Visual Automatic No.5 is a large, horizontally oriented box-type construction that is mounted on a wall. Much of the exterior of the work is painted black, but set into it, at the centre-left of the composition, is a white rectangular area, part of which is on the same plane as the black box’s front and part of which is recessed into it, the two being connected by a sloping surface. A yellow plastic disk is housed to the bottom of the flat left-hand portion of the white area and a blue plastic disk of a similar size is located to the top of the sloping area, and behind each disk is a light bulb. Eleven blue metal strips set into the recessed white area lead the viewer’s eye towards the right, to another rectangular section that is bordered at one end by a yellow Perspex sheet that conceals a further light bulb. A blue and white geometrical object is placed close to this light source and is connected to a concealed motor which enables it to rotate and diffuse the light coming from behind the yellow plastic across the surface of the construction. The glossy sheen of the white-painted plywood increases the play of this light across the surface. Each of the lights in the work is connected to an unseen circuit board and flash in a series of random computer-generated sequences.
Visual Automatic No.5 was produced in 1965 by the British conceptual artist and sculptor Stephen Willats in his studio in Paddington, London. It is one of a series of six sculptures that Willats created in the mid-1960s, each of which have the title Visual Automatic or Visual Field Automatic followed by a number. The design and planning process for Visual Automatic No.5 is laid out in a series of preparatory ‘worksheets’ made by Willats that are also owned by Tate (see Worksheet for Visual Automatic No.5, No.1 1965, Tate T11831, Worksheet for Visual Automatic No.5, No.2 1965, Tate T11832, Worksheet for Visual Automatic No.5, No.3. 1965, Tate T11833, and Worksheet for Visual Automatic No.5, No.4 1965, Tate T12025).
This sculpture and another in the series owned by Tate, Visual Field Automatic No.1 1964 (Tate T11786), are examples of Willats’s early object-based work that explores the relationship between art and social behaviour. The artist first became interested in this when working as a gallery assistant at the experimental Drian space in London in 1958–61, at which time he has said he ‘began to wonder what would happen if you introduced a random variable which upset [the viewers’] model of certainty’ (quoted in Mallen 2005, p.2). Following this, in the two years prior to the construction of Visual Automatic No.5, Willats studied on the experimental Groundcourse at the Ealing School of Art in London, which encouraged a multidisciplinary approach to art practice through the understanding of semiotics, learning theory, the behavioural sciences and cybernetics (the study of mechanical, physical, biological, cognitive and social systems).
In Visual Automatic No.5 the random sequences of flashing lights may provoke the viewer to impose some order or pattern on the flashes. At the same time, the blue and white metal object in the centre of the structure is programmed to rotate approximately ten times per second, a speed which reflects the frequency of the brain’s alpha rhythms – those that occur when an individual is awake but mentally at rest. The sculpture therefore has a dual effect on the viewer: an unpredictable flashing that causes the brain to try to order and comprehend stimuli, and the repetitive diffusion of light by the metal oscillator that encourages relaxation. In 2005 Willats reflected that
these visual automatics, alpha rhythm perceptual works, gave rise to the feeling that the conventional role of the artist was redundant and inappropriate to the cybernetic world and, for a time, I renamed myself as ‘conceptual designer’, trying to change the inner fabric of society, with vehicles for people to transform their self-organising potential.
(Willats in Mallen 2005, p.4.)
Visual Automatic No.5 was first displayed in 1966 in the group exhibition Undefined Situation at the Howard Roberts Gallery, Cardiff.
George Mallen, ‘Stephen Willats: An Interview on Art, Cybernetics and Social Intervention’, Page Sixty: Bulletin of the Computer Arts Society, Spring 2005, pp.1–7.
Emily Pethick, ‘Stephen Willats, Chronology 1958–69’, Raven Row, London 2014, http://www.ravenrow.org/texts/54/, accessed 5 December 2014.
Alex Sainsbury, ‘Stephen Willats, Introduction’, Raven Row, London 2014, http://www.ravenrow.org/texts/54/, accessed 5 December 2014.
Supported by Christie’s.