Since the early 1960s, the British conceptual artist Stephen Willats has worked with social relations as artistic medium. His exhibition THISWAY– at Index in Stockholm looks to be one in a line of overlooked ‘milestones’ in post-war art history appearing frequently at many art institutions in recent years. But this exhibition actually has its own relevance in that in makes so many of today’s most acclaimed values seem suspect: the local, participation, community, conversation – all framed here in a dubious light!
There are most likely two factors behind this effect. First, Willats’s solid framing of his activity. He starts from a firm conception of what is wrong with people’s lives in art and society (the former reproducing the latter, and therefore forming what Marcuse called an “affirmative culture”, i.e. the opposite of a critical culture). He sees his own art in opposition to this. Second, the fact that Willats, unlike many other overlooked ‘milestones’, still makes the same art as he did early in his career. His methods and graphic profile seem to have been largely the same since 1977–78, and definitely since the early 1990s. His work has possibly acquired greater depth.
For Index, he has worked with three participants from different parts of Stockholm, taking recent changes in their lives as a point of departure: a nurse decided to change career due to difficult working situations, an artist escaped from Iraq and is now trying to re-establish himself in Sweden. Investigating the local from the perspective of change is an interesting approach. Perhaps it has demanded thorough and consistent work over many years to get to the idea of studying this topic from that angle.
The exhibition consists of displays in Willats’s standard manner, showing a portrait of each participant overlaid with pictures of objects that are important to them, and a quote. They have also been asked to film ‘signs’ in their local environment: street signs, advertising, graffiti, and a surprising number of cigarette butts. The displays are placed hanging in the middle of the room, and the films are shown on monitors along the walls. There are also diagrams describing the exhibition space and its surroundings.
It feels a bit sad that we are not to a greater extent allowed to partake of these people’s stories. Even though they have been given a central place in the room, we don’t get to know that much about them. Paradoxically, they are both the most essential part of the project, and of fairly little importance in the exhibition. Then again, the exhibited material should not be understood as documentation, but as “tools” enabling you as a viewer “to look at yourself.” But basically these are the same tools as in my daughter’s scrapbooks: a photo, dotted lines for the name of her friends, a listing of their hobbies and the number of Petshop-figures in their collection. In fact, it’s just like Facebook. If Willats’s tools are based on a method with radical origins, they are now the same as those provided by the market.
Nevertheless, Willats frames his activity in opposition to contemporary art and the prevailing social order. This can probably be explained by the fact that the fundamental analysis of society in his practice does not seem to have changed for some time. Let me quickly list elements that are crucial for Willats, but that today seem obsolete. Why should art enable people? Because we live in an object-based society where people are pacified into inert objects in front of the television. This was Willats’s analysis as recently as last year! The fact that the market has long been described as service-based is left unexamined. That the normativity of neoliberal society, according to researchers and theorists like Luc Boltanski and Eve Chipello, does not operate through pacification, but through the demand for constant activity is not something Willats has taken notice of. And his idea to “externalize the museum into the community, and internalize the community into the museum” has become nothing less than a mantra for today’s politically motivated hostility towards contemporary art and its institutions. How progressive is ‘participation’ in a time when “participatory economics” allows the freezing of wages through a commercialization of private life (for example, by making money on your apartment via Airbnb)?
Finally, ‘the local’: a concept that primarily benefits real estate agents who need to create local neighborhoods in order to raise housing prices. This has shown itself to be injurious socially, as residents of the same large neighborhood begin feeling increased alienation and fear after finding themselves in small ‘local’ environments. Willats could be the artist of real estate agents. Even so, his own conviction in the local is never made palpable. Would he not rather stay home and work from there? A local art project that spans over 50 years – that would be interesting! But the basis for traveling around the world and making people conscious of the local through art can only be messianic, colonial or revolutionary. And Willats is no Che Guevara.
Strangely enough, it is Willats’s stubborn refusal to change that makes this exhibition special, and points to an important aspect missing in his own diagrams, like The World As It Is And The World As It Could Be (2006), which shows how the real world and a possible world constantly run parallel to each other. Willats has only concentrated on the transformation of reality via possibilities, but not the reverse. This is an oversight because although what was possible in the seventies might be equally possible today, the possibilities themselves have changed completely because of the transformation of reality. What was then art’s liberatory potential can today very well be capital’s opportunity to dominate. This is highly relevant in a contemporary art context, where there is a constant search for future opportunities in the recent past.
Willats’s exhibition is important, because it shows what can happen with a subversive method that does not develop and transform. What his art provides today is a historical alibi for the masses who work with participation, activation, the local and the social even though it has become a means towards docility. The suspicion – and this I want to thank the exhibition for – emerges: can it be that this art is precisely what the dominant forces in contemporary society want today?