Universal Everything’s “Emergence” — Creator Interview Matt Pyke
Crowds are everywhere. Some people thrive in them, others are completely unnerved. Control is key—one individual’s sense of power is another’s feeling of weakness. That premise is at the core of a new virtual reality experience titled, “Emergence,” by the Sheffield, England-based digital art and design collective, Universal Everything.
“Emergence” is a companion piece to a work in an exhibition called “Fluid Bodies,” currently on view at the Borusan Contemporary in Istanbul. The VR experience, presented by Within, world premiered late last month at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
The project utilizes cutting-edge graphics in conjunction with powerful algorithms to create an open-world environment that responds in real-time to the actions of a first-person player who inhabits a glowing avatar at the center of a vast crowd of running strangers.
The result is part art project, part philosophical video game. The action is driven by the viewer, who controls the pace and direction of the avatar with the goal of reaching various shafts of light that shoot up out of the ground in the distance. The player’s movements ultimately choreograph the crowd’s behavior, resulting in breathtaking patterns as the many bodies swirl and circle, divide and rejoin one another.
Programmers succeeded in simulating more than 5,000 human behaviors for “Emergence,” with the goal of showcasing the seemingly endless ways that human animals act in group settings. When the user’s avatar reaches a ray of light, the scenery and landscape is drastically altered and the experience moves on in new, unexpected ways.
Dramatic lighting; vast, alien landscapes; and a haunting soundtrack created by Simon Pyke—using samples of field recording of native tribes—contribute to the satisfying moodiness of the experience. Being part of the crowd appears to be the experience’s real raison d'être. Only once you feel a complete loss of individuality, can you truly appreciate how individual you actually are. That moment of discovery is where the power of “Emergence” lies. It’s when the user begins to rise up in order to take charge of the experience.
After that, “Emergence” becomes all about being a leader. There is a thrilling power in watching the faceless strangers around you scatter when you turn and run into their midst. Sometimes they surround you as if you are the messiah, at other times they run from you as if you are a monster. The experience is hypnotic, unsettling at times, and all-consuming. It stands as a compelling example of the way virtual reality is upending the dominance of traditional narrative forms in favor of experiential art made with the game-changing tools of emerging media.
We caught up with Universal Everything founder and creator of “Emergence,” Matt Pyke, just before the end of the festival to talk more about the ambitious project:
What served as the inspiration for ‘Emergence’?
We started exploring the potential to subvert high-end gaming graphics software into an abstracted art form.
We’ve made many works using human movement and abstract figures, and with this high end technology we multiplied the figures by 6000, leading to a mass crowd choreography experience.
How did you begin to program the 5,000-plus human behaviors on display in the experience?
We gave the humans unique behaviours, from obsessively following, to avoidance, to mimicking - these traits allowed beautiful and surreal crowd patterns to emerge.
‘Emergence’ is like a giant canvas, did the work of certain artists play into your vision as you developed the experience?
It was a mix of artists who work with human figures such as Do Ho Suh, Anthony Gormley, Julian Opie. And artists who explore chaos and patterns—Julie Mehretu, Casey Reas and Sarah Sze.
What was the most challenging technical aspect of creating this sort of complexity in VR?
A balance of believable, relatable human realism and the population size of the crowd.
Why is VR the perfect medium for ‘Emergence’?
VR immerses the viewer in our video art works, allowing them to step into the screen. The closer to a feeling of being there, the more emotional the human experience.
The viewer has a bird’s eye view of the action in ‘Emergence.’ How does that vantage point effect the experience?
We explored first person viewpoints but you lost the sense of scale, and the crowd patterns were not apparent. So we shifted to a detached out-of-body-experience, to create an unexpected view of yourself, as an avatar.
“Emergence” appears to use VR as a commentary on herd mentality. Is there a message in the madness?
The artwork exists as an open world. As behaviours are attributed to familiar forms of fellow people, we ask that the viewer interprets this madness in reflection of their own feeling about crowds. Personally, I see this as a self portrait of social media, for better or for worse.
What were the greatest technical challenges in the making of this experience?
Do to our choreography of 6000+ people, this experience only plays on the highest spec home PC available. We did this to create something hopefully never seen before.
Do the rays of light in “Emergence” represent a particular idea, or do they just serve as goalposts to move the action forward?
They are temptations, like a flame to a moth. What happens if I touch this? Each beam has a randomness applied, transforming the environment in unexpected cinematic and behavioural ways.
The sequences where bodies float skyward contain imagery reminiscent of the Rapture. Was this intentional? If so, explain.
That’s new to me :) but now that I’ve seen the Rapture it has a strong relevance, which helps put this work in context.
“Emergence” seems particularly relevant in the age of social media, when people tend to herd together around immovable ideas. Were Twitter, Instagram and the like part of your thought process as you created this experience?
Yes, this concept started as an attempt to visualise and humanise social media followers, with our project Disciples.
Could “Emergence” be considered an existential video game? If so, have you invented a whole new genre?
I hope so :)
I’m a huge admirer of David O’Reily—he subverts the game genre so well.
What’s next for Universal Everything?
A monograph book about our studio is being published in spring 2019, by United Editions.
We plan on exploring VR immersive experiences for well-being and healthcare, allowing people to face their fears, as well as physical immersive experiences in collaboration with architects.