This is the future of art

A man-made island in Tokyo Bay is the site the artists’ collective teamLab chose for the “Mori Building Digital Art Museum: teamLab Borderless”. Every day, 7,000 visitors lose themselves in the interactive worlds of illusion created by thousands of computers and projectors.

04/09/2020 Copy: Roland Hagenberg Photo: teamLab Reading Time: 5 min

Digital exhibits The Way of the Sea in the Memory of Topography
“Weightless Forest of Resonating Life”. Interactive art installations as a fun project for visitors of all generations and for Instagram: At teamLab Borderless in Tokyo’s Odaiba area, floating bubbles react with light and sound when touched. Visitors are prompted to take and post photos.

Sunday in Tokyo. The automated, driverless Yurikamome train speeds across the Rainbow Bridge. Passengers are squeezed in as tightly as though they were on their way to work. Behind them looms the skyline of this 35-million-strong metropolis. Ahead is the man-made island of Odaiba. There, too, the skyscrapers rise like sentinels, free time is spent shopping and the Japanese take comfort in the dense throngs of people around them.

A 10,000 square-meter digital art museum

Need to get your bearings? Keep an eye out for extravagances such the 20-meter-high statue of the anime robot Gundam—in destroy mode. Or the replica of New York’s Statue of Liberty. Or the Fuji TV headquarters, which suggests a futuristic Soviet command center. And in between, queues and more queues. Forty minutes in line at Starbucks. An hour at the ferris wheel. And two to three outside the Mori Building Digital Art Museum: teamLab Borderless. The 10,000-square-meter entertainment hall has a name as long as the lines at its doors—comprising parents with children, tourists full of digital anticipation and dating couples.

The future of art demands that we break down the limits of perception—which is why the word ‘borderless’ appears in the museum’s name.

Ken Kato, teamLab

“Wander through the Crystal World”. The LED sculpture reacts to visitors’ smartphones, creating thousands upon thousands of light combinations. Hideaki Takahashi composed celestial music to accompany them.

teamLab currently consists of several hundred specialists, Ken Kato, in charge of PR, is one of the members. Four out of five are designers, engineers, mathematicians, programmers and artists. Everyone remains anonymous, signing artworks only “teamLab.” The concept is the brainchild of Toshiyuki Inoko, a former mathematics, architecture and IT student, who came up with it 19 years ago. To this day, the 43-year-old tirelessly spurs on the members of his art collective to create three-dimensional, digital environments that aim to take viewers out of the real world, amaze them and get them involved interactively. “The future of art demands that we break down the limits of perception—which is why the word ‘borderless’ appears in the museum’s name,” Kato says. In the search for a permanent home for the collective, his boss Inoko won over Japanese property giant and museum operator Mori. Together they opened the Odaiba complex in 2018—to much acclaim.

Seven thousand visitors pass through the doors daily

Kato leads us from his glaringly bright control center into the pitch darkness of the Borderless world. Here, enveloped in celestial music, you initially think you are alone. Instinctively, your eyes search for a reference point, your feet test the firmness of the ground and your hands probe for obstacles until your dreamwalking companions start to appear—at first there are ten, then fifty, then hundreds.

Transfixed, they spend hours in a labyrinth where food and drink are prohibited but photographing for Instagram is not only allowed but encouraged; it’s part of the marketing strategy. In the field of blooms, for instance, where flowers blossom as mothers stand motionless and leaves fall when they depart. “Again, again!” a child cries. The mothers turn around and the spectacle unfolds once more.

Writing rains down from the darkness ten meters above. Children try to catch the words, but when grasped they melt away. A cloud of luminous butterflies surrounds visitors. Spaces and themes blend seamlessly into one another. The foam on the crests of the meter-high waves resembles TV snow. They wash up against the hilly floors with scurrying lizards as a misty strobe thunderstorm brews. 

Digital exhibits Forest of Resonating Lamps
“Forest of Resonating Lamps”. If you stand very still, close to a Venetian glass lamp, it starts glowing in a particular color. It also affects the other lamps nearby, before spreading throughout the room. Colors triggered by other visitors blend as they meet.
Technology frees art from its material constraints, its frame, and drives it from the traditional showroom out into the world.

Ken Kato, teamLab

The effects are breathtaking, exploding the boundaries of conventional museum fare. Which is why you try to categorize these unfamiliar phenomena differently—for instance, by recalling a disco or a rock concert, Disney World, a planetarium or space travel in IMAX dimensions. The futuristic, kaleidoscopic blaze of color even harks back to the 1960s. If Timothy Leary had been able to access this technology (thousands of computers and projectors and the same number of movement sensors), would he have sworn off his LSD experiments?

“Art has yet again reached a turning point,” Kato says. “First it was just chalk in caves. Then weatherproof materials. And finally photography, which called into question the main function of painting—pure representation. Technology frees art from its material constraints, its frame, and drives it from the traditional showroom out into the world.” The lawyer adds drily, “Without a team and the appropriate financial backing, future artists won’t get very far.”

