Stephen Willats. Work 1962-69
Andrew Wilson

In 1964 Stephen Willats held his first solo exhibition at the Chester Beatty research Institute in London. This small show brought together a group of drawings and paintings that, although abstract in appearance, communicated an intention that was explicit in the text written by Willats for the show’s catalogue. His text made no mention of aesthetic expression or response, instead framing the works as active ‘data’ – images that were ‘a result of a way of looking at and thinking about the environment’. The works reflected Willats’ concern ‘with the problem of society and the personality of the individual, particularly with the subject’s awareness of himself in relation to the society within which he must assert himself’. Finally, they encouraged the ‘observer’ to look at ‘a single part, relate part to part, view the area as a whole, or wander at random over it’. Primarily, therefore, the works were ‘connected with a way of looking at objects and relating oneself to an object’ [1].


This paraphrase of the seven short sentences that make up Willats’ text reveals the clear difference of intention and ambition that he had for his work when compared to the prevailing artistic tendencies of the early sixties. He embraced neither the replaying of popular culture found within Pop Art (though he was alert to the multiple codings that structure readings of popular culture), nor the formalist aesthetics behind the paintings of the Situation artists such as Robyn Denny, Bernard and Harold Cohen, Gordon House or William Turnbull (notwithstanding a common reliance on a distinctly urban frame of reference). One allegiance called to mind by Willat’s text – and the works to which it refers, such as the series of ‘Variable Exercises’ from 1964, or the relief Manual Variable No. 1 of 1963 (p. 10) – is the broad tradition of constructivism to which he had first been exposed between 1958 and 1961, when working as a gallery assistant at the Drian galleries in London. Two exhibitions at this gallery helped to ground Willats’ move away from the object towards the manifestation of a set of relationships that were essentially social and generative. In 1959 an exhibition of paintings by Yaacov Agam – works with ribbed surfaces that altered their compositions as the viewer approached and moved around them – induced Willats to think about the relationship of beholder (‘observer’) to artwork. The implication was that the artwork was activated through the enactment of this relationship, an experience that was different for each person. The 1960 exhibition of Gyula Kosice had a similar effect on Willats’ thinking. Kosice exhibited spatial constructions and hydraulic sculptures at the Drian - sculptures that encouraged the viewer to manipulate and move elements of his constructions or create various flows of water, and so build forms that might be appropriate to their desires.


The example provided by Kosice and Agam was confirmed for Willats by the exhibition Construction: England: 1950–60 in January 1961, also held at the Drian. Later that year Willats was to stop working at the gallery and enroll on the groundcourse at Ealing College of Art, following encouragement from the artist Denis Bowen who ran the New Vision Centre where Willats had started to work part-time. Construction: England included those constructionist artists such as Anthony Hill, Kenneth and Mary Martin, and Victor Pasmore, who had reinvigorated constructivism in the fifties, as well as younger artists who wished to embrace a new reality. these artists made work that existed somewhere between artwork and architecture, using prefabricated industrially manufactured materials. Their concentration on the relief form – not painting, but also not quite sculpture or even architectural representation – stimulated a direct involvement with the viewer, a perceptual relationship that would change in focus as the viewer moved around each work (and in ways that were less programmatic than Agam’s approach). The constructions – embodiments of a new reality – were rationally conceived and also contained within them the capacity for theorisation as model.


Crucially, Willats’ response to such work and to his experience on the Groundcourse was the realisation that the unified view of modernism’s essentialist narrative was untenable. This was a narrative to which the constructionists, as much as artists such as Agam and Kosice, still felt tied. Willats, however, had come to recognise that art primarily revolved around communication – flows of information and networks of data. In this respect he was not bound by the material conditions of the art object. By contrast, these other artists may have recognised the significance of the process of perception and perceptual response, but for them it was only the object that was transformed (by the different ways it could be approached). They did not exploit – as Willats did – how the work might act as a trigger that could encourage a change in the viewer’s (or participant’s) awareness of their own social contexts or codings.


In this respect Willats came to understand how flows of information were multi-textural, existing at different registers or resolutions at the same time. A linear flow of information, directly equating with the modernist essentialist narrative, would be displaced in Willats’ mind by the more dynamic, polyvalent, multilayered homeostatic model. Attending Ealing provided Willats with the necessary theoretical tools to build on the realisation he had already arrived at that the artist was part of a self-determining system within a specifically social context. Any work had then to be a part of the world of relationships that it inhabited (instead of being just a window onto the world or a self-contained world itself).


