The story goes like this: in March 2003, right after the beginning of the Iraq war, British group Massive Attack came to Japan for their “100th Window” world tour. At the show, opening act DJ Shadow made an anti-war comment and Massive Attack had a moment of silence for the victims. A huge LED board behind them showed the number of casualties and messages people had submitted to their website. The whole venue managed to transform the tense international situation to visual and sound, thus becoming quite an experience for many. Today PingMag finally met the guys behind that memorable show back then, United Visual Artists (UVA). They happened to come to Tokyo for the UK interactive design exhibition RESPONSIVE and Joel Lewis and eventually Chris Bird loved to explain their amazing light works.
Written by Chiemi
With kind cooperation of the British Council
So, first to Joel – can you tell us what you do and how you joined UVA?
I’m an interaction designer of UVA. After receiving my MA on interaction design at RCA, I went to Beneton’s creative lab Fabrica in Italy. I first discovered UVA’s work for a fashion show on Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio and it totally blew my mind. It was completely amazing! UVA was quite secretive then but one day I got the contact of UVA’s founder Matt Clark. I started to send him emails and kept annoying him – and finally I joined UVA in January 2005! Only two weeks later I then flew to Vancouver for my first music tour with U2…
That is impressive! I have seen a few of your works, but still I can not forget the first time I saw your visuals for the Massive Attack tour in 2003.
That was the first job UVA did for them. London-based creative studio Hi-Res! set up the tour website and UVA were in charge of the stage visuals. On the website you could leave the messages to be displayed on a specific date on stage during the tour. It was all generated in real time by our original software, so that we could do it in 38 kinds of local languages. Rather than being passive, the audience could be a part of the show too. The band was political and we tried to make things more clear by showing statistical numbers like the casualties of the war.
At the RESPONSIVE exhibition in Tokyo, you showed a piece called “Monolith”, which was also made with LED. I heard that the name came from the famous black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. What was it for originally?
Monolith was originally made for Onedotzero‘s Transvision night at V&A in February 2006. So, it was installed only for one night. They asked interaction designers to pick a part of the V&A location and make an art piece responding to it. But when we went down to the V&A and walked around, we thought we aren’t good enough to compete with other people’s work because they were all ancient and incredible pieces after all. So we chose the John Madejski Garden. We decided to make a piece in contrast to V&A, which was something like an alien piece of technology with some personality. This one is almost aggressive, but if you stand right in front of it it plays peaceful music to reward you for your bravery.
One of your recent masterpieces called “Volume” is very similar to the “Monolith”, isn’t it?
Volume is the one we exhibited in November 2006 for 3 months. It was commissioned by Play Station for their Play Station 3 launch event in the UK. We took what we learnt from Monolith and made something visually beautiful, with strong audio. It consists of 46 columns of lights, each equipped with a speaker, so that there are 46 channels of sound. It uses a camera system to track everyone that moves through the installation and responds to him in a different way. We commissioned Massive Attack to do the audio.
I have seen the “Volume” only on photos, but it surely seems to be an unforgettable piece of work. What was the brief from Play Station?
Of course, Play Station didn’t want a work that obviously looks like promotion for a particular Sony product. They wanted something that gave people a similar experience you could get from the technology involved with Play Station. It was to be a very emotional experience. So they were quite happy that we gave them something people would remember.
The most amazing thing was that people started taking lots of images. If you go to Flickr and type “Volume”, you will see so many photos of the installation. Today, when you walk around as an adult, nothing is really surprising or new anymore. But you can remind people of experiences they had as a child, and that can be very powerful.
When looking at your work, there seems to be a strong impulse with LED lights… [Then, one of the UVA founders Chris Bird finally appears and joins the chat.]
Chris: Actually we don’t always use LED. But we do prefer it as display for projection. For me, projectors are reflecting technology, because when you throw beams at a wall or a screen, the display is softer and has less impact. However, LED is more sculptural because you can take sections of circuit boards with rays of LED and arrange them in different ways. It’s adaptable and you can use it in more ways.
How about the inside system? I heard that both the Monolith and the Volume use the same software developed by UVA.
Joel: We always use the same software – not just for the Monolith and the Volume, for the installation piece Echo at U2′s show, too. For the music video for Colder we used a stereoscopic camera, but it is still based on the same technology.
Chris: Our software is modular, which means we can plug bits in and take bits out if necessary. For example, with the Monolith we used a certain kind of camera input but the volume required a different camera. So we wrote a little bit of code which allowed to receive from different inputs.
I’m very surprised that all your works are based on one software. So does anyone else know about it…?
Joel: No. It’s all very secret…
I see… Now we are eager to hear about your next projects?
Chris: We’ve got a number of installations which are in a process – all of which is based on non-LED technology.
First one is a project called Here After, which is going to be installed in a castle owned by the British Heritage in Northern England. Several artists’ installations will be exhibited artists during a period of 6 months. Because this one is a very unusual gallery with a long history, we are again planning a piece that responds to the location: we decided to create a portrait mirror, which is actually a high-definition plasma screen with a special camera hidden inside the frame. The camera has the capability of recording 1 000 frames per second. Which means when you play back the images of one second, they take 40 seconds to show. Concerning the technique behind, there is a computer attached which records in slow-motion, and it plays scenes back and blend its past with the present. So if you go to the exhibition and look at the mirror, you will see the person who was there a day ago or so. We want to make people think about what history is.
Joel: Another piece that uses a plasma screen in a portrait format and presents sound responsive piece is presented by our designer, James Medcraft. This is for the “Pixelache” festival happening right now in Helsinki, Finland.
Chris: Right now, we are also doing an installation called Sacred at the British Library. It will be for an exhibition of rather important religious texts gathered together from the three main monotheistic religions Judaism, Islam and Christianity. It is the very first time all of these scrolls and books are assembled together in one place. We were invited to create a light sculpture which gives people a moment to pause and think about the nature of sacredness and religion. The concept is about infinity and purity. For that, we are installing a gateway to walk through featuring two parallel walls which are actually semi-transparent mirrors with a camera sensor. If it would be dark and you’d walk in, you would be be able to see your own reflection. But actually you don’t see it because the strong lights behind the glass erase your reflection and you see just the pure white wall.
All your works sound so interesting – but what surprises me most is there are obviously many opportunities for interactive artists in the UK. I doubt we have that many in Japan yet.
Chris: There are many artists and also galleries for these kinds in the UK. And there is a lot of funding including private money to support artists too.
Joel: I think, London is the center of these interactive scenes at the moment. Interactive work is not yet as common as other art forms – but it will be in the future. It’s a slow process but we are really glad to be a part of that.
So what are you planning for the future?
Chris: We would like to keep challenging new things.
Joel: We also want to do a project for permanent architectures, huge sculptures and public spaces by using our technology. Also, we want to make interactive products which will be in people’s everyday life – to add a little sparkle and magic.
Many Japanese artists are really excited about you visiting Japan. Any messages for them?
Joel: Thank you so much for welcoming us. We’d like to see your work too!
Chris: We specially would like to communicate with architects who are interested in creating permanent pieces with us. Also, we want to do an exhibition with British and Japanese interactive artists.
Chris and Joel from UVA, thank you so much! We are really looking forward to see more of your work here in Tokyo!