What do a software developer, a production/technical guru and a fine artist/graphic designer have in common? In the case of interdisciplinary consultancy United Visual Artists, creative director Matt Clark, technical director Chris Bird and software director Ash Nehru share a belief in collaboration and their set of very different skills.
The trio met during the time of the electronic music revolution, designing, producing and programming content and visuals for the club scene. Clark and Bird founded UVA in 2003, with Nehru joining soon after. Five years later, they have developed the consultancy into a business of 16 people, spanning architectural and responsive installations and design for live performance, with their latest commission, a large-scale interactive installation for Covent Garden’s Christmas programme, to be unveiled next month.
One of UVA’s first jobs was the design of Massive Attack’s 100th Window world tour in 2003. It was an ambitious project, involving projecting local news and information, such as football scores, on a giant LED screen, and changing the show from location to location. The tour marked a gradual move away from club land, with the trio taking on concert tours for other bands such as Basement Jaxx, Oasis, Coldplay and U2. But UVA has an astute commercial instinct and realised that being a business based on rock shows ‘wouldn’t fly’, as Nehru says. ‘If you’re going to be the next Willie Williams, you have to be at it for 25 years.’
As the consultancy grew – UVA now delivers around five projects at a time with 15 in development – the founders were increasingly able to experiment. ‘Research and development is a core part of our process,’ says Clark. ‘It enables us to explore new fields, as well as re-examine old ones. Ideas come out of a collaborative series of experiments.’ In 2006, the team’s responsive installation Volume, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, became an impressive calling card. Volume was an array of light columns, set up in the museum’s John Madejski Garden, which responded to human movement with changes in sound and light.
Seeing the success of such work is very satisfying, both on a commercial and a personal level, says Nehru. ‘In many ways, arts projects are more rewarding because people have a much more personal interaction with them.’ Clark says that ‘detail is everything’ when creating an installation for the V&A or Covent Garden, whereas a live show presents a much broader canvas. ‘However, they are both powerful forms of social experience. We are particularly interested in what happens when you remove the line between the audience and the stage, giving the audience what seems to be some control of the experience.’
The Covent Garden installation is a prime example. It will use hundreds of LED strips, coated with a reflective surface and suspended in the market space. The strips will be individually controllable to create constantly changing patterns, and visitors will be able to affect the installation via interactive panels. Clark says they were attracted to the challenge of working on such a scale in a well-known public space.
Despite its growth and rising profile, UVA resists blowing its own trumpet. ‘We went from the equivalent of cooking dinner for friends to opening a restaurant,’ says Nehru, while Clark adds, ‘It doesn’t feel like we have grown unusually quickly. There has been a demand for our services and we needed help to meet those demands.’ What’s clear is that the triumvirate of programming, production and art/design is what drives the business. Instead of ‘the great creative vision’ at the top directing the production and software below, ‘it’s more of an equal process’, says Nehru. There has also been a change in attitude towards technology within art and design, finds Clark. ‘We make our own tools to create our artwork, which gives us more creative freedom.’
Another driver is the desire to push each project a bit further. ‘The Covent Garden installation, for example, is a high-value, prestigious project,’ says Nehru. ‘The consequences of failure would be fairly negative; but the opportunities if we succeed are quite large, so we don’t mind the risk.’
It seems the risks have so far been worth taking. UVA has just moved into a new studio in Borough, London, is setting up a division to license its software, and has more commissions in place for next year and beyond. ‘A very fortunate position to be in,’ says Clark.