By: Betty Wood
Creating 'Other Spaces' - 15 years of United Visual Artists
Something otherworldly is occurring in the bowels of London’s 180 The Strand: celestial lights have taken up residence in the brutalist building, swinging hypnotically as they perform a spiritual ballet inside one of its darkened concrete spaces.
This ‘alien inhabitant’ is artwork, ‘Our Time’ – one of three giant digital installations that make up United Visual Artists’s retrospective Other Spaces. The trio of works take visitors on a mind-bending and quasi-spiritual experience inside the building and have been staged to celebrate 15 years of UVA’s immersive practice, spanning the intersections of fashion, design, music and art.
Massive Attack - Heligoland Tour World Tour, 2008. Courtesy of UVA
Music was my passion – but I was no good at it,’ explains co-founder and director Matthew Clark, who established United Visual Artists with Chris Bird and Ash Nehru as a way to collaborate with musicians and performance artists. Clark studied fine art and communication design at college, specialising in sculpture and video installations.
‘What I was really interested in was time-based experiences’, Clark says, noting this reference point runs throughout UVA’s work in the last 15 years.
Courtesy of UVA
The collective got its first ‘big break’ when they teamed up with Bristol band Massive Attack in 2003 to create the stenographic stage elements for the group’s 100th Window Tour, combining mixing typographic information with video art and light.
More than merely a backdrop, these elements were designed to challenge the brain’s perceptional limits, working with the music and lighting elements to shape the experience of time on stage. It was a theme that would quickly come to typify UVA’s work.
Volume, London / Hong Kong / Taiwan / Melbourne / St Petersburg / Paris, 2006. Courtesy of UVA
This early experimentation with stage design set the scene for what would become UVA’s first major public commission at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Volume (2006) comprised 48 light columns, equipped with their own sound source, and arranged in the V&A’s courtyard to create a field of sound. The piece was activated by viewers weaving their way through the stage – creating a unique composition on their journey. The installation has since toured the globe, popping up in Hong Kong, Taiwan, St Petersburg and Melbourne.
Courtesy of UVA
‘Volume was a big turning point for me,’ says Clark. ‘We looked beyond the stage and how we could transform space through light and sound, and how we could allow the audience to be at the centre of the performance.’
Since then, the collective has grown to seven members, with many additional designers, engineers and producers collaborating with Clark’s team to create large-scale, immersive site-specific works.
Other Spaces, commissioned by The Store X The Vinyl Factory, brings together a trio of the collective’s most experimental works that on the surface of things seem thematically disparate. On closer examination, however, they probe the most fundamental human experiences: our understanding of time, perception of space and humankind’s place within nature.
‘Our digital lives are rewiring our brains, so we’re experiencing time faster,’ says Clark. ‘It’s an age of distraction.’
‘Our Time’ reverses this phenomenon by manipulating the viewer’s perception of time. The artwork comprises a series of pendulums that swing out of phase, playing with the process of inference. Previously staged in Hobart (and part of a series of kinetic sculptures that began with ‘Momentum’) the 2019 iteration features an electronic score by Mira Caliz which adds an atmospheric bent to the piece. As the pendulums project light and sound, they distort the perception of the room’s physical confines – and the experience of time within it.
Based on Renaissance perspective drawings by Leon Battista Alberti, Leonardo Da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer, ‘Vanishing Point’ refines and reshapes space using white lasers. These light beams are projected from an invisible vanishing point to create divisions with the mirrored room, challenging the viewer’s sense of perspective.
I’ve always been fascinated with the potential of light to change mood,’ adds Clark. ‘Similar to sound, it has an immediate impact on your emotion.’
‘Vanishing Point’ is an experiment with light architecture and creates the illusion of physical form out of something that has no materiality.
‘There’s something seductive and strange about that sensation, light as a physical form,’ says Clark. ‘The algorithm behind Vanishing Point creates endless, albeit minimal, compositions. There’s an entity to it – it’s trying to understand the space it is drawing.’
‘The Great Animal Orchestra (2019)’ by UVA in collaboration with Bernie Krause. Commissioned by Fondation Cartier . Courtesy of UVA / Fondation Cartier and The Vinyl Factory
While on the surface of things, the artworks within Other Spaces may appear thematically unlinked, all of UVA’s work is concerned with giving seemingly intangible sensations physical form.
‘I’ve always been interested in the limitation of our senses. We have endless debates in the studio about time, ‘how long is a moment, how long is a second?’ The answer is apparently 9,192,631,770 oscillations of a cesium atom in an atomic clock. We can only live in the present right? But the speed of sound reaching the back of the brain is slower than sight – sight is slowed down in the brain to match what we hear, so really, we’re living in the past.’
‘The Great Animal Orchestra’, commissioned by Fondation Cartier, delves into this relationship between sight and sound, which is so limited in humans compared to the broader animal kingdom. Just as importantly, it communicates the effect of industrialisation on nature through the disappearance of sound.
UVA teamed up with musician Bernie Krause on the artwork, who spent 30 years making records and scoring films before studying his PhD in bio-acoustics. Krause spent 40 years making field recordings in the jungle, discovering that when he revisited locations over the years that many species fell off the sonic spectrum.
‘His sound recordings were more revealing than anything you could see,’ says Clark.
Courtesy of UVA / The Store X The Vinyl Factory
‘The Great Animal Orchestra’ illustrates these field-recordings, using a spectrogram to separate the cacophony of noises out into individual frequencies with their own bandwidth. When printed in real-time onto an LED screen, they take on the appearance of a musical score.
Adds Clark: ‘What I wanted to do was take this data and create a landscape out of it, so the viewer can sit in this kind of fabricated reality reflected in a pool of water. Certain frequencies of sound aren’t audible to humans but are to animals. These frequencies fluctuate the water and create ripples.’
Though there’s not a lot of action happening in the space, it has a compelling atmosphere with viewers spending hours immersed in the artwork.
'It's a space for contemplation, where you can reflect on your relationship with the natural world. It's a space that you share with others, the collective experience; this has always been a fundamental part of my practice.'
‘Other Spaces’ is presented by The Store X and Vinyl Factory in collaboration with Fondation Cartier. The exhibition runs at 180 The Strand until 8 December 2019
12-7pm Tuesday – Saturday & 12-6pm Sunday