Chronology 1958-69
Emily Pethick



Stephen Willats (born 1943) lives with his parents in Ealing, West London. He starts work as an assistant at the Drian galleries, Marble Arch, London, which is run by artist and Polish émigré Halima Nalecz. Here he first comes into contact with professional artists and is introduced to international avant-gardes, including constructivism.

While at the gallery he is able to read, both from the gallery’s bookshelves – and books he requests from his librarian father, on philosophy and theories which are ‘in the air at the time’.[1] These include the idea of the random variable,[2] which will come to influence much of his early and kinetic work. ‘Random variable theory embraced the complexity of the world. It gained traction in the late fifties, replacing the general social and cultural determinism of much of the decade before. It arose in parallel with experiments with the I Ching, and free jazz, and anarchism.’

He attends evening classes in life drawing at Ealing College of Art, his first formal art education.




At the Drian Galleries Willats helps to organise various exhibitions, including those of two constructivists, Yaacov Agam and (in 1960) Gyula Kosice. Both artists involve the audience in some form of direct physical participation.

He begins a notebook of propositions and drawings, addressing the possibility of ‘mutualism, where the audience determines something for themselves using their own experience, and the artist is the provider of tools that might enable this’.



Willats starts working on Saturdays at the New Vision Centre (NVC). Situated in two basement rooms in Marylebone, NVC was set up by artist, critic and teacher Denis Bowen, and Halima Nalecz (Bowen is a regular visitor to the Drian Galleries). It shows experimental European work, for example by Piero Manzoni and the Zero group, as well as abstract painting by a broad range of international artists.

He also takes a weekend job at Graphic Art Studio on the North End Road in Fulham, which is run by Polish designer Stefan Starzynski. The studio designs catalogues and posters for various galleries, including Drian, and introduces Willats to silkscreen printing and new approaches to graphic design.



At the Drian Galleries the exhibition Construction: England: 1950–60 introduces Willats to artists involved in education, social constructivism and socialism. These include Harry Thubron, who established the pioneering Basic Design Course at Leeds College of Art, and Tom Hudson, who also teaches there. Through this exhibition he also meets with a group of artists – constructivists – including Hungarian émigré Constantin Mouchos, and brothers Brian and Michael Elliott. Together they attempt – ultimately unsuccessfully – to create a centre or think tank that will bring together mathematicians, artists and philosophers, to be situated in Gloucester Terrace, Paddington, at the home of artist and art historian Andrew Hudson. Hudson ‘was directly connected to this group of artists and thinking and writing in relation to them, which was something quite rare in those days’.


Willats’ drawings include ‘notational works, which follow the story of a shape through different circumstances and changes’. 

He also begins to write manifestos, a practice he continues throughout the sixties. This is a relatively common activity among artists he knows, such as Gustav Metzger and Logie Barrow, a Marxist and activist, who in 1965 writes the Totalism Manifesto. ‘Manifestos were part of the culture of the time, it was a moment when people were issuing proclamations’. He prints about twenty copies of each manifesto on carbon paper, and distributes these at exhibition openings.




Willats attends evening classes in printmaking at Ealing College of Art with artist Michael Rothenstein.


He frequents l’Auberge Café on Richmond Hill, and Eel Pie Island in Twickenham, which are popular West London meeting places for ‘musicians and beatniks’. At this time the suburbs of West London are fashionable places for youth and countercultures.

He makes a series of portraits of people who frequent the Ealing Club, a famous West London jazz and rhythm and blues venue. These are exhibited in the entrance to the club, ‘building connections between the artwork and the audience. The idea was that people would recognise themselves.’

Denis Bowen recommends that Willats attend the Groundcourse at Ealing College of Art, where he teaches part-time. His father applies successfully for a full state scholarship, which enables him to find his own place to live. He finds a studio in a house in Chelsea, and later single room accommodation in the same building.

The Groundcourse is an experimental two-year course, which runs between 1961 and 1964. Around twenty students are enrolled on to it each year. Artist Roy Ascott is Director of Studies and assembles a progressive staff including Anthony Benjamin, Adrian Berg, Denis Bowen, Bernard Cohen, Noel Forster and William Green. The course prospectus describes an approach to ‘open programming’. While the first part of the course is more traditionally based on ‘media dexterity’, with exercises on adapting to different materials and mediums, later on social processes are privileged over physical constructions, with students focusing on developing solutions to ‘problem situations’.

