February 16, 2016

Seeking Monograph Publisher

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).

The Performance of Information Flows in the Art of Stephen Willats

The Performance of Information Flows in the Art of Stephen Willats, published in Information & Culture in 2012

Book Precis:
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.

September 24, 2011

The Resilience of Meaning

Stephen Willats, Data Stream: A Portrait of New York City, 2011

Stephen Willats, Data Stream: A Portrait of New York City, 2011

Stephen Willats is interested in both information networks and networks of meaning, each connected to real people in real locations. In Willats’ art, these networks intersect and overlap in complex ways; words, pauses, gestures, posture, and spaces between, all contribute both information and meaning to exchanges that are captured as “Data Stream: A Portrait of New York” (2011). For Willats’ one man exhibition at Reena Spaulings on East Broadway in New York’s Chinatown (The Strange Attractor, Sept 17- October 23, 2011), he created a long, two-sided wall for us to scan, or crane or squat to study. Ten rows of 57 images and texts of specific individuals make up a grid on this wall, recording parts of Delancey Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City in March 2011.

How does one relate to these images and data? Willats invites us to join him and co-create our own ontology; we perform our becoming in the gallery as we engage with the installation. Information as images and text is mounted down low, in the middle and up high; we parse it for ourselves, connecting to some bits and not to others. We study the photographs, rubbings, and words, seeing aspects of our lives captured visually, but only partially. We make our own meanings in relation to the complexity of a “strange attractor.” As time moves on, and/or new visitors and objects are juxtaposed, our constructed meanings shift again and again.

While my title above comes from Tiziana Terranova’s 2004 essay examining the cultural politics of information, Willats takes his title from the mathematical concept that cybernetician Heinz von Foerster (1911-2002) adapted to his concerns. A strange attractor is both a geometrical pattern characterizing a complex, chaotic system, and a dynamic object that is dissipating into chaos. The tension inherent in this dynamic pattern sustains a tenuous convergence akin to learning. For von Foerster, a “strange attractor” was one way to understand mid-century modern life, helping to define what is humanly knowable or not. Second-order cyberneticians like von Foerster aimed to generalize the feedback and control mechanisms from engineering and science to focus on the unpredictable, open relationships in society. Similarly, Willats’ colleague and mentor, Gordon Pask (1928-1996) and other scientists such as W. Ross Ashby (1903-1972), used the “black box” problem as a means of understanding not only what we know (epistemology), but also how we know it (ontology).

Scholar of science studies Andrew Pickering noted that “Black Box ontology is a performative image of the world. A Black Box is something that does something, that one does something to, and that does something back—a partner in, as I would say, a dance of agency.” Willats and his collaborators, with recording devices, still and video cameras, performed together up and down New York streets on two cold and wet days last March, creating multiple views of the city that, in turn, help us see and understand the give-and-take between objects and people in new ways.

Pickering has written brilliantly about the ontology of cybernetics, which is key to Willats’ art: “[C]ybernetics stages for us a vision not of a world characterized by graspable causes, but rather of one in which reality is always ‘in the making,’ to borrow a phrase from William James.” Second-order cyberneticians and artists like Willats recognize both the impossibility of ever fully observing each other from within their own embodied selves, and the significance of observing social systems within which individual minds and bodies perform. The contingency and opacity of relationships among ideas, material objects and observers is ever-present in what is being observed, stressing the “in the making” and performative aspects of our interactions, in other words, the resilience of meaning(s).

Stephen Willats, Data Stream: A Portrait of New York City, 2011

Stephen Willats, Data Stream: A Portrait of New York City, 2011

Data Stream, detail: Delancey Street

Data Stream, detail: Delancey Street


[1]Tiziana Terranova, “Communication beyond Meaning: On the Cultural Politics of Information,” Social Text [Technoscience] No. 80 (Fall, 2004): 52; Paul Pangaro, “The Past-Future of Cybernetics: Conversations, von Foerster and the BCL,” in An Unfinished Revolution? Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory | BCL 1958-1976, Albert Mueller and Karl H. Mueller, eds. (Vienna: Edition Echoraum, 2007): 164.

[2] Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010): 20, 19.