Stephen Willats talks with Cory Arcangel

CORY ARCANGEL: Can you press the video button so we can see you?

STEPHEN WILLATS: OK. Can you see me?

CA: No, I—yes. There you are. Oh, there is your studio. Oh, wonderful. There is your other computer. And tons of lamps.

SW: Yeah. You see, these English studios are very small. The book you’ve got, what book is that?

CA: Your new book, Artwork as Social Model; and I have a couple issues of your magazine, Control, which I had bought over the years. But before you started Control, in 1965, you had a moment when you realized that art was about the audience, about a new kind of “visual communication.” I wanted to talk about that.

SW: Well, in the late 1950s I was working in avant-garde galleries here in London, first at the Drian Gallery and later at New Vision Centre. The art world here was very conservative. And these galleries were showing mostly avant-garde European works; we had very few visitors. We certainly didn’t have any sales.

I had plenty of time to think. I had a little notebook; I was making critical writings and diagrams about the role of art and society, and I was also reading a lot. I had Merleau-Ponty, and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. At Drian, we were showing a lot of Constructivists and some South American artists, particularly one Argentinean artist, Gyula Kosice, and the Israeli artist Yaacov Agam. Both of these artists engaged the audience in decision making. And I was thinking, “What would happen if somebody came to this gallery and instead of finding the objects of certainty they were expecting, they found a random variable?” They weren’t in the set, traditional, inert relationship with an artwork where a person came into the gallery, stood in front of the artwork, and experienced a passive internal cognition of what was transmitted; instead, they actively participated in giving meaning to the work.

I realized that the phenomenological aspect of actual personal experience was going to be more meaningful to the audience than referential experience, in which someone relays his or her experience to you. I thought, “The work of art doesn’t exist without somebody being here”: You’ve got to have two people involved in the creation and reception of an artwork. It’s a Wittgensteinian idea. In a way, then, it’s the audience who make the work of art, and ultimately they are more important than the artist. They give a work of art its social meaning. Art practice is a product of social relationships.

Well, it’s perfectly acceptable to say that now, but in 1958 it wasn’t so easy. It was crazy, right? So around 1961, I wrote a manifesto titled “Omni-directional Strategies,” which talked about the omnidirectional nature of art: an art that might be operative simultaneously in all directions at once; the idea that reality was multichannel, and that the artist should embrace randomness—the random variable.

CA: A few years later, in Control 2 (1966), you actually said that, in general, “social behaviour is determined by prescribed conditions which are enforced by a control mechanism. . . . What if I operate outside the prescribed pattern of behaviour? Then I call this omni-directional. Omni-directional thought . . . is non-mechanistic and it is unpredictable.” This weirdly makes me think of graffiti, which is a type of visual language you have examined in your work.

SW: Well, at that time, during the postwar reconstruction in Europe, there was the hope of finding new languages and ultimately envisioning a new society. Second-order cybernetics and other sociological theories were just beginning to have some impact on people’s thinking about the way the world was going to be.

Let’s talk about the idea of self-organizing networks. Let’s talk about the idea of mutual exchange between people. As soon as you do that, you can move outside the authoritative, prescribed norms and conventions. You can operate anywhere.

CA: In the beginning of the 1960s, you were making objects that could be rearranged by the viewer—the “Manual Variable” series, 1962–63, “Visual Automatics,” 1964–65, and “Visual Transmitters,” 1965–68—which were meant to explore the idea of complexity. Then all of a sudden you started working with tennis clubs, when you began the “Social Resource Project for Tennis Clubs” in the early ’70s. How did you make that leap from inside the gallery to outside?

SW: It was a big leap, but I always thought that as an artist you had to have the humility to go back to zero now and again. I was also interested in lateral thought: Instead of following some sequential progression in the development of an idea, go sideways. Go out into another discipline and see what’s there. This approach led me to explore communication and the reception of new information, the formation of attitudes, etc.

So I began looking into the theory of advertising, getting hold of papers produced by ad agencies on campaign strategies. I was looking at second-order cybernetics and information theory and different realms that were concerned with the idea of communication and changing the way people thought about things. Learning theory was probably the most important to me. The “Manual Variable” series was heavily influenced by learning theory; it provided sets of possibilities for the viewer to modify and adapt, to self-organize.

Then, in 1965, I began working with students at the Ipswich Art School, run by Roy Ascott. I initiated a project whereby we could go back to a zero position, shedding any assumptions we might have inherited concerning art practice: a new look at a new function for art in society. We established that context, audience, language, and meaning were important dependent variables for the form and function of art, and so we decided to target as our audience a group of people who had just come from London because of a housing overspill and were living on a new estate on the outskirts of Ipswich. My students and I thought, “Let’s introduce this idea of an artist working within the environment of the audience.” And in order to do that, we had to understand the frame of reference of their language. I mean, they could acquire our art-based language, but why not just use theirs? Why not contextualize the work in the fabric of their world? We conducted a lot of research, using questionnaires about their new environment—colors, shapes, attitudes, expectations, and so on. The result was a series of signposts around the housing estate, telling people where various local facilities were, but in a visual language of familiar references that they could connect with.

