Discussion on Georgia O’Keeffe’s approach to abstraction, and how the museum engages audiences and tells her full story.
Words PLUS MAGAZINE
In the exhibition spaces of teamLab’s Borderless Museum in Tokyo, boulder-sized flower petals twirl and flit in infinite space, encapsulating visitors as they lay on a mirrored floor. Bushels of animated cherry blossoms sprout as patrons press their palms on the gallery walls, creating an entire self-contained ecosystem with the help of other visitors. In these rooms, with floors and walls shrouded in light projections and mirrors, space becomes boundless, and time feels limitless.
As an art collective, teamLab’s ambitions feel similarly boundless. The group is composed of hundreds of architects, programmers, engineers, designers, CG animators, and mathematicians who operate their own permanent art spaces. They aim to explore the very nature of human existence through their large-scale light and sound installations.
And this ambitiousness is warranted. Over the past several years, their work has become invariably praised by the audience. Since their self-run museum’s opening in 2018, it has become one of the most popular single-artist museums in the world, and their interactive, larger-than-life spectacles are universal.
At its core, teamLab seeks to create social change and reconfigure the traditional capitalist structures that define the art industry. In their interactive environments, teamLab aims to create opportunities for visitors to interact with each other and enjoy each other’s presence. They aim to break down borders: borders between individuals, borders between the natural world and humanity, and borders between artworks and visitors. This new ‘borderless’ world that teamLab proposes is built on collaboration and equity, but above all, on love for one another.
PLUS: When teamLab was formed in 2001, there were very few, if any, art collectives that engaged with advanced, interactive digital technology. What propelled you to start teamLab, and what were those early days like? Did people understand your vision?
teamLab: Since 2001, our aim has always been to change people’s standards of value and contribute to societal progress. In fact, that hasn’t changed since the very start. However, at the beginning of our journey, we didn’t have the opportunity to present them, nor could we imagine how to economically sustain our teams producing art. But, we believed in the power of digital technology and creativity, and we fell in love with it. We just wanted to keep creating something new, no matter which genre it would turn out to be.
As time went on, while we gained passionate followers among young people, we were still ignored by the Japanese art world. Our debut finally came in 2011 at the Kaikai Kiki Gallery in Taipei, thanks to the artist Takashi Murakami. Since then, we have gained opportunities in cosmopolitan cities such as Singapore, where we joined the Singapore Biennale in 2013. Also, in 2014, PACE Gallery in New York started to help promote our artworks. These fortunate factors allowed us to expand rapidly.
P: It’s incredible to see how teamLab has evolved over the years externally and internally. You have grown from a small team to a collective with several hundred employees, and it has maintained a non-hierarchical, interdependent structure from the very beginning—no one has a job title. How do you manage to collaborate on such a large scale?
teamLab: We like to say teamLab is a laboratory, a place for experimental creations. Our organizational structure seems flat at first glance, but it might be more accurately characterized as “multidimensional.” Our creative process is defined by its “multidimensionality,” meaning that members with different skill sets create work together by crossing boundaries between their fields of interest, sharing what we call, “transferable knowledge.” This process of sharing is where our strength as an entire group lays. We want to be with people who want to take a step into a new world. People who are creative, who want to change the world.
What makes teamLab unique is not the technological advancement, but the fact that we’re able to do massive art projects simultaneously worldwide in-house at a high speed – to the extent that no one has been able to do before.
With several hundred strong specialists, the team has become bigger than ever as we increased the size of our own team, our own funds, as well as the number of people who are willing to support what we want to do, because of our more widespread recognition. What is really interesting (and often chaotic) with teamLab is that while we combine relatively new technologies, we turn our ideas into visuals and scales that no one has ever imagined and execute everything with an in-house team.
P: Can you briefly walk us through your creative process (from the initial idea to production to installation)?
teamLab: Creating artwork is always difficult and our works are created by a team of hands-on experts through a continuous process of creation and thinking. Although the large concepts are always defined from the start, the project goal tends to remain unclear, so we need the whole team to create and think as we go along. Once the concept of the project is set, we gather specialized members related to the work and think more finely. For example, the Forest of Flowers and People (2018): Lost, Immersed and Reborn, which is in teamLab Borderless in Tokyo, was created with a specialist who creates 3D CG flower model and animation, a 3D software programmer, an engineer who designs equipment such as projectors, a software programmer who localizes and integrates dozens of projectors within the space, an architect, and so on.
