Reconnecting with our nature: teamLab’s digital revolution

by

Staff Writer

The event launching the latest creation by art collective teamLab isn’t your garden-variety presser. The assembled media sit on tatami mats in a stately room in Onyado Chikurintei, a quietly posh ryokan spa where members of the Imperial family have stayed. Local officials from Saga Prefecture are on hand to welcome the media to the city of Takeo, but a better reminder of the fact we are deep in the woods is the summer orchestra of insects tuning up outside.

Just beyond this outpost of luxury lies the reason we are assembled in rural Kyushu: a large outdoor collection of art installations titled “A Forest Where Gods Live,” scattered through Mifuneyama Rakuen, a 500,000-square-meter garden in Takeo.

TeamLab founder Toshiyuki Inoko (right) and Shiseido CEO Masahiko Uotani pose for a photograph at a press preview of
TeamLab founder Toshiyuki Inoko (right) and Shiseido CEO Masahiko Uotani pose for a photograph at a press preview of ‘A Forest Where Gods Live’ in the city of Takeo, Saga Prefecture. | COURTESY OF TEAMLAB

At the front of the room is teamLab’s 40-year-old founder and CEO, Toshiyuki Inoko, who is dressed in a suit and a white T-shirt. He seems uncomfortable reading a speech about the show but relaxes after sitting down to chat with Masahiko Uotani, CEO of Shiseido, the show’s main sponsor. While the polished Uotani weaves in plugs for Waso, Shiseido’s latest skin care line, Inoko does his best, although his excitement sometimes causes his words to accelerate past his thoughts. “Where was I? What was I trying to say?” he asks at one point.

Admittedly, he has a lot of ground to cover and probably just wants us to go out and meet the gods in “the forest,” which is actually a rakuen (pleasure garden) created in 1845. The site is officially recognized by the government for its scenic beauty, and while it has hallmark features of a traditional Japanese garden, the boundaries between manicured landscape and the wilderness are blurry.

Before sending the media into the unknown, Inoko says with a grin: “Throw away the map and get lost in this forest. It might change the way you think.”

‘Resonating Forest — Cherry Blossoms and Maple,’ at ‘A Forest Where Gods Live’ | COURTESY OF TEAMLAB

Not what it seems

Quotation marks become essential when talking about teamLab, which was founded in 2001. Even though teamLab calls itself an “art collective” of “ultra-technologists” that rely on multidisciplinary teams of engineers, programmers and architects, it’s still steered by one individual: Inoko. And yes, teamLab creates “art,” but unlike anything the contemporary art world has seen.

While “A Forest Where Gods Live” could be called an “exhibition,” it’s also an immersive experience that requires interaction. It’s not wrong to define their assemblages of lights, sound and sensors as “installations,” but teamLab prefers “digitized nature.”

‘Ever Blossoming Life Rock’ at ‘A Forest Where the Gods Live’ in Mifuneyama Rakuen | COURTESY OF TEAMLAB

Like so much of what teamLab creates, the Mifuneyama show is an extension of past works, so technically there are no “new” artworks here. However, the concept itself — “nature as art” — marks another evolutionary stage for the creative juggernaut.

Despite the collective’s staging of smaller outdoor installations over the past few years (at the Koboke Gorge in Tokushima, for example, or Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto), it has never presented an outdoor project as large or ambitious as the Mifuneyama show.

Near the garden’s entrance lies a work teamLab has been fine-tuning over the past few years. In a large pond, digitally projected carp that react to objects in their vicinity swim around a small boat. Like many teamLab works, these aren’t video loops — they’re coded algorithms that ensure that no sequence occurs twice. Over time, as the piped-in music swells, the virtual koi morph into swirling lines of color, crisscrossing across the pond.

Other “Forest” works echo this theme of natural reverberations. As visitors walk up winding garden paths, they trigger sensors that transmit ripples of colored light and sound — a manifestation of both our presence in nature and the invisible system that interconnects other life forms.

Standouts elsewhere in the garden include an awe-inspiring digital waterfall (“Universe of Water Particles on a Sacred Rock”); “spatial calligraphy” projected on the entrance to a cave that shelters 1,300-year-old engravings of Buddha (“Continuous Life — Five Hundred Arhats”); and a hypnotic projection of floating flowers, blooming and withering on a massive moss-covered boulder (“Ever Blossoming Life Rock”).

