to infinity and beyond
Universal Everything embraces technology to generate endless joy
The pioneering digital design collective creates generative art that loops beyond infinity. Lisa Goldapple asked the nature-loving techno optimists to create their World of Good for TOPIA
We hope to envision a positive futureMatt Pyke
for everyone, everywhere.
A lone figure endlessly stomps into nothingness while shapeshifting into furry versions of itself, an inflated pillow catwalks crosses the metaverse into infinity, a chair sashays in a never-ending parade of prancing living objects; Universal Everything’s mesmerising digital lifeforms evolve, feel alive – and are all of us.
Scratch everything you thought you knew about technology not being joyous and emotional. For almost two decades, revered digital art and design collective Universal Everything has been getting experimental with the latest emerging display technologies to enchant audiences all around the world, from Sheffield to Seoul (their wackiness goes down particularly well in Korea).
You will know if you’ve seen one of their works in your lifetime. Innovative, interactive and immersive, their mind-bending giant video displays are everything TOPIA loves. They’re bold, colourful, inviting and inclusive. Think: Blade Runner with soul. On mushrooms.
I saw my first Universal Everything artwork in April at the launch of the Digital Impact exhibition at the Design Museum in Barcelona. Claire Cook, an executive producer with the digital design collective, was watching on as her daughter waved her arms around in front of Future You; the interactive techno mirror reflecting her every move. Hypnotised, I wanted in on this digital dance-off.
As an audience grows and people throw increasingly questionable shapes, the ‘synthetic self’ learns and morphs into each of us. “There are 47,000 possible variations of robotic shapes and visions, but every movement is entirely unique,” Claire tells me.
Turning around in the Design Museum, a huge screen plays Universal Everything’s Infinity, a truly generative artwork in which you never see the same ‘monster’ twice. “Mostly the characters feel positive,” she adds. “Although there is the occasional scary one. In fact, there’s one…” A grim figure slumps past, punctuating an otherwise vibey gang of digital club kid characters on helium.
Founded in 2004 by creative director Matt Pyke – who chose the name to make the operation seem bigger at the time – Universal Everything is a fluid international collective of over 60 media artists, experience designers and future makers. A core team based in the UK (and New York) collaborates with creatives everywhere from South America to Japan, but London-centric it has never been.
In reality, Matt pioneered remote working before the rest of us were forced to catch up. The future thinker has always run his studio virtually to allow for creative collaborations with minimal air travel. In fact, the whole shebang is run from a log cabin shed at the end of his garden in Sheffield.
And, oh the innovations that shed has seen. Rather than using existing software, Matt designs his own cutting edge digital tools, rendering lifeforms and landscapes that blur the boundaries between the digital and physical worlds – thanks to the latest advances in AI, motion capture, CGI animation and virtual reality.
Joel Gethin Lewis is Universal Everything’s interactive creative director. (You can catch him talking about playful subversive design at this year’s Sónar+D festival in Barcelona in June). He describes Universal Everything’s embracing of new technological tools to Monet’s. Whether its primordial microscopic life or mapping human behaviour on the mass scale, their generative systems truly are generative. Micro or macro, they evolve and shift with time and audience interaction, so nobody sees the same show twice.
We defy you not to feel the joy watching the random characters in infinite fantasy fashion show, Maison Autonome, a generative video that pushes the boundaries of motion-capture technologies. Only the code knows what will pop up next.
“I’m driven to avoid boredom and stagnation,” Matt explains. “I love the thrill of using emerging tech to make our own unique creative tools – in my relentless attempt to invent things never seen before.”
Ultimately, Universal Everything wants to make something engaging that as many people as possible can enjoy. There’s a reason why clients like Apple, Chanel, Zaha Hadid Architects and Radiohead love working with the collective; their diverse work brings warmth to the digital space. It is surprising, empathetic and full of personality; and these are designers who also care about ecological impact.
Before spending eight years at Sheffield-based studio Designers Republic – known for its work with Warp Records and Grand Theft Auto games packaging – Matt studied botanical and technical illustration, alongside graphic design, at Croydon School of Art. You can spot his love of nature, evolution and organic forms in the collective’s use of landscapes, synesthesia and anthropomorphism. Created during the pandemic lockdown, Nature Always Wins (pictured below) uses architectural models and an infinitely looping video to depicts the urban world taken over by nature. “The world might be a better place without our interference.”
Matt sees the concept of play as the only sustainable activity available to us and delights in the human response to exploring infinite possibilities of the digital realm – and, more importantly, its impact on our wellbeing. “I love seeing audiences respond to our video artwork. With the ever-changing walking figure of Transfiguration, people often say, ‘the look of that figure captures exactly how I’m feeling right now’. It made me realise the potential of our work to help people, beyond entertainment.”
Their latest collaboration, Trauma to Healing is an ultra-minimalist album of depictions of the mental states people might go on from psychological distress to recovery. (I am calmly listening to it while writing this.) And for more good, Universal Everything is currently developing prototypes which help people’s lives: a light to visualise energy usage generation, a display which visualises your daily exercise as a beautiful data painting and a diagnostic app to allow patients to visualise their chronic pain symptoms accurately so they can receive better diagnoses.
“It shifts my passion for making digital artworks about the human body into a beneficial, helpful tool,” Matt adds. “We hope to envision a positive future for everyone everywhere.”
