Alex Sainsbury

Stephen Willats’ progress from teenage gallery assistant, and his first exposure to art, to prolifically inventive artist and theorist, re-imagining art’s social role, more or less spans the sixties. After taking life drawing classes he qualified for art school, and by the time he had finished there eighteen months later, in 1964, he was making more dynamic work than most of his tutors. Shortly afterwards he became a progressive educator himself, and founded the experimental magazine, Control. In 1968, without much exhibition history, he was offered a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford. The ambitious project that he developed there is the basis of this publication and exhibition at Raven Row, which cover the period from 1962, when Willats first identified himself as an artist, to the end of the sixties, after which he jettisoned sculptural work in pursuit of an art of social interaction beyond the art object and gallery.

Although Willats absorbed neo-avant-garde ideas of the period, especially from the various strands of constructivism and kinetic art, he rejected the formal and abstract interpretations of these made by some of his peers. He sought a new ‘functionality for art’ and embraced the intellectual holism of the time. Transdisciplinarity (an incitement to British amateurism) was ‘in the air’ of the sixties, as Willats explains in interview below, encouraging a cross-pollination of art with science and sociology, computer technology and engineering. So he found ways of introducing probability theory’s concept of the random variable to the art avant-garde’s longstanding interest in chance (using complex electronics). He studied semiology, language codes, graphic design and concrete poetry; became interested in colour as it was applied in theories about motivation and learning; and he absorbed behaviourism, and read papers on subliminal advertising, melding these with kinetic art.

Cybernetics, the post-war science of communication and much else, was the transdisciplinary field that most suggested to Willats a means to make his work function. His overarching interest, expressed in the first notebooks he made from the late fifties (predating his introduction to cybernetics) up until the present day, has been to develop an art of social interaction, to explore and inflect communication and relationships, between artist and audience, and among people in private and social space. If all art addresses communication in some way, Willats has seemingly set out to be something more than an artist; a social scientist, perhaps, or even a social reformer. The title of this exhibition and publication – Control – echoes the provocation of his eponymous magazine, the achievements of which Antony Hudek elaborates below. It is derived from the cybernetic proposition that people can take control of their environments, thereby deflecting the control of a dominant social hierarchy. The artist may take an enabling and empowering role, operating controls of his own.

The various series of objects that Willats produced during the sixties to explore his concerns seem playful to audiences now, generating curiosity and pleasure. The first, titled ‘Manual Variables’, carries some resemblance to the haptic interactive forms of latin American Neo-Concretism. However, only a sociologist or cybernetician would accompany such works with the ‘response sheets’ that Willats used to encourage participants to reflect on their decisions. In 1965, Willats’ early frustration with art’s limited reach was expressed in his short-lived attempt to become a ‘conceptual designer’ of clothing and furniture. As much as this approach and some of the forms it produced echo the achievements of social constructivism and its Russian forebears, uniquely he was interested in furniture insofar as it could provide agency to its users, and in clothing in order to inflect the relationship between wearer and world at large.

Willats’ practice has always been tied to drawing, as theory and pretext, as preparation and ‘worksheet’. There is a striking consistency in his approach to this through 50 years of practice, because his interests in understanding and formulating social relationships remain rooted in the kinds of analytic models he adopted and developed during this early period. His works on paper transform constructivist geometries, motivated by the diagrammatic approaches of cybernetics and systems theory as well as the graphics of urban design. Although he rejects pure aestheticisation in favour of documentation and research, Willats has developed a vibrant visual style which originated in the bright urban cultures of the sixties.

While his drawings have persisted, the series of kinetic and light works that Willats installed for his 1968 exhibition at Museum of Modern Art Oxford have not been gathered together since. At the time they were generally misread as poor kinetic art, and by the end of the sixties Willats himself had moved on, reasoning that these did not respond seriously enough to the responsibilities of the artist’s social role. Indeed, they are not elegantly poised exercises in perceptual fluidity like most kinetic work of the period. they were intended as phenomenological experiments; stimuli for ‘states of consciousness’ as much as artwork. As such they were each shown isolated within a dark labyrinth constructed in the museum. Willats learnt the complex technology and constructed them himself, with limited funds in his cramped studio. the electronics controlling the light pulses were designed to challenge physiologically the mind’s attempts to construct order amid infinite variability, the rotation of the devices on some was harmonised with the brain’s electrical activity. While a number of these works do elicit mental as well as perceptual effects, they remain above all propositions and statements of potentiality, like his drawings. Nowadays they may delight us, although we must be wary of nostalgia for the versions of the future they modelled: giving some distance to our immersion in them, interpreting their experimentation as play, admiring their idealism and rough uncategorisable elegance, while remaining inevitably conflicted about art’s transformative potential.