Life-size video artworks exploring choreography and the human form
The Science Museum
Presence consists of a series of large-scale video pieces of motion-captured dance performances that create abstract forms with a human presence. A collaboration with choreographer Benjamin Millepied and the LA Dance Project, the work continues Universal Everything’s line of enquiry into the essence of choreography, movement and the human form.
Commissioned by Media Space London for their inaugural exhibition, Presence turns the screen into a stage, the body into an abstracted sculpture. Experimenting with various materials and forms, the life-sized moving sculptures cycle through a randomised collection of “costumes” that range from colorful light trails to crystalline formations, with only the movement revealing the human presence within.
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Carl Sagan, the noted astronomer, scientist and author, once famously wrote about how the human brain is hard-wired to identify human faces. This phenomena, known as pareidolia, likely developed as an evolutionary survival strategy and is one of the reasons we perceive animal shapes in cloud formations or see a man in the moon.
The human tendency to recognize patterns and devise meaningful connections from seemingly random shapes or data is a trait that’s been exploited by artists longer than we’ve had the scientific rationale to explain it. As it turns out, we are in effect neurologically predisposed to interpret abstract shapes and formations, to infer scenes and stories from their fragmented clues—something that the fathers of Cubism and Abstraction, like Duchamp, Picasso and Kandinsky, all knew and understood implicitly.
UK-based creative studio Universal Everything continues to investigate these ideas through works that explore abstraction, anthropomorphism, transfiguration and the essence of the human form. Taken collectively, their body of work is a study of our most primal emotional triggers—the power of moving images and sound to produce profound synaesthetic experiences; the quest to distill life into its most fundamental, abstract forms; the celebration of gesture, human movement and the beautiful simplicity of the drawn line.
In their desire to uncover entirely new forms and aesthetic ideas, Universal Everything often work with cutting-edge technology like motion capture, generative software, and large-format screens and projections to experiment with the new creative expressions these tools and techniques allow. The two new large-scale installations commissioned for their inaugural exhibition at Media Space London are the culmination of nearly a decade’s worth of research and refinement of these processes and the studio’s continuous iteration on representation of the human body.
Presence is the result of a collaboration with renowned choreographer Benjamin Millepied and the dancers of his LA Dance Project. Building on the visual vocabulary established by Universal Everything in earlier works like Tai Chi, Supreme Believers and Transfiguration, the piece investigates the limits of minimalist and maximalist abstraction. Using motion-tracking technology, dancers’ movements were captured as they performed choreographed responses to musical compositions of varying intensity, composed for the installation by Universal Everything’s Simon Pyke. Their movements are subsequently manipulated and abstracted into animated sculptural forms that only hint at their origins.
In the gallery space, visitors find themselves surrounded by four large-scale projections displaying life-size moving sculptures—the dancers have been removed from the scene and their presence is inferred only through the trails of movement they leave behind. Cycling through a variety of “digital costumes,” as Universal Everything’s founder and creative director Matt Pyke terms them, the animated forms are alternately cloaked in designs that range from the utmost simplicity to frenetic, noisy complexity. One moment they’re reduced to a series of dots against a black background, the next they’re submerged in a cacophony of vigorous scrawls.
“We wanted to see, how far can you abstract things and still see the human presence inside? Can you still feel the soul inside there?” explains Matt Pyke. “When you see the work, it’s not always immediately obvious that you’re looking at a person. We wanted to have a level of discovery when audiences notice the human form.”
A primal aesthetic pervades the piece—Universal Everything drew inspiration from tribal patterns and ancient graphics when developing the designs of the “digital costumes” and utilized rhythmic, primitive tones for the music composition. This, coupled with the work’s unrelenting attempt to reduce the human body to its most elemental forms, to distill the very essence of life, to investigate every formal and emotional possibility in the representation of the human body, leaves the viewer with the impression that the artists, true to their name, are seeking to identify the universal in everything. To some extent, their work is an ongoing attept to unearth and harness a fundamental kernel of truth that transcends barriers and links all of humanity.
The human is central to Universal Everything’s work, and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the piece 1000 Hands, a large-scale crowd-sourced installation that sits in the heart of the exhibition. A semi-transparent circular screen located in the center of the gallery space hums with the activity of hundreds of dancing forms moving in sync with one another in a kind of visual chorus. Visitors are invited to contribute to this collection of animated creatures via a custom mobile application they can download on their own devices or through devices provided by the museum.
Each visitor lays down a drawn gesture using the mobile touch-screen. This drawn line is then animated and extrapolated into a dancing form via custom generative software, which evolves the form based on the viewer’s initial input. Operating under a uniform set of artistic constraints and parameters, and unified by a common dancing rhythm, the drawn animations begin to seem as a kind of digital species—possessing similar traits and characteristics they are interconnected, yet each distinctly different and unique.
The piece builds on the visual ideas set forth in Universal Everything’s previous piece, Communion, which debuted at La Gaite Lyrique in 2011. This time, however, co-creating the work of art in collaboration with the audience initiates a dialogue between the artists, the visitors, and the museum space itself. Since the work exists as a mobile app that can be downloaded by anyone in the world, it also extends the exhibition experience beyond the physical space of the gallery and into the virtual space of the digital realm, allowing remote visitors to contribute to the installation as well.
The use of the drawn line—extrapolated through the swipe and swirl of a fingertip on a touch screen and rendered with the utmost simplicity in the exhibition space so as to highlight the purity of the form—is another factor contributing to the exaltation of the human in Universal Everything’s work. Despite, or perhaps because of, the high-tech tools being utilized in the creation of both Presence and 1000 Hands, the human, either in bodily form, gesture, or creative spirit, remains at the heart of the studio’s creative inquiry.
Accordingly, the exhibition itself requires the visitor’s participation in order to be completed.
“By handing the power of creation over to the audience, the work only exists because of them,” explains Matt Pyke. “Releasing the work into the wild causes unpredictable, surprising outcomes. Our role as artists is to define the boundaries within which the work exists. Creating parameters for rhythm, colour, movement and form constructs a narrow playground for the audience. This point of tension between control and freedom is what brings the exhibition to life.”
Julia Kaganskiy, New York, 2013
Creative Director : Matt Pyke
Animator : Chris Perry
Choreographer : Benjamin Millepied / LA Dance Project
Dancers : Julia Eichten and Nathan Makolandra
Motion Capture : Audiomotion
Composer : Simon Pyke
Viola : Annie Kerr
Clarinet : Merlin Shepherd
Vocals : Jenny Kosmowsky
Technician : Benoit Simon
Architect : Irene Shamma
Fabrication : AB3 Workshop / Other Fabrications
AV Consultant and Supplier : Bluman Associates
Producer : Keri Elmsly
Film Makers : Giorgia Polizzi / Sandra Ciampone
Photographers : James Medcraft / Kate Elliot
Proudly Supported by Hyundai
2017 – Moving Image: Performance, Group Show – University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor
2015 – Recent Works, Sydney Opera House
2014 – Universal Everything – Recent Works, Hospital Club Gallery, London
2014 – Frame: Dance On Film, Group Show — The Lowry, Salford
2013 – Media Space, London
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2015 – Presence 4.1, Borusan Contemporary Art Collection, Istanbul