Step inside the digital world of teamLab
Takashi Kudo of digital art collective teamLab helps shake up the assumptions of what art is supposed to be.
“Art is something we can’t express with words,” says Takashi Kudo.
But then the words start pouring forth, and for most of the next hour, he talks quickly, excitedly, passionately about teamLab, the Tokyo-based art collective of which he’s one of the key members.
“One of the key members” is an incredibly vague description−the kind of thing that a writer usually writes only when they forgot to ask a question that they should have been asking. But for teamLab it seems appropriate.
“If you really need a title for me, you can use ‘Communications Director,’” he says, “but titles are almost meaningless at teamLab because there’s no hierarchy. What matters is your skill set, not your title. Contributions can come from anybody, anywhere, at any time.”
And it seems as though everybody, everywhere, all the time is talking about teamLab, at least in Tokyo. Their two installations, teamLab Borderless and teamLab Planets, opened in the middle of last year near central Tokyo and have been a massive success. Borderless alone drew more than one million visitors over the course of just its first five months, and even now the lines snake out of the building, down the block, and around the corner by lunch time on most days.
teamLab was founded in 2001 by five tech-savvy friends, but Borderless and Planets are too grand in scope to have been realised by just five people−or even 50. The number of teamLab members is somewhere in the neighborhood of 650, including computer graphics animators, hardware engineers, software engineers, architects, sound engineers, mathematicians, coders, and even machine learning experts. Kudo refers to all of these people simply as “ultratechnologists.”
Surprisingly, though, he’s not really one of them. At university he studied philosophy and literature, not physics or robotics. After graduating and toiling in corporate Japan for a year, he fled, spending the next six years travelling the world. He eventually settled in Stockholm, where for more than four years he worked as a magazine editor.
Now in his early forties, he has been in teamLab for almost a decade, helping to articulate the collective’s message.
“Are Borderless and Planets really art? That’s not for us to decide. We just want people to come and experience them.”
What both installations share is the immersive aspect; you’re not just looking at two-dimensional artworks on the wall in front of you, but rather you’re surrounded in what seems like four dimensions. Visitors can interact with the art, changing the colours in a room full of hanging LED strips, for example, by sending commands from your smartphone. Try doing that with the Mona Lisa.
The bottom line is that teamLab’s installations are some of the trippiest experiences you can have in Tokyo these days, and it’s fun to think about what other envelopes the group will be able to push in the years ahead. But don’t ask Takashi Kudo where teamLab will be in ten years.
“Nobody knows,” he laughs.
Text and photos Peter Weld