Behavioural Art, Rosetta Brooks, 1973


The prevalence of scepticism amongst artists has in some sense been a contributory factor in the move towards a more theoretically sophisticated art in recent years, perhaps to compensate for the ramifications of a realm empty of ideas or meaning. Many artists of this generation in Britain have reacted to the current proclamation of ‘anything goes’ by attempting to bring to bear criteria which would invest in art some meaning, be it ideological, theoretical, or political. The presumption of art as an ‘open concept’ and the need to establish some inherent meaning in the term ‘art’ may well seem an irreconcilable paradox: ‘The paradoxical nettle always to be grasped is that of reconciling the art work’s status as an empty form with its being an assembly of meaningful signs’ (‘Rules of Thumb’ – Victor Burgin, Studio International, June 1971). Some would reject the paradox as illusory, and others have embellished the notion of an open concept with the more sophisticated notions derived from modern analytical philosophy. Steve Willats, however, has viewed art in cybernetical terms as a relatively closed system with self-regulating features. His motivation has been to give art some meaning in a social context and to this end he has adopted cybernetics both as tool and convention. ‘Cybernetics, Cognitive Psychology, Information Theory and the modern sciences of communication and analysis have increased in their importance to the artist (as they have in other areas of society) for apart from providing signals/models of the evolutionary direction of society motivating a directed vision, they have enabled a critical re-assessment of strategies/tactics to be made. This has subsequently led to the problem of meaningful operation within different social contexts’. (Willats: ‘Cognition and Control’.)

In recent years Steve Willats has exerted great influence, through his teaching and work, on an enlarging group of artists and students. Strangely, though, his work (a lot of which has been based in Ipswich and Nottingham) has not had the same order of influence outside the confines of his group, even though papers and what he calls ‘theoretical models’ have been published since 1965. He was widely misinterpreted as being a kinetic artist in the heyday of kinetic art. But his earlier ‘models’ were electronic analogues for many of his more recent involvements. At that time he used cybernetic notions of homeostasis and self-regulating systems to present complex systems of input and output as heuristic or ‘problem-solving’ mechanisms for the spectator/operator. Concerns with the single spectator were superseded by involvements with groups of people and later with whole social groups. 1968 began a shift not only in his methodology but also in his ideological premises. His earlier speculations about sense data were replaced by investigations of the ‘social structures’ which determined the status of art (and its objects). Maintaining an ideological instability is perhaps reflective of his ideology. His work now requires an enormous amount of data which he collects from certain prespecified (specified by the preceding project) social groups in the form of questionnaires, interviews, etc., based on their own rule structures. The results of the analysis of such data may lead to the regrouping of his ‘audience’ under criteria more pertinent to his specific objective, but from the initial stages of the project the ideas which he is manipulating are given some ‘feedback’ into the social groups immediately involved in the project. The groups, he believes, will then articulate themselves and their relationships to other social groups. Each social group receives information which is encoded in accordance with the characteristic language structure which determines that social grouping. Throughout, there is little distinction made between his investigatory and didactic capacities. The method is essentially hypothetico/deductive and so criteria of ‘linear’ progress are not inapplicable in evaluation of his work – he feels that only now, after about ten years of work in this area of inquiry, are his models reaching a satisfactory degree of sophistication. He works for the most part within the social structure which determines habits, rules and goals which in turn establish the operational basis of art and, by extension, all art (if one can assign to Willats’s work some prescriptive intentions, as I believe one can).

The operation of this work is in the ideological realm, but ideology is no mere ‘guiding light’. He is in no way adopting a pre-subscribed ideology as a rigid framework of criteria to map the course of his work. Rather he attempts to shift his objective premises and even aspects of his theoretical groundwork upon the basis of his investigations.

An acknowledgement of the necessity (or inevitability) of working simultaneously as an observer and as a participant in these investigations of social structures is accompanied by a further acknowledgement that his investigations and interactions undeniably exemplify the role of the artist he prescribes. His work is simultaneously an investigation of social codes and their accompanying ‘rule structures’ (which affect the accessibility of his ideas) and an adjustment of these aspects of the social environments by being revelatory to his ‘audience’. Unlike his contemporaries, Willats is concerned not only with the conceptual framework of art activity, but also with the social framework; the latter he feels determines the former and is thus assumed more fundamental to his work. The methodology acknowledged in this work is one rooted in the rejection of the traditional notion of ‘objectivity’. Von Wright’s comments on scientific experiment (Explanation and Understanding 1972) seem equally applicable to Willats’s methodology:

‘The discovery of causal relations presents two aspects: an active and a passive one. The active component is the putting into action systems through producing their initial states. The passive component consists in observing what happens inside the system – as far as possible without disturbing it. The scientific experiment, one of the most ingenious and consequential devises of the human mind, is a systematic combination of these two components.’

The problems involved in the dualism of investigating a system and contributing towards running the system have largely occupied Willats’s work. To him this is no philosophical problem but a social one which the sophistications of cybernetics and human behaviouralism help him to tackle. Like all human activity the ideal for art activity would be that of a self-regulating homeostat which is capable of self-determined evolution and meaningful interaction with the social environment at large. This model would unify the dualisms of observation and participation. As Willats wrote in Control Magazine No. 6: ‘As soon as an artist is concerned with an audience there is a concern with behaviour. When audience strategies are devised then it becomes behavioural modelling, the choice of strategy being dependent upon the goal of the artist’s intention.’