This is a time of intensive production, when Willats first identifies himself as a committed artist. He produces the ‘Organic Exercise’ series, and his drawings shift further towards abstraction, influenced by semiology, including writings by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Marshall Mcluhan’s The Mechanical Bride, as well as by learning theories (about how information is absorbed and processed). Socio-linguist Basil Bernstein’s theories on language, and its relationship to thought processes, social behaviour and class, also become an influence.

His drawing Conceptual Still Life questions how to make a representation of objects on a table, becoming a flow diagram of the relationships that form a picture. He also produces a series of drawings of architectural structures that represent buildings as ‘semiological icons’.
He begins a first series of art objects titled ‘Manual Variables’, which are informed by random variable theory. ‘With these, any engagement by one person was as meaningful as any other. It was about what it meant for them – nothing was predetermined.’



Cybernetician [3] Gordon Pask gives a lecture at the Groundcourse. ‘Pask’s lecture was a big event, everyone from the art school attended, including the staff. After the lecture the staff locked themselves in a studio to discuss how they could implement cybernetic ideas on the course and in their own work.’ Willats observes the influence of this on the school: ‘By employing ideas of notation and feedback, the teaching staff saw how the Groundcourse might influence their own practices. They subsequently implemented ideas derived from cybernetics into the course directly.’ This is Willats’ first contact with cybernetics, which from this point on exerts a powerful influence on his work. While he later distances himself from some of its deterministic political associations, cybernetic modelling tools remain constantly useful to him.

A number of his ‘Manual Variables’ include response sheets located next to the work, on which viewers can record the changes they make to it. He builds an Environmental Box in his studio, where participants note their responses to visual, touch and smell stimuli.

Willats’ work is filmed in his studio for the fledgling BBC2, which is making a programme about young artists.



Willats is invited by Dr Forrester, whom he meets through friends, to make an exhibition within a common room at the Chester Beatty Research Institute, the pre-eminent national cancer research unit, in Chelsea. He exhibits two series of drawings titled ‘Democratic Surface’ and ‘Organic Exercise’, as well as drawings and notes relating to the ‘Manual Variables’. A small catalogue is produced.

At l’Auberge Café he learns that Gordon Pask’s experimental laboratory in Richmond, System Research Ltd – which describes itself as ‘a non-profit organisation for research in cybernetics and the behavioural sciences’ – is looking for assistants. He is employed, mostly as a machine operator. Here he meets theoreticians and scientists, with some of whom he later collaborates, including the engineer Peter Whittle, who helps him develop electronics in his work, and computer theorist and Pask’s co-director, George Mallen. In 1965 Mallen leaves System research to set up a parallel organisation, System Simulation, with which Willats stays in close contact.

Willats regularly visits Signals, a gallery in Marylebone operating between 1964 and 1966, run by Paul Keeler, David Medalla and others including Guy Brett, Gustav Metzger and Marcello Salvadori. there he joins discussions and sees exhibitions of constructivist and kinetic artists, such as Sergio Camargo, Salvadori and Takis, as well as, in 1965, Lygia Clark.

He moves to a studio in London Mews, Paddington, where he works to this day.

He constructs two ‘Shift Boxes’. As with the ‘Manual Variables’ series, these relate to chance and the random variable, presenting the viewer with phenomenological situations. They use a spectrum of flashing coloured light bulbs, which vary from ‘cold’ to ‘hot’, following theories about motivation. the flashing sequences are disconcertingly randomised, although the viewer’s mind seeks certainty and instinctively tries to impose an order. The ‘Shift Boxes’ are designed to be shown in darkness, ‘to isolate the stimulus’.


He contributes a Variable Exercise drawing to An Exhibition of Works on Paper at AIA gallery (belonging to the erstwhile socialist Artists’ International Association) in Soho.


The Groundcourse is closed by Ealing College of Art.


At Signals Willats meets Dean Bradley, a Canadian graphic designer. Bradley introduces him to theories of advertising. He begins reading papers from advertising agencies, including J. Walter Thompson, and becomes interested in theories about how colours and shapes motivate people and effect their reception of information.

He visits the opening of Roy Ascott’s exhibition at Hamilton galleries – Annely Juda’s gallery in Mayfair – with his manifestos. Ascott offers him a teaching job at Ipswich Civic College, where he is now delivering the Groundcourse.

