Coding art: Japanese collective teamLab in the digital renaissance – artist profile

A group of Japanese creatives is redefining Asian art by integrating it with science and technology, and contemporary philosophy.

Interdisciplinary ensemble teamLab creates high-tech interactive art installations imbued with traditional Japanese motifs that allow co-creation, reinventing the relationship between the artist, the artwork and the audience. Art Radar spoke to the collective to find out more about their origin, raison d’etre, influences, creative process and plans for the future.

teamLab, 'Flowers and People, Cannot be Controlled but Live Together – Dark', 2015, interactive digital installation. Image courtesy teamLab and START Art Fair.

teamLab, ‘Flowers and People, Cannot be Controlled but Live Together – Dark’, 2015, interactive digital installation. Image courtesy teamLab and START Art Fair.

This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

Founded in 2001 by Toshiyuki Inoko, shortly after he graduated from the University of Tokyo’s Department of Mathematical Engineering and Information Physics, teamLab started as a digital agency comprising programmers, engineers and designers. Reluctant to be called “artists”, teamLab has evolved into an interdisciplinary ensemble of “ultra-technologists” who explore the confluence of art, technology and design.

The futuristic 400-member collective has engineered artworks around the world that influence how people interact with each other, bucking society’s current understanding of what it means to be human. In an exclusive interview with Art Radar, teamLab said:

We all started from questioning: What are people? What is the world as seen by people? We wished to find those answers by creating and going through the process of creating art.

More and more creatives are now blurring the lines between science, art and technology, but only a few are fusing the disciplines to answer artistic problems that address philosophical questions about the nature of man, and how technology can be used to have a positive impact on human evolution. Through their work, the group is showing everyone that technology can help move humanity forward.

teamLab is also making art more accessible by democratising collaboration to include the viewers. They believe that everyone is capable of bringing positive change in society through creativity. All their artworks allow interactions between the audience and the digital art, causing continuous changes in the works and making the viewers co-creators. In their award-winning digital installation Flowers and People, Cannot be Controlled but Live Together, the collective coded computer-generated flowers that blossom or decay, depending on how much people interact with them. Exhibited at the Kunisaki Art Festival in October 2014, the work is neither pre-recorded or played in loop, but runs in real time and is operated by a computer program coded by teamLab’s engineers. Interestingly, all of the flowers can only blossom once. They recur and can’t be replicated.

teamLab, 'Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as well, Blossoming on Collision - Light in Space', 2016, interactive digital installation, 4 min. 20 sec. Sound: Takahashi Hideaki. Image courtesy the artists.

teamLab, ‘Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as well, Blossoming on Collision – Light in Space’, 2016, interactive digital installation, 4 min. 20 sec. Sound: Takahashi Hideaki. Image courtesy the artists.

Ukiyo-e and Ultra Subjective Space

Another underlying philosophy behind teamLab’s immersive installations is “ultra subjective space.” While this sounds Futuristic, the principle is actually rooted in the past. Ukiyo-e woodblock prints dominated Japanese art from the 17th to 19th centuries. One of the most iconic works from that period is Hokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanegawa, which represents Van Gogh and Monet’s “floating world.” This work influenced the collective’s belief that “seeing” is controlled by the beholder, and thus their pieces can be personalised by the viewer through interaction.

At the World Economic Forum, teamLab founder and visionary Toshiyuki Inoko pointed out the difference between viewing the Mona Lisa and a teamLab digital installation: the latter divides and the former unites. “It is disturbing if kids run around in front of Mona Lisa,” he said.

On the contrary, when people run around teamLab’s creations, like Crystal Universe, the opus becomes more interesting. The digital artwork uses accumulated light points to make light sculptures that constantly change based on the viewer’s behaviour and position; “Crystal Universe” can thus be controlled by viewers through smartphones. The audience can select an element they wish to be projected in the space and it will appear in the simulated universe.

Click here to watch a video of ‘Crystal Universe’ by teamLab on YouTube
While subjective, beauty can engage the viewers and let them be “artists” in their own right through interaction and active participation. By designing a work that evolves through interaction, people realise that their unique presence brings positive energy into the world, which cannot be replicated. teamLab bypasses cliches about the adverse effects of technology and instead illustrates how it can bring a positive impact, and help people create a more beautiful reality. In effect, the audience isn’t passive but active, as they are permitted to co-design works of art. This perspective shift is a new wave in the digital renaissance.

Japanese education and the co-creation process

Collaboration is one of the key values of teamLab both within the organisation and with the audience. There’s no hierarchy within the collective. Each expertise is respected and all ideas are welcomed in every project. When developing a concept, the team starts with a goal and works together to make it happen. They hold regular brainstorming sessions and test their ideas through prototyping until they crystallise the best idea as a result of continuous and active collaboration.

