The Elemental Intersection of Art and Technology
Traversing the intricacies of digital artwork with teamLab
By Min Chen | The intersection of art and technology may appear to be a modern phenomenon on the surface, but this relationship is as enduring and universal as the discipline of art itself. Not only does technology have the ability to disrupt current practices in the art industry, but it can also challenge our understanding the world around us, and efforts to further uncover the potential of this intersection is expanding globally.
For instance, Tate Modern's IK Prize is given to projects that use digital technology to help visitors discover, explore, and enjoy the Tate collection. Its most recent winner, Recognition, partnered with Microsoft to develop machine learning algorithms that identify correlations between the collection and newsreel imagery through facial and object recognition, color and composition analysis, and natural language processing. In doing so, Recognition aims to reveal the relevance of art in everyday life and the potential applications for artificial intelligence in art and design.
Another example is Blockchain Art Collective–a service that uses a blockchain-based ledger system to secure an artwork’s physical and digital identity as a means of ensuring its authenticity. Artists and museums alike can register, verify, and transfer the rights of their work through the application, improving the efficiency and validity of existing provenance recording systems.
Perhaps the most engaging and transformational expression of this intersection is the use of technology as a new medium to create artwork, which opens doors to what constitutes art and engenders meaning to our contemporary existence.
Jumpstart had the pleasure of speaking to a company that epitomize this expression and is pushing the boundaries of what is achievable with such mediums as a way to inspire societal and intergenerational connectivity. teamLab creates jaw-dropping interactive digital exhibitions for their museum teamLab Borderless, which is the first of its kind in the world, and other spaces across Asia.
Can you please start by sharing a bit about what your company does and your approach to the application of technology in art and design?
TL: Founded in 2001, teamLab is an art collective and interdisciplinary group of ultra-technologists whose collaborative practice seeks to navigate the confluence of art, science, technology, design and the natural world. Various specialists such as artists, programmers, engineers, computer graphic animators, mathematicians, and architects form teamLab. We see no boundary between humans and nature, and between oneself and the world; one is in the other and the other in one. Everything exists in a long, fragile yet miraculous, borderless continuity of life.
Why did your company enter this particular niche and what most excites you about the intersection between technology and art?
TL: Digital technology has allowed art to liberate itself from the physical and transcend boundaries, leading the way for unlimited possibilities of expression and transformation. It also allows us to take a scientific approach to explore the logical constructs of ancient Japanese spatial theory. We experiment with new visual experiences to challenge contemporary human perceptions of the world and aim to change people's values and contribute to societal progress.
Initially, we had no idea where we could exhibit or how we could support the team financially, but we firmly believed in the power of digital technology and creativity. We wanted to keep creating new things regardless of genre limitations, and we did.
The relationship between technology and art is long-standing and significant, as seen in the invention of photography, Andy Warhol's use of silk screen printing, the list goes on. What doors did the ‘Digital Revolution' open with regards to this relationship (e.g., immersive experiences, digitization of the art world, etc.)?
TL: The digital medium will bring art into a new era. You could say that digital art is the future, but you could also say that digital art is already here. We would like to see new ways for art to exist, not just with artworks, but of space, viewers, and the market. Digital art is not just about ‘existence,’ it’s also about making an ‘experience’ into art. Our exhibitions make visitors and their individual experiences into an integral part of the interactive artworks.
In the art world, the application of digital technology is considered ‘new medium art’ and manifests in robotics, virtual reality, and 3D printing, to name a few. What are some new mediums that left a long lasting impression on you?
TL: Technology is not the most important part of our work, as it is still just a tool. We don't see our work as a ‘new medium,’ as we derive much of our inspiration from pre-modern Japanese art. Unlike Western Renaissance art, which was drawn with a specific subject and a vanishing point in the distance, ancient Asian picture scrolls are generally described as "flat" compared to the perspective or depth seen in Western paintings.
When you are looking at the world as depicted in from a Western perspective, it appears to be distinct from your reality. The behavior of our Japanese forebears towards nature was not merely one of observation. Rather, they fully entered the world which they were observing, and easily understood how they were a part of it. We hope to explore that immersion when creating our art.
We use digital technology to build a world of 3D objects in a 3D space, and then we explore the logical structure of that space in a way that makes it appear flat, as seen in traditional Japanese art. We have termed this logical structure ‘ultra-subjective space.’ By using ‘ultra-subjective space’ in creating our artworks, we further blur the boundary between artwork and viewer.
How do you balance between functionality and design in your work?