Prior to Ealing, Willats had already immersed himself in the writing of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Claude Levi-Strauss, as is made clear by notebooks that he kept while working at the Drian galleries. But the key discoveries for Willats through the groundcourse revolved around his introduction to the language and aims of cybernetics, and particularly by Gordon Pask, who gave an inspirational lecture at Ealing in 1963 [2]. When thinking about the social context of art practice, cybernetics provided an adequate language that could be deployed – but specifically Pask showed how cybernetics could be used as a way to think about remodelling society. Additionally, almost as significant for Willats was the principle held by the socio-linguist Basil Bernstein that language and behaviour are interrelated, which was revealed in particular through Bernstein’s study of restricted and elaborate language codes. Willats had first encountered these ideas at a seminar given by Bernstein at the ICA in london at around the same time. Even so, the language and outlook that surrounded the groundcourse – a course constructed by roy Ascott to be cybernetic in structure, content and flow as a theorised set or sequence of problem-solving exercises – acted for Willats not so much as an introduction to a new way of working, but as confirmation of a way of thinking that he had already been developing for himself. These were ideas that moved away from the self-referential world of art to the social worlds of the audience, viewer, observer; and ultimately to a place where art had to function outside of its previously accepted environment.


Returning to examine Manual Variable No. 1 or the closely related Drawing for Movement Device No. 1 (1963) (p. 11) in the light of Willats’ text for the Chester Beatty exhibition, these are works that might be explained not as objects or images, but as models of potentialities. Willats fails to describe what the drawings look like, but instead defines what they may stimulate as model (a collection of ‘data’) that triggers a perceptual reaction. The central paragraph of the text explains how Willats has ‘been concerned with the problem of society and the personality of the individual, particularly with the subject’s awareness of himself in relation to the society within which he must assert himself’ [3]. This passage suggests that the drawings and other works are devices that enable this ‘awareness’ of social positioning to be manifested and perhaps questioned, just as in approaching and manipulating the ‘Manual Variable’ and especially the ‘Colour Variable’ series, the perceptual awareness of the object is similarly questioned. This latter group of works formed a learning sequence that progressed from eliciting a relatively simple response from the viewer to an ‘omni-directional’ response in Colour Variable No. 3 (1963) (p. 9). Significantly, they also incorporated response sheets on which the viewer could detail the decisions that they had made. A work similar to Manual Variable No. 1 is depicted in Drawing for Movement Device No. 1. The text written on the drawing suggests not the movement of the object but rather how the viewer can approach it in one of two ways. They can either advance in a manner that is determined by the object itself – ‘the observer works within a given restriction (by the object)’ – or, more dynamically, the viewer can find their own position – ‘observer creates his own space with the object. He is given a random situation from which he produces his own order.’ The question here relates not so much to the manipulation or movement of the object (although this acts as a model for various sets of relationships), but to the movement of the viewer between states of randomness, folding into or resolved as states of order.


This relatively simple distinction is at the heart of thinking through those principles and actions of feedback, random variables, homeostasis, self-organisation, metalanguage, system and control – all found within cybernetics and communications theory – that informed Willats’ work through the sixties and beyond. Works such as Shift Box No. 1 (1964) (p. 27) and Visual Field Automatic No. 1 (1964) (p. 30) are formed through an intertwined matrix of these principles – all of which entail the initiation, construction or obstruction of a field of response.


The principle of homeostasis – the regulation of those variables that account for the life of any organism – is at the core of these works, as it is also at the core of cybernetic theories of stability [4]. Willats’ Homeostat Drawing No. 1 (1964) (p. 92) and No. 2 (1969) are both clear expressions of the model whereby different sub-systems interact through behavioural equations, here designated by arrows. The flow between the squares might designate a movement between ‘controller’ and ‘environment’, or alternatively between individuals within an environment or society, or competing types of information. Both drawings display a stable state achieved through an active interchange between the different grid of elements – self-organising, self-correcting and without boundaries [5]. They additionally serve as symbolisations for the instigation of social cognition or learning that is at the heart of Willats’ view of how homeostasis might be understood within the social sphere – what he would later typify in relation to Meta Filter (1973–75) as ‘A State of Agreement’ [6]. Any individual can determine his or her own values and behavioural models within a structure of wider co-operation that makes such personal decisions possible.


Shift Box No. 1 and Visual Field Automatic No. 1 operate on similar principles, but show how homeostasis can be attained by the viewer through the action of prediction. In these works lights flash on and off randomly, yet the viewer instinctively attempts to impose – and even predict – an order on this as a way of fixing their own certainty on the environment they inhabit. However, the construction of stability in the mind is perpetually destabilised by the continuing random flashing of the lights. Stability and its breakdown into instability continue as a cycle in which one reality (the predictive reality of the viewer) is mapped on to the reality of the object and its irregular and random action. Understood in this way, the work is a model for the positioning of the individual in society as much as a model of cognition concerning the relations of both object and consciousness, where one state triggers a response that has consequences for another state within a larger network of triggered response and feedback.


