BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 11 NOV 98
Featured in
Issue 43

Stephen Willats

BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 11 NOV 98

Changing Everything (1998) is a continuation of the work that Stephen Willats has been making for around 30 years. Seeking to effect social change, he directs his critique against the authoritarianism he identifies in social institutions; in particular the cultural dominance of the art museum and the subjection of the urban working class to the Modernist architecture of the housing estate.

Analogous practices to Willats' are the literacy projects of Chris Searle, working with schoolchildren in East London, and Paulo Freire, collaborating with peasants in Brazil. Willats is very much a teacher, guiding his subjects through highly selective questions structured towards his preferred solutions, although he stops short of actually providing these. He attempts to raise what he calls the 'counter consciousness' of residents in the environs of the gallery, by providing them with access to the cultural potencies of the art museum, while simultaneously compromising what he identifies as the museum's authoritarian emphasis on the privileged art object.

With groaning political correctness Willats selects 14 local residents, individually taking each on a designated walk through the local area. Residents document their observations of the walk using film, photography and tape recordings, which are then edited into grids or 'mosaics' of photographs and text on the gallery walls, or played on monitors and speakers. Images selected are often of proscriptive signs or texts, of urban detritus, graffiti, or of property boundaries such as barbed security fences. These appear as indictments: evidence of an underprivileged environment.

Gallery visitors are provided with a free guide book to the show and invited to make anonymous written or drawn responses to questions or 'problem situations' devised by Willats. These too relate to individual grids in a kind of situational pedagogy. The responses are then exhibited without selection in free-standing displays corresponding to the originating ones on the walls.

One effect of the show is a deeply fragmented confusion of images, text and incoherent noise. This is partly intentional, caused by Willats' random redistribution of his participant's information in order to gain a stimulus effect, and also by the stylistic variations in the written and drawn responses gained from the public. The principal source of confusion, however, is Changing Everything 's dependency on text. The artist's use of language in the guide book, which is the necessary key to the show, is ineptly unclear and pseudo-bureaucratic, reading like an opaque Post Office form and a late 50s I-Spy book crossed with the ramblings of a stoned social worker. It is therefore not surprising that already marginalised working-class people do not overly avail themselves of the cultural potencies of the art gallery, or that by the end of the show's duration of over a month, only about a third of the response-sheet grids had been filled.

Those sheets that had been completed were variously humorous, tokenistic, sincere, facetious, self-obsessed or eccentric, but only occasionally genuinely co-operative with the stimulus prompts that Willats provided. These compliant ones were often the dullest, being a bit goody-two-shoes; those with the greater vitality and energy were the more irreverent or anarchic. Some of these were fabulous: a popular favourite was from the person who had left art college 30 years ago and who expressed sincere gratitude to Willats for providing their first opportunity to exhibit in an art gallery.

The nature of the responses from his audience, or lack of them, might have been a cause of celebration - or rueful reflection - for Willats, but his system conveniently ceases its process before any analysis is made of it. Thus he is absolved from his own and other people's judgements of his success or failure. This is either a cop-out or honourable respect for democratic realities.

A cynical description of Changing Everything would be that Willats has created a self-generated bureaucracy in which he fetishises unnecessary organising statements and conceptual models. The artist seeks to qualify these with a dreamy, flared-trousered, 60s-Socialist agenda, rife with absurd contradiction and its own inherent authoritarianism - the catalogue proper to the show providing moments of unintended humour amongst its po-faced directives. Therefore, the justification for Changing Everything, and the reason for Willats' longevity of practice, is that he serves as an occasional tokenistic sop to the liberal guilt of the middle-class art world.

While there is some truth in this, a more positive understanding of Willats' work is that it seeks to return to art a use-value for its community in a wider sense - of gathering together and sharing in order to encourage certain social values whilst genuinely not seeking to force a result. This is a rare humility of practice, in which art becomes a gift or service to its community, and where loyalty and duration of commitment is, perhaps controversially, as important as the quality as the art itself. In this sense Changing Everything transcends its ineptitudes and contradictions, and cannot fail.

Neal Brown is an artist and writer based in London, UK.