These signposts stayed in the neighborhood for a long time. People on the estate liked them because they had been involved in the signs’ creation. That created a realm of acceptance, of shared meaning. It was an example of homeostasis, where a system becomes self-regulating, for the outcome was a result of the interactive exchange between two groups of people. We learned that the heuristic output of cooperation was going to be far greater than that of competition.

CA: It relates to your observation that “the artist in the studio is entrapped in the tower block.” You wanted to get out of that trap, and much of your work still takes place with communities that are outside the art world proper—glue sniffers or club kids or housing-block residents.

SW: Yes. After the Ipswich project, I sought to demonstrate how an artwork could operate anywhere, with anyone, if the variables I had specified were taken as the determinants. So in the early ’70s I developed a work for four tennis clubs in Nottingham.

I used photography to document the language of four tennis clubs that were socially, economically, and physically separate from each other. They never played each other—don’t forget that England was an extremely class-ridden society. But when the work was presented in the four club environments, it used a visual language that was familiar to its audience, the club members. They could connect to it.

CA: Right before the tennis project, in 1969–70, you did something called Man from the Twenty-First Century—and from the descriptions it sounds wild: Your hippie students went around neighborhoods, and you had someone dressed up like an astronaut, knocking on doors?

SW: Again, it was this idea of going into a zero state. I asked a group of experts to advise us on strategies of how we might operate as artists. I had a guy from advertising, a psychologist, an information theorist, even a painter, a systems painter. Basil Bernstein, an educational psychologist and linguist, had developed a theory of restricted language codes, looking at the relationship of language to context and behavior. Working with his theories, we decided to try to create a kind of meta-language between two vastly different groups of people in two different parts of Nottingham, where I was working at the art school at the time.

One place was an infamously deprived area, Hyson Green. It was traditional, with cobbled streets, and little aspidistras and net curtains in the window. The other, Bramcote Hills, was a new middle-class housing development with large picture windows and such, where young executives were moving in. We wanted to create a metalanguage between the two, so that they could communicate and each group could develop new insights about themselves by looking at the other group. My students developed a questionnaire based on Bernstein’s ideas, and they headed off for these two housing estates. Well, it was the late ’60s, and the students were long-haired, disheveled beatniks. So every time the students knocked, people took one look at these unsavory-looking characters and immediately closed the door. The students came back with nothing. And we went back to the experts and said, “Look, this is where your ideas have gotten us.”

CA: Did they say, “Cut your hair”?

SW: They said, “What’s wrong here is that you’ve got to operate within the frame of reference of acceptability of your target audience.” And we realized that advertising was central to our audience’s frame. So we modeled the whole thing on an advertising campaign. We made a silver space suit. Then we got an old Volkswagen and made a kind of spaceship around it with a hatch on the top. We sent posters around the neighborhood: MAN FROM THE 21ST CENTURY COMES YOUR WAY, AND WHO IS THE MAN FROM THE 21ST CENTURY?

The student who had elected to become the man from the twenty-first century wore an all-in-one silver space suit with a helmet and was driven through the neighborhood with Beach Boys music coming out of the car. Then he jumped out of the hatch. He had to do a sort of funny walk as though he wasn’t used to gravity and knock on the door. And you know what? Everybody loved it. We had a 98 percent response. We learned that, outside the art environment, you had to operate within the realm of what was acceptable to the audience. You can’t impose your structures on them.

CA: It’s funny—what you’ve done here is you’ve appropriated the language of advertising. But you’re using that language in the way that it would actually function, out there in the world. And there is a difference between appropriating a language and bringing it into the gallery, which is a common strategy in art, and appropriating a language and using it as it is meant to be used.

It was also prescient—just look at current trends in advertising. Some ad campaigns are entirely user generated. And of course that’s like handing the car keys over to five million strangers and hoping for the best. There was the great flameout recently with the McDonald’s #McDStories campaign, in which people were invited to share their McDonald’s experiences online via the #McDStories tag, and of course they only shared their most horrific ones. McDonald’s pulled the campaign in a day!

SW: What was interesting about advertising was the theoretical models. It’s wrong to think that I was advocating in any way the determinism of advertising, though. I saw that the same strategies could be used with quite a different objective in mind—as in Man from the Twenty-First Century, for instance.

CA: It relates to your turn to second-order cybernetics.

SW: Yes—in a similar way, cybernetics in the mid- to late ’60s became involved in the idea of self-organizing, mosaic social models, and moving away from mechanistic hardware models.

