A pioneer of conceptual art, London-based artist Stephen Willats has been practicing since the early 1960s. Rooted in the study of communication, Willats’s practice uses cybernetics as a mode of questioning how art functions in society. Taking the form of diagrammatic renderings and conceptual models, the work shifts focus from the art object to the audience, comprising a practice concerned with the “the fabric of society.” Influenced by his time at cybernetician and psychologist Gordon Pask’s Systems Research, a company focused on the study of cybernetics and early models of artificial intelligence, he rejected the title of “artist” preferring “Conceptual Designer,” aligning himself more closely with the study of science and early modes of advertising. In Willats’s words, advertising—unlike object-oriented art practices of the time—is interested in the “effects of communication on the consciousness.” His contextual art practice continues today with recent exhibitions at Raven Row, Victoria Mura, Tamayo Museum, and most recently at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, where his solo exhibition Languages of Dissent closes on August 18, 2019.
We became interested in Willats’s work during the renovation of the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in 2016. At the time we were developing a wayfinding system for a new lobby and a garden project and began exploring how artificial intelligence was becoming increasingly integrated into various aspects of contemporary culture. Willats’s practice influenced us to develop a system that functioned as a network of exchange instead of transmission, meaning a way of communicating that allowed for feedback or interpretation.
Now, with a new issue of Willats’s Control Magazine just out, we reached out to discuss his practice. First published in 1965 as a project within itself, Control serves as a platform for artists “seek[ing] to create a meaningful engagement with contemporary society.” Published irregularly since 1965, it has featured work by more than 150 artists, including John Latham, Dan Graham, Mary Kelly, Helen Chadwick, Tony Cragg, Lawrence Weiner, and Anish Kapoor. Published in July, the most recent issue of Control features eight actualized projects, ranging from a community garden social club to a radio show to Willats’s own Human Right, an exercise in externalizing the art gallery into a contextual urban environment. The issue maps the way that artwork can exist between people, outlining various models for a societal art practice. In the following interview Willats discusses networks of exchange, his interest in self-organization, the origins of punk, and what it meant to create clothing that required assembly.
Jas Stefanski (JS)
Could you discuss your work and how it approaches or utilizes institutional planning?
Stephen Willats (SW)
I’ve always looked for polemics in my work that connect to an audience. It was important to me right from the outset, in fact in the late ’50s, to look for a meaningful relationship between the practice and the community or society that it took place within. Things like context, language, meaning. Back in ’58 I made a diagram, a sort of philosophical statement that stated that the audience of a work of art was in fact as important as the artist, if not more important. Because without the audience, a work of art can’t exist. It’s a sort of tautology. An artwork needs people.
This has a meaning within different communities. But I was interested in representing the kind of polemic that went beyond an institutional academy within the realm of art. A lot of art friends, for instance, got involved in the language of art itself. And in the late ’50s, early ’60s, I was reacting against the kind of straitjacket that had been inherited from the 1950s, which was built upon the idea of the evolution in the language of art and its practice, which was highly deterministic and linear, so that the art practice existed with predetermined, preconfined rules and context. If you think of the evolution of the picture and where it’s presented, it tends to be presented within the confines of an institutional situation called the art gallery or the art museum, a space which utilizes language, which require prior knowledge. You need to have some prior involvement. It relies on special knowledge. Of course, these two things in themselves are elevational, and they belong within the realm of a hierarchical kind of deterministic society built on relative possessions: possession of knowledge, possession of objects, possession of power, and so on.
At that time, I was looking at my modus operandi within society. And it was an exciting period. I was thinking in terms of the idea of networks. The idea of information being available within a network. Essentially, the network was based on exchange, not transmission. I felt that art practice was what I called “last-century thinking.” It came out of the period of the late … not last century, but the century before, which was transmissional, object language. You’ve probably heard the word “object language,” a language where even people are thought of as objects. Think of the radio. The radio is an example of that last-century thinking. It’s transmissional. It blasts out, and there’s no way in which the viewer or the audience/receiver can interact with the message or change it. You’re a passive receiver.
