This interview is presented, in part, to extend the discussions held at the Cybernetics Conference on November 18, 2017 in NYC.

Since 1965, British artist Stephen Willats has self-published Control magazine, a seminal forum for artists’ writings on art practice and social organization. With over 150 contributors throughout its 50-year run, Control has drawn on research from cybernetics, advertising theory, and behavioral science to develop models for how artworks operate in dialogue with an audience and society at large. Last year Willats published the 20th issue of Control, in which he continues to pose incisive questions about the ethics of information systems and networked artistic practice that feel more crucial than ever.

Cybernetics was famously defined by Norbert Wiener as “the scientific study of communication and control in the animal and the machine.” The models of feedback that cyberneticians developed were transdisciplinary from the outset, bridging the worlds of computation and engineering with those of design, art, and counterculture.

According to Anthony Hudek, “It is … Control’s function as a self-determining information network, instead of its content, that makes it truly cybernetic”: while being about networks, the magazine also represents a network in itself. Willats’ choice of title, Control, signals this departure from traditional models of editorial authority, seeking instead to develop a conceptual practice determined by the networked relationships of coordinating agents. Artists’ publishing served as a key means of actualizing these ideas. The magazine has always been self-published, self-funded, and free of advertising, while also attaining a broadly international reach.

The interview that follows focuses specifically on Control’s early years, notable for their iconic cover illustrations by designer Dean Bradley. Released between 1965 and 1970, Control’s first issues mark a period when cybernetic ideas resonated broadly within the visual arts, from Jasia Reichardt’s 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the ICA London, to Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog in California. Willats’ own practice deployed the frameworks that he and his collaborators devised across Control’s pages in a variety of ways, from computer simulations to social and educational projects such as the Centre for Behavioral Art (1972-73). Control is not only a key node within Willats’ body of work; it offers a fascinating toolkit for reconsidering the present status of social hierarchy and networked interaction.

Sarah Hamerman: Could you briefly introduce your thinking about the relationship between cybernetics and Control magazine?

Stephen Willats: Control magazine came about from a particular period of my life in the middle sixties, when I was trying to develop new paradigms for art practice which seemed connected to the world that was emerging. At that time, there was an exciting feeling, that the world we were in was moving forward, becoming more liberated and more socially self-responsible. It was a rejection of the idea of determinism. The early 1950s was still characterized by determinist thinking, but in the late ‘50s people began to develop other models that established many aspects of the world we live in today. The idea of fluidity, the idea of complexity, the idea of relativity, the idea of randomness, and entropy. But what was interesting at that moment was the notion that the world isn’t simple, as presumed in a reductive sort of society, an object-based society of property and possessions, where the self is treated as an object. This is a kind of reductist [view], and was associated with competitive modes of behavior. There was emerging this idea that the world was actually complex, and within the complexity of the world there were more variables, more richness, more possibilities to develop new paradigms for society.

Amongst all that was the idea that we needed new tools to create a dynamic picture of this new world, we needed tools to model it. And cybernetics was a modelling tool. It was a means of creating philosophical reductist pictures of a world that didn’t yet exist. It can be descriptive, in that it can describe what’s there, but it can also describe what’s possible. In that time, especially in Europe, there was a legacy that had been handed down to us, which put you in a box. In fact, it was kind of claustrophobic. That box was called the artist and the gallery. Pictures hung on walls and you stood in front of them, to put it crudely. [It] was a transmission situation [that functioned] a bit like a radio. If you think of the radio, I always think of the radio as last-century thinking. It comes out of the 19th century [idea] of transmission. There’s a transmitter and there’s a receiver, and in the traditional modus operandi of the artist and the picture, that’s the same modus operandi, really. In contemporary life—it wasn’t true 500 or 600 years ago, but that’s what it had become. We felt that we were in a straitjacket.

So I decided to kind of go back to zero to rethink the whole thing, and I stopped calling myself an artist. I had to find a new name for this this new creative person in this new society. At that point we were thinking laterally all the time. We were making lateral connections between other disciplines and other specializations. [H]ierarchical societies’ use knowledge as a means of power [rather than an] elevative mechanism. We wanted to break that all down. We were talking about one-layer networks, the idea that information was completely available through a network.

Like a floating baseline—everytime a node in the network received information, there was complete coupling to all other nodes…

So I stopped calling myself an artist. I wanted to look at all means of communication within society to take what I could from everywhere I could, and reformulate it into a new way of operating. I needed a new title for myself, so I called myself a Conceptual Designer. As a Conceptual Designer I did various things. One of them you might know about, I developed Multiple Clothing. I wanted to intervene in the fabric of society directly. Not just sit inside a box, but to move freely within the interpersonal infrastructure of society. To create the means of people transforming their own sense of reality and identity and vision of the future. I also made self-organizing furniture.