People started to speculate that cybernetics could be a modeling tool for thinking about other social paradigms, other ways in which organizations might operate, rather than just a description of the existing social paradigm of authoritative and hierarchical models. It was very influential. And the models from cybernetics in which I was most interested postulate the possibility of society as a one-layer network. They pose the idea of mutualism—networks between people, networks that are self-organized, transient, fluid, and adaptive to changing relationships and needs between participants.

CA: Yeah, influence is a hot topic right now. The social-media companies are dying to figure out how people interact and influence each other in their actions. There was a great study published a few years ago about the effects of social influence on tastes in music [“Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market,” Science, February 2006]. What they discovered was that the more people were allowed to influence each other in their musical tastes, the more uneven and unpredictable the results. In other words, chaos!

SW: Yes—how can you model chaos? One important innovation of the cybernetics of the ’60s, which affected many disciplines such as sociology, economics, and psychology, is black box theory. You look at a system and you think, “Well, what’s going on in there, man?” But then you think, “Well, do I really need to know what’s going on in there? Maybe all I need to know is what comes in and what goes out.” And then some bright person thought, “Well, let’s put a box over this and just look at what goes in and what goes out.” That was a convenient modeling tool—though, of course, it led to a lot of huge errors in thinking, especially in urban planning, where people were thought of as mere objects or numbers. And one would be quite right to be very critical of this thinking.

But it also allowed for these models to become more speculative. Within cybernetics and other disciplines, people started to develop models that were more in the realm of philosophy, and these philosophical models could denote different relationships, different sorts of social networks between people—the possibility of different societies.

Think about the radio as an example of last-century thinking. Click, switch on, the thing is talking to you. Switch off, it’s off. There’s no way I can feed back into the conversation; I can only listen. I am an object. I am in a reduced state. And so even though cybernetics became unfashionable in the ’70s, one of its central notions—that of the interactive interface—became crucial to shaping our consciousness in the ’80s and ’90s. Our world today is a product of this thinking. But it was the engineers of this world who moved the speculative models of the early ’60s forward into a reality.

CA: In fact, a lot of your work has strong parallels with social networks today, where people present an identity, and through that identity they form small groups in which they have their own language, and it all happens online. And then you have another layer on top of that: You have huge companies that are writing algorithms to inject advertising into those small groups of people in their own language.

So if you are a small group of hip-hop fans, the program will figure out that you like Nikes, and it will show you a Nike ad. And not just any Nike ad, but one for limited-edition, custom-made shoes tailored to your specific interests that were data-mined from years of your Web-surfing history. So simply by participating in something like Facebook, you’re participating in an enormous data-mining and marketing campaign. There is now this strange combination of the dominant culture, as you would call it, and fragmented countercultures.

SW: You’ve pinpointed the key polemic of the moment. Just think about how things were fifty years ago and how they are now. There was the advent of the celebration of complexity, the realization that the world is relative, fluid, and complex, and that there is a richness of possibilities therein; and much of that complexity has been realized and embraced in the networks of today.

That’s not to say that we aren’t in a struggle of appropriation with the dominant culture, which is still reductive, seeing the world as simple, determined, a world of possessive objects and monuments. But the dominant culture is itself changing. The culture of the ’60s essentially disappeared by the mid-’70s, but what’s interesting, again, is that it was the engineers who carried on. Meanwhile, the world has been changed around us all.

CA: When I was in school, the only time I ever heard about cybernetics was in the computer science labs. And it is those computer science engineers who now run the world. So you’re right, Stephen: The power shifted and nobody noticed. But just like it is with social networks, it’s complicated, the way things are shifting—things aren’t necessarily going in one direction or another; they’re going in all directions at once.

SW: Absolutely. Reality itself is omnidirectional. It’s multisensory. And when you start isolating the various senses, various channels or media, then you actually reduce the experience. So, for instance, this Skype video interview is a little bit more real for me than if we had just been on the phone, because we’ve got another channel. The more channels we have, the more real the presence, the experience. I noticed some years ago that when you reduce these channels of communication and experience between people, you actually tend to move away from the reality surrounding those channels. So you can easily oscillate into a kind of fantasy world, which has to do with the world that’s inside the channel. Living online creates a separation from the real—from the ramifications of the world outside. It’s quite easy to oscillate away from responsibility.

CA: That’s a world a lot of people live in today, I think: oscillating in a fantasy realm. I’ve certainly had my moments.

SW: These dynamics play into the Data Stream project, which is in part about documenting channels of information that exist on different media and different levels of perceptual resolution. The sheer physical size of the work means that as you walk along it, as if it were a street, you are bombarded with different fragments of information that you link together to create a picture. Your observation is always at a remove, always shifting, even as the relationship between observers is crucial to the piece. You physically experienced this, if you remember, when we walked down those two contrasting streets—Delancey Street and Fifth Avenue—in New York last year, taking photographs and recording observations for Data Stream Portrait of New York [2011].

CA: Yeah. I remember because we had to walk in the rain. [laughter]

In the rain, which is something that wouldn’t happen in terminal culture. It was a real experience.