Sign us up: the world of Bob and Roberta

The visual art of Bob and Roberta Smith – aka Patrick Brill – is political, humorous and all about empowering the spectator

Sometimes Bob and Roberta Smith – one artist despite the dual identity – seems in danger of talking himself out of a job. What he does is all about empowering or enabling the spectator, so that the spectator becomes the practitioner. The title quote of John Rogers's film on Smith, Make Your Own Damn Art, neatly sums up his message.

As the headline visual artist in this year's Kilkenny Arts Festival, under the banner Art Makes Children Powerful, he has established a kind of pop-up art school where you can engage in practical classes addressing such topics as expression and tonality, or colour and edge.

That's not all. You can also dress up as Hannah Arendt, the writer and theorist with whom he feels a deep affinity, in the Robing Room in the grounds of the former Bishop's Palace, and track the paths of bees in the garden outside, or you can hold forth from the Art Soap Box in Rothe House.

For Smith, audience participation is central, and participation is about the audience taking charge, culturally and, ultimately, politically, for his art connects inextricably with political issues – for example, in his vociferous opposition to the proposed removal of art from the GCSE core curriculum in England. His open letter to British education secretary Michael Gove is on show in Kilkenny.


His real signature works, however, are probably his bright, brash and often very large sign paintings, featuring his own or quoted snatches of various texts, including mottos and questions as well as much longer pieces, casually hand-lettered on scraps of wood, cardboard or fabric.

'My father could draw like Holbein'
Smith was born in London in 1963. His given Christian name is Patrick and his surname is Brill. "Both my parents were from working-class backgrounds," he says.

His father’s family sold fruit and vegetables, his mother was a seamstress. “But they were both great at drawing – my father could draw like Holbein – and that ability propelled them into another world, really, allowing them to study art.”

His father, the landscape painter Fred Brill, taught at Chelsea School of Art and became principal there in 1965.

Smith himself studied at Reading and went on to complete an MFA at Goldsmiths College in 1993. Goldsmiths was the cradle of the Young British Artists, so you could say that Smith was in the right place at the right time. But he relates a little uneasily to the YBAs and seems especially set against the materialist ethos that came to the fore in the art world of the time.

He has two sisters; the Roberta in Bob and Roberta is one of them. “We collaborated for a short while as artists, then she got fed up and decided the art world was too elitist. She’s doing something else now. A lot of our collaboration was based on the idea that art does you good. The aim was to get peripheral aspects of the gallery programme, like education, and jam them right into the centre of things. So we’d present materials in galleries and get people to work with them. A bit like gardening: give people the stuff and see what they manage to grow.”

So Roberta is there in spirit, so to speak. She can be quite critical of him, Smith says, pointing out, for example, that he just seems to write the first thing that comes into his head and call it art. And, to be fair to her, he does this on occasion. “A lot of what I do is about writing in one way or another.”

Currently, 42 flags emblazoned with mottos by him fly over the South Bank in London. There are banners along the river Nore in Kilkenny (“What is a bank for?” asks one, provocatively) and a great many more text-based pieces.

He reckons he was mildly dyslexic, growing up, which led to him being dismissed as academically lazy. “I’d get a headache looking at a page of text, it just sort of swam before my eyes.”

But now he likes text very much. He likes the process of lettering, the weight and meaning of words, and writing signs, which is a large part of what he does.

“When I first visited Kilkenny I was struck by all the shop signs, and I thought it seemed almost quaint and old-fashioned, all that fine sign writing. Very quickly I realised that it’s not sort of left over, they’ve consciously preserved it, which is brilliant. It stands out because we’ve ruined so much in England, every town centre looks exactly the same because you just have these identical brand names everywhere.”

Why Hannah Arendt, though? She died in 1975 and remains a controversial figure, largely because of her coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961, when, struck by the incongruity between the enormity of his crimes and his mediocrity as a human being, she coined the famous term "the banality of evil". Margaretha von Trotta's recently released film Hannah Arendt presents a fictionalised account of this period in her life.

Smith is drawn to her wider arguments on politics and democracy. “She makes the point that democracy is a performative enterprise. We can’t presume that freedom is just there, we always have to make it for ourselves, and preserve it, and we really do that within public spaces, because it has to emerge from debate, communally.”

For him, public spaces are essential, and festivals are a good testing ground for the notion. “You can’t really celebrate in a nailed-down society. During the Thatcher era in Britain this idea emerged that anything public was lazy and leech-like, while anything private was enterprising and progressive. That’s not true, of course, but it took hold. We need a much broader synthesis.”

The humour in his work
It's not just a matter of having a good time. Smith, who is quite funny in person, uses humour in his work. He is a fan of the stand-up routines of performers such as Jack Benny or Woody Allen – "their monologues become a wonderful, mad poetry".

At the same time, he’s wary of relying too heavily on humour. “If it’s too funny, you can allow people not to engage, to treat it purely as a laugh. But you still need to undercut the self-seriousness of a lot of contemporary art.”

The bottom line is that he would like you to emerge just a little bit altered by an encounter with his work. One of his hand-lettered paintings is taken from a piece of journalism that struck him as being particularly great.

"The Guardian had their correspondents write outside their own disciplines, and the tennis correspondent at the time, Steve Bierley, who was covering the Roland Garros tournament in Paris, was sent to review Louise Bourgeois at the Pompidou."

Bierley could have been flippant or glib about it, but instead he took on the challenge. Smith's extensive recreation of the piece takes a quote from it as its title: This Artist is Deeply Dangerous.

“I thought it was incredible because it was as if you could see a basic shift in his understanding as he was writing it. I’m not quoting him directly now, but he concluded by saying something like: When you look at sport you see sport, but when you look at art you see yourself. That’s what we need to do.”

Art Makes Children Powerful is at the Butler Gallery and other Kilkenny venues from Saturday until August 18. The Butler Gallery exhibition runs until October 6,