Jun 18, 2007

Bob & Roberta Smith, A Floating Studio, Brighton, May 2007

Thanks to Josh Uvieghara, Jayne Eagle, Chris Stevens, and Colette Starr



Grey Area interviewed Bob and Roberta Smith at his house in Leytonstone 6 days before he launched his Floating Studio on Brighton beach. The raft was launched on Sat 5th May at 11am, having been transported from the artist’s London studio and assembled on the beach that same morning. The Floating Studio and a film of the event can be seen at Grey Area until 27th May 2007.

Interview with Bob and Roberta Smith for Vacuum
Sunday 29th April 2007

So when did you first conceive of the idea of building a floating studio?

Well the floating studio is a bit like Virginia Wolf and ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and the importance of having a mental space to operate in. You kind of drag this space around with you all the time and a lot of what I do in the studio is to sit there and try to write stories, epigramic tales, and diaries. Eventually the Floating Studio is going to be covered in a diary of painted text that records all the things that have happened to me in my various studios over the years. As an artist, strange things can happen in the walls around you, as you have all this ambition crammed into a single space. It is a place where you are constantly exposed to stories from neighbors and visitors, and experience fantastic things, as well as tragedy. I have had very nasty things happen to me in my studio, as tragically a friend of mine committed suicide in the studio next to me whilst I was in there painting one day. Having a studio is important to my practice, but human beings do not need a studio, and if you are not an artist it is a peculiar concept. For me the studio is a kind of metaphor for having time to think and organise certain ideas in some way.

Artist studios have long been fetishised objects, what do you think about the Francis Bacon studio in Dublin or Monet’s studio in Giverny, where you can buy a ticket for the studio experience?

Yeah Francis Bacon’s studio was in Soho and forensically transported to Dublin, and although I haven’t seen it I’ve got the book. You can still go to the Colony Rooms club in Soho, and in a sense that was his studio as well. It was a kind of extension to his studio, or maybe the front room for entertaining in. A person exists in various different places and guises, with various groups and social networks, and these accumulate to form a kind of studio. People and locations become studios. I love the idea of Francis Bacon and the Colony Rooms, misspending hours there and then working all night.

There is not a blanket interest in all artists’ studios, but with some practitioners the importance of where they work really resonates.

Douglas Gordon once said that his studio is a ‘First Class seat of a Jumbo Jet’, and although that sounds like a pretty indulgent analogy, I think that its good to vocalise that approach. A studio is an attitude of mind, and although the idea of them is a tad old fashioned, studios have been great for me and my practice. I am not excited by the idea of a garret or working alone in a space to heroically toil and agonise over a painting. The solitary aspects don’t really interest me, but the more social aspects do. When I studied at Goldsmiths a feature of the course was that the students didn’t have a studio space, but when we graduated a group of us, including Fergal Stapleton, Fiona Banner, Matthew Collings, and the Wilson Twins, set up some studios together. These were the studios that we were unable to have 2 years previously, and I loved the dynamic of that space. It was a really good period for me; the constant coming and going of people and ideas.

That notion of a prolific group of like-minded artists touches on the idealism of Van Gogh’s vision for Arles.

He had this idea that everybody was going to go down to Arles and work with him to create a new movement in painting. The naive enthusiasm of that is intoxicating but it obviously imploded. Van Gogh had a false sense of other people’s ambition and outlook, imaging that because he wanted to do something, so must everybody else, and poor old Gauguin, who was rather a maverick character himself, became the focus of his over-inflated expectations. The idea of a commune is an interesting one, and of course it doesn’t have to be about artists. The 491 Club in Leytonstone, which is very close to where I live, is the Vanguard of a certain kind of communal living, whereby some people of various backgrounds have come together to form a type of rekindled 60s art school, and in this case I think that’s a pretty good thing.

Your floating studio will act as a physical platform for an event; do you think that your other studio can be seen in this way?

I think so. As an artist I am interested in how you have to get things going from a particular space. A studio may be the back room of an artist’s practice, and although this sounds a bit anoraky, I think that a studio can be likened to the ‘Fiddle Yard’ of a model railway enthusiast. A ‘Fiddle Yard’ is the name for the spot where a model railway enthusiast quickly changes the carriages of an arriving train so that a different train leaves through the tunnel. These spaces really interest me, places that may be out of sight, but that keep the show going. You often get photographs of artists in their studios at the backs of exhibition catalogues, and sometimes these images come to the fore and illuminate a whole dramatic cast in the background like the characters involved in Andy Warhol’s Factory. I myself have rented out a corner of my studio to a guy called Victor Mount from the ‘Ken Ardley Playboys’, who rehearsed music and made his work there. I really like the notion of people passing through the studio having made something.

There has long been a tradition of artists taking inspiration from the sea. How might your dialogue with it differ from JMW Turner’s?

Well this piece has very little to do with Turner really, although I am interested in his processes, and the notion of tying yourself to a mast to experience a storm at sea. I don’t feel a great deal of empathy with heroism in art, and in this case the reference to Turner’s antics is a sideways nod, and although important to the narrative of the piece, the work is actually more influenced by a painting of his called ‘Peace, Burial at Sea’. The painting commemorates the death of his friend David Wilkie, and I imagine my raft looking like the ship in that piece with a prominent mast. I would like to reenact that painting, and that relationship between an artist and a ship, although I’m not keen on reenacting the burial bit. The film will probably be quite a frenetic documentation, and I will either just float about or capsize feebly. I may well capsize as I haven’t really got a keel. I have to think harder about a keel this week. It’s actually a catastrophe waiting to happen, but the glorious thing about it will be the sublime impossibly of reenacting that painting with the tools I have.

