SIGCIS 2010 Workshop Works in Progress

Name:Sharon Irish

Institutional Affiliation:Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


Paper Type:Work in Progress

Paper Title:Meta Filter: Coming to Agreement with Interactive Computer Technology

Paper Abstract:Stephen Willats (b. 1943) is a London-based artist who has been creating cybernetically-informed projects about self-organized systems since the 1960s. In 1975, following two years of collaborative work with an electrical engineer, Derek Aulton, and close contact with Gordon Pask’s System Research, Inc., in Richmond (UK), Willats first exhibited Meta Filter, an interactive system for two participants. The installation consisted of a console with screens on opposite sides and a processor connected to a slide projector that adjusted the images displayed depending on previous responses. The two operators (as they were called) were not visible to each other but worked simultaneously to come to agreement on describing the images. This paper proposes to place Meta Filter and related works by Willats into a genealogy of installations that explored computer-mediated human collaboration. Willats’ goal was to build consensus among people using a customized mechanical system as the catalyst.

In addition to Meta Filter’s place in human-computer interactions (this is especially where I would like input from the SIG), this art work also had two immaterial aspects worth exploring: the inclusion of nontraditional audiences in a technologically sophisticated art setting, and the compilation of descriptive words about emotions on which people were to come to agreement. Contemporary author Richard Cork recommended visiting Meta Filter with a total stranger, “preferably someone with a different social background who could vigorously contest all your responses and oblige you to take into account a way of thinking you might never have encountered before.” Through Meta Filter and related projects, Willats explored how people responded to visual cues seen in the images, creating a “communication network.” Willats’ art was one interpretation of group-performance studies of social psychologists like James H. Davis.

This paper relies on an examination of archival materials at the Tate Britain, an interview with the artist Stephen Willats and published writings by Ross Ashby, George Mallen, Pask, Cork and Willats. Secondary sources include The Cybernetic Brain by Andrew Pickering, as well as writing by other sociologists and social psychologists. This research is part of my larger project on second-order cybernetics and 1970s art in Britain and the United States.

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