Reality bytes

ART Stephen Willats Victoria Miro Gallery, Cork Street, London

John O'Reilly
Friday 18 July 1997 23:02

For more than 30 years, Stephen Willats's ethnological art has explored the politics of perception, the ways in which our social spaces and rituals are constructed and experienced. Willats has produced works on an Ipswich housing estate, neighbourhoods around Nottingham, and a tower block in west London. With the veneer of structuralist anthropology that is undermined by a conception of the world as a flux rather than static, his work explores the different ways in which we make complex, creative decisions in everyday situations.

On one occasion, I found myself caked in mud in a field in Roydon, Essex. Taking the Short Cut, Willats's resulting piece, was simply a map and a series of interviews with the locals about how they perceived and used a shortcut. This unofficial route that people had created for themselves traversed the two landscapes of their community: the commuter-belt village and the surrounding farm land.

"Street Talk" at the Victoria Miro Gallery includes a simulated walk called Freezone. Like much of Willats's work, it offers visual models of how we map reality. Two computer consoles (futuristic circa 1970) are separated by large panels on which a thesaurus of possible responses are available to problems presented on the screen. On the screen a scenario appears, involving different symbolic groups of people in a series of situations. A photo of, say, a group standing outside a shop is surrounded by nine blocks of data, for example a weather report, an overheard conversation and a cigarette packet on the pavement. In order to navigate your way from Edgware Road to Oxford Circus, you have to agree with the person on the other console about how the people in the photo feel in this situation. Choosing a word from the thesaurus, you punch in the response. You have six opportunities to agree with your partner on the nature of each open- ended representation.

A philosopher once remarked that the sad thing about artificial intelligence is that it is neither artificial nor intelligent. Willats's Freezone is genuinely interactive, the way that society and everyday life is, and information technology generally isn't. It offers an instructive model of how we negotiate reality collectively. That said, I did the simulated walk with my 15-year-old brother and found myself being dragged down Bond Street by a febrile teenager, only too willing to concede to his perceptions.

The accompanying exhibits Going Home and Taking a Walk are photoworks that similarly explore how we organise and process information. For Going Home, Willats asked eight people to film specific items en route to the Tube: people and the space between them; people and their objects; and institutional signs like underground directions. Willats chops up the film and places each still into a grid. The result confounds the assumption of travel as a purely passive journey, demonstrating an everyday activity as kinetic, fluid and dynamic.

The stills all surround a quotation that is a pastiche of a philosopher's observation on the nature of reality. Like the following burp of pseudo- McLuhan, "What new role is created for you, the media message being applied to all your senses of perception, through the creation of this environmental wrapping." Each piece is a snapshot of urban life as a sensorium of images - blitzing, prodding and kneading us with data. Both Going Home and Taking a Walk have the sheen of scientific cartography, the way in which space is represented as flat through mathematical models. But Willats's maps are more like the spatial stories of medieval maps that represented space via icons surrounded by their legends. If, as geographer Michel de Certeau once remarked, "history begins with footsteps at ground level", "Street Talk" suggests that Willats is a true historian of the pedestrian.

At the Victoria Miro Gallery, 21 Cork St, London W1 to 1 Aug (0171-734 5082)

John O'Reilly

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