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This paper focuses on the work of British artist Stephen Willats, who’s practice beginning in 1963 increasingly concerned the expanded territory of art beyond the gallery. In particular, it will discuss how Willats’ interest in modelling social systems required the use of visual representation including diagrams, largely considered beyond the conventions of art making, but utilised by Willats as a new mode to articulate social realities.
As a consequence of his understanding of cybernetics gained from time as a student on Roy Ascott’s Groundcourse at Ealing School of Art, Willats’ investigated ideas of self organisation, feedback and self determination outside the traditional gallery system. It is this which underpins his use of diagrams for mapping actual and potential social systems.
The abstract structural net Homeostat drawing#1 (1969) describes concepts of self organisation and metaphorically visualises dynamic relationships between artist and society. It is precisely this interest in representing flows of information which defines Willats’ collaborative practice and reinforces provisional models of reality as essential to understanding particular social environments.
Willats’ work evolved beyond the gallery, however the revival of interest in social and collaborative art and its consistency with current concerns surrounding social expansion of arts institutions prompts re-investigation of applications of alternative strategies within community outreach programmes.
Through analysis of Willats’ diagrams as both retrospective and speculative modelling tools this paper will consider the potential of diagrams in the participatory context as a method of exploring relationships between concepts and reality, the subjectivity of perspective in the creation of meaning around objects and its ability to facilitate the shaping and representation of social systems and environments.
Coughlan, G. (2016) Representing Reality: The social organisational insight and potential of Stephen Willats diagrams, Association of Art Historians New Voices Conference, , 25th November 2016, Plymouth University, UK.