I just sent the email below to a bunch of people, but thought I would post this query here too:
As many of you know, I have been writing a book on Stephen Willats for a good many years now. A couple of publishers have not worked out, but I now have a nibble and I need to indicate to them what level of interest there might be in North America for a monograph on Stephen, as in: “who would buy this book?” (I think we have a good sense of the UK.)
I write to ask you to let me know of upcoming North American exhibits, symposia, or ongoing conversations around the following KEY WORDS: anarchism, architectural interventions, British modernism, computer arts, conceptualism, critical information studies, cybernetics, mutualism, participatory art, self-organizing, or social practice (or variants on that phrase).
Stephen Willats, Artist as Instigator is my third book and examines Willats’ social practice art using archival sources, primary literature, and interviews with the artist and some of his collaborators, informed by science and technology studies (STS) and contemporary art criticism. London-based artist Stephen Willats (b. 1943) has spanned many disciplines and media in his 50+-year career. My book has two foci: the relationships between artist and audience, and between Willats’ art and physical and conceptual systems. Historians of technology and feminist STS scholars are crucial to my study: Jane Bennett, Geoff Bowker and S. Leigh Star, Barbara Hanson, Donna Haraway, Andrew Pickering, and John Staudenmaier have provided concepts and models that shaped my research. Claire Bishop and Grant Kester, together with Rosalyn Deutsche, Shannon Jackson, Suzanne Lacy, Edward Shanken, and John A. Walker, have done foundational work on theory and practice in socially-engaged, media-rich art. Finally, the philosophy of Félix Guattari, particularly as expressed in Chaosmosis (1995 translation, 1992), has shaped how I think about social practice in the cultural field. We must take into account the roles that material processes perform in the environment, society, and subjectivity in order to fully constitute an “ethico-aesthetic paradigm,” in Guattari’s phrasing. I use Willats’ image of the homeostat as a metaphor for material, aesthetic and ideological inputs that recalibrate the shifting art canon. Linking Willats’ work to that of architect-planners and other contemporary artists clarifies the political underpinnings of his art and transforms our perceptions about social practice in the U.K., as well as helps to enact the paradigm that Guattari outlined.
I first began researching Willats’ work in 2003, and have published three articles on his project works. Since 2010, I have studied extensively in archives and museums around the U.K., also visiting Willats at his London and Rye homes to interview him and view his art and archives located there. I received funding from the Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program and additional funding from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. While Willats himself has been thorough in documenting his work through self-publication and interviews, and while there are numerous short essays about him available in art publications, very few of these analyze his ambitious projects in depth or link Willats’ work to the social, political, and cultural histories in which he worked. Willats unequivocally declared in 1986: “The place of intervention itself is perceived as one of the mediums of the work.” Without the details regarding his art and its context, it is difficult to integrate Willats into the history of social practice art, in which he has been a pioneer and a key figure.
Edgar Heap of Birds might be labeled a conceptual artist; unfortunately a lot of people find conceptualism off-putting because it doesn’t stress the visual and usually it isn’t conventionally beautiful. While that term doesn’t fully describe Heap of Birds’ whole practice, it still might be useful to provide people with a label for his signage. Art historian Alexander Alberro defined conceptual art broadly: “[T]he conceptual in art means an expanded critique of the cohesiveness and materiality of the art object, a growing wariness toward definitions of artistic practice as purely visual, a fusion of the work with its site and context of display, and an increased emphasis on the possibilities of publicness and distribution.” Alberro’s definition helps connect Heap of Bird’s art to the importance of these larger art-world issues: He questions the art object, challenges the prioritization of the visual and explores the artwork in relation to site, distribution, and audience.
Artists have long worked at the edges of what was considered art, challenging accepted norms of beauty, materials, and craftsmanship. When an artwork is set outside of a gallery (the norm in most of the world and throughout many centuries), artists also question the location and audience for their artwork, just as they have often challenged gallery visitors to think about that context. Artists who have asked similar questions about the nature, material and location of art, whom people might be familiar with, include Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, and Pablo Picasso. Of course there are many less famous and more diverse artists who created wonderful art, but people often want to connect what they know to something new in order to validate it. We are pattern-seeking creatures, and we often convince ourselves of something’s worth by comparing it to something else accepted as valuable. Or we decide that something we don’t like or don’t understand is therefore worthless.
Facebook friends have been actively responding to the state’s attorney’s decision to charge a former UIUC student–who allegedly stole two of the “Beyond the Chief” signs–with a misdemeanor rather than a felony, because the SA decided that Mr. Heap of Bird’s work was worth only the materials it was made with, under $300, thus a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Smile Politely published an amusing response to that idea.