After we gather the project goal and technical feasibility also goes hand in hand. This is why the goal of the artwork becomes more clearly defined as the team progresses in its work.
P: Do you see any sort of relationship between the kind of digital media you use in your work and “everyday” sorts of digital technology like video games and smartphones?
teamLab: Video games, smartphones, and the internet are all interactive in the sense that you have to intentionally involve yourself by logging in. What we are focused on is connecting this sense of interactivity with art. But unlike smartphones and other sorts of technology that are meant for personal use, we want to make digital technology that is usable by multiple people at once. In traditional art exhibitions, the presence of other viewers is an obstruction; you feel lucky if you happen to be alone at an exhibition. But by digitizing a space, we can indirectly change the relationships between the people inside.
Our work is interactive, meaning that it responds directly to your physical presence—to your touch, to your movements—and thus, you alter and become a part of the artwork itself. When there are other visitors in the space with you, the artwork changes based on their presence as well. And if that change is beautiful, the presence of others can be something beautiful as well. By connecting digital technology and art, we think the presence of others can be made more positive.
P: Your exhibitions blur the boundary between reality and digital existence. To some extent, in experiencing your work, the visitor starts to feel closer to the digital realm than to reality.
teamLab: That is interesting to hear. Our artwork is participatory by making it interactive. The relationship between the artwork and the individual then becomes a relationship between the artwork and the group. Whether or not another viewer was present within that space five minutes before, or the particular behavior exhibited by the person next to you suddenly becomes an element of great importance. At the very least, compared to traditional art viewing, people will become more aware of those around them. Art now has the ability to influence the relationship between the people standing in front of the artwork.
“Art now has the ability to influence the relationship between the people standing in front of the artwork.”
P: How does the decision process work behind the dimension of each exhibition? Each space varies in size and shape and wonders how this component acts in providing a better experience for the audience.
teamLab: In most cases, we look at the space and then work on the artwork, rather than creating an artwork then searching for space. One of the advantages of digital technology is that it can be produced to suit any space— you could project an artwork on a 6-meter-wide wall, or you could project it on a 60-meter-wide wall. In this sense, we make use of the dimensions and spatial qualities of an exhibition space when creating the artwork. Of course, it would also be wonderful if we could create an entire space from scratch one day.
P: Your work often invokes the visual aesthetics of pre-modern Japan, incorporating bold linework and an understanding of ‘ultra-subjective space.’ What role do Japanese history and culture play in your work and mission at large?
teamLab: Rather than “Japanese history” or “Japanese culture,” we have tried the science expression of the pre-modern era in general that has provided us with a new perspective to explore in our art. Discovering the logical structure of pre-modern spatial recognition. Because our works are based on that logical structure, people can walk and see the artwork freely from anywhere, without limiting their point of view.
Until the late 19th century, people in Asia depicted the world differently than today. This ancient sense of spatial recognition has been lost in modern times. With our work, we explore whether the world itself has changed spatially, or if people have lost sight of how they once saw things.
Traditional East Asian painting is generally described as “flat.” We believe that our ancestors saw the world exactly as depicted in ancient paintings, to the same extent that contemporary people conceptualize space as seen in modern perspective-based paintings or photos. In other words, we believe that our forebears developed a logical structure of spatial recognition that differs from the Western Renaissance perspective.
P: Your exhibitions are distinguished for their awe-inspiring computer-generated visuals and animation, but the sound is also an important, ubiquitous feature of your work. How do you build soundtracks and what specific role does sonic experience play in your immersive exhibitions?
teamLab: This varies from work to work and exhibition to exhibition, but we often create our sounds and music in-house or with a frequent collaborator Hideaki Takahashi. For many installations, sounds are designed to respond to the presence of visitors.
For example, in our new permanent exhibition Resonating Life in the Acorn Forest, the artworks react in both visual and aural ways to visitors. The exhibition features over 100 light-responsive ovular sculptures spread across the ground of a large wooden area. At night, these ovoid sculptures radiate liquified light colors, illuminating the surrounding garden in bright blues and pinks. When a visitor touches an ovoid, a sound resonates out, and the ovoid changes color. The touch provokes a chain reaction, and the ovoids around it also respond one after another, emitting the same light color and making the same tone sound that continues to resonate out.
