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Stephen Willats, Our Interpersonal Home, 1990
Courtesy: the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Art Society Feedback

by Emily Pethick

Self-organization and counter-consciousness are buzzwords for Stephen Willats. The conviction behind all his artistic output from the 1960s to the present is that people have great potential to bring about change, through creative resistence to imposed squalor. In this context, the artist’s diagrams are dynamic models of a new reality traditional artistic theory cannot grasp. With the artist, Emily Pethick reviews the meaning of his multidisciplinary incursions, from cybernetics to philosophy.

Emily Pethick: Let’s talk about a new book, Art Society Feedback, published by Verlag für Moderne Kunst Nürnberg, for the exhibition at Badischer Kunstverein.
For those not familiar with your work, you were one of the first UK artists to take work out of galleries into society, making the audience active, examining social functions and meanings of art in society. The book has two parts: a collection of your writings since the early ‘60s, and a essays about your work by Andrew Wilson, Brigitte Franzen, Tom Holert, Ute Meta Bauer and myself.
Reading it, I was struck by the relationship between practice and theory, especially in the diagrams, a constant in your work since the late 1950s. One early piece, Art Society Feedback (1959), shows a conceptual model of connections between artist and social context, feedback between artist and environment. An example of the conceptual models you create, which feed into works made in collaboration with people in social contexts outside the gallery.

Stephen Willats: My development of concepts and models is related to perception of the function of the artist in relation to the world. I was conscious of the fact that the work I was proposing was going to be part of society. An initial observation was that artwork is completely dependent on its audience. We could almost say viewers are its reason for being, without them it doesn’t exist. It is essential for artists to realise they are somehow part of society. The next observation was that most art practice was describing existing values and beliefs, amplifying what was validated in existing society. Then there was another smaller, much more difficult but ultimately more meaningful role, concerning transformation; the notion that the artist can transform existing values and provide a vision of the future, a different perception of the world and a language for that. I saw that practice was nothing more than a vehicle, embodying the language. You have got to have a model to represent reality, models are representations of an external, encountered or possible reality.

EP: Diagrams have been a central aspect of your practice from very early on. They are used as a language for forming models, but also as a tool for planning projects. Your use of them was also influenced by exposure to theories outside art, like cybernetics, systems theories, black box theory.

SW: The diagram is a dynamic picture, a model in a dynamic state. I saw that other languages were needed to provide a vision of a future possible world. The languages available to me in the world of historical art were inadequate to describe the new reality, the new world I was encountering (late ‘50s and early ‘60s), that seemed to be emerging. So I became interested in languages from outside art. The emerging sciences of cybernetics and information theory were especially exciting, as were the nascent philosophies of semiotics. All kinds of new ways of thinking were appearing and could be drawn into practice. It was just a natural way of representing ideas and social relationships in a dynamic way. If the artist was in a relationship with the audience, and the audience was part of society, the artist was in a relationship with society, so there was feedback. This is how my diagrams originated.

EP: One of the most striking early works is Homeostat Drawing (1969), installed as a wall drawing at Badischer-Kunstverein and then at Casco in Utrecht; we are now installing it again for “Signal:Noise”, an upcoming event at The Showroom, investigating the legacy of systems theories and cybernetics in art practice. This diagram depicts an endless network of interconnecting parts. Can you talk about where this came from, what it represents as a social model?

SW: In the mid 1960s I encountered the work of Ross Ashby, who developed the homeostat. His representation was a model with four nodes, totally interconnected by input-output relationships. The important thing for me was that it showed a possible form of relationships and information within society. Though I don’t think Ashby saw it this way; his was a mechanical model. Nevertheless I could glimpse social ramifications. The homeostat model posed another notion, illustrating the difference between our historical systems of control – where information is contained within a set hierarchy – and the idea of a continually shifting, self-determining system. This is another model of control; to make information available throughout structures, so this one-layer network could be seen as a new social model. I was interested in the notion of another society, moving away from the straitjacket I perceived in the 1950s.
This early work led to simulation works showing a decision-making model of society based on mutual cooperation, like Visual Homeostatic Information Mesh 1969 and Visual Homeostatic Maze 1968. Simulations that represented the self-organising model of society in a dynamic state, and involved people in making decisions about their relationships with others. I have always been interested in cooperation, a comparative critique between competition and cooperation in decision making.

Stephen Willats, Meta Filter, 1973-75
Collection Fonds national d'art contemporain, Paris.

EP: The Homeostat Drawing is also based on an idea of agreement, a frequent notion in your work, especially later works like Meta Filter.

SW: Yes, I saw agreement as a fundamental state. Agreement is not compliance, acquiescence; it involves perceptual recognition of mutuality. It requires a complex series of exchanges. Agreement is a social state between people, not a mechanistic thing; if one is conforming it may seem like agreement, but it is not.

