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!