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teamLab: Past, Present, and Future
Dr. Yukio Lippit

Introduction

Dr. Yukio Lippit is Professor of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University, where he has taught since 2003, and Director of the Arts at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study. He was the curator of Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 2012, and his recent publications include Painting of the Realm: The Kano House of Painters in Seventeenth-Century Japan (University of Washington Press, 2012) and Kenzo Tange: Architecture for the World (2012, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University).

Introduction

Fig. 1: teamLab
Living Digital Space and Future Parks at Pace Art + Technology, 300 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, California, February 6 - December 18, 2016.

The rapid rise of teamLab (Fig. 1) to global attention in recent years is hardly a mystery. The collective’s computer-generated artworks and installations have been surprising and captivating audiences everywhere since first capturing the notice of the international art world with their Taiwan exhibition We are the Future in 2011. Three characteristics are common to almost every one of their projects. The first is a high premium placed on interactivity; through the skillful use of sensors activated by motion, touch, or shadow, teamLab allows its viewers to become more than mere onlookers, allowing them to shape how a work develops in concert with other viewers. As a result teamLab’s works unfold unpredictably, with no two experiences of a piece ever quite repeated. The second is the synesthetic effect of many of their installations, engendered by a rich array of acoustical and occasionally even olfactory effects. A third trait consistent to all of teamLab’s works is a strong emphasis placed on the aesthetic appeal of their “ultra-technological” worlds. This appeal is developed through the abundant use of natural motifs, vivid colors, references to traditional Japanese cultural practice, and collaborations with leading Japanese artists such as the calligrapher Shishū and composer Takahashi Hideaki.

teamLab’s remarkable artistic production is the result of its collaborative structure. Its 400-plus members include visual artists, computer scientists, mathematicians, CG animators, web designers, roboticists, educators, architects, and engineers of all kinds. At an average age of twenty-nine, the members of teamLab reflect a generation of millenials who came of age amidst the technological evolution and media subcultures of Japan’s 1990s and 2000s. This sensibility drives teamLab’s innovations at every turn.

Although artistic collectives are nothing new, teamLab is distinguished from other artists’ groups by its diversity and sheer scale. A unity of vision has somehow been maintained even as the group has grown by leaps and bounds. Their process of invention is based upon a nonhierarchical approach to the development of works.1 For each project, a small group of members with different specialties convene to engage in artistic problem-solving. Each member has equal agency in the development of the work, thus cross-pollinating it with ideas from a wide range of perspectives. Great emphasis is placed on this process itself, and the experimentation it entails never quite ends; each project is simply “pulled off the table” for an impending deadline or occasion for display. Thus in theory all of teamLab’s works are unfinished.

Art and Technology

Fig. 2: (Video still) What a Loving, and Beautiful World, 2011
Interactive Digital Installation, Calligraphy by Sisyu, Sound by Hideaki Takahashi
Duration: Endless
Courtesy the artist

For historians of postwar art, teamLab’s work at the intersection of art and technology recalls the activities of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), the group founded in 1967 by the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman in collaboration with the engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer. E.A.T. connected artists with scientists from Bell Laboratories to create pathbreaking performance works held, among other places, on the site of New York’s historically significant 1913 Armory Exhibition. These works incorporated technologies such as wireless sound transmission and video projection into artistic contexts for the first time. E.A.T.’s experimental work culminated in the Pepsi Pavilion for the 1970 Osaka Expo, which included artists from Japan and took place within a Buckminster Fuller-style geodesic dome covered in Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculpture.2

E.A.T. catalyzed new forms of collaboration in the years and decades that followed, and can be situated as an important precursor to new media art as a whole. It may be more meaningful, however, to understand the origins of teamLab foremost in relation to the local circumstances of its founders.