He teaches at Ipswich Civic College for eighteen months. This comprises a weekly meeting with a group of students to collectively resolve a ‘problem situation’. No individual work is produced. Denis Bowen, who is also a visiting teacher at Ipswich, informally advises him on this programme. Situations addressed from January to July 1965 include: ‘analysis of learning situations; tactile discrimination; predictive systems; analysis of restrictive thought processes; random variable situations; feedback with the environment; work out the amount of tolerance in the environment – work out a new control mechanism’.


On the invitation of course director Ralph Selby, he starts teaching one day per week at Derby School of Art, where he also sets up a series of problem-solving exercises.
Willats starts referring to himself as a ‘conceptual designer’ and begins production of ‘Multiple Clothing’, ‘Corree Design’ and Control magazine. He designs a kit containing a zip-up garment – Variable Sheets – to be assembled by the owner, and a helmet and transparent plastic bags. Felicity Oliver, his partner at the time, machine-produces the dresses and bags, as well as designing some perspex jewellery herself. These are distributed to a number of London boutiques including Countdown, where the plastic bags and jewellery sell successfully.

In the sculpture department of Chelsea School of Art, where Oliver is a student, Willats makes prototype units of furniture – which he calls ‘Corree Design’ – that can be assembled in different configurations. He cannot elicit orders for larger-scale production.


Control magazine is designed by Willats and Dean Bradley, and assembled in Willats’ studio. The title Control is intended as a provocation, to stimulate tension and attention. It refers to a dichotomy between what he understands as outdated models of ‘reductive hierarchical and deterministic thought, relating to an object-based world’, and a cybernetic model of control, where systems organise and determine their own structures.

Intended as an artwork or ‘environment’, the first issue of Control features contributions by Roy Ascott, Logie Barrow, Mark Boyle and Dean Bradley, as well as Willats, who also writes the anonymous editorial. Each contributor produces a statement of intent or manifesto about ‘a new attititude in visual communication’. In total 450 copies are printed and distributed through Better Books on the Charing Cross road as well as through personal request. Barrow contributes £15 to the cost of initial production. Sales of the magazine finance its continued production.

Willats develops the series of ‘Visual Automatics’. These are environmental and architectural works, scaled in relation to the body of the viewer, producing random light sequences and after-images, as with the ‘Shift Box’ series. Some of the ‘Visual Automatics’ also include devices which spin to the frequency of the alpha rhythm.[4]

He hosts almost daily visits at his studio. There is intensive discussion about the role of the artist. Willats’ diary records visits by, among others, artists Roy Ascott, Anthony Benjamin, Mark Boyle, Paul Caffell, Sergio de Camargo, Peter Jones and Maurice Agis, Gustav Metzger, Robin Page, Clay Perry, Tom Phillips, Marcello Salvadori, Ralph Steadman and Alan Uglow; critics and writers Logie Barrow, Mark Berkowitz, Kenneth Coutts-Smith, Andrew Hudson and Ralph Selby, as well as Philip Steadman (editor of Form magazine) and graphic designer Pete Matthews.

A ‘behavioural’ event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, organised by artists Mark Boyle and Joan Hills, involves Willats in designing a flow diagram that enables visitors to make decisions about how to participate. The diagram links squares mapped out on the floor of the ICA, each of which contains tools for enacting simple forms of participation; for example, playing musical instruments, using paint brushes or turning on slide projectors.

Willats takes desk space at Design Communications, a progressive advertising agency in Fitzrovia specialising in communications strategies, where Dean Bradley is working. He uses this association to gain access to research papers on theoretical models in advertising. He and Mark Boyle visit the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising to research subliminal communication. He develops further graphic work, including the ‘Change Exercise’ and ‘Area Development’ series.

He initiates a project with the students at Ipswich Civic College. The students question residents of a housing estate in Ipswich about their understanding of the role of art in public and private space, and use their responses to generate a series of public signposts on the estate.




Willats publishes Control issue 2, developed out of his work at Ipswich Civic College. At his invitation, contributions are made by Anthony Benjamin, Adrian Berg, Stroud Cornock, Mike Kenny and Tom Phillips, as well as Willats himself. The editorial remains anonymous. While still containing artists’ statements of intent, it differs from the first issue in that it also includes records of performances and examples of work.


While Control continues to finance itself through its sales, Willats finds he cannot make an economy for himself as a ‘conceptual designer’ and discards the term.

