and these huge governmental institutions and corporations should see that their power comes from people; they don’t have any innate right to it.
AA: Exactly! Now the reason why I am so engaged with your work is because it strives towards social relevance. I am interested in hearing your thoughts about the other artists featured in RISD’s Made in the UK, and even the inclusion of your own work in this show. What are your feelings on the museum as an institution? Do you have any issues with presenting your work in an institution that some argue depoliticizes and even commodifies artworks, or that historically has been known to discriminate on the basis of gender?
BS: Interesting you mention the problems with museums as institutions. One of the campaigns for the “Art Party” is to say that the Museum of Modern Art is too expensive so we are going try to set it up as one of the slogans for it. And they could do something about it. The Tate has it organized so that it is all free but the special exhibitions are the ones that you have to pay to go and see, so the MoMA could have a big gallery of important things in their collection for free; it wouldn’t be impossible to do that.
Also we have to remember that the whole media for art and the relationship to institutions is changing with new media because it gives a different point of access. A more radical agenda would say art is shifting away from being embodied with objects and if you can engage with the ideas then that is a good thing, but not many artists would subscribe to that because they still want people to engage with the object. But things are opening up in that regard.
AA: You make paintings that I would say are conceptually driven and embedded within text, but do you feel that it is important that people go to see your paintings instead of reading what they say or seeing one of your videos on the internet?
BS: I think its good for people to actually experience a painting in person; I think its kind of a unique thing. But I don’t think it is absolutely… well if you’re an artist you are making tons and tons of work. I know I am the only person who has seen all my shows so [laughs] so not even my wife or my gallerist has seen it so its not all that important that everything is seen all the time. Also a lot of what I do is filmmaking and YouTube films and things like that and I like the sense of that being a project that people can engage with in different times or different ways. I am bit pluralistic about this and pragmatic and I think it can happen for lots of different people in lots of different ways. I think if someone comes across my work in a Facebook post, you know, I think that’s great.
AA: You work is so socially relevant now and I am just wondering about the longevity of it. For example, the RISD Museum has the Tate Modern painting, which is from 2008 but is still relevant. But in 20 years you and I might change our ideas about the public health care system. I’m wondering how you feel about this statement that may not be relevant say 30 years from now.
BS: I try not to worry about it too much. I do make other works that are more to do with writing on things. Once you make statements about particular situations, it does get situated in the time. And I do make other work, sculpture pieces, that aren’t like that. I think that it is a modernist idea to grasp onto this universalism, and a kind of romantic idea coming out of the 19th century, to do that. I do think that is important but equally when I look at artwork, I want it to reflect the age in which the artist lived in. When you look at pop art it still has a semblance because we are still emerged in those type of images, but it still seems arcanely 60s. Even the YBA [Young British Artists] art in Made in the U.K. looks very 90s. Even the abstract things get associated with a time, like Rothko looks very 50s. So I thin you have to be realistic and acknowledge it. Probably if you tried to get rid of it you would get more rooted in the time. So I try not to think about it too much. I do think sometimes I should try to explain things because sometimes my work is so English and I think I should try to make it so the language and the humor can be understood more broadly. I try not to think about it too much or chase my tail around it; otherwise I couldn’t make those kinds of statements.
AA: Personally, I am very interested in the intersection between art making and gender politics, which is why I am especially fond of your work and its active commentary on patriarchal oppression of women. Where did Roberta come from? How does she manifest in your art making?
BS: Roberta. It’s a bit of a long shaggy dog story. In the 1980s I won an award to come to America. I lived in Brooklyn and made work as an associate student at Cooper Union. I won that award as Patrick Brill and it was quite a lot of money but I lived the life and I spent it all in bout 6 months and I was supposed to be there for 2 years. I had to be in New York, so I got lots of terrible jobs like driving vans and stuffing envelops and doing the things you have to do to pay the rent. That sort of dream of being an artist kind of slipped out of my grasp although I still had this award and the prestige was still there. I was making paintings and I was trying to have a relationship with various galleries but I didn’t really know how to do it and in those days I though I would send out slides of my work to galleries. I would get these brilliant rejection letters back. I got one back from Pace saying, “seen it before pal!” That was really funny. So then I made a video, it was the first work I made as Bob Smith, I made a video of me relating all these loser stories on making art. Then I went back to the U.K. and my sister is really named Roberta. She did an MA and so we worked together. The whole idea was that you could come into space and there would be material and you could make your own art and they would be the works of Bob and Robert Smith. Anybody could be that artist, and these works would be Bob and Roberta Smith works because they were made in this certain time and place with these materials. So we did that for a few years and then she deiced that art was elitist and she’s now become a group psychoanalyst, so now she really does good. But I kept the name cause I thought it was interesting that people could make their own art and they could all identify with both Bob and Roberta.
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Made in the U.K. is open to the public at the Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design (224 Benefit Street, Providence, Rhode Island) until January 8, 2012.