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ARTISTS IN CONVERSATION: Interview with Bob and Roberta Smith

By Polly Bates


Bob & Roberta Smith photographed beside ‘Thamesmead Codex’ 2021, installed at Thamesmead Town Centre, London. Illuminate Productions ©

Bob and Roberta Smith is an artist working primarily through exhibitions and public commissions, generally of ephemeral and or participatory art, whilst also dedicating time to teaching in Art Schools. Bob and Roberta Smith has exhibited across the globe, including locations such as MoMA PS1 in New York City, India, Japan and European countries, as well as leading art classes with Jessica Voorsanger for kids and migrant families in Beijing and Shanghai.

As an artist who also writes, Bob and Roberta Smith published the book ‘You Are an Artist’ with Thames and Hudson in 2020. ‘You Are an Artist’ is a practical, aspirational book which encourages artists to take the plunge into the Art world, an “art school in book form”. In June 2023, Bob and Roberta Smith is releasing a children’s activity book with Quarto, ‘Art Makes People Powerful’, which he hopes will support parents and primary school teachers in helping children find their voices.

‘Thamesmead Codex’ consists of 24 metre panels inspired by conversations with residents of the Thamesmead housing estate in London and includes some imagery of the estate. It was conceived as a work of oral history to be transcribed by hand, Bob and Roberta Smith being the listener, witness and transcriber, however, during the process Covid 19 overcame the project, making it a snapshot of the preoccupations and anxieties shared by us all at that time. 

‘Thamesmead Codex’ is on display at Tate Modern until October 2023. 

PB: Could you tell us a bit about how the artwork and collaboration for ‘Thamesmead Codex’ began?

B&RS: I was invited by Donald Hyslop, then a director of outward facing projects at Tate Modern, to meet him and the public projects team at Peabody Trust to consider ‘doing something’ at Thamesmead and with people from the Thamesmead Estate. I did not quite know what I was going to make or how the project would develop. It is a project that is still changing. Tate Modern is displaying the work at the moment, and the dates of the exhibition have extended from May to October 2023. So, the project has had a much greater impact than I could have imagined at the outset.

Only after many months of discussion did the idea of a painted oral history emerge. I think the time considering other approaches was important. I thought a lot about the kinds of buildings I had studied, all of which were this kind of post war modernist architecture. I did not grow up on an estate like the Thamesmead estate, but I spent many hours playing on estates like Thamesmead with my friends from the large modernist comprehensive school I attended. The ethos of streets in the sky as a positive vibe was with me then, of course later, as I grew older this utopian view was joined by the idea of the concrete jungle with its associated problems highlighted in songs by The Specials and other punk anthems.

Bob and Roberta Smith ‘Thamesmead Codex’ 2021, installed at Thamesmead Town Centre, London. Illuminate Productions ©

PB: ‘Thamesmead Codex’ is a raw account of personal, lived experiences that feels incredibly revealing and true, compared to a more typical impersonal account of history we might read in books. How did the residents respond to the project, and how freely did they share their experiences?

B&RS: It was all very humanistic. Initially, I travelled to Thamesmead to meet the folks I was going to interview. I took my phone and recorded the interviews. I explained that I was going to make a painting of our conversation and I showed them past art works which I thought were relevant. Then Covid 19 happened. I could not travel but I continued with the project.

The paintings which are just black text were conducted over the phone. These interviews have an added poignant aspect in that they are both a record of the area but also a snapshot of what we all hope is a unique, never to be repeated time.

PB: How many residents did you speak with and how did you select the final 19 fragments of interviews on display?

B&RS: I spoke with around 26 people. On 3 occasions when I met folks, 2 people were in attendance, I think this was simply for moral support as it were. There was a main interviewee and a ‘friend’. On each occasion the body of the text is from a single individual, but I have included thoughts where they were relevant from the companions too. All the texts have been edited in that I have cut out introductions and goodbyes and ums and errs. I did strictly not add anything or change the sense of what people were saying. When you talk to someone for a half hour from cold there is a great deal of introduction. One of the interviewees was very involved and I did extend that interview over 2 panels. So, there is a variety of approaches. It’s not a scientific approach. It’s me with a brush and someone else … so it’s a portrait.

Bob and Roberta Smith ‘Thamesmead Codex’ 2021, installed at Thamesmead Town Centre, London. Illuminate Productions ©

PB: You faced the unexpected challenge of the Covid 19 pandemic during the creation of ‘Thamesmead Codex’, an almost poetic hardship which added to the list of personal and shared experiences of residents and society. What was the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic onto this community and your project?

B&RS: Covid 19 had a dramatic effect on me and the project. In the spring of Covid I felt my professional world evaporating as projects were either cancelled or postponed. We all felt trapped. The Thamesmead project was a lifeline for me. It kept me talking, albeit on the phone with other human beings and it gave me a live project to pursue.

I found with each interview a different perspective on the Covid period. Two of the people I interviewed were having a very bad time. They were 18-year-olds awaiting their grades, in limbo wanting to study at university but not knowing if they would be able to progress. There was a man who had lost everything, contemplating living in the woods. But for many people in Thamesmead, they seemed to appreciate the landscape of the area, the greenery of nature and my conversations with them were sustaining… for me. They were of London but not confined by London.

