United Visual Artists have made a habit of the extraordinary
In 2003, for their 100th Window tour, Massive Attack came up with a rather tricky brief. They wanted to put on a show with a heavy visual element, but no video. Matt Clark, Chris Bird and Ash Nehru were the three tasked with designing it. They came from disparate backgrounds; Fine Art, technical production and software design, respectively.
“It was quite an unusual mix, at that time, to have coders and designers and artists working together to create something quite bespoke,” Matt Clark, the artist of the three, and Creative Director of UVA tells us.
“We thrashed around some ideas, and we came up with the idea that all life could be represented through digital information. We could create this window to this world of information that would change on a daily basis. Sometimes it would be localised information, other times more abstracted interpretations of code. To deliver this show, we had to write a piece of software, and that’s where Ash came into the mix. Chris made the physicality of it happen.”
Working together, the three founded and opened a studio, United Visual Artists, which has become known for the kind of high-concept, cerebral spectacle that 100th Window offered.
On the occasion of their 10th anniversary, UVA’s latest installation, Momentum, sees the Barbican Curve space filled with monumental pendulums. Their swing is counterintuitive; it covers two axis, not just left and right but also too and fro.
The pendulums emit white, digital light. It switches, from spot- to under-lighting. The pendulums arrest themselves mid swing. The atmosphere is reverential, and alien. At times the pendulums seem like giant censers – the vessel that holds burning incense, swung during catholic mass – at others, they seem like drones, coldly appraising the audience.
With Momentum drawing to a close, we met Clark to discuss Art, Technology, and the grey area between.
You, Chris and Ash all come from different disciplinary backgrounds, can you talk a bit about the early days of UVA, and how you came to coalesce as a studio?
100th Window was a really successful project for us, so we thought we’d start up our own studio/creative practice, and that was where UVA was born. The creative, artistic and technical collaboration at the beginning of the project was interesting, so we continued with that ethos.
We have quite a diverse group; it’s not that big, but there’s an architect, there’s an interaction designer, there’s an electronics engineer … there’s no two people from the same background or discipline. It allows us to work at the intersection of traditional fields, of both art and design.
I think at the beginning of UVA it was very much about experimenting with technology. Now our practice is much more based on ideas, and the meaning of things; that comes first, and then we find the right ways of exploring those ideas.
Do you think that this intersection of art and technology is a uniquely contemporary thing, or has art always been a testing ground for new technologies?
I think that whatever we [UVA] gravitate towards, in terms of mediums, they’re just mediums – just tools to execute an idea. If Da Vinci was around today, I don’t think he would be necessarily creating oil paintings and pencil, he’d probably be at the cutting edge of using whatever tools he could to explore the idea he wanted to explore.
As well, technology has always been there. Over a very large period of time, new pigments were introduced that really shifted the technical execution of paintings. In contemporary society, there are ideas we explore which are more to do with the relationship between humans and technology as a subject matter. We showed a piece called Origin, in New York, which is what you would call a technocratic lifeform: it’s like a living machine. It’s incredible how you can make people believe that something is conscious or has a personality with very rudimental elements.
At the same time, I guess the one thing that frustrates us when you’re pigeonholed in a group of practices that work with technology is that you’re kind of branded ‘Digital Artists’.
Momentum is driven by software, yes, to control the mechanics and electronics, but the digital aspect is a very small part of a highly complex physical system. We’re just using the tools around us to express the ideas that we’re interested in.
The press for Momentum used the word ‘immersive’ quite a lot. As a studio, you’ve shifted from initially working with a show, with a stage and performers, presenting a spectacle, to immersing the audience within your work. Has that been a conscious movement?
I’ve always been interested in the power of a social experience. Working in an environment where lots of people come together and watch this thing happen was incredibly exciting. Over time, we became more focused on the fine art and sculptural side of things, and we got opportunities to create large-scale public installations to be experienced by visitors, not to just be watched.
What was interesting, with Momentum as well as some of our earlier work, was that you get this thing happening where it’s almost like the public can be a performer, and interact with the work, or be a spectator and watch other people. It was like we dissolved the line between the stage and the audience and allowed the audience to be the performer, in a way.
Momentum was interesting; [the Barbican Curve space] is such a unique space architecturally, you can really control the atmospherics in the room. We wanted people to enter, and be in it. It was about the relationship between the object, the invisible forces of sound and light rebounding off the architecture, and how that makes you feel about time.
We were also following Rain Room, which was very immersive, very powerful. It was also explicitly interactive, which our work isn’t, in that sense. It’s more of a performative piece. Momentum goes in and out of what we call natural and synthesised states. It almost feels like a gravitational force being applied to the space, or time slowing down. It’s both threatening and meditative at the same time.
Momentum is based on the idea of the Foucault pendulum; was this something you as a studio had an interest in exploring before you got the Curve commission, or did it arise directly from it?
It’s a combination of the two. We’d worked with pendulums in the past – we created a piece four years ago called Chorus, which toured the UK. That was more inspired by the metronome, or the relationship between musical score and time.
Then, before the Curve commission came along, we were looking at the Foucault pendulum, which oscillates on two axes. It’s designed to demonstrate the earth’s rotation; the metronome just swings along one axis.
We were experimenting making a single Foucault pendulum ourselves, but one we had absolute control over. We thought it would be interesting to have absolute control, and be able to stop this element in space. Then the Curve commission came along. Our first question was ‘how can we bend light, can we bend light along this curve?’ We came up with a few ideas, but then thought what if we had an array of these pendulums, that we had absolute control over, and what if we designed them in a way that would interact with the architecture, creating a plane of light, which might reveal the architecture itself.
It was creating an object that would penetrate the space, invoke these feelings of time, make us question our perception of it. But, at the same time, have very little physical matter, even though it completely fills the space with sound and light.
In the past we would directly respond to a commission, now we have works we’ve developed in the studio. Over the last few years it’s become more of our process to develop ideas, then if an opportunity comes along we can apply those ideas. The reason for that is so we can create a body of work that explores ideas that relate to each other.
The feeling of the pendulums swinging in the Curve is very alien. It also feels like only a tiny corner of a much bigger system, like there’s something huge happening and this is only one small part of it.
That’s great; when we were first designing compositions for the space we actually drew a massive circle, which completed the curve. There are anomalies, we call them, that follow this huge circle. They come round and penetrate the installation.
I’m not a big fan of the sci-fi connotations that it has, it wasn’t our intention, but it’s a dark, eerie space. The light is very digital, and it’s very controlled. So, I think the environment can change the context; we’re definitely going to show it again in different formations – it’ll be interesting to see what the next evolution of the work will make people think.
It would be fascinating to see it somewhere else. That space is so loaded, and weird!
It’s actually an incredibly challenging space to make a work.
As a group, do you want to keep working on a massive scale?
The challenge for us is actually doing smaller works. It’s a very different discipline; when you design a large-scale installation you can’t afford a super-high level of detail. With smaller works it’s all about the detail, and the ideas need to be more concise because it’s not so experiential. To grow a body of work which operates on a smaller scale is, kind of, the next exploration for us. Some of our works are permanent, and more architectural in scale. It’s nice to design things that are immediate, and aren’t years in the making.
I mean, generally, we’re very happy. It’s always a challenge to make ends meet when you’re doing new stuff all the time; if you’re doing the same thing over and over again it’s a much easier way to make a living, I would expect.
For more information on United Visual Artists, visit uva.co.uk