While at Ealing, Willats wrote a manifesto [7] which proclaimed that the ‘random event’ was part of the totality of the environment that we move through and react against: ‘I am part of the environmental fact. The environmental fact consists of sets and subsets of variable events. Sets and subsets of the variable event are encountered by chance... I must learn to live with the random event and accept it as an intricate part of the total whole.’ [8] This and similar writings of the time that Willats distributed at exhibition openings show how he adapted the impact of cybernetic thinking to his earlier interest in phenomenology and the writing of Merleau-Ponty in particular. Again, such an outlook expresses the need to form an individually held sense of order when apprehending the world. However, it also expresses a reaction to the realities of that world as a complex system (structured by ‘sets and subsets of variable events’). Over only a couple of years the simplicity of Shift Box No. 1 evolves into a clearer expression of this degree of complexity where different flows of information trigger different reactions, compete for attention, stimulating different kinds of feedback, modelling the response of a social group rather than an individual ‘observer’.


This move was the creation of ‘Corree Design’ – a multi-functional piece of furniture that would be ‘both practical and ideological’ so that ‘one unit of furniture could express the self-organisation of the person who installed it in their living space, by the many practical functions it could fulfill’ [9]. Only a small number of these units were produced, although the ambition had been for them to be mass-produced to elicit a much wider social impact. Similarly, Willats’ Variable Sheets – clothing made up of interchangeable panels of PVC (precursors of his ‘Multiple Clothing’ of the eighties and nineties) – expressed ‘the concept of self- organisation for the wearers, and to the other people they encountered ... these clothes were a strategy in communication’ [10]. Willats’ founding of Control magazine in 1965 was another expression of his operations as a conceptual designer and his concern with the functions undertaken by visual communication in society.


In 1968 Willats held a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford which brought together ten of these machine works – from the simplicity of Shift Box No. 1 through to the complex structure of Visual Transmitter No. 3 (1968) (pp. 86–87) – and positioned them within a maze-like environment that formed a structured sequence for experiencing the works. Willats saw the audience as an integral part of the work, and this learning environment helped both to identify and stimulate that relationship. In a statement published in the first issue of his magazine Control, Willats had made clear the significance he attributed to the environment in which a work of art was experienced: ‘Man lives in a constantly unstable relationship with his environment ... the artist’s position is one of questioning the nature of the environment.’ [11] He was not alone in identifying this principle. In the same issue of Control, Roy Ascott explained that ‘to control one’s environment is to assert one’s existence. In controlling my identity I define it’ [12]. In the third issue of Control, opposite an image of Visual Automatic No. 6 (1965–66), [13] Willats was explicit in stating that the feedback loops between the viewer and an artwork placed within a particular environment revolve around questions of behaviourism. His key interest was in the distinction between voluntary behaviour on the part of the viewer and the ‘control mechanism which enforces set patterns of behaviour in society’ [14]. By 1968, when Willats started to teach at Nottingham College of Art and Design, the terms of the discourse had decisively altered. This modelled dynamic started to be explicitly expressed through the action of a ‘counter-consciousness’ within society to suggest how a determinist restrictive environment might be opened up and recast by individual self-determinism.


Although the works exhibited at Oxford in 1968 convey cybernetic ideas of transmission and reception, feedback and behavioural response, where the viewer constructs their own sense of order, Willats also used elements of other disciplines in building his work. Most specifically, he was in contact with Dr Christopher Evans at the National Physical Laboratory, who was investigating the field of alpha rhythms that formed much of the substructure of the light works. While Willats was developing the most complex of these works – the ‘Visual transmitters’ – he made this connection explicit by building, with the assistance of the electronic engineer Peter Whittle, a ‘Mark:Space ratio Oscillator’ that uses Mullard Norbit circuit blocks to power banks of lights pulsing at slightly different speeds. When switched on, the pulsing lights elicit a change in the perception of a solid environment to one that is seemingly fluid and so difficult to define. Placed in a situation such as this is unsettling (and for Willats this was significantly not an artwork but a device) because the viewer must actively rethink their relationship to an environment that is categorically unstable. Although Visual Transmitter No. 3 deployed lights flashing to a stroboscopic flash rate that utilised a similar mark:space ratio, the dynamic effect was much more localised and easier both to contain and for the viewer to find stability.