Visual Field Automatic No. 1 is exhibited in Kunst-Licht-Kunst, at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, a large survey exhibition of artists’ use of light, from Moholy-Nagy to takis and Flavin.

He contributes Visual Automatic No. 5 and Visual Transmitter No. 1 to the exhibition Undefined Situation at the Howard Roberts Gallery, Cardiff, run by Howard and Joan Roberts, who contact Willats after reading Control.

Willats takes up full-time work at the Ministry of Housing (until 1968). Employees can work flexible hours, which attracts many cultural workers, in particular actors and musicians. His job is to implement smoke control orders which he finds ‘interesting in relation to decision-making systems’.

He is invited by Gustav Metzger and John Sharkey to present a paper at the ‘Destruction in Art Symposium’.[5] He also assists with the graphic design for the event. The paper, titled ‘The Mechanistic Crisis’, focuses on ‘tolerance levels’ based on his observations at the Ministry of Housing, looking at ways in which ‘information is processed within the organisation and how decisions are made’. He observes ‘the highly abstract internal language of the organisation and the hierarchical processing of information’ which leads to ‘bottlenecks and breakdowns’, and causes forms of randomisation within the structure. He has to return to work before his paper can be presented, after a delay caused by the Viennese Actionist participants who ‘exploded a sheep, splattering blood over the front row of the audience’. Elements of the paper later form the foundation of his Art and Cognition Manifesto.



Willats develops his series of ‘Visual Transmitters’. While continuing to use random light sequences and devices spinning at the speed of the alpha rhythm, these are large-scale, floor-based environmental developments of the ‘Visual Automatics’, with a resin finish in reference to architectural models.The Groundcourse at Ipswich Civic College closes.


Shift Box No. 2 and Visual Automatic No. 4 are exhibited in the Brighton Festival at K4, ‘an exhibition of Kinetic Audio Visual Environments’ on Brighton’s West Pier.

Later this year Shift Box No. 2 and Visual Transmitter No. 1 are exhibited in Light in Movement, organised by Cyril Barrett, at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry, travelling (in 1968) to Trinity College, Dublin, and the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol.


Control issue 3 is produced and includes an editorial to which Willats this time puts his name. Contributors are asked to present work that actively involves the reader and invites participation through questionnaires. Contributions are made by Archigram (Peter Cook), Logie Barrow, Noel Forster, John Latham, John Sharkey, Peter Stroud and Joe Tilson.



Willats is appointed to run the printing department at Nottingham School of Art, where he remains until 1972.


He produces the Art and Cognition Manifesto, a large screenprint laying out a series of pages, unhierarchically, each with a proposition about a function for art practice. He prints 55 posters and sends them to the 50 art schools nationwide that offer Diploma of Art and Design courses, with a request to paste them on to walls in communal areas. He does not track what happens to the manifestos, and there is no feedback except from Coventry School of Art, students from which visit his course at Nottingham as a result of reading it.

Control issue 4 is produced, containing contributions by nine artists including Logie Barrow, Victor Burgin, Douglas Sandle and John Sharkey, as well as Willats.

Willats constructs the ‘Mark:Space Ratio Oscillator’, an experiment attempting to transform the perception of reality into a fluid state, using alpha rhythms. It is built using solid state circuitry with the help of Peter Whittle, the electronics engineer he met at System Research. Two banks of coloured lightbulbs powered by the ‘Mark:Space Ratio Oscillator’ are installed on either side of a deep pile carpet in his studio. Word circulates about this device, and visitors from the music and fashion scenes come to experience the effects.

He moves into a large second studio in Powis Terrace, Notting Hill, which enables him to build Visual Homeostat No. 1. This refers to William Ross Ashby’s homeostat, an electrical device which learned through adaption to seek stability after disturbances were introduced. The electronics of Visual Homeostat No. 1 are built into two wood and perspex constructions, each 30 foot long. Chris Grimshaw and Peter Whittle, both electronics engineers working on computer programming, help to develop the complex circuitry, which Willats learns to build. Visitors pass through an ultrasonic field created around the constructions, crossing infrared beams and triggering a series of sound and light sequences that illuminate shapes on the constructions. The shapes are crosses and triangles, employed as ‘recognisable codes’ drawn from Basil Bernstein’s basic language codes. Visitors find that by coordinating their movements they can more effectively influence the progamme. This is the first of Willats’ works to enact a social situation, introducing the idea of cooperative behaviour.