Battling the elements

Although nature and humanity’s interaction with ecosystems have long been teamLab motifs, most of its projects, which often mimic natural microcosms, have been created within museums, galleries and purpose-built venues. So you could say it’s a natural progression for them to flip the equation and work outside the box. The Saga location is a perfect venue for this milestone, but to realize it was no small feat.

‘Universe of Water Particles on a Sacred Rock’ is one of the highlights of teamLab’s ‘A Forest Where Gods Live’ exhibition in Takeo, Saga Prefecture. | COURTESY OF TEAMLAB

Takashi Kudo, teamLab’s energetic communications director, says “Forest” took approximately four years to produce. It began with the illuminated pond project for Mifuneyama and gradually grew in scale. The actual implementation for this year’s project was handled by a team of about 20 people. During the day, they would install and adjust hardware, Kudo explains, then test the results after the sun went down.

The project team was, ironically, at odds with nature itself. Southern Japan’s severe summer heat and humidity, plus the usual insects and heavy rainfall, were a few of its fiercest opponents. What’s more, local wildlife apparently like to chew on cables, Kudo adds, and when you have meters of cables snaking across the forest floor, good luck finding where the disconnect occurred.

Needless to say, this type of project costs “a lot,” Kudo says, in the tens of thousands of yen. For starters, teamLab had to build most of its hardware, including climate-controlled enclosures for pricey 4K projectors. Kudo laughs when he points out that there’s not exactly a market for projectors that have Wi-Fi functionality and can handle extreme weather conditions.

Like any good magician, teamLab members are wary about talking in detail about the technology behind their illusions. Suffice it to say, Kudo admits, “Everything is super crazy and almost impossible to do.”

‘Split Rock and Enso’ at ‘A Forest Where the Gods Live’ | COURTESY OF TEAMLAB

Mother Nature

Not long into the press tour, the brutal Saga humidity has soaked my clothes and my glasses constantly fog up in the outdoor sauna. As I wander — mapless — I curse myself for bringing too much equipment and imagine myself slipping on a moss-covered rock and tumbling into the technicolor pond. I’m also competing with busloads of local officials, VIPs and swarms of social-media influencers, many of whom are intent on getting that perfect shot.

I have about an hour to trek around the whole exhibition and get back for a one-on-one interview with Inoko. When I return, Inoko appears to be coming out of a much-needed power nap. It takes a few puffs of his electric cigarette before the gears of his brilliant mind start revving.

I had interviewed him the previous summer at the launch of another popular teamLab show, “DMM.Planets” in Odaiba, Tokyo. In recent years, teamLab has had a string of successful exhibitions in New York, London, Singapore and Palo Alto, California. But rural Kyushu? Will city folks make the trip and give teamLab a return on their sizable investment?

In true Inoko fashion, his answer sails over my pedestrian question.

“When we’re in the city, we think we’re leading an independent existence,” he says. “But in reality, life has been around for at least 4 billion years. And even though humans have been around for a very long time, it’s hard for us to fathom that awareness that we are a part of nature.

“When people are standing in front of that huge boulder (“Ever Blossoming Life Rock”), which is almost 5 meters wide, I want them to recognize that span of time — the tens of thousands of years, the hundreds of thousands of years of time that it took for this rock to form. Maybe people will be able to feel that continuity and maybe in our recognition of that long span of time, we humans might miraculously get a glimmer of that feeling that we are indeed a part of nature and that there are no boundaries.”

He points out that people long before him were moved by this location, its mix of ordered beauty and natural wildness.

“This pleasure garden was created during the Edo Period some 170 years ago in a part of the forest, but even before that — 1,300 years ago — there was a monk named Gyogi who carved the image of Buddha in the cave,” he says. “And even though this is a garden, there is a tree here from 3,000 years ago. It’s incredible. And there was a shrine and this wonderful mountain. For a very long time, people had been trying to find meaning here, whether it was the monk making engravings in the cave wall, or the person who designed this park. In both cases, there is that continuation, of losing boundaries.”

