Louder than words?

“What is the game?” repeats the man in the wooden booth. From within its neon green interior echoes a sprightly tone evoking a 1950s advertisement jingle, skipping into choral hymns and then, strangely, the ominous, unmistakable drone of falling warplanes… And from amidst all this emerges that voice, brooding and baleful, as if slowed on a tape-recorder, the villain on the other end of the phone-line in an American teen horror flick.

“What is the game?” he repeats yet again. “When do we start to play the game? Some people start playing at five, most people begin playing the game when they are about ten…Most people play the game, though some people believe they have never played the game…”

The harrowing voiceover carries through the room, and it becomes a powerful backdrop upon which to fix our perspective. As we look around, we are confronted, relentlessly, with the bold primary colours and block capitals that make up the commanding slogans of Patrick Brill, a.k.a. “Bob and Roberta Smith”.

The Smiths, as I will call Brill, are for two months using the Mead Gallery as a ‘repository’ for the entire contents of their London studio. A larger space is needed for the artists, who have exhibited widely in venues ranging from the National Gallery to the Frieze Art Fair, with Hales Gallery, The Baltic, the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the Serpentine, the Tate Modern and Liverpool, New York and Pierogi in-between.

But the issue is not simply one of storage. From this central location, the Smiths will be pursuing an exciting project, fitting with the Warwick Arts Centre development plans and the expansion of the University of Warwick itself. The establishment of three new Centres for Contemporary Art (CCAs) in the region is under full sway. In 2001, Bob and Roberta Smith set up the highly successful Leytonstone Centre for Contemporary Art, and intend three new venues, in Kenilworth, Coventry and Warwick.

Their “Make Art, Not War” piece, nominated for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, sought to rebrand one of London’s central spots as a beacon of our cultural future, rather than a memorial to England’s military past. The illuminated monument, really a collaborative work between renewable energy specialists (powered by the sun and the wind), structural engineers and an architect, stood for ‘the power of art to act as a social force’, a defining theme in all of the work of the ‘brother-and-sister’ act. At the very core of their practice, from their very beginnings up until now, Bob and Roberta Smith invite us to question high art, and to question the role that aesthetic elitism plays in society today.

They are famous for their hard-hitting attitudes, painted as slogans on wooden panels. Some (in fact, most) are humorous, some politically opinionated. Some form a narrative like a story: “……” Others are only statements: “WE MUST GIVE AMY HER FREEDOM.”

However they do have one thing in common, and this is that they are all thought-provoking and intended to generate response. Not response in the sense of Emin (though the “Piss Bar” does emanate a certain ‘Traceyness’) or Hirst. We are left not asking “What is that?” or even “What does that mean?” but, rather, “What am I supposed to do about that now?”

Part of the project, I feel, is a lost cause. There is a sense of unmitigated supremacy in the self-assured capitals; they are applied to the boards in such a graphic way that they really do “jump out” at you, like an optical illusion or a Magic Eye trick. But this seems (perhaps I am being overly-critical, perhaps overly-cynical) to only thinly veil an underlying hopelessness- the inevitable upshot of being trapped in “The Game”.

If there is any blatant optimism in the Smiths, it is their ability to laugh in the face of social abhorrence, to turn the brush towards expression through creative, rather than violent, means. There should be no such thing as an ‘artist’, they say, just people making art (putting you and I in the frame as ‘artists’, as much as they themselves). Furthermore, the place of art is not within the sphere of commerce- confronted with global market collapse and unfair trade, what is the point of an art market? From this position, to challenge the art world is to point at opportunities for challenging other forms of authority, in other aspects of life.

Art then, is important. “…AS IMPORTANT”, says the slogan marked 1 DECEMBER 07, “AS THE POLICE THE HEALTH SERVICE, the Judices, and more important than the FIRE BRIGADE”, or “MORE IMPORTANT THAN RELIGION, HOSPITALS, THE POLICE, the sewage system, and BANKS”, as says the slogan beside it. With words and paint alone, Bob and Roberta Smith bring down all the seeming pillars of our community: not just bankers, but policemen, doctors, judges, firemen, health workers… They are all brought down to size when the slogans tell us that none are more important, if even as important, as art.

The spoken commentary does often retain the humour of the rest of the exhibition. You can’t help but laugh when the man in the booth tells you not to worry if your offspring is born a little redder/ bluer/ whiter than expected: after about six months, he says, the child will ordinarily develop into the “desired colour”. The explication of the four shades of brown is tongue-in-cheek and very entertaining. Even so, the rules of “The Game” insist on returning, reaching out across the exhibition space. You know that “if you are seen to be playing the game alone, you may lose the game,” and that to avoid such consequences you must “maintain a high level of game-awareness throughout your whole life.”

But what you really want to know is how to win “The Game”. You realise by now that you are already playing. And the signs, though comic, are also sceptical:

“LAST night I Listened to Yesterday in Parliament. A LABOUR Peer Said that the IDENTITY CARD would be “THE BADGE OF FREEDOM” for the Underprivileged. NEXT they will come for me, then they will come for you and they will say “show us yer wrists we want to see yer BADGE OF FREEDOM.”

“Tell us more, tell us all how to win the game…What is the game?” we now ask. It is certainly not a lesson to be learned in the “Apathy Workshop”, where the posts read “GIVE UP” and “I CAN’T BE ARSED”.

“Tell us how to play the game….”


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