TL: We never think of ourselves as designers, but rather as artists. Designers try to provide answers to humanity's questions, while artists ask and explore them. As a result, our projects evolve as a form of organized chaos: we conceptualize a project while we simultaneously create it. We will, of course, have a predetermined goal for large projects. They may be a bit vague or general, but this way we can create as a team while we flesh out the full idea. Our project goals are tied to what we know is technically feasible, which is why we can create things while we are still visualizing them.
There are fine art purists who reject the use of technology in art. What would you say to them?
TL: Art and science, and by extension art and technology, have always been inextricably connected. From ancient times, civilizations have used science to help explain phenomena, and art to evolve human perception.
Take the natural phenomenon of rain. Ask any child to draw rain, and they will have no problem with the task. They may draw it as little dots, vague blue scribbles in the sky, or even dense sheets of vertical lines, but they will be able to draw rain in some form.
However, this was not always the case. As recently as the 19th century, Western paintings rarely depicted rain. Take Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877): we see people walking with umbrellas, the streets slick with water and puddles, but no rain. When one stops to think, rain is not truly a visual phenomenon (transparent water droplets falling at terminal velocity are not easy to perceive with the naked eye), so perhaps people in the past perceived rain differently.
Of course, this varies across cultures. While Western paintings may have merely implied rain, Japanese paintings featured it front and center. Japanese Ukiyo-e artists started depicting rain as dark lines as early as the 18th century, and artist Utagawa Hiroshige's Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake (1857) gained international recognition and normalized this practice a hundred years later. Van Gogh derived inspiration from this depiction, and his The Bridge in the Rain (1887) also characterized rain as clusters of thin lines. In this way, art normalized rain as a visual phenomenon, changing the way we now perceive and understand the world.
Those who reject technology in art, reject one of the greatest contributions art can make: furthering humanity's understanding of the world around us. History will decide whether or not they constitute ‘art.’ We are simply continuing to create works which we believe in.
Can you share some of your most memorable projects?
TL: In June , we opened our first permanent digital museum: teamLab Borderless. After only three months since its opening, we have already welcomed half a million visitors, and have been unable to sell any tickets at the door because they all sell out online almost a month in advance. Beyond international recognition and popularity, this extensive 10,000 sqm space represents something more to us. Having a permanent exhibit means there are greater possibilities for experimentation with the artwork, the way space is used for art and the viewer's understanding.
Since technology is constantly evolving, do you feel the pressure to keep up with these ever-changing developments in your work?
TL: We feel technology provides us with more freedom than pressure. Traditional forms of art require a permanent bond to the material–paint on a canvas, print on photo paper, carvings into stone–none of which are reversible or changeable. Digital art, on the other hand, can continuously evolve and change.
What trends do you foresee for the new year and what changes would you like to see in the industry?
TL: Our dream for teamLab is to one day make entire cities into interactive digital art. The paradigm of traditional art has been to treat other viewers as a nuisance. If you are at an exhibition with no other viewers, you are likely to think of yourself as extremely lucky. But in the exhibitions put together by teamLab, we encourage people to consider the presence of other viewers as a positive, which stretches beyond the art world.
In modern cities, the presence of other people around us, as well as their unpredictable and uncontrollable behavior, is often seen as an inconvenience to be endured. If entire cities are wrapped in the type of digital art conceived of by teamLab, we believe that people would begin to see the presence of other residents in a more positive light.
One of the major upcoming works that we're bringing to a city is Crystal Forest Square in Shenzhen, China.
Can you share any unique challenges your company faces in pioneering the amalgamation of two distinct sectors (e.g., production, curation, integrating teams, etc.)?
TL: Creating artwork is always difficult. While we gained a passionate following among young people from the start, 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, and our works have also been exhibited in the Pace Gallery in New York from 2014 onward. Within Japan, our efforts to publicize and exhibit our art have borne fruit and have led to drastic changes in our situation.
Many believed famous artists, curators, critics, and gallery owners dictate the trajectory of the art world’s direction. Do you think digitization has transformed this paradigm?
TL: When we started teamLab in 2001 at the rise of the Digital Age, we were passionate about eliminating boundaries and working beyond existing disciplines, which was made possible by digital technologies. We wanted a place where we could bring people together from various fields. Our name ‘teamLab’ literally comes from that idea–to materialize a team of specialists and a laboratory to create and move the world forward.
What do you hope to see for the future of your company?
TL: We want visitors to understand how digital technology can expand conceptions of art; furthermore, that these techniques can liberate art from a value system based only on physical materials. We hope our exhibits will encourage people to rethink the relationship between humans and nature as well as their relationship with the world around them.
What are some upcoming exhibitions or projects we should know about?
Can robots ever be artists?
TL: We do not know. All we know is that we at teamLab are not robots.
teamLab is represented by Pace Gallery.
Min is Jumpstart’s Editor in Chief.