Even though by 1968 cybernetics remained a significant reference point for Willats, it is easy to overstress the extent to which he came to use cybernetic theories, while ignoring his involvement in computer science and other disciplines. Another key area informing his practice was the language of graphic design and advertising. While at Drian he also worked part-time for Graphic Art Studio, a small design company run by Stefan Starzynski in Fulham [15]. By the mid-sixties he had met the designer Dean Bradley and taken desk space in his office, Design Communica- tions [16]. It was Bradley who designed the first issue of Control magazine, the layout itself conceived as an environment. the central page, which could be pulled out, was printed with a large off-centre purple circle. the circle was the node or connection of a communication network.


The journey from Control’s nodal circle in 1965 to an environmental work such as the Visual Homeostatic Maze (1969) comprised a movement away from a concern with one reader or viewer towards the dynamic of the self-organising group as an assembly drawn from – and illustrative of – society. Between 1965 and 1967 Willats taught on the Groundcourse, alongside Roy Ascott, at Ipswich Civic College, where he developed a way for the students to work on collaborative projects within the fabric of society. This marks a significant shift in his work whereby the artwork becomes a simulation of social space that operates within the infrastructure of society, thereby affecting both individual and group behaviour. Learning – as a perceptual response within social space – here takes place as a problem-solving activity where meaning is worked out by each participant. One of the most resolved of these projects prefigured ways in which Willats would subsequently formulate his work. Two groups went to housing estates used to accommodate overspill from East London. One group asking respondents about the private language of art and what was expected of art in the home; from the results they created pictures for the living room. The other examined ways in which public signage could be adapted and changed to answer the needs of the residents as they had been expressed to the students, who then erected a group of new public signposts. Willats here adapted communication theory – particularly the writings of Basil Bernstein, which informed the questionnaires used in this project – through an activity of interaction and a realisation of self-organisation within two different fields, the personal and the public. This activity also reflected on Willats’ own rebranding as a conceptual designer, just as the functionalists – Tatlin and the Sternberg Brothers among them – had in the wake of the Russian Revolution.


In 1968 Willats started to teach at Nottingham, where he was able to implement and further develop the collaborative approach to student’s work that he had evolved two years earlier at Ipswich. Shortly after arriving he printed a large wall-sized manifesto in order to transmit his ideas about the relationship between art and learning processes as a model for understanding and changing society. The Art and Cognition Manifesto was distributed to 50 art colleges around Britain. the intention was that it be pasted on to a wall and read as a collection of proposals for action, the text being arranged in gridded panels on five rows that could be read in any sequence. The manifesto in this way was structured as a homeostatic model in which any order could be achieved through the integration of its parts. No panel had hierarchy over another. The manifesto acts as a link between the theorisation that Willats had pursued through the early sixties as a way of underpinning his practice and the articulation of this in the very different contexts of the seventies. It also demonstrates the constancy of his concerns – one indication of this being the repetition of a manifesto written in 1962 being recast within the Art and Cognition Manifesto: ‘the realisation of the potential of the conceptual model and its field of behaviour proposed by the artist is cognition.’ [17] Understanding behaviour was at the heart of implementing the homeostatic model within social groupings, learning being a fundamental aspect, as Willats underlines within the Art and Cognition Manifesto: ‘the essence of a stable system is its homeostasis, the adaptive changes that occur if the context is disturbed is habitation, this is a consequence of an elaborate structure ... the potential of net systems as life structures is with the branching of paths within the net, and the homeostatic nature of the system seeking equilibrium between needs, behaviour and structure.’ [18]


By the end of the sixties the homeostatic model for Willats is therefore both functional and symbolic in its application to social situations. It is a self-organising system where all nodes both transmit and receive data in a self-regulating flow that consistently searches for equilibrium. Such models illustrate actions that are interactive and self-defining rather than determined or subject to an imposed hierarchy; a homeostatic network is one that is built and exists in terms of mutual agreement. the significance of this to Willats’ work is clear, as he has described: ‘the diagrammatic representation of a homeostatic network informed a new vision of society, and one that led me to the speculative creation of models and their representation as diagrams, which then, by being taken to operational and practical levels of resolution, implemented a programme of events between people in a community, or between communities.’ [19] As a symbolic model, the two ‘Homeostat Drawings’ from 1969, and the works they refer to and inform, [20] suggest how such a network might indeed inform a new idea of social relations. Works derived from William Ross Ashby’s diagram of a homeostatic system showing a total coupling between all elements have provided a conceptual base for much of his work from this date. What makes this radically different from the ‘Organic Exercises’ of 1962 and the slightly later ‘Variable Exercises’ shown at the Chester Beatty research Institute in 1964 is that where the earlier drawings presented a point of orientation for the viewer of a work, Willats’ use of the homeostatic model indicated a way of understanding social relations – whether in terms of a small group or a wider society – rather than object relations. One is a drawing to be beheld, the other becomes a diagram to be used within a field of random variables, which leads to models that inform and trigger not just social relations, but society as a self-organising, self-regulating organism founded on counter-consciousness.