EP: The concept of self-organisation is something you were interested in very early on, and explored in different ways; the individual’s capacity to self-organize, non-conformity regarding imposed social structures. Resistance to control emerges when you look, for example, at the planned environment, at how tower blocks or modernist housing structure people’s lives, how their inhabitants develop their own subcultures and languages.

SW: Absolutely. In the early 1970s I was consciously looking for polemics to represent in my work, and I thought about externalizing these observations and ideas. I saw that people were in a state of what I call counter-consciousness: they lived in a reality that was determined for them in a mechanistic way. They had to adapt to it, so they created their own counterculture. I don’t think this movement or force was rationalized, that came later with the post-punks in the early ‘80s; it was a sort of a basic human reaction to a crushing state of determinism. I felt the spirit of self-organisation was alive even in the most depressing environments. I noticed this in tower blocks, where residents were isolated from external reality, physically and socially, but still fought back and managed to create a kind of symbolic society for themselves, to find mutual relationships. The development of a counter-consciousness was really important; without it, people would have collapsed. It helped them to maintain their own identity.

EP: You have talked a lot about the artist as someone concerned with transformation, also in relation to the individual’s capacity to transform, through the works you have made on housing estates.

SW: I saw my practice as a way of engaging with other people, forwarding a vision of society that has to be in a language people can understand. The traditional art world has its own special, exclusive languages. People know this, and I wanted to extend the meaning of my work beyond this exclusive environment. I had to find a way to build a bridge and make my propositions meaningful to them. That meant creating a symbolic world for an audience to enter, and articulating this symbolic world in a familiar language. The most appropriate language was their language, so embodying the audience’s language in the work helped me to create the symbolic world too. One thing was to set up a relationship with the audience, a feedback between creator and observer of the work. The audience entering the symbolic world could make inferences to their own reality, looking at the world around them, then seeing how it could be transformed. I was working with people on the margins, alienated from the normal, predetermined behaviour of society. At the time, people said this was crazy and tried to stop me, but I said no: these people are important to the future because they embody the act of transformation, developing other languages to denote other ways of viewing future society.

EP: In one of your early manifestos, “The Artist as Philosopher”, you talked about how the artist is concerned with finding the boundaries of things and returning them to society. Taking this literally, maybe it relates to a number of works that have explored the margins of society, the borders of towns, wastelands and uninhabited areas, like the glue sniffers’ camp; examining these places outside that kind of planned environment, investigating the margins even in a physical sense.

SW: When I made that statement I was thinking artists could take risks because they weren’t inside the box, they could go outside, wherever they wanted. They could go to the edge, where other people wouldn’t, so they sort of lived on the edge, where they felt free.

Stephen Willats, Visual Meta Language Simulation, 1971-72
Courtesy: the artist

EP: In the exhibition at Badischer Kunstverein and in Tom Holert’s text in the book there is a particular focus on works from the ‘80s. You made works that stemmed from your interest in underground clubs, like the Cha Cha Cha, and collaborations with Leigh Bowery. In another sense, these work involve people who were quite literally transforming themselves.

SW: A heuristic progression of interests. In the ‘70s I was working in the wastelands in West London, at what would now be seen as the origin of punk. What was interesting to me was this language of resistance people used to denote their social separations from the dominant, deterministic society. By the late ‘70s/early ‘80s what started as pure self-organisation on a local level had become a cultural phenomenon, a sort of underground night culture. By the early 1980s there were small, private clubs that different communities of young people had spontaneously set up around London, to create an environment for their own society. Generally speaking, these groups associated the world of the day with boring determinism and made clubs using the cover of the night, quite spontaneously, just for friends. Every club had its own identity and was linked to a particular group. This phenomenon came out of punk, but it wasn’t really punk. People developed codes of dress and behaviour, speech, music, environment. It had a lot to do with externalization of sexuality, of previously repressed homosexuality. A generation came out to be who they wanted to be, but still there were different sensibilities in different groups. I saw people creating this counterculture and I thought this had great implications for a way forward. The world we live in is increasingly conformist and normal, and you can see this everywhere. But that was a moment of resistance, and I wanted to confront the audience immediately with this phenomenon in my work.

EP: Reading the book Art Society Feedback, there are some recurring principles of your work that become clear, connected to a reluctance to see things as fixed, or from one perspective, favouring dynamic states, open systems, acknowledging the complexity of people and experiences. This is something that can be addressed using the language of the diagram, but also through working with people, involving multiple authors. To explore more than one perspective, coexistences, multiple channels, uncertainties. Something very striking in your work is that you have often resisted a singular, authoritative perspective, in favour of open situations.

SW: What is fundamental to these models is the idea of self-organisation and cooperation. I’m interested in acknowledgment of relativity, transience, fluidity, complexity. I think in the last three decades some very important things have become guiding principles. These ideas didn’t exist in the ‘30s, ‘40s or ‘50s. Last century thinking said the world was simple, authoritative, monumental, immortal, etc., but in the world currently opening up before us we acknowledge the richness of complexity, transience, multi-channel fluidity, self-organisation.

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