Interview with Bob & Roberta Smith

Recently, I was able to see an exhibition of Bob & Roberta Smith’s at MoMA PS1 in New York City called Art Amnesty.

Art Amnesty is a participatory exhibition allows anyone to contribute. In order to take part, you sign a pledge on a postcard that you affix to the piece of art. You can choose one of the following options:

1. I promise never to make art again
2. I never want to see this art work again
3. Encourage children to be all they can be, choose art at school

The piece is then hung on the wall, where it can be perused by others until the entire exhibition is trashed.

Bob & Roberta Smith, in actuality the artist name of one person, asks:
Why are some people artists while others are not?An excellent exercise in the duality of satire and the reality of living, Art Amnesty offers the opportunity to take interpret its message either literally or satirically.

Bob & Roberta Smith does work that is often provocative in nature, including letters to politicians and calls to action. Interviewing Bob & Roberta Smith gave me ample insight into their thought process and intention.

Clio: What are your thoughts on original authorship in regard to your artwork?
Bob & Roberta Smith: I think people who want to collaborate on these projects do so completely on their own terms. I don’t want in any way to appropriate their creativity into mine. People sign their works, its clear who has done what. That’s important because people need to feel they can get out of the project something useful to them. Obviously I am the instigator of these opportunities but I don’t think that really counts for too much. I am interested in the conversation between people via art works. This seems unique to me. I think i am just some one asking a question to get things going.

Clio: For you, is participation in art creation the same thing as collaboration? (Are the terms interchangeable? Is there a spectrum?)

Bob & Roberta Smith: Participation can be very varied. Sometimes a passing glance at an art work can be participation.

Participation is sometimes really intense but sometimes quite passive.  Collaboration demands a degree of negotiation and suggests prior planning and conversation. I have done a lot collaborating often in music. Fruitful collaboration in terms of art works is often with curators. My relationship with Peter Eleey and Jocelyn Miller was really important in Art Amnesty. I think of my art work as a bit of both but the terms are distinct.

My favorite description is “Ensemble:”  working with groups of people and individuals to create something bigger than any one of us could have realized on our own.

Clio: How do your artistic process and participatory art intertwine?

Bob & Roberta Smith: I am skeptical of easy definitions of ‘participatory practice’. The term is used a catch-all for all sorts of different things; some are great and some are banal and uncritical. If you want to work with people you need to respond and offer a platform for individuality. The works I make need to be heuristic and in some way an experiment.

Clio: What do you feel about “art as activism”?

Bob & Roberta Smith: Art is activism!

Image: Bob and Roberta Smith, Letter to Michael Gove, 2012, signwriters paint on board, 240 x 240 cm. Used with permission of the artist, reproduced here for academic purposes only.

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