There seems to be two basic strategies the artist can adopt: (1) either a change is made in the audience’s routines via a behavioural switch or (2) the artist works within existing routines of behaviour. In both cases it becomes necessary to specify the audience if a redundance level that is unacceptable for successful behavioural modelling is to be avoided. If the artist is to operate within different social environments/contexts, then the nature of the premises will also need to evolve and be rethought to a point where they relate to a social context and are meaningful within it. This might mean, for example, the artist adopting a more educationally inclined role.

The succession of projects with which Willats is involved constitutes both a redefinition of his explicit praxeology and a refinement of his ideological objectives. One can observe a shift of his theoretical framework in what could be called its ideological specifications in the course of the three main projects to date. This is best explained by talking of a shift from inducing change in the normative framework which specifies apprehension of his models by an ‘audience’ to a direct redefinition of norms of action (in a behaviouralist sense) of the latter. This is perhaps analogous to the shift referred to by Marx (‘Theses on Feurbach’) when he talks of the shift from interpretation of the world to changing the world as being the change in philosophical objectives engaged in by materialist philosophy. The same sorts of shifts are entailed in the recent questioning of the notion of objectivity in the social sciences.

The first of these projects, ‘Man From The 21st Century’ was seen very much as an experimental project. It utilized two social groups separated both physically and economically from one another (a working class area in Hyson Green, Nottingham, and a middle class area in Bramcote, Nottingham). As the title suggests the project took on the format normal to marketing campaigns of commercial companies. ‘Canvassers dressed up in silver jump-suits with helmets, and arrived in a street in a time-machine’. The mechanistic strategies of the entire project were advised by a group of cybernetitians and human behaviouralists: cybernetics, George Mallen (theoretical strategies); operation researcher, Stuart Pound (actual strategies); a neurologist, Julian Miller (behavioural psychology); together with a perceptual psychologist and an advertising company (company organization). The strategies were simply to ensure overall efficacy in operating within the behavioural patterns characterizing the social groups.

One of the main goals of the project was to discover and effect a societal metalanguage suitable for operation within the strictures of the behavioural modes of both groups to a further end of communication of social predicaments (in the abstract – as determined by the metalanguage). Information reaching both groups was initially ‘encoded’ in accordance with hypothesized behavioural patterns of each. Information received (from answering of questionnaires) from the groups would be collated and used to deduce a successive ‘input’ into the social groups, and so on. An artificial social system is thus put into operation whose input and output of information relating to the system is intervened by the artist who is engaged in modelling the evolution of the system, and of the ‘metalanguage’. The finality of the temporary system is the phase where information received by each social group is identically ‘coded’. Two different social predicaments would initially be explained in accordance with two different codes (which are related to each and finally in the same code). The system is terminated at this stage. Hypothetico-deductive assessments of the artist’s function with respect to the simple system are fashioned in the same way at each successive stage of the system. In this sense I would tend to assign Willats’s work a prescriptive mode of operation.

The ‘Tennis Club Project’ for Nottingham was essentially a synthesis of the conclusions drawn in the previous project, but although initially a great deal more elaborate than its predecessor the objectives were approximately the same, except that the participating groups (who converged at a tennis club) had a degree of physical interrelation. A further modification of the goals was in attempting to encourage participants in a redefinition and alteration of the rules which determined the nature of their social interaction and relation with the artist. The role of the artist becomes less discreet and the project goes further than merely attesting to the societal criteria of meaningfulness in the artist’s role. It attempts to engage the participants in social engineering, albeit on a microscopic scale. To this end Willats took on the job of organizer to a tennis tournament, every step of his organizational capacity being controlled directly by the collated information from distributed questionnaires (distributed on this occasion by ‘Tennis Super Girls’).

The project which Willats is presently engaged upon is probably the most ambitious and sophisticated to date. In the ‘West London Project’ four separate social groups are used from four different parts of West London. As in other projects it involves the introduction of artificial and temporary social relations to make up a model. In the first place the increase in the number of social groups is for simple practical reasons far more ambitious, but the model of this project is homeostatic. Thus for the time of the project, i.e. the duration of the social system, a degree of self-regulation of the system is aimed at, through a self-determined interaction of the four social groups. The issues involved for decision-making are naturally as restricted as the system containing them, but in this project the rules governing the system are given over to the participants to manipulate. This naturally makes the project much lengthier. Paradoxically, when the participants have reached their objective the system is left by the artist, although potentially it then has the possibility of persisting autonomously.

Thus in the theoretical evolution of the sequence of projects, there exists a shift from cognitive problems to issues of a regulative nature pertaining to the frameworks of cognition. The assumed stance of the artist shifts from the objective ‘outside’ viewpoint to that of an internal agent whose usefulness is in being ‘inside’ the systems and models developed. The shift has led to models of an altogether different nature to those of behaviouralism and the social sciences. The explanation for this is in the differences in function between the latter and the ‘art model’. The articulation of an art model in a social context has, as its prerequisite, a real social agent who operates in the ways prescribed in Willats’s work as an artist. The work, though highly sophisticated, is thought by Willats to be in the early stages of its development.

Studio International, January 1973