Built on collaboration as a value, teamLab shared how Japanese schools can still be improved by changing their premise and idea of the human person. However, the current educational system is nurturing competition rather than teamwork. Because every student undergoes the same curriculum, they compete to be the best in one specific subject. There’s an emphasis on who’s right or wrong, instead of allowing free thought and unique perspectives to shine. This creates graduates who are afraid to fail, resulting in the loss of the most important skill of the future: creativity.

teamLab’s experimental digital art project Sketch Aquarium allows kids to design sea creatures and make them “alive” in a virtual fish tank through a sophisticated scanning technology. This self-proclaimed “future park” is an alternative to the Japanese education system that focuses more on memorising and competition rather than creativity and collaboration. It also allows children to realise that each one of them has a unique value to contribute to society.

Click here to watch a video of Sketch Aquarium

In defining co-creation, teamLab says:

Co-creativity involves the interaction of various people and skills without any clear boundaries between them. As a result, it overcomes the problem of only one right and one wrong answer. […] This is why collaborative creativity, or the experience of “co-creation,” is now very important. And this is especially true in Japan.

Through digital art, teamLab hopes to expand concepts of space and perception, as well as encourage active participation and collaboration among the kids. Sketch Aquarium, for example, encourages children to work together and helps them realise that an individual’s creative action can impact the world and other people positively through collaborative play.

When asked if they have plans on building a “future school,” teamLab answers, “everything is possible.” One could forecast that such a school would be founded in collaboration and creativity, with an emphasis on the importance of intuition, or making the bodies “think.” The team told Art Radar:

Our view is that physical knowledge may actually play an important role in society. For example, we believe that this type of knowledge underpins people’s communication skills and sociality. However, as this kind of knowledge has not really been regarded highly up until now, people tend to get very few opportunities to develop it further. By moving their bodies freely within art spaces, while exercising awareness of others around them, we believe that people will be able to train their physical knowledge even more.

teamLab, 'Peace Can Be Realised Even Without Order', 2012, interactive digital Installation, dimensions variable. Sound: Hideaki Takahashi. Voice: Yutaka Fukuoka, Yumiko Tanaka. Collection of the Artists. Singapore Biennale 2013 commission. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale.

teamLab, ‘Peace Can Be Realised Even Without Order’, 2012, interactive digital Installation, dimensions variable. Sound: Hideaki Takahashi. Voice: Yutaka Fukuoka, Yumiko Tanaka. Collection of the Artists. Singapore Biennale 2013 commission. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale.

Digital graffiti

How teamLab blurs the line between man and nature to achieve deep audience immersion is also indicative of traditional Japanese principles of the inherently intertwined nature of man and the universe. Thus, man should respect nature, and build on its beauty to progress, not destroy it.

In a Palo Alto interview, teamLab’s Noriko Taniguchi said that the collective aims to let people feel that they are part of the art. “We want people to feel that they are inside the art,” he said.

Accordingly, teamLab augments reality through their art using light as their paint. In Drawing on the Water Surface, the Japanese symbol for grit, koi, swims on a water surface that stretches out into infinity. The viewers are allowed to walk into the water and influence the movement of the digital creature, changing what the art looks like. When the koi bumps into people, it turns into flowers which scatter like bursting stars. By adding virtual elements, teamLab transforms water into art without exploiting its natural form and development. “Light is our paint, and the whole world is our canvas,” teamLab founder said.

Click here to watch ‘Drawing on the Water Surface’ by teamLab on YouTube

A permanent exhibition at Marina Bay Sands ArtScience Museum, “Future World is an immersive 1500-square-metre digital universe where 16 interactive art installations run and evolve in real-time through visitor presence and participation. It features Graffiti Nature, a digital ecosystem of animals, flowers and butterflies that move freely between the spaces of the museum. The pieces exist in harmony with the in-between spaces, the pavements of the exhibit spaces. But, they are not destructive and provocative; they positively affect the natural environment, turning reality into a dream.

Unlike graffiti and other street art, teamLab’s vandals are transient. Using virtual reality headsets, “Spatial Calligraphy” allows people to draw digital calligraphy into virtual reality, reconstructing Japanese calligraphy in three-dimensional space without losing the depth, speed and power of the brush stroke. The calligraphy will then continuously evolve in the virtual realm to infinity. According to the artist statement

The infinity symbol, ∞ and circle are part of a Zen tradition of ensou, the practice of creating a calligraphic circle in a single brushstroke.

Click here to watch ‘Spatial Calligraphy’ by teamLabon YouTube

City of dreams

teamLab was founded to create a new society that respects nature and builds on its natural beauty using technology. In the future, the team wishes to create cities filled with digital paint and influence people to use their gifts of creation to effect positive change in the world.

“We wish to create large-scale works with the eventual aim of creating a teamLab amusement park where visitors can be immersed in large-scale art,” the progressive group told Art Radar, going on to elaborate that:

Due to the complexity of modern cities, city residents often have little direct effect on the city. The presence of these inscrutable, uncontrollable city residents is thereby viewed only through a hyper-analytical lens. By harnessing the power of digital art to change the relationship between people inhabiting the same space, we hope to someday expand the scope of the work all the way to the scale of a whole city in order to change the relationship between city residents. 

Czyka Tumaliuan

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This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

Related topics: Japanese artists, installation, interactive art, Art Radar Certificate in Art Journalism & Writing 101, Art Radar Institute

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