P: Through works like Sketch Aquarium, you have singled out children as a key audience. How do you envision your work and digital art at large functioning in children’s growth and education?
teamLab: Humans are naturally collaborative and creative, but current educational models stifle creativity and use standardized assessments to assert that there are right answers and wrong answers, that there are right ways to solve problems and wrong ways to solve problems. Free thinking and eccentric behavior are suppressed. In these models, students become afraid to make mistakes and lose their confidence and natural creativity. However, in the real world, there are no problems that have only one correct answer. Often, the correct answer ten years ago is now incorrect. By creating new solutions that solve problems in unconventional ways, new correct answers are born. It is creativity that allows us to overcome problems that cannot be defined as either correct or incorrect. Humans learn about the world through interaction with others and by sharing experiences. People think with their bodies as they move through the world, and society has developed through creative activities born from collaboration.
We hope to turn individual creative acts into co-creative activities in which people freely work together. Hopefully, through enjoying the experience of co-creation, people will be able to explore more shared creativity in their daily lives. It was from such a desire that the projects like Sketch Aquarium were born.
P: How do you think digital art will evolve in the next decade? What new technologies does teamLab hope to explore in the future?
teamLab: Artificial intelligence and machinery could replace much of the existing work that we know of today. In a future society, traits that only humans possess, such as creativity, will become increasingly important. In other words, we believe that collaborative creativity will become one of the most important traits for people to possess. In the future societies, cities, and other real spaces will become digital. We believe that AR technology will allow individual digital devices and cities to affect each other, and that individual people will have the ability to create changes in the cities around them.
P: teamLab is unique in that it operates both outside of and within the art world’s conventional channels. Most recently, you had an exhibition at Superblue in Miami. What have been the most challenging aspects of operating within the art world? And what would you like to see change within the industry in the future?
teamLab: Unlike a lot of exhibitions in the art world, none of the individuals who visit our shows can own the artworks: they can’t “have” them, but they can “be” with them. Today’s society drives us to “have/possess” which imposes limits and sows division. This simple structure of capitalism bounds us, but the internet and the digital world beyond that have no limitations. In the digital world, you can’t “have” but you can “be.” Our artwork is shared in the same way. We wanted to make something that will reach people’s hearts.
We are, of course, always honored to work with museums and galleries to bring our work to the world. Like we mentioned, collaborating is crucial to us, whether or not our collaborators also seek to manifest social change through art. We hope to collaborate with many more partners in the art world who wish to improve the lives of people through immersive installations. What is most important to us is to unite with people who envision the same kind of future as we do.
P: You have often described the desire to “expand the notion of beautiful” through art. What exactly does the term ‘beauty’ signify for teamLab?
teamLab: Our intention is to change people’s standards of beauty, even if it requires a great deal of time. Beauty is difficult to understand. Evolution explains some instances: we initially perceived other humans to be “beautiful” because it served a reproductive purpose. But at some point in history, humans saw flowers and thought that they were “beautiful” too. Evolution doesn’t fully explain why that is.
Why did we humans attribute the same idea of “beautiful” to both targets for reproduction and flowers? In theory, we should have used different words for these two completely unrelated concepts, so the fact that we conceive of them, in the same way, is quite miraculous.
When ancient human beings saw flowers as “beautiful,” they expanded the definition of beauty. At teamLab, we believe that art is an act of modern people creating their own flowers, an act of expanding the notion of “beautiful.” We hope that 30 or 50 years in the future, these standards of beauty will change people’s behavior little by little in ways that will allow humanity to continue to grow and thrive.
P: Are you optimistic about the future in general?
teamLab: When looking at the world through an intellectual lens, it’s clear that the problems that we face as a society are overflowing, and it’s easy to feel hopeless about it all. In this era, we think what’s more important, at least as an artist, is to seek out and affirm the idealistic part of humanity and present fictional, visionary ideas for the future. By “fictional,” we don’t mean simple fictions like manga or video games; we mean a utopian worldview that may eventually be realized.
There are problems that cannot be solved at this very moment, but our art suggests that we may be able to create an ideal world by connecting the hints found in the long history of humanity. We find it more important to create the world than to criticize the world.
Discussion on Georgia O’Keeffe’s approach to abstraction, and how the museum engages audiences and tells her full story.
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