The beautiful game: Matt Pyke talks football and digital art for Museums at Night

By Mark Sheerin | 09 May 2014

We interview Matt Pyke from Universal Everything about his real time voice reactive digital work set destined for the National Football Museum, Manchester

Colour photo of an artist in a yellow t-shirt
© Universal Everything
It is said that more of us go to art galleries than football matches. But for those who love both art and football, there is only one place to be on May 15 during Museums at Night. Artist Matt Pyke has an away fixture at the National Football Museum in Manchester.

“We're creating a new digital interactive installation,” he tells me. “It's screen based, so it will be a large projection format and the way it works: it's sound reactive, so we'd call it a digital sculpture that's projected into the space.”

Just like being at a match, you can raise your voice, interact and watch the drama unfold. Pyke’s display is also ball-shaped, “quite a spherical faceted object, which is reminiscent of a football, so there’s a tenuous link”.

But the artist says that groups of hardcore supporters chanting into the mic just won’t work. Unlike the terraces of Old Trafford or the Etihad, sometimes a quiet word will do. And if certain sounds are made, Pyke promises "hidden surprises".

“There's this performance element, in terms of the more input you have with your voice the more vivid and energetic the transformations of the sculpture are,” says the artist. “There’s this interplay between the audience member’s voice and how the artwork is changing”.

Pyke is the driving force behind Universal Everything, a digital design studio who have made work for blue chip brands like Hyundai, AOL and MTV in locations around the world. He has so far brought his fluid, transformative ‘sculptures’ to cities as far flung as Milan, New York and Beijing.

Colour photo of a lightshow in a darkened room
Previous work by Matt Pyke© Universal Everything
But despite such an impressive track record, this is the first time Universal Everything will have tried anything “intimately interactive in real time”. Their platform with a mic on it promises to be every bit as thrilling as a visit to the penalty spot.

Like many artists who take part, Museums at Night has brought Pyke to a venue he might never have come to before. He is enthusiastic about the museum, about the architecture and the people working there. “I think it's certainly a good challenge for us compared with just working in a white cube type of space," he says.

What’s more, it is not lost on the artist that he takes on “one of the epicentres of football in the world”. Manchester is a footballing city and football fans may well have swayed the public vote to bring Pyke to the Football Museum for Museums at Night.

“With the World Cup this year, culturally, it’s just a really interesting space to be working with,” he tells me. “I think the work will have a really nice link into the buzz which is happening around the world of football at the moment.”

Football and art are strange bedfellows. Despite the sport’s long history there have been no great football paintings in the artistic cannon. And when a contemporary artist does tackle the beautiful game, it proves the exception rather than the rule.

“That’s why I was quite intrigued by it,” says Pyke. “They’re two different cultures that rarely mix.” He does mention the famed Douglas Gordon film about Zidane, which tracked the footballer for 90 minutes of a match played for Real Madrid.

“I think the crossover into mass popular culture is, again, really interesting,” he says and appears to like the idea of “people passionately getting involved and shouting away at it”. It’s not a level of unbridled passion you see very often at, say, Tate Modern.

But whether football fans or not, it is hoped that many visitors will summon the nerve to get on the mic and set Pyke’s interactive sculpture in motion. “It will be interesting to see how expressive people are,” he says.

“You set up this framework for people to behave, and then the human behaviour emerges naturally from it”, says the artist, who can base his observations on his worldwide travels.

“It depends on different cultures, in different cultures people are much more shy or more outgoing. But it will be interesting to see what happens in Manchester,” he says. “In fact, you could whisper into that microphone and it could create a really beautiful effect”.

So Museums at Night promises to be as attractive as an evening kick off between United and City, played out under the floodlights. “I think it’s a really interesting venture,” says Pyke of the nationwide attempt to bring culture to the evening.

Pyke also says he is excited by the compressed time frame. It may exceed 90 minutes, but the evening won’t feel much longer. “It’s a really nice compressed social experiment,” he says.

“We can get a new piece out there and really observe how people interact with it and see how it can grow naturally from what we learn there.”

Museums at Night, of course, is not quite a social experiment. But the outcomes are anything but predictable - much like a local derby.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More from Museums at Night:

Lifesaver: Amy Sharrocks talks about her coastal mass stumble for Museums at Night

Volunteers share all: Spencer Tunick talks about his daring project for Museums at Night

Welsh chorus: Janette Parris tells us how she will bring music to Museums at Night

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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