[1] Stephen Willats, untitled introduction, in Stephen Willats, exhibition catalogue (london: Chester Beatty research Institute, 1964), n.p.

[2] Pask had set up his company System research in Richmond in 1953 and by 1964 Willats had become a regular visitor, helping with research as a machine operator and as a subject for various experiments. He also gained access to research papers and met people with whom he would later collaborate, such as George Mallen who shortly afterwards left Pask in 1965 to set up System Simulation Ltd. The atmosphere around Pask and Mallen’s research work, primarily into learning processes and adaptive teaching machines, informed Willats’ desire to create artworks that would reveal the dynamic structures of self organisation, first in individuals and then in groups of people. Achieving such works through the sixties and seventies led to close collaborations with computer theorists such as Mallen and Christopher Evans (head of the Man-Computer Interaction section at the National Physical Laboratory); electronic engineers including Peter Whittle (also at the NPL), whom Willats had met at System Research and who would help him construct logic systems and build the Mark:Space ratio Oscillator; Chris Grimshaw, who had a laboratory in Oxford and would be instrumental in designing the electronic circuits for the ‘Homeostatic’ works at the end of the sixties; and Derek Aulton between 1970 and 1975, who worked on Visual Meta Language Simulation (1971–72) and Meta Filter (1973–75).

[3] SWillats, untitled introduction, in Stephen Willats, op. cit.

[4] See, for instance, William ross Ashby, Design for a Brain (london: Chapman and hall, 1960), in which a homeostatic model for the brain is outlined where four interacting regulators achieve stability.

[5] See Gordon Pask, An Approach to Cybernetics (New York: Harper
& Brothers, 1961), p. 50 and passim.
[6] State of Agreement (1975), the title of a four-panel work that was displayed alongside presentations of Meta Filter (1973–75), provides an image of the social and behavioural definition of a couple shifting from insularity to conflict, to coexistence and then collaboration. The changes are described through visual photographic cues as well as text, and echo the homeostatic model at the heart of Meta Filter. It is also the title of a text that was produced to accompany early presentations of Meta Filter.
[7] Willats started to circulate typewritten sheets of manifesto statements from about 1960 and continued to do this while at Ealing.
[8] Stephen Willats, The Random Event, self-published statement, 1962.

[9] Stephen Willats, Multiple Clothing (Cologne: Walther könig, 2000), p. 12.
[10] Ibid., p. 13.
11. Stephen Willats, Control, issue 1 (1965), n.p.
[12] roy Ascott, Control, issue 1 (1965), n.p.
[13] Willats subsequently retitled this work Visual Transmitter No. 1.
[14] Stephen Willats, Control, issue 3 (1967), n.p.

[15] See also p. 69 of this publication.
[16] See also p. 75 of this publication.

[17] Art and Cognition Manifesto (1968), row 5, panel 15.
[18] Ibid., top row, panel 3 and row 3, panel 10.
[19] Stephen Willats, Speculative Modelling with Diagrams (utrecht: Casco Office for Art, Design and theory, 2007), n.p.
[20] these include Visual Homeostat No. 1 (1968–69) (proposed for the tate gallery but never exhibited); Visual Homeostatic Maze (1969) (proposed for Apg and the hayward gallery in 1969 – prototypes built at a second studio in powis terrace); Visual Homeostatic Information Mesh (1969–70) (exhibited at Kinetic Art, hayward gallery, london, 1970, and Electric Theatre, ICA, london, 1971) and Visual Meta Language Simulation (1971–72) (exhibited at Cognition Control, Midland group gallery, Nottingham, and Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1972; The Artist as an Instigator of Changes in Social Cognition and Behaviour, gallery house, london, 1973; Interact, Edinburgh Festival, 1973). the genesis, theory and operation of these works are largely described within Control, issue 6, 1971, n.p. and Stephen Willats, The Artist as an Instigator of Changes in Social Cognition and Behaviour (london: gallery house press, 1973). See also Sharon Irish, ‘the performance of Information Flows in the Art of Stephen Willats’, Information Culture, university of texas, vol. XlVII, no. 4 (2012), pp. 457–86.