UVA and the Light Fantastic

As part of our series of profiles on imagemakers working with light, published in association with Aurea by Philips, Paula Carson interviews UVA. Shown above: A glimpse of UVA’s live show, which they have been performing since 2005.
Matt Clark, Chris Bird and Ash Nehru formed United Visual Artists in 2002. Using bespoke software, LED, projection technologies and traditional lighting they create real-time, immersive, responsive experiences and environments for clients and collaborators in the music and fashion industries, as well as installation art, interiors and music videos.

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As part of our series of profiles on imagemakers working with light, published in association with Aurea by Philips, Paula Carson interviews UVA. Shown above: A glimpse of UVA’s live show, which they have been performing since 2005.

Matt Clark, Chris Bird and Ash Nehru formed United Visual Artists in 2002. Using bespoke software, LED, projection technologies and traditional lighting they create real-time, immersive, responsive experiences and environments for clients and collaborators in the music and fashion industries, as well as installation art, interiors and music videos.

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Stage visuals from 100th Window. The show explored digital representations of information, from stock-market prices to weather reports, creating a ‘picture of now’ that translated into 36 languages for the Massive Attack 2003 World tour.

UVA’s first joint commission was to create stage visuals for Massive Attack’s 100th Window tour. Their response was an immense LED screen, displaying live data centre stage throughout each performance. Information was updated daily and included geographical details about the venue of each concert, along with current news headlines, messages from fans and statistical data.

UVA continued to break new ground for band Basement Jaxx’s Kish Kash tour: here they developed a rhythmic, video-based show that included purpose-shot video, live cameras and real-time abstract patterns, all locked to the beat of the music. They have also developed on-stage visuals for bands such as U2 and Travis plus promos for bands Colder and Battles. Though known primarily for their work in the music industry, their portfolio includes fashion clients such as Prada and Hamish Morrow, plus non-commercial projects such as the installation Volume at the V&A; Echo at the Tate Modern and Hereafter, a video installation exhibited at Belsay Hall Castle in Northumberland. As UVA approaches its fifth birthday, CR catches up with founder Matt Clark.

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Hereafter, A video installation at Belsay Castle that uses a high speed camera to create a live history of the space, mixing previous recorded interactions, objects and people.

Creative Review: When CR last profiled UVA, the line up there was simply Matt Clark, Chris Bird and Ash Nehru. It’s a lot bigger than that now. Tell us about how and why the company has expanded.
Matt Clark: Yes, we are nearly five years old as a company and 12 strong now. After the success of the first Massive Attack tour we had an influx of interesting projects that came our way, and we initially used freelancers to help cope with the workload. The problem was that we have quite an unusual working process that takes time to understand, so we eventually decided to take on people full-time, so that we could nurture talent and implement it on more than one project at a time.

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A permanent installation in London night club Kabaret’s Prophecy. The curving, LED wall is the main source of light in the club and imagery on it can evolve from serene ‘digital wallpaper’ to rhythmic graphic visuals

CR: Tell us about your working process. What does an average working day in the life of UVA entail?
MC: There is no such thing as an average day at UVA, although sometimes I wish there was. The process ultimately depends on the project at hand. At the beginning of a project most of the team will get together to throw ideas around. We then set up smaller teams to work on the projects they’re most suited to based on their programming, animation, photography or interaction skills.

CR: Light is an important medium in UVA’s work. What is it about the nature of light that you find so compelling? What does it communicate that other, more traditional media/tools can’t?
MC: Most of our work is live and installation based, whether it’s for live performance or in a gallery context. Light is a very powerful medium, both in its emotive qualities and in the way you can control it to change a physical environment. On the most simple level people are naturally attracted to light: it has kind unexplainable magical quality.

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CR: What was your first major project involving light?
MC: I would say the first Massive Attack shown [above]. We used a huge LED screen to display data: essentially a screen made from thousands of tiny light-emitting diodes. Before that, we mainly used projectors when designing shows. LED is an emissive medium, and produces a distinctive bright and cold look that we were attracted to. It has a power and a mystique that projection can’t match. It also lends itself far better to sculptural applications.

CR: Talk some more about the media you use – which inspires you most?
MC: Producing work requires a mixture of different tools: scribbling on bits of paper; making models out of plastic; visualising and simulating using 3D rendering packages (or our own in-house software), and animating and illustrating using a variety of off-the-shelf software packages. We certainly spend far too much time staring at computer screens, but that’s balanced by lots of honest physical work when the time comes to build the installations.