The image of Turner bound to the mast of a ship in a storm at sea in order to experience the himself what it was like and make a more authentic painting of it, has often been used as a metaphor for the madness of artists.

I used to dismiss the importance of madness in art, and am more interested in the ordinariness that binds Van Gogh with Turner and Munch, and other artists that may have dealt with the subject in some way. But on the other hand I absolutely despair of normality. People who like to think of themselves as normal and take pride in it, that’s where you find true bloody madness! People who do not want to make things or achieve anything other than ordinariness. Their apathetic insularism insists that creativity should be belittled, and I think that some of my work signals to this attitude and says ‘wake up and smell the coffee’. That’s a difficult thing to say, but I think that there is something about art that is, and should be, a bit evangelical at times. Turner was very different to the kinds of people who were around him, and so he was often labeled as mad, but he was perfectly normal, they were just fucking boring. It is a bit like the crucifixion, Jesus was nailed to the cross and to experience, and Turner was tied to the mast. He was tied to the storm, and if you have that rope you don’t need anything else. You don’t need to represent anything as you have it there, you have the narrative. The sunshine was like that for Van Gogh; he was driven mad by the light in Arles.

The image of you standing on water whilst drawing and writing will be a striking thing, crossing the ‘plein-air’ romanticism of Impressionism, with a Robinson Crusoe-type ‘outsider’.

I want to bring those things together by working in a diary/sketchbook whilst I am aboard the raft and looking back at the land. I keep a diary and am interested in the principle of creating ones own life, like the ideas behind Voltaire’s ‘Candide’. You make your own reasons up for the decisions you make in life, and construct and defend your own world as you are responsible for it. There are some weighty issues being addressed by this work, such as ‘plain-air’ creativity, the artist outsider, and the importance of actual experience, and the pretext for it is rather grandiose despite the relative modesty of the raft itself. I plan to develop the piece for a show at Hales gallery in January 2008, and may build a much larger handpainted ship. This performance will be the only time I go out onto the sea though.

What do you actually intend to do on the floating studio?

If I actually make it on to the raft I will be extremely pleased. I would like to write on the raft whilst I’m out there, but if that is not possible I will use a notebook to record something relating to being there. I don’t quite know what that will be yet, as I was originally going to read painted stories from the raft’s boards, but now think it better to make sketches of the things that are already there, and include them in the exhibition with the studio and film

There are several different components to the piece – film, performance, sculpture, text, and drawing. How do you see them all functioning together?

Well they are all exposed, and that is the good thing about it. The exhibition will be the aftermath and debris. The work will exist from the beginning to the end, and the raft will be taken apart and reconstructed several times in the whole process. With this kind of approach, which displays archival evidence of an act, there is the danger of contriving a grandiose relic to some incredible event. But with this piece people will see the raft and say ‘God he went out on that?!’ And then say ‘Oh yeah, he did’, and be rather underwhelmed. If I was saying that I had gone around the world on it people might be impressed, but if it only goes out about two feet and then keels over, which is far more likely, I guess people will be rather more unmoved by it. By showing the remnants of this fantastic journey I am presenting the idea of them as a bit daft and prosaic, but then I can also see this piece as being a bit heroic as well. In a way I am undertaking this performance for a kind of prize, as the drawings in the sketchbook of Brighton and the sea will be an achievement and an opportunity opened up. A lot of my performances are motivated by the desire to see what that experience might be like.

Maybe that’s where the piece relates to Turner’s practice; as a kind of research that gives you the opportunity to experience something for yourself and accumulate enough to lead you on to somewhere else.

Last year I did this piece where I got two of my students to shave my head to reenact something relating to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. They got a crowd together and made a film, all shouting ‘Bob Smith is a bastard!’ I wasn’t sure what that work was about, but I was going to China at that time and beginning to think more about preparation, travel, and keeping a diary. It sounds a bit navel gazing, but it was that interest in my own journeys and diaries that lead on to this project and the processes by which you can chart your own responses to life. A Floating Studio might appear to be a modest gesture, or a slightly comic thing, but it’s about my responsibility to make my life more interesting.

You often encourage participation in your work, such as the contributions to ‘Peace Camp’ in Brick Lane last year and the ‘Apathy Workshop’ you are doing with the Pump House Gallery. Are you encouraging participation with this piece?

Although this work is more of a spectacle than participation, I am very interested in the concept of participation in art, not to get more people involved in it, but to use it as a social vehicle. With Peace camp, if you were a real war protestor you may have considered it to be a complete pisstake, and actually some of the participants approached it in a very straight and serious manner. I wanted to find out what would happen if I set it up just before Christmas and welcomed many different ideas of what peace could mean, as it was opened without a manifesto. Many artists get into the notion that art should be a form of protest, and you have to be so careful with that approach as it is stricken with pitfalls, and often turns into a kind of weird John Lennon trip, that is more about them than it is any suffering or injustice. It is like tying yourself to a mast or nailing yourself to the cross, you can just say, well the numbers were there and they all experienced it and it was a success because it changed their minds. Without sounding cynical, my Apathy Workshop is about these very problems.

Bob and Roberta Smith’s work can be seen on the cover of the current edition of Time Out London, and his book ‘Make Your Own Damn Art’, which he produced with Matthew Collings, is available to buy at Grey Area, along with limited edition DVDs of A Floating Studio.
The artist has a weekly radio show on Resonance FM every Tuesday evening called ‘MAKE YOUR OWN DAMN MUSIC’ and is represented by Hales Gallery London.

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