London born and based artist Matt Clark, founder of United Visual Artists (UVA) collective in conversation with Maria Abramenko talking about his led monolith creatures, years of collaboration with Massive Attack and much more.
What is your artistic background?
My background is in both fine art and design. I studied fine art sculpture and communication design in parallel on a joint honours course at Camberwell College of Art in London. For half the week, I would be in the sculpture studios and the other in the design departments. It was the late 1990s when everything seemed to be going from an analogue way of doing things to a digital one. This was the beginning of me traversing different disciplines and having a pretty broad interest in creative approaches, something that’s never really changed.
The first question is obviously, about your project, the UVA. I know that you’re the founder so tell us, how did it all happen?
I have to think back now because it’s approaching the 20-year mark since I founded UVA with my then co-founders, Chris and Ash. It all came about in quite an organic way. It wasn’t planned, although, for a long time up until that point, I had a desire to start a creative space for like-minded people. In reality, UVA was born from working on projects with friends and then formalising it into an official organization. When I left college, I gravitated towards working in the music industry, designing record sleeves and scenography for performing artists. In a short amount of time, I worked with some established artists, which eventually led to the conversation with Massive Attack. I heard that they were going on tour and were looking to do something visually ambitious. So I managed to get a meeting with the band through someone I knew was working with them. When I met Robert Del Naja from the band, he had some initial ideas and directions he was interested in. We chatted for a while over some beers and found out we had many things that resonated in terms of visual arts. So he said: Well, you know, go and think about some designs, then we’ll take it from there. So that’s what I did. I was young and a huge fan of the band; it felt like a massive responsibility, but I knew it was an opportunity to do something important because the band were known for their pioneering visual identity. I liked the idea of creating a show that would be visually different every day, a show that could almost communicate with the audience. I wanted to express the overwhelming feeling that one gets from living in the age of information, and this was in 2003 before social media had taken any significant traction. I didn’t want to use imagery, only text and numerical data, and I wanted it to be a very pure and informational experience. So when I met Massive Attack again and presented the idea, they were excited about it and said, yeah, sounds great. Let’s do it. That’s where Chris and Ash came into the picture, I had no idea how I would make what I proposed, and I needed some serious technical help with the programming and engineering required to realise a vision like it. Somehow, we managed to pull off the show, and it was considered groundbreaking at the time. What surprised me in the creative process was how collaborating with programmers and engineers could lead to outcomes that I never knew were possible. So that was the beginning of UVA, and in principle, the collaborative ethos is still evident today, but with a much broader family of practitioners.
Then you have decided to stop touring with Massive Attack and begin to focus on other projects?
We collaborated with Massive Attack for 15 years, not just for the stage but also for installations, films, and other things. The success of our work with the band led to other opportunities, working with some of the biggest bands in the world, such as Jay Z and Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2 and many others. At times, it was enjoyable to work on these huge productions, but unlike Massive Attack, it felt a little bit like a layer of decoration, let’s say, and the ideas weren’t quite as interesting for me in terms of subject matter. A few years into UVA, we started to explore the potential of a different way of experiencing a live performance and bringing what we’d learned for the stage into the public space. The most significant project at this junction of my practice was the Volume work we created for the V&A Museum back in 2006.
What happened there? Was this your first independent exhibition?
It wasn’t the first one, but I would say it’s the first large scale artwork that started the trajectory towards working more as an art practice with commissions from institutions. The V&A offered us an opportunity to create an artwork for the John Madejski Garden. It was a temporary commission for three months. What was interesting about this project was that everything we learnt from approaching stage performance was applied to it, but without having a traditional stage or performer. The artwork consisted of 50 light columns arranged in a 10×10 meter grid, each with a single speaker. We commissioned Massive Attack to make a 50-channel sound field. The light and sound were manipulated in relation to people’s proximity, creating ever-changing compositions. So it was like we were dissolving the line between the audience and the stage, and allowing the audience to be performers. People would also watch the stage from the perimeter, so it opened up a an interesting space that sits between performance, art and architecture, which is the thing that we’ve continued to explore and has been the main focus for many of our installation works. I call them performative or transitional spaces.
