Tree houses in the sky

Stephen Willats’s new book Vision and Reality (Axminster: Uniformbooks, 2016) is a retrospective collection of transcribed interviews, and black & white images (all taken by the artist), which document the various public projects carried out by Willats from the late 1970s up until 2006, principally taking the post-war suburban tower block as his research site and ecological setting for intimate snapshots of its inhabitants, in locations ranging from suburban London (east and west) to Oxford, Milton Keynes and Leeds,

Although slightly outside the chronological remit of Vision and Reality, ‘West London Social Resource Project’ (1973), is a good place to start an evaluation of Willats’s work, as it was groundbreaking in many respects. Reprised at Chelsea Space in 2011, in Willats’s own words the project signalled “we were going in a completely new direction, well outside the existing framework and precedence for the existence of a work of art”. Cherry-picking a few key phrases from a list of broken taboos and novel precedences established by ‘WLSRP’, is enlightening. These included “dynamic model”, “sequence”, “context dependency”, “open system”, “floating base line”, “collective authorship”, “active feedback”, “suburban communities”, “voluntary participation”, “multichannel”, “access”, “task orientation” and “heuristic outcomes”; a repertoire of concepts that would go on to determine Willat’s modus operandi right up until the present day, an abrasively modern interactive practice with little or no time for Kantian aesthetic discourse.

What was once called ‘council housing’ in the post-war era has now come to be known by the more generalised and therefore anaemic term ‘social housing’, for whilst council new build has steadily declined, housing associations have grown in size and ambition, even in some instance taken over the running of sink estates from the local authority. However in Willats’s series of field studies dating from the 1970s his main focus was the daily routine of working-class council tenants, their gritty lives often enacted in architecturally overbearing Soviet style estates, still very much Beveridge Britain in fact, a nation attempting to claw its way back to life after the financial and physical gutting of the Second World War. At Skeffington Court, Hayes, after making contact with the caretaker, Willats initiated a six month project in 1978 called ‘Vertical Living’ that involved the residents and established his trademark notice boards. Interviews with them revealed a litany of concerns to do with the isolation, lack of balcony space, dark kitchens, fly-tipping, train noise and so on. Clearly a new intake of people used to the conviviality of back-to-back homes in narrow streets were finding it tough to adapt to high-rise existence, and misapplied zoning, the latter described by architectural critic Ian Nairn as “the biggest single cause of the sterility of our post-war estates”. In Vision and Reality, photographs of flat interiors are obliquely captioned with commentary about the lifestyle of these displaced nameless subjects, transcribed from a Uher 4000 Reporter IC tape machine and Electrovoice RE50 Microphone (equipment Willats has stubbornly continued to use up to the present day). Carpeted rooms are typified by mantelpieces dressed with family snaps and electric clocks, shelving units storing knick-knacks such as oriental dolls, ceramic beer steins, hi-fi decks and spider plants, with a cathode ray tube telly invariably situated in the corner.

On into the 1980s saw these selfsame communities reeling from the hammer blows of Thatcherite monetary policy, mass unemployment being the human cost of deregulation and free market dogma. In Ken Smith’s poem ‘Movies After Midnight’ from his 1985 collection The House of Numbers, the scene is chronically bleak: “From Canning Town to Woolwich | the tall cranes rust. | The pub’s shut | and the lift’s out in the towerblock, | everything you see is up for sale.” Amid this social environment Willats trained his attention on Sandridge Court, Finsbury Park, and in particular a character known only as John, whose flat resembled an art deco penthouse, and who became the subject of a print A Difficult Boy in a Concrete Block (1983), Dobson Point, Newham, which generated the diptych Every Day and Every Night (1984), with its nihilistic slogan YOU’VE GOT NOTHING. THERE IS NOTHING. YOU’VE GOT TO FIGHT TO GET OUT. YOU’VE GOT TO FIGHT TO SURVIVE YOU’VE GOT TO FIGHT TO LIVE, and Farrell House, Whitechapel, that centred on an encounter with Leigh Bowery, a heavily pierced, futurist tailor, with his own sewing machine and a large collection of vinyl. These studies explored alternative lifestyles, or ones deviating from the nuclear family: post-punk council tenants self-fashioned as Berlin cabaret performers, habitués of the Cha Cha Club, following bands such as Visage and Duran Duran.

