In Conversation: UNIVERSAL EVERYTHING on Collaborating with Nike
This month in London, Nike’s 1948 space in Shoreditch is set to be transformed into a dramatic hub of exploration, interactivity and creativity with Feel London, an exhibition and festival inspired by the recently unveiled Nike Free Hyperfeel. Featuring a programme of innovative workshops and events, Feel London is also the culmination of Nike’s Nature Amplified exhibition which has been touring the world over the last 12 months. This collective exhibition features a handful of cutting edge artists and designers who present their own work and interactive experiences, inspired in their own way by the sensation of ‘feel’.
The backdrop of Feel London is also, perhaps, its centre point. Four interactive installations by some of the world’s foremost digital artists will create an immersive experience for visitors to the space, introducing concepts reflective of the Nike Free range’s core principles; Fit, Flex, Freedom and Feel. Artists include Universal Everything, Daniel Widrig, Quayola & Sinigaglia and Rhizomatiks, who each bring their experience with digital and interactive art forms to the space, creating unique interpretations of the body in motion.
Ahead of Feel London‘s opening at 1948 this Friday (11 October), we met Matt Pyke, Creative Director of studio collective Universal Everything at London’s Science Museum. Founded by Matt in 2004, Universal Everything work with new technologies to create interactive installations that explore the tension between the abstract and figurative form and the synestheisa of sound and image. Their work has been exhibited everywhere from MOMA, New York, to London’s V&A, Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, La Gaite Lyrique in Paris and the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture in Moscow, whilst a number of commissioned works have seen the artists explore brand identity through creative process.
With the collective’s Universal Everything & You installation at the Science Museum’s Media Space providing a fitting (and breathtaking) backdrop for our conversation, we spoke to Matt about his recent work with Nike, inspired by the fit, support and “architectural” makeup of Flyknit. This inspiration is manifest in Universal Everything’s contribution to Feel London, the interactive installation, The Art of Science and Fit.
SLAMXHYPE: Let’s start by who you are – can you introduce yourself and Universal Everything?
MATT PYKE: My name’s Matt Pyke, I’m based in Sheffield, in the UK and I started Universal Everything in 2004. Originally it was myself creating digital works by screen, art directing and type design – things like that. I started collaborating with more and more people who are experts in things I can’t do – CGI experts, musicians, architects, programmers, photographers and choreographers, who can expand the multifaceted approach that we take as a studio. So now we have a 50-50 mix of art exhibitions (like this one at Media Space), and commissions, working with brands like Nike or Hyundai, Chanel, Intel, et cetera. We tend to do interactive and video art projects.
SXH: So what’s the working process like when you take on a commission like this?
MP: The way it works is we’re all kind of dotted around. I’m based in Sheffield, the musician’s in Brighton, the animator’s in Cornwall, we’ve got programmers in America and London and we all try get together face to face. I think one of the most important things is we think about the context of the space and its architecture and how the audience are going to be using it and how best to work with them so they become emotionally immersed in the space. For example, for the Flyknit installation, one of the original ideas was the fact that people – the visitors turning up to the installation – were the ones who actually powered it. Without people in the space it’s completely dormant, and when people walk into the space, they’re the ones who wake it up and activate the artwork. So that’s the original concept.
SXH: So are all your installations site specific?
MP: Pretty much, yeah. These days we very much tend to consider the architecture of a site. Sometimes we do stuff that is more for say, mobile or iPad, but generally it’s site specific. For Nike, the original brief we were given was, basically, “Fit”, and how we could respond to that in a digital, real time, emotional way. When we were looking at the Flyknit shoe – and I had a couple of pairs before this – we understood the principle of it as beautiful architecture. And we thought about how we could inject life into the process – talk about the process but in a more artistically expressive way. So we came up with the idea of having ‘living threads’. The idea is you walk into this installation and there are these ‘living threads’ that are attracted to your body. They pick up your presence and wrap around your silhouette – they fit to the shape of your body. You’re able to leave a pose there and then walk off, leaving a trace made up of these threads for the next person in the room to see. You’re leaving an impression on a screen so people can see who has stood before them. So that was the overall concept, really; “how can you combine these threads that become alive and make them intelligently attracted to the human body?”. We also took into account the colour palette and the nature of the weaving, so instead of having these abstract lines, we actually built in special intelligence in terms of how they interact with each other. The green and red threads would weave together in a criss-cross fashion – taking the same principle of the Flyknit process. We were taking inspiration from the materials and palette and logic of Flyknit and turning it into something that could come to life.
