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Bob and Roberta Smith's Basel 'Art Party' raises awareness about slashing of UK arts education funding

Bob and Roberta Smith’s crusade against cuts is bringing politics and mayhem to the Swiss fair

Bob and Roberta Smith Louisa Buck

That there are parties in Basel during the fair will come as no surprise. That there is a party in Basel that began as a protest against Michael Gove, the British secretary of state for education, may catch some unawares. It’s called the Art Party, it’s taking over the Volkshaus and it’s serious—but a lot of fun too, according to its creator, the British artist Bob and Roberta Smith.

It all started on the day Amy Winehouse died, according to Smith. The singer once studied at the Brit School in south London, an academy for the performing arts funded partly by the music industry and partly by the state (it is free to attend).

When she died in July 2011, Smith was already deeply worried about cuts to the UK’s education budget. “Lucian Freud also died that weekend, and that bastard [Anders Behring Breivik] shot all those people in Norway,” the artist says. “We were doing a performance with a band at the Barbican and it was a kids’ event. We were playing avant-garde music and mucking about with trombones and putting microphones on bowls. And I thought, on some level, the government just doesn’t get what all this is about.” A proposed new examination system had excluded arts subjects from the core curriculum in England, leading to concerns that many schools would simply stop teaching them.

Within days, Smith had composed the text for his painting Letter to Michael Gove. Headed “Your destruction of Britain’s ability to draw, design and sing”, it went on to say: “Give a child a piece of paper, a brush and some colour and you put them in control. As school progresses, poor teaching in some schools impresses on the child that they are not in control… the child who becomes inhibited is inducted into the mediocre majority of the visually illiterate, of which you, Michael Gove (in your ill-fitting shirt and unmatched tie), are a part.”

The campaign grew from there, and last November, the Art Party—part political campaign group, part rolling performance piece—held a conference in Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast, in collaboration with local organisation Crescent Arts. Artists and educators called for a change in policy, while bands played and art was made. And anyone who wasn’t paying close attention—it was a party, after all—might have thought they saw Gove making a speech. And destroying a coconut-shy installation featuring heads resembling his own and getting lost in a swirl of art and maybe even leaving his clothes on the beach. Anyone paying closer attention might have noticed that “Gove” was also being followed by a camera: the Art Party was becoming a film.

A collaboration between Smith and the film-maker Tim Newton, it will be shown at the Volkshaus this week, followed by a screening at the Latitude festival in Suffolk next month. It is due for general release in the UK on 21 August, when secondary-school students receive their GCSE examination results.

In Basel, however, Gove is hardly well-known, so at the Volkshaus, Smith will lead informal discussions about arts education funding in Europe, as well as creating more “joyous” happenings and testing the water to see if an Art Party candidate might stand a chance in the next elections to the European Parliament. Meanwhile, the film’s roving troubadour, Flame Proof Moth, is due to perform outside the fair in a Pied Piper-style attempt to lure people to party.

So will Smith be Art Partying until arts education gets a shot in the arm? “I’m in it for the duration… I’m as suspicious of the Labour Party as I am of the Conservative Party on some levels,” he says. “[But] I do think people ought to engage in politics.”

• Art Party, Volkshaus Basel, until 21 June; for more details, visit volkshaus-basel.ch

• For Bob and Roberta Smith’s Art Party Questionnaire, see p26

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "Basel gets ready to (Art) Party"