teamLab was started in 2001 by a group of engineers based primarily at the University of Tokyo. Two of its founders, Inoko Toshiyuki and Aoki Shunsuke, were graduates of the university’s Department of Mathematical Engineering and Information Physics. Another founding member, Yoshimura Jō, was a childhood friend of Inoko’s then studying at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Inoko, whose vision for the group would most inform its eventual direction, later recalled the visceral impact and excitement of witnessing the sudden rise of the Internet during his student years. teamLab would be one of many groups in Japan and around the world that formed during the dot-com bubble, and initially focused their efforts on web design. In this regard they were highly successful, and among other items developed the web portal iza for the newspaper Sankei Shimbun, which quickly became the popular portal of its kind among Japan’s leading national dailies. Inoko also developed a search engine Sagūru (Explooore) and other innovations, and for his efforts was recognized with the Sixth Annual Web Creation Award in 2008.

Amidst these efforts, fundamental changes in the nature of the Internet and web design were shaping the vectors teamLab would pursue during its early years. In its most basic formulation, these changes are those associated with the emergence of Net 2.0, that is to say, a shift towards responsive web design in which websites were based on user-generated content. This shift, along with the mobile revolution, encouraged teamLab to experiment with different devices and services based upon interoperability. Traveling around Japan to recruit the best young engineers, teamLab’s founders brought together a combination of specialists from different fields ideally suited to explore the potentiality of this ever-expanding notion of interconnectivity.

Given this trajectory, one might understand teamLab’s installations and artworks over the past five plus years as sophisticated, highly aesthetic portals for interactivity and user-guided content. One work that mesmerizingly showcases this dimension is What a Loving, and Beautiful World (2011; the comma is part of the original English version of the title). In this installation, which is projected in a dark room on walls surrounding viewers, twenty-two Sino-Japanese characters, brushed by the calligrapher Shishū, cascade down from ceiling to floor (Fig. 2). Activation either by touch or intersection with the shadows of viewers converts them into motifs that are associated with the meanings of the characters—mostly nature motifs such as the sun, moon, water, trees, and birds. As these motifs and viewers continue to interact with one another, more forms emerge in new combinations to transform the ever-evolving landscape of the installation. Sound is also initiated and transformed by activating the characters, generating a rich multi-sensorial experience. What unfolds is entirely contingent upon the actions of visitors in the gallery, and never repeats itself.

Beautiful World effectively allegorizes the agency and connectivity of viewers within teamLab’s digital worlds. In this regard, the logic by which the characters were selected is significant. Each character reflects a core element understood historically by different civilizations and systems of belief as constitutive of the world. This may include earth, water, air, and fire, considered by thought systems as disparate as Aristotelian philosophy or Chinese cosmology as building blocks of the universe. There are also characters such as “mind” that are included because certain forms of Buddhist thought privilege the mind as most constitutive of our surroundings, or at least our perception of them. The conceit of Beautiful World, then, is that we the viewer can digitally reconstitute the cosmos anew by activating these elements ourselves.

Nihonga

Fig. 3: teamLab
(Video still) Nirvana, 2013
Digital Work, 8 channels
Duration: 6 minutes 20 seconds (loop)
Courtesy the artist

Fig. 4: teamLab
(Video still) Flower and Corpse Glitch Set of 12, 2012
Digital Work, 12 channels 2 minutes (loop)
Courtesy the artist

Fig. 5: teamLab
(Video still) Life Survives by the Power of Life, 2011
Digital Work, single-channel; calligraphy by Sisyu
Duration: 6 minutes, 23 seconds
Courtesy the artist

Fig. 6: teamLab
(Video Still) Cold Life, 2014
Digital Work; calligraphy by Sisyu
Duration: 7 minutes 15 seconds (loop)
Courtesy the artist

While the interactive nature of teamLab reflects an intensification of more general trends in technology and design, it is the aesthetic dimension of their work that most particularizes their production. Its aesthetic qualities are conditioned to no small degree by reference to traditional Japanese pictorialism, or what teamLab members refer to simply as nihonga (“Japanese painting”). Sustained engagement with nihonga over the past several years has not only embedded signature habits of representation in their work, but also infused teamLab with new concepts and themes for experimentation.

