Stephen Willats as artist

Last night, Sharon Irish gave a talk on Stephen Willats at the CAS.

I find it very difficult to get my mind round Willats’ work. I’ve admired him since reading in A Computer in the Art Room by Catherine Mason that, in one of his teaching projects, “students dug a hole at a point determined by throwing a dart into a map of Ipswich and documented the public’s response to this action. One location was in the middle of a graveyard, another was in the floor of the local branch of Barclays Bank…”.

I don’t just like this because it is anarchic! What a fascinating and complex image, digging a hole in your local Barclays! Not an attack on capitalism (remember it was picked by chance), not a social protest or an environmental statement – just a rich image that stays with me. Now THAT’s art.

As Wikipedia says, he is interested in “extending the territory in which art functions.”, or as he puts it:
“a function of my work [was] to transform peoples’ perceptions of a deterministic culture of objects and monuments, into the possibilities inherent in the community between people, the richness of its complexity and self-organisation. The artwork having a dynamic, interactive social function.”

Ms Irish valiantly analysed and explained Willats’ ‘Edinburgh Social Model’. In this, the artist and a team of helpers went door to door in four different parts of Edinburgh, firstly identifying volunteers prepared to take part. Volunteers were then given one or more ‘tasks’ each morning for five nights, and asked to provide a written response which was collected that evening, and then coded and analysed overnight on an ICL computer. Depending on the answers obtained, different tasks were then set for the next morning. The results were publicly displayed in local buildings such as libraries. The ‘tasks’ included a request to devise a better way of separating two gardens than using a hedge.

This was intended all along as an art work, not as social science. (A good thing, since the sample sizes were too small, and I suspect the method of coding the open-ended answers too subjective, for this to be methodologically sound.)

I find myself wondering where the ‘art’ lies. Willatts produced some documentation for his projects, some of which is now in galleries. However, this was not his primary product.

In an interview for his Control magazine, he talks of the similar West London project as “trying to bring art practice into the daily lives of people and the infrastructure of people, and to develop it within their routines… we wanted to demonstrate that this as an artist and an artwork could engage people who would normally have very little to do with contemporary art practice… we were trying to show that you could take these conceptual theoretical ideas that were developed and take them into reality… one thing that underlay this whole project was the idea of contextualisation of art practice … instead of being free-floating, from context to context, object-based, being able to be positioned in one museum or another museum, from one museum to another, here we have the thing specifically located in this area using the specific language of this neighbourhood…’ (My transcription from the video.)

Yes, but being different from previous art is not a sufficient condition for making good art, or even for making art at all. I wonder if Willats had some homeostatic idea in mind – that one person’s views might somehow balance another’s, in a mechanism of social cybernetics that would reduce misunderstanding? Some of his diagrams, and descriptions of his work, suggest this, for example he describes ‘Metafilter’ as “a new way for art to operate directly within society; rather than just looking at a work of art, it requires two people to construct a model of their own society in agreement with someone else.”

Elsewhere, he says: “I consider the act of ‘transformation’ to be a fundamental creative act, basic to expression and survival….within every person there lies the transformer and…the initiation of transformations is essential to each individual…expressing their self-organisation, their self identity. But while I can see…the… transformer…latent within everyone, I also recognise its social inhibition–for the repression of self-organisation…is implicit in the norms, rules and conventions of what we are led to call normality.” (In Transformers 1981, quoted here.)

At the time, artists using computers did so in continual tension between the science-fiction possibilities (some of which have happened, some not) and the primitive abilities and laughable scarcity of actual machines.

Curiously, the Edinburgh work is not listed on Willats’ own site, or in the Wikipedia entry, although the similar West London Resource Project is. I’m not sure if this is significant.

The comparison that jumped into my mind is with Ezra Pound‘s ‘Cantos‘.Partly because, as Wikipedia says, “Pound’s tacit insistence that this material becomes poetry because of his action in including it in a text he chose to call a poem also prefigures the attitudes and practices that underlie 20th-century Conceptual art”, but also because the Cantos are a heroic attempt, by Pound’s own admission never quite reaching the artist’s original grand vision.

Did Willats reach his own vision, or does it elude him in these works?

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