5th June 2020

Since its beginnings in 2001, teamLab has grown to become a global art collective, known for its incredibly immersive installations. arc speaks to the group about its quest to transcend the boundaries of perception.

Anyone who has taken even a cursory glance at any design publication or website over the past few years will no doubt be familiar with the work of teamLab. The global art collective has built a reputation since its formation in 2001 for creating breathtaking, immersive art installations that push the boundaries of technology and design, leaving a lasting impression on all who experience them.

Founded in Japan by Toshiyuki Inoko and several of his friends with the goal of creating a “laboratory to experiment in collaborative creation,” the collective has since expanded to become an international, interdisciplinary group of specialists across a wide spectrum of sectors. This includes artists, programmers, engineers, CG animators, mathematicians and architects, whose collaborative practice seeks to “navigate the confluence of art, science, technology and the natural world”.

Since its inception, teamLab has sought to create new experiences through art and, through these experiences, explore what the world is for humans. The collective explained: “teamLab aims to explore the relationship between the self and the world and new perceptions through art.

“In order to understand the world around them, people separate it into independent entities with perceived boundaries between them. teamLab seeks to transcend these boundaries in our perception of the world, of the relationship between the self and the world, and the continuity of time.”

Although the collective now has a worldwide reach, with exhibitions around the globe, it took a long time for teamLab to establish itself within the art and design world. “In the beginning, teamLab had neither the opportunity to present ourselves, nor could we imagine how to economically sustain our art creation,” the collective explained.

“On the other hand, we believed in the power of digital technology and creativity and kept creating something new, no matter what genre it would turn out to be. While we took part in various projects to sustain ourselves, we increased the number of technologists, such as architects, CG animators, painters and hardware engineers.”

As time went on, teamLab was able to gain a passionate, young following but was largely ignored by the art world, until in 2011, when the collective was invited by artist Takashi Murakami to make its debut at the Kaikai Kiki Gallery in Taipei with a series of installations.

From there, teamLab gained opportunities to join major contemporary art exhibitions around the world, such as the Singapore Biennale in 2013, while in 2014 the New York PACE Gallery started to help promote teamLab artworks. Such opportunities allowed teamLab to expand rapidly, culminating in the collective organising its own exhibition in Tokyo in 2015. 

“This further accelerated our evolution and gave us opportunities to exhibit internationally in New York, London, Paris, Singapore, Silicon Valley, Beijing, Taipei and Melbourne, among other cities,” the collective added.

Working across a range of different specialisms, teamLab says that its creativity is based on “multidimensionality”, where members with different specialties create together by crossing their boundaries, as well as their “transferrable knowledge” – a type of knowledge that can be shared and reused.

As a result, teamLab generates what it calls “collective creation”, the creation of something of a higher quality by a group, which they feel strengthens the entire team.

“We believe that teamLab is truly an art collective in the sense that our artworks are created from conception to realisation in-house. Our exhibitions 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 wider concept is set, the collective gathers specialised members relating to that particular project, to then fine-tune the plans. For example, its Forest of Flowers and People: Lost, Immersed and Reborn piece, located in the MORI Building DIGITAL ART MUSEUM: teamLab Borderless in Tokyo, was created with a specialist who creates 3D CG flower models and animation, a 3D software programmer, an engineer who designs equipment such as projectors, a software programmer who localises and integrates dozens of projectors within the space, and an architect.

A vital feature within teamLab’s work is the use of light; whether this is through digital projections on pieces such as Drawing on the Water Surface Created by the Dance of Koi and People – Infinity and Universe of Water Particles on a Rock Where People Gather, or a more transformative, immersive effect on installations such as Light Vortex and the Floating Nest, where viewers are placed at the heart of a swirling, colourful light show.

“Light is an essential part of teamLab’s work,” said founder Toshiyuki Inoko. “We use immaterial digital technology, such as light, to create artworks that encourage people to rethink their perception of the world.

“For instance, we exhibited an artwork of lamps that uses traditional Kasane no Irome colours in our annual summer exhibition in Mifuneyama Rakuen – teamLab: A Forest Where Gods Live.

“We decided to use the summer forest of Mifuneyama Rakuen as our colour scheme when making our lamps, but the colour did not look natural and it wound up with the atmosphere of a neon city like Kabukicho [Tokyo’s Red Light District]. When we were thinking about what to do, we remembered that in premodern kimono culture, there was a technique known as Kasane no Irome, in which multiple colours were blended together to create a single new colour.