SXH: You often deal with motion – it almost seems like a no-brainer that you’d work with Nike.
MP: I guess it was inevitable. Our work is like painting and sculpting but with new technologies. And one of the key things with new technologies like motion tracking, motion sensor et cetera, is that it’s all about human movement. Technology now is no longer about pressing buttons or keys on a keyboard, it’s about expressing things with your hands and body. So yeah, it feels inevitable we’d work together.
SXH: Can you tell us a bit about the upcoming installation with Nike?
MP: So we’re one of four artists in the set – there’s some really nice stuff alongside us. Our piece is a four-screen installation – a cube. There are four facets, which are effectively four different behaviours. So you can walk up to one screen and get a real wild, abstracted behaviour, where the colour palette and threads are behaving in a very abstract way but you can still sense your body’s presence and how it’s causing the effect on the screen. Another one is far more intricate; blue and white threads making a dense matrix pattern. Another screen is very flowing and rewards you for making big body movements and the final one is a red, green and blue palette that rewards you for staying as still as possible. The more still you can stay still, the longer your impression stays on the screen. It’s basically a two way conversation – cause and effect – between visitor interaction and how the software responds to that. The ideal outcome is that the public go around all four sides of the installation and it triggers different behaviours in them, so that they move their bodies in different ways according to the conversation they’re having with the screen.
SXH: When you first saw the Hyperfeel shoe, what were your initial thoughts, in terms of the way that you could incorporate certain elements of the shoe into what you were doing?
MP: I think the first thing for me, coming from a graphic design background and being interested in pattern, process and material, was how it almost felt like modern architecture – futuristic architecture – rather than shoe design. It demonstrates a really, really innovative way of, kind of, wrapping a body, in a similar way to how a building ‘wraps’ people. The way that the Hyperfeel’s flyknit upper fits and wraps around a human body was really interesting – the way it’s just one or two singular threads used to make up a shoe. Then obviously inherent in the process itself were the patterns, how there is almost a digital, white noise aesthetic to it. That optical illusion approach to the aesthetic, where from a distance it might look like it’s made up of block colours but as you get closer you realise there’s both white and black throughout.
SXH: One thing I’ve been considering is that Nike are getting closer to bringing design back to the bare foot again.
MP: Like full circle evolution!
SXH: Totally. And with what you’re doing, there are elements of, I guess, evolution at play.
MP: Well I think a lot of our work is inspired by nature, and how nature grows within its own environment. A lot of how we work… we’ve talked about designing seeds. The seed is what you plant and then it grows its own look, or aesthetic or movement. Sometimes it’s grown by the public interacting with it, or sometimes it’s grown by the software itself where its just creating outcomes that are completely surprising to us. It’s pretty unpredictable once you release work into the wild and you see what happens to it and I think that’s where our inspiration in nature comes from. And it’s obvious that Nike are getting close to stripping the product away until it’s just providing padding and protection where absolutely necessary, so that it has a natural feeling. It’s a similar idea, you know, trying to play along in harmony with nature. It’s kind of important these days.
SXH: Agreed. So how does the installation sit at its new site at 1948?
MP: The basic configuration is always a tall cube – roughly four metres by three metres each side, and it sits diagonally to offset it against the rectangular nature of the space and allow people to see two facets at the same time. Then it has four rear projections and a soundtrack which was created by plucking strings, but with a really close up mic. We use a very, sort of, woven, drawn-out cotton process to make the music as well, which is also really inspired by the threads and the Flyknit process that creates the Hyperfeel. And that music has peaks in it which disrupt the installation. So we have a very steady soundtrack that runs throughout, but then there’s these peaks of sound which create ripples through the entire installation. So there’s this harmony between the audio and the visual in the space which ties everything together… these interruptions in the interaction, where the soundtrack takes over.
SXH: What are your thoughts on the project as a whole?
MP: It’s been really nice seeing it tour around and notice how different people in different countries react to it. We’ve seen it in Milan, Portland, Shanghai and Rio so far and I’m sure there will be more. So I’m excited to see how people react in London. It certainly draws different reactions from different cultures; very flamboyant in Rio, very cool in Portland… it’s interesting. It’s good.
Feel London runs October 11th – 20th at 1948.