Were you interested in documenting such human behaviour in relation to your artwork?
I have some great pictures of people taking pictures of themselves and each other; this was way before the term selfie came about. It was interesting when we presented the installation in different countries worldwide and how different cultures react to the experience in the public spaces. Certain cultures seem to be more inclined to express themselves willingly, and others are more reserved. It’s always interesting with our installations, watching how people navigate a space when you design a system to disrupt it. People tend to be unpredictable to a certain extent. I guess that’s why institutions have established formats and viewing systems for performance and exhibitions, but these are just constructs really; there aren’t any rules that shouldn’t be broken.
Do you have permanent pieces somewhere in the world?
We have several permanent installations dotted over the world. The closest is in Paddington, London, which is a homage to the work of Alan Turing. It’s both a digital and physical text-based sculpture based around a dynamic poem. It’s titled Message to the Unseen World and we collaborated with the poet Nick Drake on the project. It’s dedicated to the life and work of Alan Turing, as he was born in Paddington, and the work he produced is of much inspiration to UVA. It’s driven by an algorithm which processes the human poem and creates new iterations of it. It’s not anything super-advanced, in fact, its a very primitive bit of open source code called the Markov Chain. It feels a little like AI when you see the results, but it is more like a system of probabilities, sometimes producing human-like texts but mostly nonsensical and funny. The work highlights humans as pattern seekers and how we often project meaning into things that aren’t actually there. It also has a sculptural element to it. We carved the whole of Alan Turing’s book, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, into the facade using the Baudot Code. The materiality is thick black steel, and the carved holes let light through, revealing the digital component of the work. But you know, public art can be very challenging, limiting even.
It’s limiting to me because of the environmental aspects. You spend most of the budget on stuff you’ll never see, like foundations and the materiality is super limited because it has to withstand weather and time. Most of the things I’m interested in are best expressed over time and with dynamic elements like light sound or movement. These things are problematic as they require maintenance and upkeep, which commissioners can be reluctant to do. There’s also the content. There may be an idea that you are interested in expressing, but it’s deemed too controversial for the general public. So there can be fear of offending people, which can influence the creative direction. That said, we have been lucky to work with some great commissioners, and it has been mainly a rewarding process.
I know that beyond UVA you are also involved in many other things, like for example, you’re teaching in the RCA.
For a few years, I was a visiting lecturer for a course called information experience design. It was a very open course, focused around creating experiential and installation-based work. The student could choose any medium to communicate their ideas, sound, moving image, light, performance, anything really. It was interesting teaching at the RCA, and I think I learnt more from the students.
What are you working on at the moment? What’s the plan for 2022?
We have another show at the 180 Strand in London called Future Shock. It opens in late April. Unlike our last solo show there in 2019, we have two works in a group show. The works are different for many reasons, but they fall under a body of work that I refer to as programmable architecture. I’m very excited about these new iterations. One of the works will be a premier presentation in the UK; the other we have shown before but have radically reworked in collaboration with the composer Daniel Junior Thibaut. Our collaborative work with Bernie Krause, The Great Animal Orchestra is currently on display at the Sydney Bienale in Australia. We are also taking this work to Lille, France, in May. Several projects are coming back to life since being postponed due to Covid. In early June, we will be premiering a contemporary dance project in Toronto, Canada, collaborating with the choreographer Dana Gingras and her dance group Animals of Distinction. The show is titled Creation Destruction. It consists of huge monolithic LED screen which stands in the middle of the stage, and the dancers perform around it. It’s a stunning work. All the visuals are made from tiny pixels of light that coalesce to compose multiple forms of imagery, from the abstract to the figurative. Then in September, we are presenting a solo show at a Contemporary gallery in Istanbul to coincide with the Istanbul Biennale. So it’s turning out to be a very active year. The last few years have been extremely challenging, and the world continues to be very unstable, but you have to stay positive and move forward, don’t you? The world needs more positive energy, more opportunities to share experiences and hope for a brighter future.