I was interested in different kind of models of society, different paradigms. I got involved in all kinds of disciplines, areas of information that as an artist would give me a new kind of functionality that would enable me to reconfigure how I might operate within the infrastructure of society—to break out of the institutional determinism of the art gallery but move within the fabric of society looking for meanings with different audience groups. This led me, in the middle and late ’60s, to look at the idea of environment and polemics with the environments. At that point, there was the development of so-called monumental modernism in the construction of the environment. Everything was built of concrete. It was monumental. It was monolithic. The idea it expressed was immortality—a bit like a lot of artwork built on immortalities for the owner or the possessor. It was an interesting polemic, that you had this paternal socialism. The idea of providing these new world environments for people which would make them feel modern and in touch and connected with the world they lived in was a nice feeling to have, I guess, at that time. And that was an interesting moment, in that people wanted to feel modern. They wanted to feel free of these old determinisms. They were really still not doing it. It was a scenario. If you’re McLuhanite you come, you talk about the fabric of things containing messages. And concrete, boy, does that contain a heavy message. It could have been made from something else, such as wood or straw.
I was interested also in the way that these environments were configured. They were paternalistically directed towards providing environments for people to live and fulfill themselves and create their own potential as people. So on and so forth. But on the other hand, the people themselves, who are numbered, they weren’t envisaged as people at all. They were just objects. This was a huge polemic for me. I saw also that the buildings themselves, the outface of the building was monumental, even though it engaged a social situation. It was actually monumental. But in the building, people were isolated and segmented from each other—much in the same way as they had been in the hierarchy. I set about developing works which engaged with this polemic.
The reason I did that was that I wanted to connect with the audience. I wanted to find something people could connect with. But even if you didn’t live in a tower block or live in one of these new concrete housing developments, you knew what I was talking about. It was in the currency of the moment.
There are other polemics that I looked at as well. It wasn’t just that. I dealt with the office desk and all kinds of other areas. And by and large, in this period of the late ’60s, early ’70s, I was concerned with the institutional lockdown of people within its structure. They were abstracted. They’d become abstracted. This resulted in works which were directed toward specific groups of people, i.e., the people themselves who were locked into those particular environments so that they could engage in a transformation of their perception of their environment to see that the world didn’t have to be that way. They could postulate other kinds of outcomes. I saw transformation itself was a creative act—from a stick into a tool. It’s a creative act. I saw that people could look at the environment that they’re in, look through that window in their living room, and visualize something different from what was there. In other words, what they saw, they could see it having another meaning.
You could say that was creative transformation. This is important cognitive process.
Projects like the West London Social Resource Project or the Social Model Construction Project all had a different kind of social paradigm, a belief that lay underneath it. An enormous dynamic simulations of a social model, but it was enacted by people.
Then, on the other hand, you had wall installations which could be presented anywhere. And some of them did go into art galleries and museums, which presented different issues around those polemics. For instance, I Don’t Want To Be Like Anyone Else (1977) deals with six ways society views a woman within a deterministic institutional situation. It was one of my first punk works. That was actually made with someone who lived in a particular late ’60s vast housing estate on the outskirts of London. But by that time it was beginning to crumble through lack of resources and lack of maintenance; the vision itself was curtailed, as you probably realized. A lot of these environments required high dependency, they were high maintenance. They required people to keep them up. And they required people to rebuild them when they were old. One thing and another. When all that broke down, there weren’t people to keep it up, and people began to, as it were, find their own ways of going across the grass rather than going around the edge. They began to crumble.
Around that time I made Pat Purdy and the Glue Sniffers Camp (1981).They attacked the buildings they were living in. People were creating holes in their buildings and things. It was amazing. Does that answer your question?
It starts to address some of my questions in terms of space. I’m interested in how your approach changes between appropriated and appointed spaces. The West London Resource Project (1972–1973) utilized architecture that was built specifically for inhabitants, but then, for example, there’s Pat Purdy and the Glue Sniffers Camp, which addressed reappropriated space by individuals for not necessarily the purpose for which it was intended.
As I say, I’m interested in the self-organization of the individual and the possibility of self organization within the community. People setting up their own societies, really. The idea of people fulfilling themselves within the world where they exercise their own control. If you think of the word “control,” you have the idea of a kind of hierarchical determinism which is the former control that seems to, even to this day, predominate in the world we live in. People have a vested interest in maintaining that archaic model. But on the other hand, there are other models of control which are built around the idea of self-organizing systems, where each part determines its own position, if you follow me. The idea of mutuality, the idea of exchange.
