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Open seven days a week, 10.00-18.00. Entry to the Museum is free.

Universal Everything: Distilling the Essence of the Human Form

Julia Kaganskiy, curator and Editor-at-Large of the Creators Project

Carl Sagan, the noted astronomer, scientist and author, once famously wrote about how the human brain is hard-wired to identify human faces. This phenomenon, 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 recognise patterns and see meaningful connections in apparently random shapes or data is a trait that has been exploited by artists longer than we have had the scientific rationale to explain it. As it turns out, we are predisposed to interpret abstract shapes and formations, to infer scenes and stories from their fragmented clues – something that the fathers of Cubism and Abstraction, such as Duchamp, Picasso and Kandinsky, all knew and understood implicitly.

UK-based creative studio Universal Everything continue to investigate these ideas through works that explore abstraction, anthropomorphism and transfiguration. 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 distil 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 new forms and aesthetic ideas, Universal Everything often work with cutting-edge technology such as 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 in London are the culmination of nearly a decade’s worth of research into and refinement of these processes, and of the studio’s continuous work 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 such as 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 works 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 implied 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 are reduced to a series of dots against a black background, the next they are submerged in a cacophony of vigorous scrawls.

‘We wanted to see, how far can you abstract things and still see the human presence inside?’ 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.’

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 centre 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 is distinctly different and unique.

The piece builds on the visual ideas set forth in Universal Everything’s previous piece, Communion, which debuted at La Gaîté 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. And 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 – through the swipe and swirl of a fingertip on a touch screen and rendered with the utmost simplicity in the exhibition space – is another factor contributing to the exaltation of the human in Universal Everything’s work.

‘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.’