‘Graffiti Nature — Living in the Ruins of a Bathhouse,’ at ‘A Forest Where Gods Live’ | COURTESY OF TEAMLAB

The group moving as one

“Boundaries.” That is definitely a recurring word in teamLab’s vocabulary. The perceived boundaries of art, nature, technology, media, authorship … but there doesn’t seem to be a limit to how many places its work can be at one time. Currently, the art wing of teamLab is overseeing a dozen simultaneous exhibitions of varying sizes around the globe, including two popular shows in China (Shenzhen and Beijing) and another at the Shibuya Hikarie complex.

“New” works emerge over time, but many are evolving iterations of early themes or concepts. “Every exhibition is a stepping stone or a testing ground,” Inoko says.

TeamLab has certainly come a long way from its humble beginnings, when Inoko and several of his recently graduated friends — mostly programmers, designers and engineers — started “a space of co-creation.” The teamLab of 2017 currently employs about 450 full-time staff and the art division makes up roughly half of that. It has split itself into two main web domains: teamlab.art, and team-lab.com for commercial work, which includes commissioned client work, as well as “products” targeting the business and education sectors. Not surprisingly, many are spin-offs of the technology developed for their art projects.

Isn’t it difficult to create something as a large group, I ask Inoko. Don’t you naturally butt heads when it comes to art?

“We don’t argue,” Inoko snaps while giving a knowing smile to a teamLab project manager in the room.

But isn’t it hard to weigh everyone’s opinions and come to a consensus?

“I don’t listen,” Inoko says with a cackle. He hastens to clarify: “OK, so I do listen to everyone’s opinions in the early stages, but this isn’t a democracy. If we want to make art, we start making it. There will be discussions about planning and production, but those are different layers.”

For comparison’s sake, Inoko cites mega-artists such as Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. “They employ hundreds of people to create their works of art, right? The difference is that one is perceived to be creating the work as an individual, the other is seen to be creating it as a group.”

Inoko says it’s difficult for him to create a boundary between himself and the people who help him produce the works.

After the interview, I return to the garden along with Kazumasa Nonaka, the aforementioned project manager (teamLab calls them “catalysts”). I want to see more of the show at a leisurely pace.

The forest is now serene — just us, the light-and-sound show and the droning cicadas. I feel better prepared to wander mapless and view this art, which is admittedly “difficult” — not because it is overly intellectual or opaque, but because it is not hanging on a wall in an air-conditioned museum. It requires a certain commitment. I later remember that last year Inoko had complained that we’ve lost touch with our physicality. This is just the next logical step.

As thousands of azalea bushes sense our motion, Nonaka and I share a chuckle about Inoko’s “this is not a democracy” comment.

Later on, though, Nonaka points out that it’s the only way teamLab can function. “If it’s client work, there is always a deadline,” Nonaka says. “But with artwork, there is just no end because you want to make it better and better,” the former architecture student says. “Whenever we do that, we discuss with everyone at the table, because there is no official hierarchy within teamLab. But it’s pretty hard to finish something or to meet a mutual agreement, so that’s when Inoko comes in and ends it. It really works.”

Visitors take part in teamLab Jungle — Light Art and Music
Visitors take part in ‘teamLab Jungle — Light Art and Music’ in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. | MARK THOMPSON

Art for all

Later, after returning to the big city, I check out the “teamLab Jungle — Light Art and Music” exhibition in Shibuya.

Something akin to an artsy EDM festival, it’s a far cry from the Mifuneyama project. The show’s stars are a sophisticated lighting system in sync with music and participants’ gestures and movements and the signature large illuminated balls that change color as they are batted around the space. Everyone is smiling and having a good time and — as is the case with most teamLab productions — documenting every minute of it on social media.

Elsewhere in the city there’s a section of a Miraikan exhibition for which Disney has commissioned teamLab to replicate the lantern scene in the movie “Tangled” — and it is also blowing up on Instagram.

It’s no wonder teamLab has been called a creator of eminently Instagrammable art — and it’s very easy to be cynical about this phenomenon — but taken in the context of what teamLab wants to achieve, it makes sense. In capturing that unique moment of beauty or awe, audiences are extending the boundaries of the collective. By using that #teamlab hashtag, we’re joining in.

I ask Kudo if he’s worried about the collective stretching itself too thin or the public becoming too saturated with teamLab. He’s not in the least.