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UVA’s first foray into video direction: a brand new eight minute promo for Battles track Tonto. The team created a light installation in a barren Welsh slate quarry within which the band performed.

CR: You promised CR an exclusive on your new promo film and cover graphics for the band Battles…
MC: We were approached by Warp films to direct an eight minute promo for Battles. This was very exciting for us, as we have worked on music videos before, but usually creating some sort of installation for another director’s vision. This is the first time we’ve directed a live-action video. The biggest challenge was the fact that it was an eight minute film – a long time in the world of music videos – so we decided to create an interesting environment and document the performance as a unique event. We created a light installation in a barren Welsh slate quarry within which the band performed. The idea is that the light columns represent the tight, almost mathematical structure of their arrangements and that the organic chaos of the landscape represents the sometimes chaotic nature of Battles’ sound.

CR: Are there any projects you could single out that you felt took your work to another level, or that you felt proudest of?
MC: Massive Attack 100th Window Tour, Volume at the V&A and Echo at the Tate Modern.

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Volume, created by UVA and presented by PlayStation and the V&A. Volume is a luminous, interactive installation that responds to human movement in a brilliant display of light and sound.

CR: Tell us about Volume at the V&A. This was a collaboration between yourselves, Massive Attack producer Neil Davidge and Robert Del Naja – how was working with them on this project?
MC: Creating Volume was an amazing experience. We were given total creative freedom to create a three month long installation in the John Madejski garden: the symbolic heart of the building. We wanted to create an ever-changing responsive experience that visitors could influence. So we decided to build a forest-like volume of light and sound consisting of 46 columns of LED, which people could explore in groups or alone. Each column had its own speaker so when the visitors walked through the grid they not only triggered light but also sound. We asked Rob and Neil if they wanted to get involved. They were instantly up for the challenge and created several compositions and soundscapes in their studio. We set up the installation in a warehouse, much like we would to prepare for a live touring show. That’s where the real fun started, programming the final scenes. We pre-visualise and simulate everything we do in great detail, but there’s no way that you can really tell what 46 channels of light and sound feels like until you actually build the installation. When Volume was finally installed at the V&A it was really interesting and rewarding to see how much people enjoyed it. People of all ages and backgrounds seemed mesmerized by the experience. I could have spent hours in the garden, watching people interact with it.

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Echo was a live performance piece that took place in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in 2006 to celebrate a re-hang at the gallery. UVA worked with dance group Mimbre, who performed in front of an eight metre high LED screen. Their movements were captured in 3D using a stereo camera and displayed on the screen in real-time behind them

CR: Tell us about the Echo installation at the Tate Modern.
MC: We were approached to create a performance piece to celebrate the Tate Modern re-hang. We worked with a dance group called Mimbre, they performed in front of an eight metre high LED screen positioned in the Turbine hall. Using a stereo camera, we captured their movements in 3D and displayed them on the screen in real-time behind them. We were then able to manipulate the 3D point cloud and view their virtual image from any angle, which we then sequenced. The camera technology is not supposed to be used in this way, so it produced errors and glitches in the moving images, we thought that it added a beautiful element to the piece and ran with it.

CR: You’ve done a lot of collaborative projects with the likes of photographers Warren du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones, and light artist Chris Levine. Can you tell me about these collaborations and the impact that they have had on your work?
MC: The process at UVA is a collaborative one, internally and externally. Collaborating with the likes Warren and Nick and Chris Levine is always interesting: we come from different backgrounds and disciplines and work in different arenas yet share a common ground in the sense that we’re up for exploring new territory and willing to take risks.

CR: Your work, while often live and experiential, is also very filmic.
MC: We’ve become more aware of the relationship between the work we produce and the context it’s placed in, and of the value of documentation. When the work or event is over, all that’s left is the documentation, so in a sense that’s the final product. Volume was the first piece that we really took some time and money to document properly, and the results showed us that it’s a good way to go.

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LED installation that acted as the backdrop to the music video for Arctic Monkeys’ track Brainstorm. The video was directed by Huse Monfaradi, at Black Dog Films.

CR: Any other outside influences that inspire your work?
MC: Art, design, music, life experiences in general… it’s hard to pick out any one influence. I think subconsciously or not, all artists are influenced by other creative work they experience. I would challenge anyone to say their work was entirely original – it’s simply impossible.

