Stephen Willats

Explain Yourself, 2008

As the dream of a fluid, responsive, social infrastructure built on the dynamics of exchange (effectively mapped out as long ago as the 1950s) now begins to shape the very parameters of existence in contemporary society, the artist’s response to these basic shifts in the dynamics of everyday perception has been strangely muted. We are living in the midst of a revolution, yet this is not a revolutionary moment led by the rhetoric of new manifestos; rather it is being driven by the technological evolution, over the last twenty years, of interactive networks that are ultimately self-organizing and which have directly affected everyone’s communication and processing of information. The result is plain to see, as networks of exchange externalize into our daily lives, and as a consequence compatible states of consciousness emerge that have the potential to redefine our sense of self and our interpersonal lives.

While the ramifications stemming from this non-declared revolution would seem to extend into all areas of cultural endeavour, and certainly must be considered to have a direct bearing on anything concerned with the future, there is a seemingly stubborn or perhaps naïve reluctance by many artists fully to take on board what this means for an art practice that would want to be an effective part of that future. Instead there is a reiteration, even a celebration, of cultural values associated with an object-centred society, founded on a one-way network of transmission that projects the artwork as an icon of immortality, of the permanence and status of property. These projections maintain a mythical notion of sole authorship, the unique independence of the artist from the infrastructure of society.

An important part of the mythical ethos surrounding the practice of artists has been that the artwork is in a competitive free-will environment, in which ‘good art’ will somehow magically win out. Yet simultaneously, at the core of this competitive environment, there is an institutionalized career path that will verify and legitimize competition into what it can hold up as ‘good art’. The resultant hegemony strived for through competition has been accompanied by a psychology that reduces the complexity of the artwork’s social interface. Closely linked to this reductiveness has been a tendency towards object-based perception; the containment inherent in objects detaches the self from the complexity of that interface. Coupled with this is the expression of the values of exclusivity, the holding of special knowledge, the prerogative of an authoritative cultural set-up that elevates the holder’s status.

Relationships between individuals caught up in this competitive and exclusive realm are highly demarcated, different territories of information being associated with a variety of specific identities such as curator and critic, each with their own specialized languages, behaviours and values. My point in going over this ground, examined in more detail in my book Intervention and Audience1 is that the infrastructure of art’s social environment is instrumental in inducing artistic conformity. Artists are locked into a deterministic modus operandi, the dilemma being largely compounded by the desire of the artist to conform, to be seen to belong within the realm designated as ‘art’.

Once an artist moves outside art’s social environment, the result has been the marginalization of his or her practice by its absorption into other perceptual realms. For example responses such as ‘this is not art, it’s social science’ were directed at me when seeking institutional support for the West London Social Resource Project in the early 1970s.2 The pressure of marginalization and exclusion has often ultimately resulted in artists merging their activities into other realms, as much for support as anything else. Of course this situation must be negative to the development of new practices, and is certainly at odds with the inferences that stem from communication built on exchange, fluidity and informality elsewhere in society.

Importantly, within the network of exchange there is the possibility of the question, and of agreement, both of which open up the perceptual level of resolution towards complexity, and of decision-making towards mutuality. This makes possible non-hierarchical, one-layer networks, in which information is potentially made freely available through the actions of questioning and answering. Unlike hierarchical networks, relationships are not formal, set in stone, but are informal configurations, constantly changing shape according to needs and events.

This conflict between the orientation of art practice and the changing parameters of society is a particularly polemical issue for artists who want to see their art practice intervening in society to transform perceptions of its future. A purely descriptive art reflects the status quo, the existing norms and values, perhaps even amplifies and reinforces them, and this is undoubtedly what most art does, as society gets the art that it wants. But an art practice that seeks to transform perception, recode how contemporary society cognizes itself, will need, if it is develop any meaning for the particular moment, to be seen to embrace the inferences that stem from networks of exchange.

Also important to this creation of meaning is the necessity of a consistency between what a work proclaims and the way it operates, to the point where even how the artist organizes the work’s development and fabrication reinforces the significance it has for the audience. For here consistency is important to belief, especially to maintaining ‘belief’ when encountering an artwork that varies considerably from existing norms. Though dissonance can allow for the maintenance of credibility, and for conflicts in consistency to be ignored, the relationship is always vulnerable and likely to collapse, leading to an almost instant reversal of belief. Such a reversal is fundamentally disappointing to the ‘believers’, the audience, and must surely inhibit their willingness to countenance any new propositions put forward by the same artist or, by transferred association, with other similar art practices. I emphasize this point because I believe that in embracing paradigms associated with exchange and fluidity the practice of the artist, the way a work is conceived, developed and presented, ultimately has to be consistent with the philosophical ramifications that networks of exchange have for the self-understanding of interpersonal life and the way it is lived.

The complexity that potentially follows a question that is raised in a network of exchange will ultimately pave the way for a psychological framework that encompasses mutuality. For a vital element in the response to a question is ‘explanation’, which attempts to complete what is missing in the picture of reality raised by the person asking the question. Here explanation is filling in, completing what is missing, but another function of explanation is to establish in advance of an event a context, so that it might be understood within a given framework of meaning, especially within a framework that is at variance with existing belief. Here ‘explanation’ essentially lays out a foundation or realm of meaning for approaching the future, in that a speculative framework of references and associations is provided for interpreting what is going to happen So while explanation is an account of what has occurred, it can also indicate what might be going to occur. In this sense it can also be used as a tool for introducing new encoding languages. An open network of exchange employs the ethos of explanation as a vital component in the creation of belief in the network, which will ultimately reinforce the complex dynamic involved in maintaining bonds between its participants.

As an open system of explanation between all participants in a network has the potential to undermine the foundations of authoritative, hierarchical and exclusive frameworks, it is perhaps no accident that there is a pressure exerted on the artist to maintain ‘exclusivity’, to separate practice from other practitioners, to declare sole authorship, exhibit a unique language. It is an important initial step towards embracing the present to acknowledge that this pressure will drag the artist back into a conflict between intention and practice, enabling meaning to be appropriated into value structures that will ultimately undermine belief in the potential ramifications of what is being forwarded. Only when networks between artists are fully independent of the existing value structures projected by the institutional world of art, and a consistency between intention and practice is perceived to be true in the presentation of new artwork, will the artist be able to move the agenda of art forwards to embrace the potential of networks of exchange, those same networks that are shaping the fabric of communication in society. An important starting point is the procedure and process of explanation, which I would argue should be undertaken as a matter of course by the artist; that is, explanation of both existing and possible practice, directed towards other practitioners, to create an open network of exchange.

1 See Stephen Willats, Intervention and Audience (London: Coracle Press, 1986).
2 See Stephen Willats, ‘Prescriptions for Task-Oriented Methodologies in Constructing Operational Models of Art’, Control Magazine, no. 7 (London, 1973); The Artist as an Instigator of Changes in Social Cognition and Behaviour (London: Gallery House Press, 1973); and Art and Social Function (London: Latimer New Dimensions, 1976); revised and reformatted edition (London: Ellipsis, 2000).
Explain Yourself typescript, published in Manifesto Marathon, ed. Hans Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine Gallery, Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig 2008