The West London Project involved four communities that didn’t have any connection with each other. They lived in this same area of London, but they were socially, physically, economically isolated from each other. The idea of the project was to create an interface between these communities, so they could individually and connectively transform the way they saw the everyday environment in which they existed. First of all, they built up a descriptive model, which was then used to create a transformation situation where they created their own … almost their own prescriptions, I guess. That was a pioneering project. There’s no doubt about it. It was something nobody’d ever done before. The idea was to involve these four groups of very typical people who had very little to do with each other and didn’t have very much prior knowledge of what was happening within the contemporary art world. The work was using their language rather than the language of the art world. Not only do you have the context and meaning but you have the language itself. It’s using the language that can operate successfully with an audience group.
In that situation, you have to really know the audience group in advance. That was a model of what I call contextual art practice. That led to a whole series of works which built on it. Perhaps one of the most far-reaching was The Social Model Construction Project, which involved computer interfaces within people’s everyday lives. In fact, we had computer terminals on the streets and things like that.
You had this idea in all those projects of people creating a transformation of the everyday world around them, to see it differently and to see how they might possibly develop it, empower it. I don’t mean in the practical way like, “I’ll paint this wall pink or I’ll change the color of that mantle piece or rearrange those objects,” and so on. I mean in a more conceptual way. I began to think about other forms of relationships with people. That brings us to the idea that there’s a sort of counter-consciousness. You have parallel worlds existing simultaneously and people creating a dissonance between the world they have to exist in and the world that they want to be true. Most people create a kind of buffer. We hate to pay our taxes, but we have to pay them because we have to exist in this world we don’t particularly like and are critical of. That was a great society of counter-consciousness. If you imagine in the 1960s people talked about counterculture even.
I was beginning to look for expressions of this counter-consciousness in the 1980s. I lived in the night for five years. But leading up to all that was that I came across a group of alienated young people living on this housing estate, called the Avondale Estate, in Hayes, next to an area of wastelands. Punk had just began to develop it. It really developed in the west side of London. Many people have discussed the idea of the origins of punk. Believe me, it really started out in the wastelands of West London in the very early Seventies. But by ’75, ’76, when I made The Lurky Place, it was creating a kind of totally self-organized culture which was really a reaction against the restrictions and limitations placed on people to externalize their expressions.
A lot of these expressions became quite tangential. It’s a sort of repulsion, that is to repulse, to remove you from the dominant culture and to engage in things that are abhorrent to people. Tangential to so-called normality, to the dominant norms and values of society. I came across this group of alienated kids, well, youth. The stuff was quite frightening. One of them, Pat Purdy, was a particular sort of catalyst. She told me about these camps that they made and said that this housing estate was right next to the huge area, buffered onto a huge area of wasteland. These are quite important in London. They’re totally surrounded by society. Most of them have been taken away now. But they were important at that time because they were places you could go and do things outside society. You could engage in activities you wouldn’t be able to do in society.
People tended not to go into the wasteland as individuals on their own, but actually in groups, which was interesting. They went to create a society amongst themselves. What was interesting is you’ve got the Avondale Estate, this concrete wilderness which was highly regimented but breaking down at that point. Really breaking down. I mean, really, really breaking down. It was in many respects unlivable. The young people there felt totally hopeless. But they were on a concrete island. Around them was a world that they couldn’t obtain or reach or connect with. They did something amongst themselves. They created a little world of their own. And to do this, they created a journey. And they created a journey from the block they lived in. In through a hole in the fence, in a sense abutted onto this world, this wasteland, The Lurky Place it was called. They created holes. And these holes became symbolic as one reality into another. A door between realities, the conscious and unconscious. This sort of thing. It was sort of a moment of transformation when you went through the one into the wasteland.
They went in there and they created these camps. And these camps were places they could hide in … People couldn’t see them. They were sniffing glue. They didn’t actually put it in bags. They used to put it on a fire. So when you were in the camp fumes went all around the camp. They started jumping around and mucking about. And there’s this feeling of being outside society, which created a kind of connection between them. Yes, I was interested in that and how they transformed this bit of wasteland into an environment that, literally, they could operate within.
How do the systems you implement acknowledge or address the diversity of audiences? I’m thinking specifically about Meta Filter (1973–1975) and how that work prompted two individuals with potentially disparate backwards to create a baseline.
Periodically in my work, I thought it was important to divest myself back to what I had accumulated somehow—to go back to kind of zero as an artist and rethink how you might operate. I did that in ’65 when I had got up to conceptual design and the concept of conceptual design. And then in the late ’70s, I wanted to set up some works which would be kind of like signposts for other artists. They might be a means of going forward. You know you get to that point where you still have the avant garde. I got involved with very specific things like cybernetics and learning theory and the theory of advertising. Different territories. I felt at that time that the artist could operate with all means. There should be no barriers to where the artist can travel looking for tools to create.
