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Ten years of UVA

Celebrating the art collective who've pushed boundaries for Jay Z and Massive Attack

Today, United Visual Artists (UVA) open an installation at the Barbican Centre’s Curve Gallery, kicking off the Barbican’s Digital Revolution season and coinciding with their 10th anniversary. It’s the perfect way to celebrate a visionary collective that have been so instrumental in pushing boundaries in digital art – whether through abstract installation, music videos or performance, their influence in pushing complex technology in the arts is undisputable.

UVA is an art practice that started ten years ago as three men united under the pseudonym. Since its formation it has evolved into group of 12 members, each with an entirely different skillset: an architect, an interactive designer, an engineer, a creative technologist. UVA’s ethos is ‘to fuse different disciplines at the beginning of the creative process and continue that iterative process through any project’ and their sense of group equity is impressive for a practice that achieves such recognition – as one of the founding members says, “UVA has always been greater than the sum of its parts.” In translation, this means that in spite of working with Jay Z and Massive Attack on gargantuan stage tours, the members broadly remain nameless: there is democratic group authorship, with no sense of individual achievement outside of the collective creativity. 

This communal attitude and organic growth structure has been an essential part of the group since the beginning: there’s been an ethos but there’s never been a grand master plan. The three founding members met “sort of by accident”: one, having just finished a degree in Fine Art Sculpture and Design, was designing a show for Leftfield and met another member of the production team. A few months later, he was asked by 3D of Massive Attack to pitch a non-video visual for their 100th Window tour and came up with the concept of an elaborate representation of how all life could be visualised through data. He got in touch with the man he had met in production to help with the proposal construction, who in turn suggested the involvement of a third man: a coder, who helped put the show together. This is what kicked everything off: “the combination of skills and the overlap felt liberating and seemed to result in quite unique work, so we thought, ‘why not keep this going?’’”

UVA’s latest work, Momentum, is inspired by the Foucault Pendulum, the simple device that swings to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation. “We’re interested in the mechanisms that give us information about forces so much greater than us,” the group say. “The fact that something so simple, like a ball hanging on a string, can tell you about the rotation of the earth is an incredible thing.”

“We took this idea and thought, ‘What if we could apply it to this space but, instead of using an instrument and just watching what it did, what if we took control?’ Maybe if it started as a harmonious, real thing but then we slowed it down, made the air feel more viscose and looked at the tension between the synthesised and the real.” 

Momentum consists of 12 pendulums suspended throughout the 90 metre long gallery, projecting light and shadow whilst simultaneously emitting sound. Standing in the space is a solitary and eerie experience: time seems both frozen and accelerated.  

The beauty of UVA is that the group takes complex philosophical and scientific ideologies and morphs them into immersive graphical experiences that allow for different understandings: one can receive Momentum as antidote to technology’s impact on hyper-consumption or as an elementally powerful piece on the beauty of sound and light. Whilst collaborations with people like Massive Attack have been explicitly political, the message has been delivered, rather than authored, by UVA whose solo pieces are far more abstract and “try to distill things down to their real essence”. Their 2011 commentary on human impact on the environment, High Arctic, was intensely researched and documented – but it physically manifested itself as an audio-visual sense of scale, beauty and fragility rather than a catalogue of stats. It’s that non-judgemental distance that makes the solo pieces so powerful.

There is something deeply charming in the humility of a group who prioritise these “smaller things” as something dearer to them than choreographing Jay Z’s Madison Square Garden visual art, something they dub “design work”, even when the huge audiences they reach sound like a dream-come-true for visual artists. One of their founders quotes Ai Wei Wei: their architectural work solves problems whilst their art creates them. 

But it’s through the process of experimenting with the mediums that commissions require that the practice develops their lines of enquiry; their commercial work and pieces like Momentum and High Arctic are intensely symbiotic: “The other projects were definitely a catalyst to us getting opportunities,” UVA says, “but also being able to produce work of this complexity and on this scale… you can make people feel and think with this stuff (like Momentum), it’s different to a concert where it’s prescribed entertainment. Work like this can captivate the imagination; hold people in a way you don’t really see that often. It’s a lot more rewarding.”

There are very few art practices that can maintain a sense of authenticity through works spanning from Massive Attack concert sets to gallery-commissioned abstract art. Their synthesised Foucault phenomenon at the Curve is the apex of ten years of diverse inquiry into tech – and how we relate to it as human beings in a world saturated with information.