Away from the capital, Willats was asked to make a work for the 1991 Bath festival, and chose Saffron Court, for ‘Living Mosaic’ that consisted of an outdoor public register, and display boards in the foyer and estate laundry on which residents could freely respond to a questionnaire by means of drawings, texts and diagrams. This format has proved to be a constant in Willats’s oeuvre, on one hand resembling a social audit not much different from the Mass-Observation project of the 1930s and 40s, on the other a totally novel way of inserting the contemporary artist into what were often pitifully austere domestic settings, arguably making Willats the inventor of the public residency. But his career has also seen the artist develop a critique of ruling class ideology, and this becomes apparent in Vision and Reality, where the vision is one imposed top-down by idealistic urban planners (largely in denial about Pruitt-Igoe, that notorious failed icon of international modernist housing in St Louis, USA), the reality one endured by human guinea pigs: rentiers entombed in confined spaces, spying on the world and each other with binoculars, coping with the sheer monstrosity of their battery units.

Inevitably the question ‘but is it art?’ will always arise when Willats’s work is put under the spotlight, and there are those cultural conservatives who do scoff at the pretentiousness of his documentation, the mixed media collages and homeostatic drawings, since this material composed from rigorous field work hardly qualifies as fine art, neither does he himself fit the template of a posturing yBa. In ‘Personal Islands’ (1993) Willats interviewed a couple in an Isle of Dogs tower block who had customised the interior of their flat, laying a terrazzo floor with ash skirting board, and functional book shelves without an ornament in sight, a striking Bauhaus-like move that counteracted the dull uniformity of the locale. Such gestures seem utopian in retrospect, and a far cry from the reality conveyed by the Brit horror film Tower-Block (2012), of a building awaiting demolition, its last residents subjected to random attacks by a sniper assassin. Ironically in 2013, Alex Morton a member of the Tory think tank Policy Exchange called for the flattening of such high rise buildings in favour of “streetscapes”, marking the end of an era begun in 1956, which had seen the subsidy of dwellings over 6 storeys high erected on slum clearance sites (the curatorial group Assembly won the 2015 Turner Prize for their regeneration of terraced housing in Toxteth, Liverpool 8), although the new architectural scene is of luxury high-rise owned by absentee oligarchs, or gated communities with Dickensian ‘poor doors’, asset managed real estate bought and sold years before its actual construction on the basis of 3D digital renderings.

Stephen Willats shows us that through communication there is always a way out of the box we find ourselves in, even if egress only leads to another similar box. Plus ça change plus ça reste la meme chose!

ISBN 978-1-910010-08-2

Breaking news…

Mikhail Pogarsky’s hand made globe Artist’s Book Unites the World (2013), propels its fly-sheet message in tabloid terms, as if a hoax headline at an evening news stand. Here Pogarsky’s papier-mâché globe is the proletarian launchpad. This loud immediacy of the street or kiosk is clearly tongue-in-cheek, but does ask us if only momentarily to entertain the idea of human unification through the auspices and agency of the artists’ book. Could a painting unite the world? a sculpture, an installation, a video, a song etc? Unlikely, as the world appears dead set against the idea of its own rescue or unification and rarely takes kindly to anyone pointing out that its conflicted state is unsustainable in the long run. This is because war is big business, the biggest in fact even if military interventions alone rarely work, and often create yet more civil strife. Pogarsky doesn’t deny this, but his work doesn’t support top down political control either, optimistically announcing a utopian era of goodness and common wealth, an end to bigoted nationalism and tyranny. Perhaps! But the irony is all too obvious, for in truth human beings as a species are in extremely deep and largely self-inflicted trouble.

