Stephen Willats

Since the ’60s, London-based conceptual artist Stephen Willats has focused on concerns that are now ubiquitous in contemporary art: communication, social engagement, active spectatorship, and self-organization. Willats considered his work social research and used models from disciplines such as cybernetics and systems theory to describe and study social interaction and communication. These methods were used, for example, in postwar technocratic urban planning as a form of social control. Willats repurposed these models for opposite ends—to research life on the receiving end of such state-planned projects, often working with the inhabitants of low-income housing and considering them his audience.

One of two drawings in this show, Conceptual Grids 2, 2006, is reminiscent of a cybernetics diagram. Red and blue squares might stand for people or dwelling units and are linked by arrows indicating one-way communication or dialogue. Here, Willats figures a community as a set of generic exchanges, but does he consider such an image useful or oppressive (or both)? Such homogenizing models have mostly been supplanted by today’s prevalent social paradigm of extreme individuation, exemplified in contemporary electoral politics where voters are targeted like niche markets, their specific desires probed through opinion polls and focus groups. Around the Network, 2002, resonates with the more recent proliferation of self-centered products and services, from personalized cosmetics and mortgages to MySpace—as well as the anonymity of London life. Pastel-tinted snapshots of people on the street engrossed in cell phone conversations are collaged and linked together by a zigzagging arrow indicating a stream of communication between them. The cell phone user is an archetype of simultaneously networked and self-absorbed urban subjectivity. But Willats presents his parallel yet disjunct communicators as part of one system or community.

During the Lunch Break, 2004, is a typology of the intersubjective moods of people glimpsed on the street. Color-tinted black-and-white photos (signature Willats) depict pairs of office workers and are accompanied by pictograms illustrating the state of communication between them. Each has one caption per person, for example, DIFFIDENT and EGOTISTICAL for a woman and her ambitious-looking yuppie boyfriend. Lines connect these photo-diagrams to a pinwheel-shaped collage at the center of the image which combines four glass office towers, including Norman Foster’s famous “Gherkin,” the Swiss Re building in London’s financial district. Once again, Willats represents particular subjective relations in a generalized form, in this case affirming that it is useful to perceive such social scenarios on both a systemic and a personal scale.

Other works invite viewers to picture themselves in suburban locations depicted in photographs, Super-8 and sound recordings, and written descriptions and pamphlets. Apart from trying to evoke—or defamiliarize—the various perceptions of these generic places, works such as From My Mind to Your Mind, 2005, include text with messages like “Picture another person who you would like to meet in this situation,” and “Why do you think this other person is present?” Willats re-creates the affective multiplicity of these settings by means that are distanced and austere by the standard of recent art. Increasingly, contemporary artists use high-tech means to immerse the viewer in a setting, whereas Willats gives them material for an imaginative game. Here the sociologist and well-intentioned teacher blend into one, yet the observations of the macro- and personal-scale, the generic and the specific, engagement and distance in Willat’s work bring up some interesting problems for his audience of subject-students to solve.

Melanie Gilligan