“Silk was such a thin substance in those times that, for instance, you could make the front side white and the back side red to create something that looked pink. The colour is created by layering materials, so the graduation changes depending on air entry. The Kasane no Irome colours are fixed for each season, and green is often used in summer. So by setting the bright colour to that of summer flowers, then fading to green when the light dims, the neon-likeness disappears and we were able to bring out the naturalness of a summer forest.

“Originally, nature was made up of nothing but graduations, but by creating artificial boundaries, humans created the concept of colours. This work is full of graduations, because each lamp shines with light at different times before slowly fading, making it feel more natural.”

“Digital technology allows artistic expression to be released from the material world, gaining the ability to change form freely,” the collective added. “The environments where viewers and artworks are placed together allow us to decide how to express those changes.

“In art installations with the viewers on one side and interactive artworks on the other, the artworks themselves undergo changes caused by the presence and behaviour of the viewers. This has the effect of blurring the boundary between the two sides. The viewers actually become part of the artworks themselves.”

This interactivity, where viewers are immersed into the alternate reality of the installations, has become a calling card for teamLab, and is something that the collective seeks to instil in each of its exhibitions.

“Video games, smartphones and the internet are all interactive when you involve yourself intentionally. However, what teamLab focuses on is connecting interactivity with art,” explained Inoko. “A type of interactivity we pursue is one in which your presence transforms the work, whether or not you intend to do so. If you find a change caused by someone else to be beautiful, that person’s presence may become beautiful as well.

“Types of art we have seen so far often find the presence of other viewers more of an obstruction. You feel very lucky if you happen to be alone at an exhibition. But what teamLab aims to do is to be able to feel the presence of others as something more beautiful than ever before.”

“Creative expression has existed through static media for most of human history, often using physical objects such as canvas and paint. The advent of digital technology allows human expression to become free from these physical constraints, enabling it to exist independently and evolve freely,” teamLab added.

“No longer limited to physical media, digital technology has made it possible for artworks to expand physically. Since art created using digital technology can easily expand, it provides us with a greater degree of autonomy within the space. We are able to manipulate and use much larger spaces, and viewers are able to experience the artwork more directly.”

While teamLab’s varied portfolio of artworks has seen it exhibit in museums and galleries around the world, the collective cites its first large-scale solo exhibition, teamLab Dance! Art Exhibition and Learn and Play! teamLab Future Park at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Mirai-kan) in Tokyo as the moment that really put it into the collective consciousness of the art community. The exhibition marked the first time that teamLab gathered a number of its previously showcased artworks under one roof. Incorporating its art exhibition with Learn and Play! teamLab Future Park, the collective combined both new and old artworks with a unique amusement park, giving visitors the chance to experience the full spectrum of the group’s fascinating collection of work.

The large-scale exhibition, which featured a total of 18 works, was considered a huge success by teamLab, attracting nearly half a million visitors across its six-month tenure from November 2014 to May 2015. This success led to a permanent exhibition at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore, and the annual outdoor summer exhibition at Mifuneyama Rakuen.

It also spawned the creation of teamLab Borderless, the group’s own permanent museum space. Now with two locations – Tokyo, opened in June 2018, and Shanghai, opened in November 2019 – teamLab Borderless is a “group of artworks that form one borderless world. Artworks move out of rooms, communicate with other works, influence and sometimes intermingle with each other with no boundaries.”

Spread across 10,000sqm, the Tokyo museum features around 60 teamLab artworks across five separate “worlds” – Borderless World, comprising the majority of the art installations; Athletics Forest, a “creative physical space that is based on the concept of understanding the world through the body and thinking of the world three-dimensionally”; Future Park, an educational project based on teamLab’s philosophy of collaborative creativity and co-creation; EN TEA HOUSE, which incorporates teamLab’s immersive artwork into a floral tea café; and Forest of Lamps, housing arguably teamLab’s most iconic installation, Forest of Resonating Lamps – One Stroke.

The installation harnesses the Kasane no Irome technique which, combined with a series of Murano glass lamps, creates a vast, never-ending play of light and colour. On entering the installation, one lamp shines brightly, emitting a colour that resonates out. This light acts as a starting point, before spreading to the two nearest lamps, which then transmit the same colour to other lamps, spreading the light out continuously until the entire space shines brightly.

