Even if you aren’t familiar with the name teamLab, you’ve almost definitely seen the prolific art collective’s mesmerising immersive worlds while scrolling through your feed.
Started in 2001 in Tokyo by a handful of friends hungry to explore the human experience through art, teamLab is now a team of artists, architects, mathematicians and hardware engineers creating world record-breaking experiences liketeamLab Borderless with light, colour and sound.
Whether it’s using the ancient trees at Kyushu’s Mifuneyama Rakuen park as a blank canvas forA Forest Where Gods Live, or combining art and sauna with to take ‘immersive’ to a new level, teamLab seems uniquely suited to an emerging generation of art spectators eager for increasingly experiential and participatory works.
We had a chance to hear from teamLab on their two-decade journey, post-Covid ambitions and the mammoth process of creating all their hypnotic environments completely in-house.
Can you share how teamLab initially came about, and how it’s become the giant that it is now?
teamLab was founded in 2001 by Toshiyuki Inoko and several of his friends to create a “laboratory to experiment in collaborative creation”, i.e. ‘teamLab’. We want to create new experiences through art, and through such experiences, explore what the world is for humans.
In the beginning, teamLab had neither the opportunity to present ourselves, nor could we imagine how to economically sustain our art creation. On the other hand, we believed in the power of digital technology and creativity, and thus kept creating something new. While we took part in various projects to sustain ourselves, we increased the number of technologists such as architects, CG animators, painters, mathematicians and hardware engineers.
As time went on, while teamLab gained passionate followers among young people, we were still ignored by the art world. Our debut finally came in 2011 at the Kaikai Kiki Gallery in Taipei, when we were invited by the artist Takashi Murakami. Since then, teamLab has gained opportunities to join major contemporary art exhibitions in cosmopolitan cities and in 2014, New York PACE Gallery started to help promote teamLab artworks. These fortunate factors allowed teamLab to expand rapidly, eventually exhibiting in cities like London, Melbourne, Taipei and many others.
How do you think teamLab’s perspective has changed since 2001?
teamLab has been creating art since the beginning. Our aim has always been to change people’s standards of value and contribute to societal progress – this has not changed since the very start.
Of course, with the advancement of skills and technology, the scale of exhibits have increased and we believe that we have become able to express through spaces that better immerse visitors into the artworks.
teamLab now works on an extremely wide range of projects and collaborators. What has been the key to adapting your creative process to such a grand scale?
teamLab’s creativity is based on ‘multidimensionality’, where members with different specialties create together by crossing their boundaries, as well as their ‘transferable knowledge’ – a type of knowledge that can be shared and reused. As a result, teamLab generates what we call 'collective creation', the creation of something of higher quality by a group, thus strengthening an entire team. This continuous process of creating and discovering the transferable knowledge at a high speed yields the power of the group. We think organisations like this, able to uncover vast troves of knowledge, are the ones that can differentiate themselves.
We believe that teamLab is truly an art collective in the sense that our artworks are created from conception to realisation in-house: we have teams dedicated to the creation of materials and hardware, as well as to the architectural design and development of software.
But what really makes teamLab unique is not the technological advancement, but rather the fact that we’ve become able to do massive art projects simultaneously worldwide in-house at a high speed. This has allowed us to work on bigger projects, and we have large-scale museums open and upcoming around the world.
What are the most important elements that teamLab considers before approaching a project? Where does the inspiration strike?
teamLab seeks to navigate the confluence of art, science, technology, and the natural world, and aims to explore the relationship between the self and the world and new perceptions through art. The motivation of our creation comes from our own interest. And what we are interested in is to explore what the world is for humans, and to pursue new relationships between humans and nature.
Has the pandemic affected or changed teamLab’s vision or perception of art? How?
Art and culture have expanded humanity's standards of beauty. Art presents a new standard of beauty that has changed the way people see the world and, to put it plainly, has allowed them to see flowers as beautiful. teamLab’s artworks are also designed to help people experience the beauty of a world without boundaries and the beauty of anti-division.
