United Visual Artists at Printworks: A ghost in the wiring of the old factory

Known for their transformations of space and light, United Visual Artists were invited to reactivate Printworks for its post-lockdown opening in 2021. Their installation imagined Europe’s largest former printing factory as home to a curious and enigmatic being.

As a canvas for artists, Printworks presents both an astounding opportunity and a serious challenge. Formerly the largest printing factory in Western Europe, producing newspapers such as the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail, its main space is more than 100 metres long, with a ceiling height of almost 17 metres. Big spaces are not easy to fill. Paintings lose their impact in such cavernous rooms, only the most monumental sculpture can hold its own. Printworks is in many ways the exact opposite of the white cube model of art galleries – places that are sanitised, featureless and quiet.

For Matt Clark of United Visual Artists (UVA), who were commissioned by Broadwick Group to make a new work for the site in 2021, this was exactly its appeal. ‘As you walk around’, he said, recalling his first visit to the venue, ‘you can’t help but be awestruck by the architecture and how the spaces feel like they go on forever. And there’s also the remnants of the industrial machinery’. Rather than as a space to show art, Clark and his team looked at Printworks as a potential work of art in itself. They wanted to highlight its unique history and character, and to draw out the creature within.

The resulting installation used light to ‘reawaken’ the space following the successive coronavirus lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. It celebrated the industrial bones of the building, with coloured lights turning the messy leftovers of printing into glowing, sculptural pieces. The white factory-style lights that run down the main space were programmed into a pulsing, seemingly impossibly complex rhythm, somewhere between clubnight strobing and a glitching-out machine; a ghost in the wiring of the old printworks.

The idea of hidden life was central to UVA’s design. The ‘intention was to create a kind of curious machine that had awakened in the venue’, Clark explains, a sentient being that would ‘manifest its personality through light and information’. This information is presented in the form of scrolling lines of code and images on a giant vertical screen at one end of the Press Halls. At one moment, orbs of coloured light float up and down the screen, pulse and vanish in a mesmerising dance. Images range from the static of terrestrial television to renaissance sculpture. Text appears as computer programming, with the thoughts of a non-human being: ‘AM I ALAN? ARE YOU ALAN? AM I A SIMULATION?’, the being wonders. At other times, the words ‘EMPATHY’ and ‘FEEL’ are repeated over and over, appearing diagonally across the screen like a robot’s attempt at concrete poetry.

‘It attempts to have a dialogue with the audience. It wants to understand how we communicate, how we identify, what our interests are and our culture. . .trying to understand both itself and human behaviour’.

The commission brought the building to life between shows, but also served as a spectacular backdrop for the A/W season of Printworks’ programme. From September 21 to May 2022, UVA’s transformation of Printworks was activated by live shows from artists including Jeff Mills, The Chemical Brothers, Erol Alkan, Mor Elian and Special Request. In a performance setting, UVA’s lightshows, projections and architectural trickery came into their own. The building itself felt alive, capturing the power of live music to make you feel the world anew.

United Visual Artists have worked across art, music and culture, blurring the lines between high art and subculture with their technologically advanced, immersive environments. They have worked with musicians such as James Blake and Massive Attack while also receiving commissions from world-leading museums and arts institutions, including the Barbican, Manchester International Festival and the V&A. Much of UVA’s success comes from the diversity of the collective: Clark is a trained artist, while the other two founding members, Chris Bird and Ash Nehru, have backgrounds in technical production and computer science.

UVA’s interaction of new media with information technology is particularly fitting for Printworks, a former hub for generating information made obsolete by the unimaginable changes over the last century to the way we produce and consume media. It is a place in flux, but the installation suggests something of its ineffable spirit remains. As Clark says, ‘for now, there are humans behind the scenes at Printworks, but in the future… who knows’.