Interview with the 'ultratechnologists' of teamLab
teamLab: Living Digital Forest and Future Park
May 20 – Oct 20, 2017 PACE BEIJING, Beijing China
Author’s note: Those of you who attended this year’s TedX at the Courtauld will remember being mesmerized by the dream-like sequences shown by teamLab’s speaker, Noriko. Emerging in Tokyo in 2001, teamLab is an art collective whose works bridge the separate spheres of elite and popular art; theirs works are praised by children and critics alike all over the world. Beneath the façade of immediate and immersive beauty lie critical concepts drawn from both the Japanese artistic tradition and responses to Western consumption of art. Here I talk to teamLab about their origin, aspirations and how far they have come since.
Fred Shan: Whenever teamLab is discussed in the press in the West, the group is always categorised as ‘ultratechnologists.’ What exactly does ‘ultratechnologists’ mean?
teamLab: We refer ourselves as "ultratechnologists," in the aim to go beyond the boundaries between art, science, technology and creativity, through co-creative activities.
We believe the digital domain can expand the capacities of art, and that digital art can create new relationships between people.
Digital technology enables complex detail and freedom for change. Before people started accepting digital technology, information and artistic expression had to be presented in some physical form. Creative expression has existed through static media for most of human history, often using physical objects such as canvas and paint. The advent of digital technology allows human expression to become free from these physical constraints, enabling it to exist independently and evolve freely.
FS: How and why was the group set up? Have the aims of the group remained the same up until now?
tL: When we started teamLab in 2001 at the rise of the digital age, we had the passion to eliminate boundaries and work beyond existing disciplines, which was becoming possible by digital technologies. To make that happen, we wanted a place where we could get people from all different specialization and skills, and decided to make one on our own. Our name “teamLab” literally comes from that idea, to create a team of specialists and a place like a laboratory for all kinds of creation to move the world forward.
FS: How does a group with members from diverse backgrounds go about creating art? Can you talk us through the process of creation for this work, from conception of the idea to its installation at Pace?
tL: We can say this for all of our process for creation; 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 the whole team needs to create and think as they go along. teamLab's organizational structure seems flat at a first glance, but it is also extremely multidimensional, with an underlying layer that is unclear and undecided.
The big concepts are always defined from the start, and the project goal and technical feasibility also go hand in hand. This is why the goal of the artwork becomes more clearly defined as the team progresses its work.
teamLab: Dance! Art Exhibition, Learn & Play! Future Park
Jul 01 – Nov 30, 2017 OCT Harbour-OTC, Creative Exhibition Center, Shenzhen, China
FS: Your works are always displayed under the collective name rather than the names of individuals involved on the project. Why is the maintenance of a collective identity so important to you, especially when intellectual property is so associated with the individual in the West?
tL: The reason for this is because the way we work co-creatively for each project is the key to expanding our creativity.
As mentioned in previous question, our artworks are created 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 what we need to do is for the whole team to create and think as we go along. teamLab's organizational structure seems flat at a first glance, but it is also extremely multidimensional, with an underlying layer that is unclear and undecided.
FS: The themes explored in your works are inherently Japanese, often delving into traditions like Ukiyo-e, Zen Buddhism or calligraphy. Do you think something is lost in translation when displaying the works to a non-Japanese, non-East-Asian audience?
tL: What makes Japanese art remarkable is the way space is interpreted. Spatial theory has taken root from ancient Japan and now digital technology has allowed us to take a scientific approach in exploring the logical constructs of it.
The way Japanese look at space is very much related to the way Japanese think, and so it is natural that how teamLab see through our artworks reflects the essence of Japanese thinking.
FS: Some of your works feature in galleries and art fairs while many others are installed in non-traditional exhibition spaces like Buddhist shrines, forests or even theme parks. How does your approach to making art for galleries differ from those for non-conventional exhibition spaces?
tL: teamLab believes that we can use digital means to expand space and influence the relationships among people in the space. If people in the digital art space influence the space to change, then they become a part of the artwork. If that change is beautiful, then the presence of other people becomes beautiful. By combining technology and digital art the presence of other people in a space can become a more positive experience.
In the past form of art, the presence of other people when viewing art has been disruptive, but at teamLab’s exhibitions, however, people can feel that the presence of other people is a positive experience.
What are people? What is the world to people? Questioning these things may be the start of something or a hint when we think with imagination and creativity.
teamLab: Transcending Boundaries
Jan 25 – Mar 11, 2017 PACE LONDON
FS: Criticality has been a vital theme in Western though since Socrates, and contemporary art in the West often attempts to express criticality, mostly in the political sphere. A western critic might write teamLab off as an entertainment, a spectacle. Is there the concept of criticality important to you, or do you rather think that the term is too western a concept to be applied to your art?
tL: We have been creating digital art since the year 2001 with the aim of changing people’s values and contributing to societal progress. Although we initially had no idea where we could exhibit our art or how we could support the team financially, we also strongly believed in and were genuinely interested in the power of digital technology and creativity. We wanted to keep creating new things regardless of genre limitations, and we did. As time went on, while we gained a passionate following among young people, we were ignored by the Japanese art world. Our art world debut finally came in 2011 at the Kaikai Kiki gallery in Taipei thanks to the artist Takashi Murakami. Since then, we have gained opportunities in cosmopolitan cities such as Singapore and our works have also been exhibited in the Pace Gallery in New York from 2014 onward. Even within Japan, our efforts to publicize and exhibit our art ourselves have borne fruit and lead to drastic changes in our situation.
We think the situation you mentioned is better than what we used to get from the Japanese art world; being “ignored”.
FS: Contemporary art, especially when influenced by Conceptualism, often appears impenetrable at first glance. To understand them thus requires contextual knowledge, which is provided by the artist or art critic. But given the accessibility of your works by audiences of all ages and education do you think the art critic still has a role to play?
tL: Yes, of course there is role for art critic.
One questions for you is… what is difference of role between art critic and opinions of audience in social network today?