That created a vehicle to externalize the ideas and concepts to an audience. As I say, I went to look for meaning. I came up with a kind of model. I worked with a committee when I was a professor. I had to use the education establishment to get people in that I could utilize to get advice. So I had somebody from advertising, a painter, a linguist, a cybernetician. Different kinds of people who would come together and discuss how the artist might develop new strategies. And one of the things that came up was this idea you can have a model, which I mentioned a bit earlier on, where you had a consensual relationship between the audience language, context, and meaning of a work of art.
Stemming from that, it seemed to be two fundamental strategies which were epitomized in the end of social model construction project and Meta Filter.
Both actually had similar aims. One, you could specify the audience in advance. And when you specified the audience in advance, you could use the language of the audience to increase the meaning of and access to the work. And the other direction was where it engaged what I would call an elaborate audience, where you don’t specify the audience and the work becomes available to anyone who learns the language of the work of art. It’s the reverse. The Edinburgh Project, which involved four communities in Edinburgh, used the language of the audience or participants and Meta Filter does, as you suggested or I suggested, the other direction.
With Meta Filter, you start with two people coming together. They start at zero, really. They’ve never met each other. And they interface through the structure of the work itself. And the idea is they construct a model society, their society. And with Meta Filter, there’s no baseline. There’s no good or bad. It doesn’t have any moral judgment on these participants. It’s strictly neutral in that respect. But the outcome could be that any two people working on it can come up with different models of their society. Their model being is based on agreement. I saw agreement was a fundamental to mutual society. This is what I was interested in: externalizing.
Instead of me painting a picture on a wall, somebody had actually got the idea through their experience of it. Meta Filter originally was demonstrated, was toured around different environments. I made announcements to different kinds of people, for instance, people working on allotments or philatelists—all kinds of strange groups. You had a booking system, and the person who took the bookings could actually match up different scenarios. I don’t know if you’ve ever operated Meta Filter, but it’s incredibly gripping once you’re into the simulation. (I’ve only ever come across one couple who had a row and couldn’t complete and stopped. And they were intending to get married. I don’t know how that affected their future life.) It takes about an hour and a half. It’s quite a long time to engage with a work of art at that level. And actually you start with the individual’s relationship to the self, individual’s relationship to another person, to a subgroup, and so on. It gradually builds up the complexity of the relationship that you’re looking at and the scenarios around them.
Both those works are really very important, I think, to what subsequently happened in other areas of communication and basically in artificial intelligence and in person-to-computer interfaces.
Some of your work intends to directly disrupt or adjust existing social infrastructures. Multiple Clothing (1991), for example, does so via a system that is worn and interacted with. What were the ideas behind this strategy?
Multiple Clothing came out of that moment when I felt that historical modus operandi of the artist was redundant to the new kind of world I thought was appearing. I felt that the world was moving into a really open and mutualistic direction. It was 1965, and I felt that the historical modus operandi just couldn’t cope with this new world that was emerging. I thought that I would stop calling myself an artist. I searched for a new name, and I came up with the idea of the Conceptual Designer. I felt that what the artist had to do was engage with the very fabric of society directly, go beyond this institutional lockdown that they were in and still are. But, if you looked beyond it, you could envisage that the artist would be this other kind of creative person within this infrastructure. I wanted to disturb how people related to each other. That they could self-organize and recreate different connections between themselves like informal networks, interactive exchanges.
I did various things. I designed furniture, self-organizing furniture, and then the Multiple Clothing started. And also I started Control Magazine. It goes back to that moment. And then I was also involved in education. I developed an educational course which was self-organizing, where the students developed only social and community practice. In other words, they didn’t do individual practice. They only worked as a group for a whole year, and they self-assessed themselves. There was no separation between staff and students. This was not very popular with the the authorities. Anyway, yeah, the idea of Multiple Clothing was that it would be set up within this infrastructure. I made sort of kits. There were sort of kits that came as a bag in parts. And we took them to different boutiques so they hung on the racks. Somebody coming along expecting a nice T-shirt or a dress or something would find these Moldable Clothing kits. What’s that? You know. There was somebody, maybe the assistant there, or there was a leaser to discuss it or something. That was the idea, get it in like that.
The helmets were the idea that people would interact with you and they would change those visors and introduce the idea of a kind of mutualism between people.