There is informal discussion with the tate gallery about exhibiting Visual Homeostat No. 1, which spurs on its construction. however, the work is only ever shown to visitors to Willats’ studio, and is finally broken up in 1984.


Willats is recruited by sculptor Hubert Dalwood to work at Hornsey School of Art in the Fine Art Department shortly after the student occupation of the college (in May 1968). His course at hornsey follows a similar structure to that at Ipswich, involving a series of weekly problem-solving situations that students collectively resolve.

Shift Box No. 1, Visual Field Automatic No. 1, Visual Automatic No. 4 and Visual Automatic No. 5 are exhibited in Preview London at Camden Arts Centre, London.


Visual Automatic No. 5 is exhibited in A Manifestation of Light at AIr (Art Information Registry) gallery, Birmingham.


Shift Box No. 1 is exhibited in Public Eye (Kinetik, Konstruktivismus, Environments) at the Kunsthaus, Hamburg. Willats writes to Trevor Green, Director of the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, with a proposal for an exhibition. The museum’s Exhibitions Director Barry Lane visits Willats’ studio and agrees to it.


Stephen Willats. Visual Automatics and Visual Transmitters is presented at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 22 October–16 November. Shift Box No. 1, Visual Field Automatic No. 1, ‘Visual Automatics’ nos. 1 to 5 and ‘Visual transmitters’ nos. 1 to 3, as well as related worksheets, are exhibited. Chris Grimshaw assists with the development of the electronics for the exhibition. the floorplan is a maze-like structure, with black fabric used to create a series of internal walls, so that each work is encountered independently. The exhibition is staged in darkness, heightening the reception of the works as performance and stimuli. Critical reception, however, misreads the works as poor kinetic art; Rita Harris, writing in Arts Review (November 1968), describes them as ‘jinxed by technical deficiencies’.


Willats writes a text for a magazine, Structure, produced by the poet John Sharkey, in which he criticises his ‘Visual transmitters’ as being too abstract to be socially relevant. he declares that progressive art must instead attend to the infrastruture of society.1969 Willats begins to construct Visual Homeostatic Information Mesh, a large-scale installation similar to Visual Homeostat No. 1. Visitors walk around constructions of coloured lights, triggering a variable programme of colour associations. the greater the number of visitors, the more complex the programme becomes. the work is exhibited in Kinetic Art at the hayward gallery, london, in 1970, and in ElectricTheatre at the ICA, london, in 1971.Visual Transmitter No. 1 is exhibited in Painting Becomes Sculpture Becomes Painting at the Arts Council gallery, Cambridge. Willats’ work is also included in Five Light Artists at Greenwich, an exhibition at greenwich theatre Art gallery, london, and British Movements at Onnasch Galerie, Berlin.



[1] Quotations throughout this chronology are taken from conversations between Stephen Willats and Emily pethick, except where indicated.

[2] The random variable comes out of probability theory – the mathematical model of uncertainty.

[3] Cybernetics can be described as a transdisciplinary approach to exploring regulatory systems, and control processes in electronic, mechanical and biological systems, their structures, constraints and possibilities. Originally coined by Norbert Wiener, the term is derived from the Greek word for ‘steersman’. It was defined by Wiener as the ‘science of communication and control in the animal and the machine’. Pask conceived of human-machine interaction as a form of conversation, a dynamic and open-ended exchange between two or more parties (humans and/or machines), in which the participants learn from each other.

[4] British cybernetician William grey Walter discovered the variability of brain waves, identifying the alpha rhythm, an oscillation of around ten cycles per second that occurs when a subject is in a relaxed state.

[5] ‘Destruction in Art Symposium’, 9–11 September 1966, at the Africa Centre in Covent garden, led by Gustav Metzger, with the assistance of poet and filmmaker John Sharkey and an Honorary Committee of international artists, writers and figures from the British counterculture. ‘Around 100 artists and poets, representing some eighteen countries, contributed to DIAS ... DIAS artists shared a commitment to the use of destruction as a mode of resistance to psychological, social, and political violence.’ See Kristine Stiles, ‘The Story of the Destruction in Art Symposium and the “DIAS affect”’, in Gustav Metzger. Geschichte Geschichte, ed. Sabina Breitwieser (Vienna and Ostfildern-Ruit: Generali Foundation and Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2005), pp. 41–65.