The other thing that I got involved in was educational programs. Education was a great means of developing ideas. Working with a group of students you could develop in a free environment where you could create really radical ideas and models. I was lucky, I got a whole year with a group of students and I created this course where there was no difference between staff and students and all the work was cooperative and collaborative. There was no individual competitive work. Out of that, I remember there was no way in which we could discuss these ideas and externalize them to other artists or anybody like that. We had the feeling that we were going to places that nobody had ever been before, and yet we had no way of externalizing this to other artists and establishing those philosophical models.

That’s really how Control came about. It was through that need, but it was also part of this idea of the Conceptual Designer. If you look at the first issue of Control it was really an artwork, it wasn’t seen as a magazine. You’ve got a purple spot on the cover and a purple spot on the inside. The idea was that you took the purple spot inside, pinned it on the wall, put a chair underneath it and sat there with the magazine, so there was a connection between the two purple spots, the one on the inside of the magazine, which you put on the wall, and the one on the cover of the magazine. It was a kind of philosophical idea.

We had all sorts of names that we were thinking of for the magazine, but in the end, I settled on Control because, for one it’s a polemical word, and it’s pivotal in denoting different models of society. For instance, the common idea of control is of a hierarchical, top-down deterministic system, like you might get in the military or something like that. Our society is more or less like that here, but there are other models of control. The control that we were interested in was the idea of self-organizing, homeostatic, one-layer systems. The idea of networks between people. In a way we were entering, shall we say, free flowing, totally flexible models of relationships really, which has got us into a lot of trouble, but anyway…


At that time, in 1965, as an artist, or Conceptual Designer, I was looking at models of advertising. I got very involved in advertising theory, and I thought coupling this with cybernetics was interesting. I mean, you have to think that cybernetics at that time was strongly associated with determinism. The philosophical models developed in the late ‘50s had been appropriated pretty rapidly by all sorts of organizations which had the financial support for development of further ideas. You had this crazy situation when I was at Systems Research, with people developing far reaching speculative models, but the contract they had was with the police or something like that. It was wholly unsatisfactory. But I realized that these same models could be used in quite a different way, to liberate the person. Instead of as a Pavlovian outcome, it could be quite different. In fact, you could connect with learning theory and with advertising theory, especially the idea of multi-channel feedforward heuristics in advertising, which I got involved in, time-based strategies of presenting and acquiring information. Again, these ideas from advertising had a deterministic outcome, but the same theories could be applied to quite a different outcome.

The outcome that I was interested in was the idea of self-organization. Transformation in the self, or creative potential of the self, so that anybody could create their own being in relation to other people. I was interested in society. I see that there’s a richness in relationships between people, community. That was Control magazine, really. It was the idea to set up a mechanism for people to externalize models of their practice in a society, in a community. There wasn’t anything like that around at all.

I managed to get theoretical models out of these advertising agencies. I met a guy called Dean Bradley and he’d come from New York to London. He was associated with the Pushpin agency. He came to London and he wanted to set up an agency here, which he did, it turned into a very well known agency. He became a friend of mine, and he did the graphics for the first issue. Dean was really only associated with issue number one, but then we carried on the same aesthetic for a while.

SH: My second question is about how these ideas of self-organizing systems and flat hierarchies played into your approach to distribution. I notice how you positioned yourself as an editor over the first several issues seems to have evolved. I wonder if you could talk about the idea of distribution and the role of the editor.

SW: In the first issue, there was no mention of an editor’s name or anything. And there was also no date, no address or anything. The idea was that it was free-floating, independent of time. I guess that we were kind of right in that idea, because if you get hold of Control number one it seems just as relevant now as it did when we created it.

This was the idea, but I soon found out that I was contravening all sorts of laws and I could be prosecuted, so I had to put a name and I had to put an address on it. So if you get issue number 2 you’ll find there’s an address, and there’s an editor called Stephen Willats.

That was a legal thing. But then the magazine went through various developments, it evolves, and it is still evolving. The magazine evolves as the world we live in evolves or changes. That period, years one to five, also had its own evolution. Issues number two and three were made up of artist that were groping towards something, but hadn’t quite got there, some of them.