Bob and Roberta Smith ‘Thamesmead Codex’ 2021, installed at Thamesmead Town Centre, London. Illuminate Productions ©

PB: You have recorded memories from the housing estate’s first residents to younger, more recent residents who hope for a post-Covid future. What did you find to be the consensus of how the area has developed and changed over the decades?

B&RS: I am not sure there is a consensus view. Some older residents do have regrets about the developments in Thamesmead as it is expanded and upgraded. These seemed to centre around some of the trees which have been removed, presumably to make way for new buildings. But in general, I would say people are proud of where they live. They regard the greenery of the area as a huge benefit and are looking forward to the improved transport links the Elizabeth Line on the London Underground will provide. It’s a very mixed picture. The shopkeepers and a number of the residents have faced unimaginable racism. The accounts I have recorded are in the past, but that does not mean those attitudes do not persist.

Bob and Roberta Smith ‘Thamesmead Codex’ 2021, installed at Thamesmead Town Centre, London. Illuminate Productions ©

PB: The scale of the artworks standing side-by-side, almost in procession, reaches a total of 24 meters in length. I found this to be an overwhelmingly powerful display which expresses the sense of community within the project. How do you think the installation of your artwork has impacted the viewer’s experience and stories told?

B&RS: ‘Thamesmead Codex’ has been exhibited twice. Once in Thamesmead in a 24-meter-long line and now in Tate in 3 rows of 8 panels. I think it is a flexible work.

In Thamesmead, my paintings of the area, images of buildings and animals were in one sense unnecessary because the feel of the place was all around us. In Tate, these images perform a different role. For people not familiar with the Thamesmead estate they show where we are, and they give an atmosphere of the place. A slightly psychedelic view but a feel of the utopia that is measured by our humanity.

Bob and Roberta Smith, Installation Photography of ‘Thamesmead Codex’ at Tate Modern 2022. Photo © Tate (Lucy Dawkins)

PB: Slogans tend to have a disarmingly humorous or friendly tone but can be used to mislead and manipulate. Your use of slogans within your artworks utilises this power as a call to action, full of hope and energy. Where did your fascination with language and telling stories begin?

B&RS: I think as a child one reads adverts and public information advice in a very instrumentalist way. I grew up in an era where public information was still displayed as large, printed posters. A poster advising me to ‘Drink a pint a day’ would lead me to ask my mother for a pint of milk in the evening. A bit like my awareness of the virtue of modern architecture, perhaps my cynicism and scepticism grew with age.

My interest in words and slogans comes from this inspection of words, their meanings and of course their authors. Who they are and what they REALLY mean.

Bob and Roberta Smith, Installation Photography of ‘Thamesmead Codex’ at Tate Modern 2022. Photo © Tate (Lucy Dawkins)

PB: How do you select the font and colours featured within your artworks?

B&RS: The colours are all improvised. Sometimes it becomes chaotic. I place a colour almost by instinct or experience and off I go, letting each colour suggest the next.

PB: Signs typically display commands, and I can’t help but relate your works to some of the home-made signs you might see at protests. We are currently seeing a growing threat to protest, and in some cases freedom of speech, worldwide; what role do you feel art has in democracy?

B&RS: Protest to protest!!! In the UK we still have a healthy body politic that feels it must speak but watch out! The current government has populated museum boards and free speech bodies like the BBC with its politicians. We have to start a full-throated campaign to keep our institutions truly Independent. Independent means full of all sorts of opinions, not anodyne, sanctioned, frozen and silenced by politicians of any variety.

Impartiality is a complex idea. I want to hear partial voices, but I also want to hear the other side. The spectrum should not be just left to right but also north to south, green to red, orange to purple. Protest to protest.

PB: You have dedicated your career to discussing political and social issues, recounting a myriad of experiences of suffering, oppression, unity, community and aspiration. What or who do you credit for your passion in activism?

B&RS: An LP vinyl record. When the broadcaster Richard Dimbleby died in 1965 an LP was issued by the BBC to celebrate his life. There were many political stories and some trivial things, but one broadcast from Belsen concentration camp shook me, it shook the world at the time. Dimbleby was among the first journalists to enter the camp filled with dead and dying people. His broadcast has inspired me throughout my life.

The two-tone records of the late 1970’s also spoke to me. I went on the 2nd carnival march after Altab Ali was murdered in 1978. I just think as an artist you have to make some work about injustice. Not everything I do has to do with this mindset but I am very aware that in many counties around the world, being an artist, poet or musician can land you in jail or worse.

Bob and Roberta Smith, Installation Photography of ‘Thamesmead Codex’ at Tate Modern 2022. Photo © Tate (Lucy Dawkins)

PB: What will you be working on next, and what can we expect to see from you in the coming years?

B&RS: I have my children's book ‘Art Makes People Powerful’ coming out in June, which is published with Quarto Press, Wide-Eyed Editions. That is what I am most excited about. It is an activity book that I hope will support parents and teachers in finding the voices of kids.

With my Band, The Apathy Band, we are also working on making the book into songs which will be available on vinyl and to download from Spotify.

PB: Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your artistic practice and current exhibition at Tate Modern. We would like to finish off with one last question - if you could offer one piece of advice to our creative community, what would it be?

B&RS: Go on a journey to find your voice.



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