A colour image of Pogarsky’s post-Soviet globe boldly appears on page 9 of
The Artist’s Book Phenomenon (2015), his important survey of the artists’ book, privately published in 2015 in a limited edition of fifty copies. A heavyweight volume Swiss casebound in black cloth, this obscure publication has the severe look of a bible and according to spokesman Vitaly Patsukov is both a landmark and structural part of “the new information explosion”, a text that “starts the pendulum of a new time”. Written in Cyrillic and lavishly illustrated Pogarsky provides a fantastic window into the little known field of the artists’ book in Russia and beyond. As a mail artist, international curator, theorist and maker of handcrafted artists’ books he himself along with Vasily Vlasov and Viktor Lukin has done much to promote contemporary Russian book arts (‘Kniga Khudozhnika’) in the west, running creative projects in conjunction with Sarah Bodman et el. In his Preface to the catalogue for ‘Rukssian Artists’ Books’ held at Bower Ashton Library, UWE Bristol (2014-15), Pogarsky states that “the artist’s book like any other artform has its own regional and national peculiarities. Apart from the language in which the text is presented, there are various historical roots from which the artists book has emerged and on which the contemporary tree of this artform grows”. Fitting that Pogarsky should adopt the genomic metaphor of a bush or tree since many books from Russia in particular do have a xylographic, artisinal quality as if hewn in a wood shed. But Phenomenon is also a cosmopolitan encyclopedia that reveals the indebtedness of modern book arts to everything from medieval rubricated Ars Magna manuscripts, the celestial engravings of William Blake, Stephane Mallarmé’s spatial poetics, Russian Futurist hooligan blasts, Matissean découpage, Iliazde’s elegant typography, Oskar Kokoschka’s erotica and Marcel Duchamp’s Bôite-en-valise (1935-41), to the salami sausages of Dieter Roth and naturally Ed Ruscha’s iconic books (perhaps a third R in the shape of Robert Rauschenberg could have been added as it might be argued his ‘combines’ helped to prepare the ground for the heterogenous quality of today’s post-literary formats). Pogarsky showcases sewing, screen print, typewriter art, letterpress, installation, outdoor performance, textual modification, and paper folding in his account, revealing how Russian pieces generally possess a distinctive and vital shamanistic energy, whilst being open to cutting-edge scientific methodologies too. Indeed there is considerable overlap in terms of both style and content with Vladimir Arkhipov’s Home Made: Contemporary Russian Artifacts (2006), an illustrated collection of improvised household appliances such as a bottle opener, Christmas tree lights, shovel, paste squeezer, rat trap and toilet seat; objects fashioned as the Soviet Empire collapsed, and many were left so hard up that such practical bricolage was a sine qua non.

Drawn from what Brian Eno has called a ‘scenius’, ie a co-intelligent environment without any need for celebrities, starchitects or supermodels, Mikhail Pogarsky presents us with a treasury of visual information, a bulletin about the state-of-the-art (of the artists’ book). Published in the same year as my own revisionist theory Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the artists’ book (2015), in Phenomenon, where Pogarsky choses to superimpose his slogan ‘Artist’s Book Unites the Whole World’ on top of the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean or aqua incognita, I referred to the genre as a “Great Barrier Reef of shimmering forms”. No longer exporting the idea of world revolution as Marxist-Leninist doctrine, the germ of this goal lingers on in Pogarsky’s globe, not a de luxe object belonging in a long gallery or rich man’s book closet, but the slowly revolving symbol of our multi-polar world. It is no coincidence whatsoever that the artists’ book in its most modern extrusions since the 1960s has evolved in parallel with Roland Barthes’s seminal essay ‘Death of the Author’ (1967), as Barthes’s original text was specially commissioned by Brian O’Doherty for publication in Aspen, #5+6 item 3, an exclusive box set of multimedia materials.

The accelerationist era of the digital age has let the artists’ book mutate in front of our eyes, transcending itself for fun, its practitioners stumbling upon new formal possibilities, a discipline yet to be straitjacketed by conservative art historical discourse. An academic at Moscow University, Pogarsky has avoided falling into this trap, for the artists’ book community is a friendly one, its episteme under constant review as its platforms move.

ISBN 978-5-9906919-1-9