Magazine I by I 01.03.24

Interview: Universal Everything

How the British digital art collective create generative work that evolves with time and human interaction.

Let’s start with depicting the human soul. British media art and design collective Universal Everything (UE) create diverse projects that aim to do just that. From buildings covered in giant digital animations to 3D-printed sculptural characters, AI-generated futurist fashion shows to interactive digital mirrors, UE’s projects are connected by a desire to explore how to depict and create emotion.

Matt Pyke established the collaborative studio in 2004, initially working on graphic design and music videos before expanding into screen-based visual installations. UE create their innovative works by subverting, misusing and embracing CGI, game engines, physics simulations, VR, AR, AI, generative software and other emerging display technologies. “I’ve always seen the studio as a band. It’s this group of people that come together for a certain album, or song or tour, and then they might disperse. It might reform to slightly different members, or slightly different specialists”, he enthuses.

This feature was originally published in Fact’s F/W 2022 issue, which is available to buy here.

Their exhibition Lifeforms, which took place at 180 Studios in 2022, brought together four projects within an architectural structure of habitats designed by Ab Rogers. Their largest show to date, Lifeforms was a unique amalgam of unpredictable, generative pieces and installations that mirror and shift with time and the public’s interactions. UE’s pieces draw from the history of visual culture – from the Futurists’ attempt to depict the body in motion to Eadweard Muybridge’s sequential nineteenth-century film experiences. Their “impossible sculptures” also connect to something more fundamental – the history of human perception and cognitive science. “One of the primal features of humans is the ability to sense movement or life in a forest, whether it’s prey or whether it’s a danger”, Pyke explains. “There’s always that uncanny sense that when you are in nature, you only need to see a tiny amount of visual information to sense that there’s a person or an animal in the woods.” UE’s works tap into subconscious ways of seeing in a modern way.

Walking, in particular, is a recurring theme. UE have created endless looping works depicting parades, crowds, commuters and single characters in movement. The first work to play with walking as a loop was 2011’s Transfiguration, which was a loop of an evolving character turning from lava to stone to fire in a continuous flow. Walking City used CGI software to create a simulation of an ever-changing building as a moving character. “I’ve always loved the simplicity or the minimalism of the barest movement. I think there’s something about walking that is both human and repetitive and almost benign, but can be mesmerising at the same time. There’s something interesting about rather than trying to have a complex storytelling with too much choreography, or movement, or cuts and scenes.” Walking here is the starting point for narrative.

UE’s works may be digital but they also explore materiality. Texture, volume and colour are fundamental to their work. Infinity depicts a parade of human-scale characters with extreme hairstyles – if your entire body was a ball of hair. Flames, rock, evolution in walking form. “There’s this idea that it is tangible, and it does feel realistic.” The work is also playful. Future You is digital mirror piece that reflects the motion of the viewer in constantly shifting, robotic synthetic forms. Everyone’s experience is unique and only works when the viewer is moving.

The characters in UE’s work are often made with generative software. “It’s compelling and surprising because it’s always fresh. It’s off doing its own thing and evolves beyond what we create in the studio”, Pyke explains. What’s interesting is how we project meaning and personality onto UE’s work. They design their own systems to grow characters, plants or abstract lifeforms. “Once you have a certain number of rules in place – let’s say the hair length or the hair colour, or the movement style, which are essentially randomised variations on motion capture – the personalities emerge by themselves. There are hundreds and thousands, or millions of combinations that can occur”, Pyke explains. “As a designer-artist, I do edit or steer or adjust the parameters to ensure that there’s a huge amount of diversity, or there’s enough strange surprises. It’s almost like defining the boundaries of the playground.”

There is something very rhythmic in the breathing, walking and pulsing in UE’s pieces. Notably, Pyke emerged from a music background, originally designing record sleeves for his brother Simon Pyke, formerly known as Freeform, whose debut album was released with Warp in 1995. “Simon was a bedroom musician and I was a bedroom graphic designer, since the ages of like 6 and 8. We grew up together, creating things for each other.” Pyke’s work for his younger brother led to being spotted by Designers Republic, where he worked for a decade and developed his “graphic hyper-colour aesthetic”.

Music and sound are still vital elements of UE’s work. In 2014, UE created an audio-visual AR app for Radiohead, with artist Stanley Donwood, entitled Polyfauna. These changing digital landscapes touch on another running motif in UE’s work: nature. From drone-style views of natural landscapes to sci-fi–like plants, UE create fascinating simulations of the national world. As Pyke observes, “Nature is essentially generative. It’s a simple set of mathematical rules that grows plants, ferns, snail shells, everything.”

All of UE’s projects begin with the analogue–in particular, Pyke’s storyboard-like drawings made with coloured pencil on black paper. “It’s like you’re drawing onto a screen”, the designer-artist suggests. Despite this simple starting point, technology is a driving force in their work. “I’ve always been interested in trying to create work that hasn’t existed before. I think you can do that by using emerging graphics technologies, and extraction technologies. You’re using art to explore the possibilities of body tracking technologies or really high-end graphics cards”, Pyke enthuses. Unsurprisingly, UE’s innovative and show-stopping approach has also attracted serious brand collaborations include the creation of immersive experiences with Hyundai, Zaha Hadid Architects and future R&D with Apple.

UE make artworks and environments that exist at the intersection of reality and a future-positive technological, algorithmic evolution. There is a brilliance in their work: Universal Everything hide the tech and leave us to delight in creation, possibility and life.

This feature was originally published in Fact’s F/W 2022 issue, which is available to buy here.

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