teamLab’s embrace of nihonga has roots in Japan’s rich design world and Inoko’s interests in wide-ranging artistic exploration, but it was further catalyzed by teamLab’s encounter with the artist Murakami Takashi. Murakami, who has been active as a manager and mentor to younger Japanese artists over the past two decades, was instrumental in helping the collective debut in an art world context with a solo show at Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki Gallery in Taipei in 2011. As Murakami’s own art-making blurs the distinction between high and low art forms in Japan, he has drawn abundantly on themes from premodern Japanese art, most recently upon the eighteenth-century painter Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800) and the late Edo painter Kano Kazunobu (1816-1863).3 Murakami himself often uses the term nihonga, which is not a historical term but was used to designate a type of Japanese neotraditional mode of painting that emerged in the late nineteenth century, in reaction to the rapid embrace of European fine arts (Murakami graduated from the Nihonga Department of the Tokyo University of the Arts).

Similarly, a number of teamLab’s works have either been based upon or derived strong inspiration from traditional Japanese cultural concepts, artists, and pictorial subjects. Nirvana (2013; Fig. 3) digitally reconstitutes Jakuchū’s famous “mosaic screens,” in which a congregation of myriad birds and animals are meticulously pictorialized in the form of tiny painted squares-within-squares. Meanwhile, the format of Flower and Corpse Glitch Set of 12 (2012; Fig. 4) recalls a traditional pair of six-panel Japanese folding screens (byōbu). Here each panel incorporates elements from classical Japanese painting such as the subject “Scenes In and Around the Capital” (rakuchū rakugai zu), in which the ancient capital Kyoto is depicted panoramically. In yet other cases, teamLab incorporates artistic ideas from nihonga such as the purely frontal (and thus highly patternized) depiction of flowers. The monitor-based works Life Survives by the Power of Life (2011; Fig. 5) and Cold Life (2014; Fig. 6) explore the possibilities for transposing into three-dimensional space the gesturalism of traditional Japanese calligraphy, as manifest in Shishū’s rendering of the character “Life.”

A primary concern of teamLab has been the use of digital technology to reproduce and enable the experience of pictorial space in unconventional ways. Its members draw inspiration from the idea that Japanese pictures were not constructed according to a mathematical perspectival system. While spatial perspective in traditional Japanese pictures can be characterized in many ways, it does not presuppose any fixed vantage point from which to view a picture, in contrast to linear perspective developed in Europe from the early fifteenth century onward. In the Japanese context, this lack of a privileged viewing position meant that a viewer could access a given representation from a number of different points of entry, or that disparate viewers might experience a given scene in an equally central manner. This idea was likened by the literary scholar Takahashi Tōru to the grammar of classical Japanese language, in which the subject of any given passage or speech act can be indeterminate or multiple, requiring the reader to continuously disambiguate the subject of any given text.4 Similarly, in many forms of classical Japanese painting, the viewing subject could be conceived of as either an “all-over” subject that scans the pictorial surface, or as a set of multiple viewers sharing a subjective visual experience of a picture, which Takahashi calls a “subjective spatial perspective” (shinteki enkinhō).

In the case of teamLab, traditional Japanese pictorialism has provided an important point of reference for developing this multiple or shared experience of space. In Flower and Corpse Glitch Set of 12, the stacked composition in which no motif seems to recede from the viewer more than any other, combined with the evenness of the wafting gold clouds, generates a surface that is isotropic or has the same value all across its surface. Any portion of the picture can be a point of entry into the work that features an “Ultrasubjective Space.”5