“Art is the easiest way to reach everywhere on a global scale, because it is nonverbal. We are not a super-rich company, but if we make good art, we can reach anywhere,” he says over video chat, just after returning from the site of their show in Shenzhen. “We don’t have to change anything. We are showing the same things in Singapore, China, South Korea, England and Silicon Valley.”

Kudo is also pushing full steam ahead with his social branding team.

“My goal is to try to reach everyone in this world through the internet,” he says. “I make no distinction between mass media and the ordinary people.”

He cites teamLab’s giant floating balls, which change color according to proximity, as symbolizing the power of being interconnected on the internet.

“Everybody can change the world,” he says. “Easily. Easier than before. It means somebody can also change my world, much more easily than before. This is fate and we can’t change this. We should not fear it.”

TeamLab
TeamLab’s ‘DMM.Planets’ attracted sizable crowds in Tokyo last year. | MARK THOMPSON

Immortal software

In my mission to better understand this collective, I turn to gallerist Ikkan Sanada, whom Kudo refers to as their art sensei.

Speaking from his base of Singapore, Sanada says he first began his relationship with teamLab in 2011 and now represents them globally, along with the international network of Pace galleries and Martin Browne Contemporary in Australia.

Impressed by an early creation, Sanada introduced them to the art world in Singapore and later to Pace. But first, he says, he had to convince Inoko that teamLab’s digital works were art in the first place. The veteran collector told Inoko that he was creating art, not because he was told to or because he wanted money, but because he had the urge.

“It might not fit into the traditional definition of artwork,” Ikkan says, “but it was the same thing when photography was introduced or video art was introduced. Ten years from now, people will recognize that what teamLab was creating was a new field of artistic expression, which is ‘digital art.'”

Sanada says he also taught teamLab important lessons in the valuation of its art. When Murakami first introduced teamLab in Taipei, at his gallery Kaikai Kiki, the collective was selling editions of its digital work for around $5,000, and half of that went to the gallery. After Sanada began representing the collective, he added an extra zero and says pieces can now sell for $100,000.

And then there is the aftercare of the “editions,” which are basically software with signed authentication, hardware not included. Inoko doesn’t want his art to break down and be tossed on the trash pile of history, so the owner of a teamLab edition — for an extra cost — gets 10 years of upgrades.

Which begs the question: Will teamLab continue after Inoko is gone?

“Everybody on the team recognizes Inoko’s contribution, not because he is the boss, but because his contribution and his ideas really are genius. His presence is absolutely necessary,” Sanada says. “That said, I can see another Inoko coming up in the group in maybe 10 or 20 years.”

I had touched on the topic of legacy in my interview with Inoko in Saga. Doesn’t he want to create something massive and permanent for future generations to enjoy?

“Yes!” he replied, in one of his frequent outbursts of boyish excitement. “The Egyptian pyramids are still around, right? And the Ise Grand Shrine. Maybe not in exactly the same physical form, but they live on. Maybe (Mifuneyama) could be a museum in the summer. Someone might have to look after the hardware but, yeah, something permanent — as long as there is an interaction between humans and nature.”

If this were to come to fruition, maybe teamLab could overcome the biggest boundary of all: time.


TeamLab exhibitions now showing in Japan

teamLab: A Forest Where Gods Live presented by Shiseido

Through Oct. 28
Venue: Mifuneyama Rakuen, Takeo, Saga
Tickets: ¥1,600 (adults)
Open hours: Until Sept. 9: First entry 7:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m., second entry 7 p.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sept. 10-30: First entry 7 p.m.-10:30 p.m., second entry 7 p.m.-10:30 p.m.; Oct. 1-28: First entry 6:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m., second entry 6 p.m.-10:30 p.m.

Baitoru presents teamLab Jungle — Light Art and Music

Through Sept. 10
Venue: Shibuya Hikarie, Tokyo
Tickets: Kids Noon (¥2,200, adults), Art Night (¥3,400, adults)
Open hours: 9.30 a.m.-10 p.m.; see website below for performance schedules

teamLab: Dance! Art Exhibition, Learn and Play! Future Park!

Through Sept. 24
Venue: The Museum of Art, Kochi, Kochi
Tickets: ¥1,500 (adults)
Open hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

For more information, visit www.teamlab.art.