In 1959, the British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow issued a famous plea to form bridges between the so-called ‘two-cultures’: the natural and technical sciences on one hand; the humanities, arts and literature on the other. His statement chimed with an interdisciplinary spirit that was already evident in postwar British visual art. Encouraged by the pedagogy of Richard Hamilton, the Independent Group, which met at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, had, by the early 1950s, embraced various open, analytic and networked approaches to artistic practice. Ten years later, in collaboration with the artist Roy Ascott (who had been a student of Hamilton’s) and having studied on Ealing Art College’s experimental ‘Groundcourse’, a young Stephen Willats began his own explorations into cross-cultural production.
Willats’s attempt to establish a ‘total system’, synthesizing the otherwise distinct realms of scientific research and artistic creation – a journey that would see him draw from a skein of theories in the air at the time – was, in many ways, the dominant theme of ‘Control. Stephen Willats. Work 1962–69’, a recent survey of the artist’s early career curated by Alex Sainsbury at Raven Row.
Containing diagrams, sculpture, archive documentation and ‘conceptual design’, this compendious exhibition stood as a welcome corrective for those familiar only with the cool analytic poise of Willats’s later work (for example, the community observation project Concerning Our Present Way of Living, 1979, subject of an archive display at Whitechapel Gallery that ran almost concurrently to the Raven Row show). Against this – perhaps even contra the titular idea of ‘control’ itself – here was an opportunity to witness some unbridled experimentation from an artist otherwise appreciated for his formulaic consistency.
Numerous hand-drawn diagrams and sculptural experiments show that, from the early 1960s, Willats was keen to explore constructivist ideas regarding audience participation and interaction. Seeking what he described as a new ‘functionality for art’, early projects such as Organic Exercise No. 1, Series 2 (1962/2013) – which, re-created here, offered gallery-goers the opportunity to rearrange a set of plaster tablets sitting on the gridded surface of a low plinth – corresponded to Willats’s hope, put to curator Emily Pethick in a recent interview, that with such work ‘any engagement by one person was as meaningful as any other. It was about what it meant for them – nothing was predetermined’.
Aware of certain limitations that producing ‘art’ proper implied for reaching larger audiences, and foreshadowing the decisive shift from the gallery to ‘society’ he would make in the early 1970s, in the mid-1960s Willats underwent a self-rebranding exercise. Abandoning the title ‘artist’ he became what he called a ‘conceptual designer’. His output from this period ranges from the seminal (the eponymous Control magazine – a publication-cum-art work first published in 1965; the anthological site of his own projects and those of others dealing with what he saw as ‘a new attitude in visual communication’) to the somewhat questionable (the galactic ‘Helmets’, 1965, wearable headgear complete with exchangeable coloured visors to augment the wearer’s visual experience). In addition, Willats fabricated ‘Corree Design’ (1965), a prototype line of modular furniture and a fashion range that included Variable Sheets (1965), a period mini-dress fronted by vinyl pockets into which the wearer could slide text panels featuring simple words such as ‘easy’, ‘bold’ and ‘pure’.
With the exception of Control – which is still being published – Willats’s other projects from this period were soon abandoned. He returned to art production with a significant body of kinetic sculptures, created for the solo show, ‘Stephen Willats. Visual Automatics and Visual Transmitters’, at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford in 1968. Raven Row faithfully restaged the exhibition in a darkened environment that dominated the lower-ground-floor gallery, providing the show with its most immediate and spectacular component. In response to research into the variability of brainwaves by American-born British neurophysiologist and cybernetician William Grey Walter, the ‘Visual Automatic’ works emit light sequences at a frequency known as the ‘alpha-rhythm’. An oscillation of approximately ten cycles per second, the alpha-rhythm mimics the wave patterns of a relaxed human brain (incidentally also the frequency accessed by the stroboscopic ‘dreamachine’ developed by Brion Gysin, William S. Burroughs and the computer programmer Ian Sommerville in 1961). In the same dimly-lit space were a series of floor-based ‘Visual Transmitters’. Begun in 1965, these works continued Willats’s interest in the alpha-rhythm – albeit on a larger scale. One such machine on display, the astonishing Visual Transmitter No. 2 (1968), was a near-impossible Heath Robinson-esque contraption of fidgeting, spinning components, clustered geometries and lucent emissions. A truly remarkable thing, this work encapsulated just how gloriously immoderate Willats’s output had become by the late ’60s.
With science and information technology increasingly shaping some of contemporary art’s most pressing questions, and the ticklish subject of ‘participation’ refusing to go away, ‘Control’ appeared as a timely act of historical curating. As the exhibition makes clear, between 1962 and 1969 Willats worked with a very specific ambition in mind. He wanted to involve audiences directly, to merge theoretical models such as communications theory, behaviourism and cybernetics with notions drawn from the artistic avant-garde in order to create feedback loops between viewer and artwork with the ultimate aim of ‘remodelling’ consciousness, as he described it.
Whether, and according to what criteria, it is possible to determine if these art works were successful in doing so remains highly doubtful. What is plain to see is that the brilliant yet odd intensity of Willats’s art has derived from its sustained relationship to ideas, rather than its capacity to yield objective results and firm analytic understandings. A little bit of fabulation in the face of science, then: perhaps the real value of integrating art into ‘total systems’ thinking.