Maker Hacker

Living Digital Space

An artist collective’s fusion of physical and virtual life encourages new ways of examining the natural world

It’s hard to have a casual relationship to art though I’ve tried. I’ve always had a fondness for Gauguin’s bold colors and captivating subjects, and of course I can admire a Pollock or Picasso with total appreciation. But I would characterize the enjoyment as passive and often accompanied by a sense of uncertainty.

Am I understanding the historical/political/religious/relational context? Can I really engage with the work bringing just my own thoughts and limited knowledge? Standing in front of what appears to be a giant block of wood at Dia:Beacon last month, I have a sneaking suspicion that maybe I’m not really ‘getting’ it.

Recently I saw an exhibit that was truly captivating for many reasons, partly because these thoughts never crossed my mind. teamLab is a renowned Japanese art collective, recognized for challenging and expanding the digital art-making practice. I recently caught their exhibit at Pace Gallery in Palo Alto, CA; described as an immersive, large-scale installation and digital playground.


The multi-room environments span 20,000ft² and showcase 20 digital works of visually morphing beauty. teamLab describes themselves as ultra-technologists. Rooted in the tradition of ancient Japanese Art, their work navigates the confluence of art, technology, design, and the natural world.

In moving away from static media, teamLab’s concepts are no longer constrained to the physical form, allowing for a new freedom of expression—pieces that evolve spatially and temporally, reacting to the viewer in ways that transform audience into participant. What this meant for me personally was a level of immersion which left no space for those creeping feelings that something might be missing. The experience itself was enough.

Some highlights:

Crystal Universe

In their own words:
This artwork uses accumulated light points to create a sculptural body, similar to the way distinct dots of color form an image in a pointillist painting. In Crystal Universe, the particles of light are digitally controlled, and change based on the viewer’s interactivity with the work. The result is an installation consisting of an accumulation of lights, forming a sculpture that expresses the universe.

Black Waves in Infinity

In their own words:
In pre-modern Japanese painting, oceans, rivers, and other bodies of water were expressed as a series of lines. These lines give the impression of life, as though water was a living entity. Here, the movement of waves of water is simulated in a computer-generated three-dimensional space. The water is expressed as a continuous body after calculating the interactions of hundreds of thousands of particles. To express the waves, the behavior of the particles at the surface of the water was then extracted and lines were drawn in relation to the movement of the particles.

Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as Well

In their own words:
A digital installation on seven screens. This is an artwork that explores Japanese spatial awareness. It exists in three dimensions in a three-dimensional space that we call Ultra Subjective Space. The Japanese mythical bird Yatagarasu, rendered in light, flies around the space leaving trails of light in its path, creating spatial calligraphy. As the crows chase and are chased by each other through the air, they become flowers, and eventually scatter.

Flowers and People, Cannot be Controlled but Live Together – A Whole Year per Hour

In their own words:
This artwork is in continuous change, over a period of one hour a seasonal year of flowers blossoms and scatters. Neither a pre-recorded animation nor on loop, the work is rendered in real time by a computer program. The interaction between the viewer and the installation causes continuous change in the artwork; previous visual states can never be replicated, and will never reoccur. The flowers bud, grow, and blossom before their petals begin to wither, and eventually fade away. The cycle of growth and decay repeats itself in perpetuity. Depending on the proximity of the viewer to the work, the flowers shed their petals all at once, whither and die, or come to life and blossom once again.

Sketch Aquarium

In their own words:
Children can observe the power of their creative imagination through Sketch Aquarium. Each participant is invited to color in a drawing of a sea creature of his or her preference. Once completed, the piece of paper is scanned, and the image is projected onto a giant virtual aquarium. Children will be able to see their creation come to life and swim with all the other sea creatures. Children may also touch the fish to see them swim away, or touch the virtual food bag to feed the fish.

To experience art literally come to life is a pretty magical thing, and seeing these pieces in Palo Alto held a certain weight. The Bay Area’s seismic shifts at the hands of venture capitalists and tech start-ups can induce a certain skepticism concerning the social impact of technology. But the beauty and expansiveness represented at the Pace Gallery reminded me of technology’s truly transformative potential and left this particular cynic feeling rather hopeful.


Got you hooked? here’s more:

Digital Art
A Big Shift
From selfies to virtual reality, how technology is changing the art world

Virtual Art
Touring New Digital Landscapes
A look at VR initiatives in gaming, art, science, journalism, and more

One reaction: “This is not art.”
How teamLab’s Post-Art Installations Cracked the Silicon Valley Code

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