Stephen Willats was born in London in 1943 and attended the “Ground Course” at the Ealing School of Art from 1962 to 1963, led by Roy Ascott, a pioneer in cybernetics. He was director of the Centre for Behavioural Art in London from 1972 to 1973. Since the 1970s, Willats has had numerous solo exhibitions at seminal museums, including the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, and the Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe and has participated in major exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennial 1982. He organized the symposium “Art Creating Society” at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford in 1990. The hitherto largest retrospective of Willat’s work was shown at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen in 2007. Stephen Willats lives and works in in London.
Stephen Willats became well known for his research of society, communications, and the city, and is considered one of Great Britain’s conceptual art pioneers. He has edited Control Magazine, published by his own press, since 1965. The magazine is used as a forum by artistic positions that grapple with contemporary societal developments. At the same time, it enables them to link up with other disciplines, such as social and computer sciences. Willats’ critical position with regard to the limitations of art institutions—in particular, their one-sided communication structures(among other things) —led him to the development of participatory projects, in which participants are motivated to actively confront their own living situations, perceptions, behavioral patterns, desires, and frustrations. In this, he consciously works with different groups within society, for example, in “Man from the Twenty First Century” (1969-1970) and “West London Social Resource Project” (1972-1973). In many of his works, the artist’s interest is on the relationship between inhabitants and the architectural context; primarily modernist high-rise complexes—such as those in West Berlin (for example, in “Wie ich entdecke, dass wir von anderen abhängig sind“, 1979-1980). Willats often uses interviews and surveys and asks the inhabitants of entire residential neighborhoods about their living environments. He frequently presents the results of these analytical works in the form of diagrammatical display boards, which points to the theoretical background of his work, anchored in issues from the fields of communication and system-theory. With regard to distinguishing his working methods from those of sociological studies, Willats emphasizes that his works do not aim at collecting data with regard to a pre-formulated research goal, but instead, at allowing participants to gain greater insight into themselves.