The teamLab collective is committed to anonymity

Factory-style art production was not born with teamLab. Michelangelo, of Vatican fame, had hordes of assistants producing art on an assembly line, while pop artist Andy Warhol frequently contributed no more than his signature. Today’s stars are following in their footsteps. For Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami, media impact and marketing are just as important as the content of their art—if not more so. So it was fitting that Murakami was the first to exhibit teamLab’s work.

Will future collectors be content to own artworks unconnected to any personal backstory or to a myth that grew over decades? Time will tell. Human beings have a long history as hunters and gatherers, and they can live this out again in the digital world. But they also want to bring something home, something tangible as a token of an otherwise abstract memory.

Other locations: in November 2019, the artists’ collective teamLab opened a second Borderless museum in Shanghai’s Huangpu District. Spanning a total area of 6,600 square meters, the museum houses 50 installations. Europe’s first teamLab Borderless site will be in Hamburg’s HafenCity district (total planned area: 5,000 square meters). The Mayor of Hamburg signed a declaration of intent in Tokyo, but no precise timetable for when the museum will open has yet been agreed.

Digital exhibits Animals of Flowers, Symbiotic Lives
“Animals of Flowers, Symbiotic Lives”. teamLab tells of the infinite cycle of life and death with a blossoming forest of animals. When visitors touch them, leaves fall. Too long, and the blooms break up and the animals perish. The computer program recalculates this process again and again, avoiding repeated scenes.

Cultural background of tea culture

As though teamLab had intuited this dilemma, the Odaiba complex features a tea house. It is called En, which means “circle.” Here, too, lights play in the all-enveloping darkness, moving in slow motion to form a meditative ring of paint and brush strokes on the wall, and making wondrous flowers blossom in the cups, projected with absolute precision onto the green tea. The first sip feels like a mouthful of outer space.

“Our tea house exists only in the here and now. There’s no repeating the experience in the future. When this is all over, we’re destroying the plans and programs,” Kato says. A project that takes into consideration the cultural background of tea culture, and through practical research and experimentation attempts to re-interpret and extend them through digital art.

When teamLab produces certified programs and art in limited editions to raise their value, it is voluntary. Not, however, when an installation like the one in Odaiba is never offered outside of Japan in the first place. That has not happened yet, but there has also never been a complete replica of the Odaiba project in Europe. (Massless exhibition 2018 in Helsinki featured only partial aspects of it.)

Digital exhibits The Way of the Sea in the Memory of Topography
“The Way of the Sea in the Memory of Topography—Colors of Life”. A field in a hilly landscape with insects and large-leaved plants. As the seasons change, the light transforms from stark blue to pastel green to autumnal gold. The visitors’ movements affect the insects’ flight and the air current. Flower petals scatter in all directions. Rice stalks bend in the wind.
Nowadays, each and every one of us can change the world, and it’s easier than ever before. But that also means it’s much easier for other people to impact my own world. That’s our fate.

Ken Kato, teamLab

The Japanese are known for their custom of taking trash home rather than carelessly throwing it away. Anyone who finds a wallet takes it to the police station. Crowds of people form orderly lines while they wait for the subway—without anyone managing the process. Treating the world we all share with respect is an unwritten rule. Every- one abides by it. And that is why the artificial fields of flowers can survive unsullied in Odaiba. The forest of crystal rods also remains undamaged, as do the soft carpets and the Venetian glass lampshades, even with 7,000 admirers marching past at arm’s length every day.

It is also doubtful whether Western authorities, ever concerned with public safety, would green-light a presentation platform like this. The darkened, 10,000-square-meter labyrinth is full of unexpected bumps and steps. But perhaps this challenge is precisely what the collective needs to retain its avant-garde credentials. What happens when all borders truly disappear? What will make teamLab Borderless different from Disney World, a disco or a rock concert then? Kato the lawyer sees no cause for concern. “Nowadays, each and every one of us can change the world, and it’s easier than ever before. But that also means it’s much easier for other people to impact my own world. That’s our fate. We can’t change it. So what is there to be afraid of?”

“Light Evaporating with People”. Rays of light form into spaces and objects that approach the visitors, who in turn impact the shapes and become part of the installation. Here, again, the background music was composed by Hideaki Takahashi.

Toshiyuki Inoko, the founder of teamLab

Toshiyuki Inoko, the founder of teamLab, grew up in the south of Japan, on Shikoku island—home of the legendary sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Architect and Pritzker Prize winner Toyo Ito opened his architecture museum TIMA there in 2011.

Waterfalls Audi

teamLab sends a digital waterfall cascading down on an Audi R8 from a height of 16 meters. Splashes and drops react interactively, subjecting the waterfall to constant change. The art installation was created for the Audi Forum Tokyo several years ago.


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