Hyper-positivity

The titles and subjects of teamLab’s works tend to be either idealistic or anodyne, with a heavy focus on natural and historical themes. While it departs from the socially engaged art that characterizes much contemporary artistic practice in Japan, it is important to consider the recent historical context for teamLab’s hyper-positivity. The group’s members represent a generation of Japanese that came of age amidst a shift from the exuberance and economic prosperity of the 1980s to the economic stagnation and myriad social ills of the following decade. This shift was facilitated by a sequence of events that included the burst of the speculative bubble in the early 1990s, the Great Hanshin Earthquake of January of 1995, and the sarin gas attacks by the religious cult Aum Shinrikyō in March of the same year. While the aftermath of the earthquake exposed the inability of Japan’s bureaucracy to respond with adequate competence and humanity to natural disaster, the terrorism of Aum Shirinkyō—many of whose members came from well-educated, middle class backgrounds—engendered much reflection on the ethical failings of a society that had over-emphasized material attainments. As the stagflation of the “Lost Decade” continued to dampen employment prospects for college graduates, the later 1990s witnessed further incidents and increased social commentary suggesting the moral depravity of Japan’s youth.6

These years coincided with the widespread dissemination of the Internet and social media, engendering a specifically Japanese inflection on the unrelentingly vitriolic tone of the online world. This vitriol is most typically embodied by “2channel,” a massive Japanese online textboard that accommodates millions of anonymous postings per day, one that has raised many issues related to hate speech and slander against ethnic minorities.

teamLab has made it a point to situate its own projects in opposition to this Internet negativity. teamLab proposes that digital art bears the potential to cast interconnectivity in a different light, to place inhabitants of the digital world in a more meaningful, resonant mutualism with each other and the environments around them. This is not so much a techno-utopia as it is an anti-techno-dystopia.

While any of a number of interactive installations reflects this idealism, nowhere is it more manifest than in the remarkable slate of teamLab works that have been developed specifically for children. A Table Where Little People Live (2013) to Connecting! Block Train (2013) to Sketch Town (2014) and beyond trace teamLab’s increasing awareness of the potential of their ultra-technological aesthetics to generate enhanced environments for creative, interactive play for youth. These works have introduced innovative devices and techniques—most prominently various kinds of scanners that swiftly incorporate new objects and motifs into their fictional environments—to turn participants into stakeholders in their play-worlds. In doing so, teamLab has opened up yet another vector of inquiry in their ongoing explorations, one that has the potential to enhance the ever-fecund intersection between learning and open-ended play in human development.

  • 1: This description of teamLab’s process is based upon interviews with Inoko Toshiyuki and Kudō Takashi at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University on October 13, 2015.
  • 2: For a recent analysis of the pavilions at Expo ‘70 see Midori Yoshimoto, ed., “Expo ‘70 and Japanese Art: Dissonant Voices,” a special issue of Review of Japanese Culture and Society, Vol. 23 (Dec 2011).
  • 3: Murakami self-affiliates with a “lineage of eccentrics” (kisō no keifu) consisting of non-conformist painters of Japan’s Edo period (1615-1868), as proposed by the art historian Tsuji Nobuo in Lineage of Eccentrics: Matabei to Kuniyoshi (Tokyo: Kaikai Kiki, 2012), translation by Aaron Rio.
  • 4: See Takahashi Tōru, Monogatari to e no enkinhō (Tokyo: Perikansha, 1991).
  • 5: This is the title of teamLab’s exhibition at Pace Gallery in New York from July 17 to August 15, 2014. For a further elaboration of the idea of ultrasubjective space see the publication teamLab (Tokyo: teamLab, 2015). Ultimately the moving pictorial fields of many of teamLab’s installations merit a mode of analysis specific to the material conditions of its production, as Thomas LaMarre develops for anime in The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
  • 6: See Tomiko Yoda, “A Roadmap to Millenial Japan,” in Japan After Japan: Social and Cultural Life from the Recessionary 1990s to the Present, eds. Tomiko Yoda and Harry Harootunian (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006), 16-53.