There was a characteristic of this period in the sixties that there was quite a big gap between what people wanted and what they could do. This is not only in art, but also in science. You had the idea in cybernetics of people philosophically postulating different models of organization, but they didn’t have the engineering skills or hardware to replicate those ideas. They could only demonstrate them in a very crude way. For instance, I was building computers in this period, building simulation works, but when I look at the things that I built, they were very simple, very crude, really. But at the time they seemed to demonstrate an idea, or they presented an idea. It wasn’t until the ‘70s, when cybernetics and so on became rather unfashionable, and the engineers of this world picked it up, that things started to really move. It took a long while for the engineering to catch up with the ideas.

And the same was true of artists working. In my opinion, there’s a discrepancy between the manifestation of the art practice and the actual theory—their intention and performance, shall we say. And that’s something, looking back at it, that you can recognize, but at the time we didn’t quite realize it.

The actual magazine existed within a community of people here in London, but the magazine was, right from the start, totally international. It went throughout the world. In America for instance, it was available through Printed Matter, the Jean Brown Archive, and other places. It went to Europe, it didn’t go to the far East. We printed 500 copies, there’s 500 people in the world that take Control magazine. Every time we tried to increase it from 500, like when we printed 700, we have still got 150 of that particular issue. Originally, here [in the U.K.] in the 60s and early ‘70s, there grew up a whole network of small bookshops. There were lots of individual bookshops, they’ve all disappeared, they don’t exist anymore because of very high property prices and all the rest of it. The distribution was very ad hoc, but the organization was down to me. I produced it on my own ever since, really. I had help, and some artists came and helped me. The cover was all printed by silkscreen in my studio. It was handmade, really.


SH: I was really curious noticing the switch from the silkscreen covers to the later covers, which are offset printed. As you mentioned before, the first issue was really conceived as an artwork and that spirit carried through the first few. But by the sixth issue there’s this shift to a more rigorous discussion of the theories of cybernetics, so I wanted to ask about the progression toward more discussion of theoretical models, as well as the visual aesthetic of the magazine.

SW: At the end of the sixties there was a big shift in consciousness, really, and the discussion of it. Certainly there was a big shift in the nature of art practice. I always characterize it as a move away from phenomenology into a referential system. For instance, artists started using photography, and other ways of encoding reality. There was a move towards almost a kind of paranoid discussion of meaning. The idea of the meaning of meaning of meaning and people felt that they had to justify their practice, which was quite good. I’ll tell you what it was about—it was all about self-responsibility. The theory began to develop towards the idea that the artist should be responsible for the ramifications of their practice on the viewer or the participant or society or the community.

This notion of self-responsibility meant that the artist would need a model of practice where there was an interconnection between the audience, the language, the meaning, the intention, and the context and presentation. This meant that the strategies that the artist employed, or should we say, the artwork, was a result of the interconnections between these things.

When you think about, it the audience is more important than the artist. It was that realization which I had about 1958 when I was developing my first models of feedback. The artist was in a relationship with someone else, the audience, and it was the audience that created the validation—well it actually created the existence of the work of art. People thought that was bonkers at the time, but not so much now. There was a complete shift, and people started to look at the idea of justification and so on. It also resulted in a change in language, that’s what I am trying to get at. So the magazine actually responded automatically.

Also, the whole thing gets done on a shoestring. I typed it all up myself. It’s all hand done. I had a big IBM Executive typewriter here, which I had to sit and type, and justify the type. They said it looks like it was printed, you know. It’s interesting. There was this kind of evolution of ideas in the sixties where things were quite different from the seventies. Basically, I’d say it was characterized by the idea of phenomenology of experience in the work of art, and the language there is different. I suppose it came to a head in about 68 to 69 with the occupation of universities, and the politics of that period.


SH: That was a great answer. I’m glad you touched on the politics of the period shaping the magazine, as well as this awareness of political concerns manifested through language and systems of signification broadly and internationally within artists’ networks.

SW: Control magazine never existed entirely on its own. It was always connected to events. For instance, when we did Issue number 6, we worked with the Centre for Behavioral Art. And then there was the issue that was connected to our project Cognition Control, where in the town of Nottingham, some 20 artists simultaneously developed projects that involved the community and self-organizing structures. Imagine a whole small town, with all these different artists simultaneously presenting projects, it had a big impact on life there. We produced Issues Ten and Eleven of the magazine in conjunction with that event.