Although seemingly scattered throughout the room randomly, the arrangement of the lamps is mathematically determined, with a number of solutions evaluated so that the variation and distribution in height, direction of the lamp and smoothness of the three-dimensional path was determined. Light travels to the lamp it is physically closest to, giving it a natural feeling, while teamLab believes that the arrangement is “not only beautiful in a static way, but also in a dynamic way when activated by people in the space, and in a continuous way. It demonstrates the space of a new era that adapts and changes due to the movement of people in it.”

teamLab Borderless has, since its opening, become one of the most-visited museums dedicated to works by a single artist in the world, becoming a pilgrimage for art, design and light aficionados. In its first year, teamLab Borderless in Tokyo welcomed 2.3 million visitors from more than 160 different countries, and Communications Director Takashi Kudo believes that it is the experiential epitome of teamLab’s creative ethos.

“Art is something we can’t explain with words, and history will decide whether our output qualifies as art. If we can change people’s minds, then it’s art,” he said.

“We human beings have emotions and we also have something that we can’t explain with words – it’s cool, it’s beautiful and it’s fun. What teamLab Borderless does is underpin the impossibility to ‘have’. None of our visitors can own the artworks. They can’t ‘have’, but they can ‘be’. Today’s society drives us to ‘have’, which imposes limits and division. This simple structure of capitalism bounds us, but the internet and the digital world beyond have no limitations. At the same time, you don’t technically own anything on Google or Facebook, but you’re part of the community. Therefore you can’t ‘have’ but you can ‘be’. Our artwork is shared the same way. We wanted to make something that will reach people’s hearts.”

As teamLab Borderless continues to attract visitors from around the world the collective was due to open its third large-scale permanent exhibition this year – teamLab SuperNature Macao. However, due to Covid-19, this has been postponed until further notice. The concept behind teamLab SuperNature is to create a “single, massive world that aims to explore new perceptions of the world and the continuity between humans and nature”.

Intended to be a “body-immersive” exhibition, it’s centred around a group of works that blur the boundaries between people’s bodies and art. “People immerse their bodies in art with others, influencing and becoming a part of the artworks themselves, and thereby recognising the continuity between the self and the world,” the collective said.

For founder Toshiyuki Inoko, teamLab SuperNature is a culmination of everything that the art collective has been working towards, bridging the gap between art and science, and exploring the deepest realms of human perception and understanding.

“Science raises the resolution of the world. When humans want to know the world, they recognise it by separating things. For example, the universe and the Earth are continuous, however humans recognise the Earth by separating it from the universe. To understand the forest, humans break it down into trees, then cut the tree into cells, and so on,” he said.

“But in the end, no matter how much humans divide things into pieces, they cannot understand the entirety. People try to grasp the entirety by making each thing separate and independent, but the more they separate, the farther they become from the overall perception.

“How can we go beyond the boundaries of recognition? Through art, I wanted to transcend the boundaries of our own recognition. I wanted to transcend human characteristics or tendencies to recognise the continuity.

“Art is a search for what the world is for humans. Art expands and enhances ‘beauty’. Art has changed the way people perceive the world. Groups move by logic, but individuals decide their actions by beauty, their behaviours are determined not by rationality but by aesthetics. In other words, ‘beauty’ is the fundamental root of human behaviour. Art expands this notion of ‘beauty’; art is what changes people’s behaviour.

“It may be the whole world or only a part of the entirety, but it is art that captures and expresses it without dividing it. Art is a process to approach the whole, and by sharing it with others, the way people perceive the world changes. Through the enjoyment of art, the notion of ‘beautiful’ expands and spreads, which in turn changes people’s perceptions of the world.

“Everything exists in a long, fragile yet miraculous continuity over an extremely long period of time. Through our work, teamLab aims to create an experience through which visitors recognise this continuity itself as beautiful, changing and increasing the way we perceive the world.”

The Infinite Crystal Universe showcases teamLab’s signature immersive aesthetic, creating an otherworldly experience for participants. (Exhibition view of teamLab SuperNature Macao, 2020, The Venetian Macao, Macao) Pic: © teamLab, courtesy of Pace Gallery