Digital Dreamscapes

teamlab1CANTOR AUDITORIUM — The two men from teamLab were an odd couple.

Before an audience of twenty, Takashi Kudo—slight, impish—quickly established himself as the spokesperson for the pair. Owlish eyeglasses and a tendency towards gesticulation lent him an earnestness to contrast with an otherwise severe ensemble: a long, black button-up; a t-shirt to match; a bright green mohawk that ended, inexplicably, in a manbun.

Toshiyuki Inoko, hunched over the lectern, spoke in low tones and watched as Takashi translated. Toshiyuki moved with an easy languor, wore a denim jacket over a white t-shirt with joggers, and seemed every bit the urban greaser to Takashi’s minimalist punk.

 teamLab, at its inception, might’ve seemed a marriage of opposites. Founded in 2001 by Toshiyuki, the arts collective initially consisted of a handful of artists and engineers (communications director Takashi holds degrees in philosophy and literature; Toshiyuki, in physics and information technology). Today, teamLab has over 400 members and has shown work in Paris, San Francisco, London, and Beijing, among others, and is currently showing artwork at the Pace Art + Technology Gallery in Menlo Park. The melding of art and technology is a buzzy motif in modern art—how else are we to reconcile analog art with a wired, wired world?—but teamLab’s efforts are a true-blue union of the two.


In his lecture, Takashi recounted the sometimes one-sided process of viewing traditional art. Jostled by a crowd of admirers before Leonardo’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre, Takashi realized that his fellow museum goers were a nuisance. “The relation between art and people was one-by-one,” he explained. “[teamLab’s] artwork makes viewing collaborative.” To that end, Toshiyuki and teamLab have labored to create immersive, experiential wonderlands that adapt to their viewers. Far from passively observing oils on canvas, a visitor to teamLab works “Floating Flower Field,” “Flutter of Butterflies Beyond Borders,” or “Crystal Universe” will find themselves in conversation with the artwork and other viewers.

Floor, ceiling, and four walls react to a visitor’s presence and touch—in “A Whole Year Per Hour,” digital flowers die at the touch of a hand and grow on unmoving objects. Once, Takashi recalled, a large group of museum goers flooded into the exhibit, only to find that the flowers had all died from an influx of human presence. One man proposed that the group leave the room and enter, in smaller groups or alone, to observe the flowers. They did–and the flowers flourished.

Takashi projected a photo of himself lying fast asleep on the floor of the installment, speckled with the images of dozens of blossoms. They’d covered his motionless body over the course of his nap. A colleague had snapped the photo, he said, having found the spectacle oddly beautiful. “And I am normally not beautiful,” Takashi said, to chuckles from the audience.

Nature is a motif in most of teamLab’s works—nature made aware of itself and its admirers. In the technological dreamscape of teamLab’s art, tendrils of hanging flowers make way for visitors, an electronic rice paddy swirls and eddies around the knees of the curious, and the crystalline universe (a Milky Way of LEDs) is a tangible thing. The nature in these exhibitions is, in a sense, a perfected nature. With the capabilities of computer science and engineering, teamLab’s created nature is infinitely affected and finely aware, able to read visitors’ reactions and react in kind.

In drawing away from the natural by using the artificiality of circuitboards and LEDs, teamLab has actually brought audiences closer to nature. Even more than flowers and trees and small animals, intuition seems to come from nature—there’s an organic, childlike quality to the collective’s most complex projects. teamLab might be the world’s largest collection of grown-up children, those who’ve indulged their childhood awe with feats of technical prowess.

There’s no handbook to guide our appreciation of teamLab’s artwork. Our predilection for touch, exploration, and wonderment allows us to explore teamLab’s masterpieces on our own terms, in the confluence of technology and artistry.

Photos courtesy of Pace Art + Technology.

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