We created an artwork that allows people to experience being connected to others and the world, even in the comfort of their homes. Flowers Bombing Home is an artwork that transforms the television in your home into an artwork. The coronavirus forced the world to become more isolated, causing people to be confined to their homes. This project was created to help us realise that our existence is connected to the world and to celebrate the fact that the world is connected. We want to create artworks that unite rather than divide the world.
We want to have large, experiential spaces around the world, so this can be seen positively as a time for teamLab to prepare for this future. Once the coronavirus situation has passed, we hope to increase the number of places where people can experience teamLab’s art.
Tell us more about your perspective on sound for teamLab’s projects. What role does it play in your work?
We could say that technology is the core of our works, but it is not the most important part. It is still just a material or tool to create the artworks. In that sense, sound is also one of the materials for expression. We design all our sound sources and systems ourselves, and we feel that sound is becoming a larger and larger part of our works every year.
For example, our museum teamLab Borderless, as suggested by its name, features artworks without boundaries. They move out of rooms, communicate with other works, influence, and sometimes intermingle with each other. Each artwork carries the BGM or sound effects as it moves and interacts with other works, so inevitably, instances where multiple sounds come together and intermix occur throughout the museum. Simply playing sounds alongside the movement of the works would result in a collapse, so we adjust the sound itself as well as the sound sources for each situation to create a balance.
What has been the most challenging project by far and why?
Creating art is always difficult. Our artworks 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.
What do you want viewers to take away when they view a teamLab project?
Many of our artworks are influenced by the presence and actions of the people in the space, so each experience is different. However, we hope they are moved by the experience in some way, and that it provides an opportunity to explore what we ourselves try to explore through our works: the relationship between the self and the world and new perceptions through art.
Our immersive works are a means to make visitors a part of the artworks to experience and be able to understand the underlying concepts, such as how our existence is continuous with the world, and that our existence rests atop the continuity of life.
For example, in our exhibition teamLab & TikTok, teamLab Reconnect: Art with Rinkan Saunawhich took place in Tokyo, 2021, visitors could experience art in their finest mental state. By taking alternating hot and cold baths, visitors open their minds, experience an ever-expanding physical sensation, and become one with the art. By transforming the state of the visitors themselves, it made it easier for them to immerse themselves and become a part of the artworks.
What are your thoughts on new digital worlds and VR, AR, or NFTs? How has or how do you see it affecting teamLab’s work?
We recently unveiled an NFT work called Matter is Void - Black in White, which explores the notion of ownership. There is only one NFT of this work, but it does not make it exclusive. Anyone and any number of people can download and own the artwork itself. In other words, whether or not someone owns the NFT of the work, it cannot be distinguished from the downloaded artworks and they are all real.
Not in terms of a ‘digital world’ but in terms of digital technology: it enables complex detail and freedom for change. Creative expression has existed through static media for most of human history, often using physical objects such as canvas and paint, but the advent of digital technology allows human expression to become free from these physical constraints, existing independently and evolving freely.
Furthermore, it has made the expression of change itself more free and precise. It has become possible to express change based on the behavior of people and the artwork’s surroundings. This enables the artworks to become interactive with the viewers, and viewers are able to participate in the artwork.
What advice would you give anyone who is looking to start in the space?
teamLab was started by a group of friends who simply enjoyed spending time together, and it has continued to grow and change. If you only think in practical terms, logically, you will fail. It is good to start with the things you enjoy in life.
In the 20th century, we were taught to only understand the world through our heads, but it is important to experience things with our hearts and our bodies. Don't think you can understand the world just through the internet.
What can we expect from teamLab for the rest of 2022?
We are also in a new production of Giacomo Puccini's opera, Turandot, for which we are working on the scenography for the first time. It will be premiering in Geneva at Grand Théâtre de Genève on June 20 and run through July 3.