The digital age sits on a foundation of paradoxes. Social networks connect us, but we remain physically apart. Digital tools for collective action, from crowdfunding to online petitions, rarely bring us together. All too often, technology stimulates our minds but leaves our bodies inactive. Can these contradictions between the digital and physical be reconciled? TeamLab, a 400-person Japanese art collective, thinks they can—by bringing people together in the physical world to experience stunning interactive digital installations. We spoke to the group to get a better sense of how they bridge this gap.
The brainchild of a group of programmers, designers, and engineers, teamLab was founded in 2001, the year the iPod came out and the tech bubble burst. The founders, a collection of programmers, designers and engineers, were fascinated by the new world to which digital technology had given rise. “We were creating art installations from the beginning, but we had neither the opportunities to present them, nor could we imagine how to economically sustain our team by producing art,” says Rio Nishiyama, a spokesperson and member of the group. “On the other hand, we believed in the power of digital technology and creativity.”
Fifteen years later, teamLab has grown considerably, both in sheer size as well as in international renown. The collective, which now includes architects, CGI animators, painters, mathematicians, and engineers, occupies three floors of a Tokyo building, and its work is included in the collections of the Borusan Contemporary in Istanbul and The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.
TeamLab sustains its enormous operation—400 people and 250-plus major installations to date and counting—by supplementing sales of its installations with commercial work in Japan. “Artists in the U.S. might lose credibility in a blue-chip art market by doing commercial entertainment,” says Christiane Paul, an associate professor at the New School’s School of Media Studies and an adjunct curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, who is currently curating a teamLab exhibition in Turkey. In Japan, she says, there is more fluidity between fine art and commercial design.
Like all things best experienced in person, teamLab’s art can be hard to describe. They are similar in spirit to large-scale digital, light, and sound installations by artists such as James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson in that they immerse viewers in an alternate reality. But teamLab’s installations also go a step further by making the experience interactive.
In a piece called “Flowers and People, Cannot be Controlled but Live Together” on display at the Pace Gallery in Menlo Park, California, constellations of digital flowers are projected onto a wall in a darkened room, sprouting, blooming, and eventually dying. The flowers have a sort of primal intelligence: When a new person enters the room, they react; when someone reaches out to touch them, petals scatter, and a shimmer flutters through the piece. Thus, to experience the piece is also to help shape it. “Every project is created as an interaction between people,” says Paul. “Their work is almost never about a single user. There’s a very connective social aspect.”
“Flowers and People” is part of a much larger joint initiative with the Pace Gallery called Pace Art + Technology. The installation, “Living Digital Space and Future Parks,” is teamLab’s largest American project to date, fitting 20 works within 20,000 square feet. That’s just a bit smaller than the indoor portion of the average American theme park. The gallery initially expected 30,000 visitors, but 150,000 have come since the installation opened in February.
The Pace installations reflect Silicon Valley’s technological progress, but not its mindset. “The extension of the mind has become the focus for Silicon Valley,” says Nishiyama. “Personal computers and smartphones are extensions of the mind, Twitter is an extension of a person’s statements, and Facebook is an extension of our personal relationships.” In contrast, teamLab focuses on physical experiences that are extensions of the body.
The influence of Japanese culture is obvious in the group’s work—both in the priority placed on collective authorship and experiences and frequent references to Japan’s long legacy of nature painting. In a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Southern Australia called “Ever Blossoming Life,” teamLab pays explicit homage to traditional Japanese flower paintings on gold leaf, with a computer algorithm sending digital flowers through life cycles drawn in real time, and never the same ones twice.
As the group’s renown has grown, so, too, has the scale and ambition of its work. The Turkish installation, slated to open in 2021, features a 330-foot tunnel. TeamLab intends to continue designing large-scale spaces where visitors are completely immersed in large-scale art, but they also want to bring their work out of the gallery and into the urban environment, as they did by projecting of a shimmering waterfall hologram on the façade of the Grand Palais in Paris last year. “Digital technology isn’t hindered by spatial limitations,” says Nishiyama. “That’s why we claim that ‘our paint is light; our canvas is everywhere.’”