CR: Tell us about your solo show (you recently performed at onedotzero in Taipei, Taiwan).
MC: We have performed our live show all over the globe with onedotzero. We’ve been to some really amazing places – it’s one of the great perks of our work. Even though there’s an evolving structure and narrative to our live performance, we also use the platform to experiment with new ideas and techniques that eventually find their way into our other work. Jude Greenway recently joined us to push the musical elements of the show, we enjoy creating audio visual elements in tandem.

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From Volume at the V&A

CR: Five years ago when you started working on Massive Attack’s 100th Window tour, your work was incredibly ground-breaking and unique. Have you found that the public is increasingly receptive to your work? Do you have imitators now?
MC: I think that the public were generally receptive at the time of the 100th Tour. These days it’s more about getting the right band or client to be receptive to our way of working. The V&A Volume installation was actually sponsored by PlayStation – the fact that they didn’t request that the work be heavily ‘branded’ was really refreshing. Word still got about that they were involved but it was more word of mouth. Hopefully more brands will want to explore this kind of experiential work as opposed to traditional advertising. I am not aware of any imitators of our work, I am sure we may have inspired people to create work using similar mediums and techniques, but that can only be a good thing… flattering at least.

CR: We assume that you’re constantly exploring new technology. Is there a particular piece of new kit that you’re working with at the moment?
MC: We recently made some really cool custom-built motion control camera systems for the Battles film, which was fun. We also have a digital 1000 frames-per-second camera in an installation at Belsay Hall Castle. The project is called Hereafter, and it allows people to see themselves instantly in ultra-slow motion, which can be an uncanny experience.

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LED/3D camera interactive installation prototype developed for Storeage. User’s gestures and motion affect both the visuals and audio.

CR: Are clients generally happy to trust in your exploration of new technologies and new aesthetic? Are they open to exploring ideas and techniques?
MC: Some are, some are not. We try not to implement prototype processes straight into commercial projects. We’ve learnt not to do that the hard way. That’s why we make our own artworks and tour our live show: it’s a good way to prove that a new idea can work. Also, when we have a new idea, it’s hard to visualize it for the client until you have actually made it. That said, many clients explicitly want to be involved in the creation of something new and unique, and we prefer it that way.

CR: I asked you earlier about your working process – what is the group dynamic like at UVA?
MC: The group dynamic is currently really healthy. I think the key is that everyone has his or her particular individual skill but everyone is able to contribute creatively in their own different ways. I kind of see us like a band, we all have our individual instruments to play but have an understanding of how to improvise with each other, it generally feels really fluid.

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Triptych “represents the next phase of uva’s explorations in monumental site-specific led sculpture – three brooding presences that respond to the movements of people approaching them, creating a visceral experience of sound and light.”

CR: What projects have you got coming up?
MC: We’re working on the next generation of our responsive LED installations, going for a more visceral feel. The first work in this series, called Triptych, will be installed in The Hague (as part of the TodaysArt festival), then Paris (for the all-night cultural festival Nuit Blanche) and then Glasgow. We’re also completing our first major permanent architectural lighting installation for Santral Istanbul, an old power station that has been converted into a museum, library and university campus.

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“Santral Istanbul is UVA’s first foray into the world of permanent architectural lighting. Built on the site of the power plant that once supplied the whole region, Santral Istanbul comprises a university campus, library, contemporary art museum and an energy museum in the old turbine halls. UVA created a permanent site-wide interactive lighting system that responds to visitor movements, and can be tuned to muted colours for daily use or bolder looks for special events. UVA also created and presented the graphics and lighting for the launch ceremony, comprising high-intensity beams and large-scale moving projections.”

CR: What are the long term plans for UVA?
MC: We definitely see the future in terms of getting the freedom to push the boundaries in our responsive installation work, whether temporary or permanent, and blending that with elements of live performance to try to find something new. We’re making the transition from working for other artists/musicians to producing works in our own right, while continuing to collaborate with people whose work we love.

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UVA vs Chemical Brothers – Trafalgar Square: “We were commissioned by the ICA as part of their 150th anniversary celebrations to produce a special one-off live collaboration with The Chemical Brothers in Trafalgar Square. Sponsored by Becks, filmed by Channel 4, and entirely unrehearsed, this was a nail-biting but ultimately rewarding project. We augmented the Chemicals’ touring set (designed by Tom Lesh, with visuals by Flat Nose George) with a constellation of powerful lights around the square, and created a set of generative, real-time graphics for the show finale – the tracks Hold On London and crowdpleasers Exit Planet Dust and Block Rocking Beats.”

Other artists featured in this series are Lichtfaktor, Warren du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones, and Chris Levine

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