In TOPIA series, My World of Good, we ask a diverse bunch of revolutionaries to design a more positive world. In the spirit of collaboration, Universal Everything’s Matt Pyke, Clare Cook and Joel Gethin Lewis – together – tell us what inspires them and what change they would generate in their ideal world.
Universal Everything: In My World of Good…
1. Nature is protected
Joel: In an ideal world, we would combat light pollution to protect dark skies. A star-filled sky benefits all living things.
Matt: Spectacular events in nature make me happy, such as being above clouds sitting below me in the valley. I’m often saying to myself – this is better than any man made art experience I’ve ever seen. I love the Peak District National Park, specifically Baulk Lane in Hathersage.
Clare: The mountains – specifically the Alps – make me feel awe and inspiration.
2. There is no advertising
Joel: Imagine if everywhere there were adverts… there was art instead.
3. bell hooks’ ideas go mainstream
Joel: bell hooks (she preferred her name to be written with lowercase letters) changed the way I think about the world and how I viewed my practice as a learner and a teacher. Her writing on teaching and what that means, and what it can mean, is a must-read.
4. Transport is reimagined
Clare: We should make trains affordable and fast – and cycling in cities safe and clean so that people realise cars are not the be all and end all.
Universal Everything, Nature Always Wins, 2020
5. There is time to sit still
Joel: Meditate! I meditate with my students before teaching, and every day. I’d really recommend the brilliant Sitting Still Like a Frog book and sticker book.
6. We get the opportunity to be creative
Clare: Don’t get stuck enabling other creative people – do and make creative work yourself too – I dont always succeed in this but it stuck in my head as a young professional starting out.
7. We all understand the tech that powers our world
Joel: If you want to understand computation, Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software (2nd Edition) is the book to read. Microsoft Windows pioneer Charles Petzold takes you from a single switch all the way up to a fully working computer, missing nothing out in the middle.
8. People are empathetic
Matt: I rely on Desert Island Discs, 800+ episodes of serendipitous interviews to a wide range of people with different worldviews. It’s reassuring to hear how often people share similar struggles, and how they overcome them.
9. Power is decentralised
Joel: I’d like to create a decentralised, bottom up,
regenerative, electrical power grid.
Universal Everything, Into the Sun, Lifeforms exhibition at 180 Studios | Photo by Jack Hems
10. We experience the other
Joel: I believe that permanence is an illusion. Thank goodness! If I could metamorphose into anything, I’d like to emerge as either a cuttlefish, lichen or a goldfish. A cuttlefish because I’d like to experience being able to change my appearance at will, a lichen because I want to experience their sense of time and a goldfish because I want to experience seeing in that wide a spectrum of colours – visible and ultraviolet.
11. ‘Collective good’ is a thing
Joel: Everyone needs to read Ruth Kinna. Her amazing book, The Government of No One: The Theory and Practice of Anarchism, changed the way I look at society, the state and how we should all relate to each other. She strikes me as kind and honest.
12. We collaborate
Matt: I love discovering and collaborating with amazing, smart, lovely people. I hope I am inspiring people to take unconventional approaches and prove you can do it another way. We’ve always been a collaborative studio, remote working since 2004 and succeeding outside of London, and playing with new technology to discover fresh ways of making things.
Clare: If I could collaborate with anyone, it would be Barbara Hepworth, the sculptor – her work feels just perfection to me – it might not be an easy collaboration though! And Philip Pullman, David Attenborough of course, for obvious reasons. (Delegating more stuff to other good people would be nice!)
Joel: My name for this utopia World of Good would be ‘The Academy’ – with everyone learning and teaching each other forever.
Matt: I’d like to be remembered as always family-first, generous, helpful, caring, playful – but mostly happy.
Joel’s tips of Good people to follow
1 – Abbie Vickress is an inspirational lecturer and graphic designer who I was lucky enough to teach with briefly at Royal College of Art. She is a fountainhead of amazing practice, references and kindness.
2 – Laura Knight has just set up a brand new course at Central Saint Martins, MA Communicating Complexity. She does important work to help people understand the important challenges of today.
3 – Jazmin Morris has taught me so much about myself and what inclusion really means. We met via the Creative Computing Institute.
4 – Rifle Sadleir is the co-founder of the most interesting studio in London right now: dxr.zone. Her work and her presence make me grin.
5 – Charlotte Webb is the co-founder of Feminist Internet. Her relentless positivity and engagement with the world in different ways have changed how I now see the world.
You might also like: 8 reasons to go to Sónar+D 2023
What’s so good about this?
Generative art is not often associated with empathy, warmth, intimacy – and impact – but Universal Everything is changing that. For more good, the inspiring collaborative collective calculate and offset project energy usage and donate a percentage of studio profits to charity optimisers.
In Barcelona? Catch Universal Everything’s Future You and Infinity Digital Impact at the Design Museum until 27 August. Joel Gethin Lewis will also be talking about playful subversive design at this year’s Sónar+D.
All images courtesy of Universal Everything. Follow @UniversalEverything.
Meet the writer
Lisa Goldapple is the brain behind the world of TOPIA, and might not behave as good as gold, but thinks good is golden. The Barcelona-based founder, creative director and editor-in-chief of TOPIA has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. To understand how TOPIA really came about, read Mind Blown, because: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”