Then there were the things we did at the musicians’ collective, and the Art Creating Society Symposium we put on at MoMA, Oxford, which was the core of Issue Fourteen, and so on. Every issue had some set of seminars, or a conference, or a set of events that accompanied the presentation of the magazine. And in the sixties, around Issues One, Two, and Three, there was a connection with the ICA here in London. I had a friend, John Sharkey who used to work there. Control and the ICA weren’t formally affiliated, but the magazine was part of events, and it had a sort of currency. And as you can see, there was no advertising. We wanted to make this magazine, and it’s still like this to this day, it’s independent of everything. It’s just texts by artists that are looking at society, and different ways of operating within that society to transform it, to change it. To give people the feeling that they can create their own visions of the future. It’s always been independent and it’s just untainted by any grants or anything other than the act of exchange where somebody buys it.

SH: Before we finish, I wanted to quickly return to your work with Gordon Pask and Systems Research in the 1960s. Are there ways that working at Systems Research shaped your art practice at the time? What relationship did it have with the magazine, if any?

SW: Well, the magazine came after. But obviously it did have some sort of relationship. Cybernetician George Mallen, who actually came by here yesterday, is in Control, Issue Six. Well, I thought as an artist that all strategies should be considered, and these inherited strategies that had come from the fifties, were redundant. They had no validity in this new world. Also there was this element of the idea of craft in traditional art practice. I stopped painting in 1963. I saw that art practice was only a means toward presenting intention.

I thought that there were all kinds of territories within society that were concerned with communication and concerned with relationships between people and things like that. I thought that I should travel to every possibility. I had the opportunity to go to Systems Research as a lowly assistant, a lab assistant on the machine. While I was there I got involved with a lot of great people, and listened to what they had to say. It was a learning experience there.

I was at Ealing [College of Art] with Roy Ascott, and Gordon Pask had given a talk there—he was talking about feedback and the things that Gordon Pask is famous for, and nobody understood a word of what he said. And when I heard that they were looking for people to come in and work on these machines of his, I sort of whipped straight round and went in there. At Systems Research and the National Physical Laboratories I started building my own simulations in 1967 and Peter Whittle, I think it was, who used to work there, helped me with that, and I met George Mallen, who helped me develop different models. I was also connected to the NPL, Christopher Evans and Stuart Pound helped with the computer programs for the Edinburgh Social Model Construction Project in 1973, all sorts of people, really. I didn’t see any boundaries that you had to be constrained by in any way. What I was interested in was this relationship between artist and audience, a transformative relationship.

One thing I would say, I expect you’re aware that cybernetics sort of disappeared from view, and as I explained a bit before, the engineers of this world quietly sort of took it over. I don’t know if you’re a McLuhanite or not, but if you look at the idea of the fabric of things containing ideology, that was what happened with the development of the PC. Cybernetics almost got a bad name through its association with military and determinism and repression and so on. And I don’t know if you’re aware of its connection with fascism. Personally, I was appalled.

The thing I wanted to say just before I close up, is that I did feel that there was a sort of fetishization of cybernetics from a new generation, a sort of nostalgia for something that is gone. You see, it was just a modeling tool. It was a good modeling tool, but it wasn’t a perfect modeling tool, because it was a transduction—you had to go down to go up. Cybernetics let you take a complex structure and make a simple representation.

Cover: Figure 1. Diagram shows the position an art work traditionally occupies between the artist and his audience. Two fundemental discrete cognate loops are shown, which are isolated from each other by the art work. There is no form of interaction between the two which could generate mutual understanding as would be the case in a successful conversation. In the absence of such a procedure both the audience and artist become locked in their own perceptual biases.

Figures 1, 20, 21, from The Artist as an Instigator of Changes in Social Cognition and Behavior by Stephen Willats, 1973, re-issued by Occassional Papers, 2010, and included in the Cybernetics Library collection.

Recent issues of Control magazine are available for purchase directly from the artist at Early issue cover images reproduced courtesy Stephen Willats.

We would also like to express our sincere thanks to Stephanie Willats for her generousity and patience throughout the editorial processes.

Further Reading

Willats, Stephen, and Alex Sainsbury. Control: Stephen Willats: work 1962-69. London: Raven Row, 2014. Catalogue essays also available at

Willats, Stephen, Anja Casser, and Andrew Wilson. Stephen Willats - Art society feedback. Nürnberg: Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2010.

Willats, Stephen. The artist as an instigator of changes in social cognition and behaviour. London: Occasional Papers, 2011.

Willats, Stephen. Artwork as social model: a manual of questions and propositions. Sheffield: Research Group for Artists, 2012.

Willats, Stephen. Publishing interventions: Stephen Willats, 1965-1991. London: National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1991.

Brown, Paul. White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.

Reichardt, Jasia. Cybernetics, art and ideas. London: Studio Vista, 1971.