Stephen Willats: Changing Everything
South London Gallery, July 1998
So art that deals with ‘ordinary people’ and everyday life is back in fashion; which is lucky for Stephen Willats, who for thirty years now has doggedly pursued an agenda that seeks to place ordinary people at the center of art-making, and to re-integrate art into a universally meaningful social practice. Up until quite recently, the British artworld has chosen to ignore Willats’ challenge to art’s isolation and specialism, but the profound shifts in attitude within recent artistic practice have allowed issues which were once considered alternative, even radical, into the mainstream.
Changing Everything follows those well established strategies and methods that have defined Willats’ practice since the 70s. Drawing on old-school communications and cybernetics theories of the 50s and 60s, his aim has been to shift the fundamental relationship between the artwork and its audience; according to Willats, the art-work, and the art institution, function as monologous transmitters of authoritative truths to an audience whose relationship is by definition passive and pacified. Insisting, by contrast, that an art-work can only have real meaning if its audience is explicitly involved in its creation, Willats initiates projects whose outcome is defined by the involvement of people with no involvement in the art world. In this model, the art-work no longer exists as a container of pre-established meanings to be interpreted or misinterpreted according to the expertise of the audience: Instead, the art-work becomes the agent for the self-realization of the participants, abolishing the distinction between artist and audience, between the ‘transmitter’ of culture and its ‘receivers’.
Thus, in Changing Everything, Willats accompanied a group of local residents on a walk from the South London Gallery through the estates of the neighbourhood, asking them to comment on and record images from the environment to which they attributed particular significance. The material was then organised into wall-mounted mosaics in the gallery, along with further audio and video material from the walks. Once open to the public, visitors were given a guide book, which contained a set of questions related to the mosaics on the walls around them, questions which asked the visitor to make associations between the material on the walls and in the guide, in relation to their own interpretations and opinions of what they saw and read. Asking us to ‘draw or make a diagram’ on response sheets, these cards were then attached to display panels that divided up the main space of the gallery. As the project progressed, these panels filled up with responses both to the mosaics, and to other responses, creating a kind of informational feedback between everybody involved.
Such a project’s intentions seem, on the surface, quite positive; after all, who would argue with the idea that art needs to be less isolated from real life, or that art should represent the interests of its audience, rather than lecture them from above about what it decides is right? Compared to having artistic standards dictated by critics an collectors, attempting to include a non-specialist audience in the process of creating art appears democratic and socially progressive.
But the paradox of such a rhetoric of inclusion is that it effectively legitimises art by formalising the distinction between who is included in the art-work and who is excluded. The problem with an agenda which attempts to include those notionally excluded audiences, is that audiences and practitioners rarely occupy such static and determined positions in relationship to each other. The insistence on inviting ‘ordinary people’ to participate begs the question as to who defines the qualifications for being an ‘ordinary person’. In reality, ordinary people become artists, critics, or don’t go to art galleries because they have far better things to do. Of course, the social world that they do this in is marked by continuing divisions based on power, economic control and exclusion, divisions which do profoundly limit people’s capacity for self-expression and self-realization. But by assuming that in order to correct this, one need simply to include the excluded, and represent the unrepresented, there is a danger of apologising for the continuation of those divisions to which society is subject.
Having spent so long in a cultural ghetto of its own making, the artworld is now desperate to include, and be included in society. The recent developments in British art attest to a desire to be 'relevant' to those audiences and constituencies notionally excluded. Nowadays artists look to the ‘everyday’ and to ‘ordinary people’ as an audience which will validate their activity. Having happily spent most of the century not talking to the masses, art now wants to ‘reach out’ and ‘touch people’.
Unfortunately, the process of just getting closer to people doesn’t necessarily mean that you have anything worthwhile to say to them about their lives, nor they to you; one of the most depressing aspects of Changing Everything was the sheer banality of the comments and insights of both participants and visitors. Just like art critics, art groupies, politicians and pop stars, people who live on housing estates often have nothing interesting to say. In this context, celebrating communication, exchange and interaction as inherently creative activities allows for the complete evacuation of meaningful content.
Of course, none of this is Stephen Willats’ fault; an artist who has made a dedicated attempt to present an model of a possible, alternative form of social relationships, based not on domination, exclusion and passivity, but on active agreement and mutual control. However, at a time when the artworld is driven by its desire to include the excluded, whilst lacking the confidence to offer them a idea of how everything could change, there is a danger of including everyone in a celebration of our mutual powerlessness. Instead of utopian ideals for social relationships, artists might start by offering that meaning which lies in ordinary people’s innate capacity to solve the problems which restrain them and, in the here and now, to change everything.
all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated