Digital Art Unleashed: teamLab Borderless Tokyo

Doctor Yak
Nov 12, 2019 · 10 min read

Another new way to appreciate art, or the end of the traditional gallery?

An exhibit entitled ”Universe of Water Particles on a Rock where People Gather” — where the people provide the art as much as the digital genius behind them. Photo Credit: Doctor Yak (mine)

Situated in the massive Mori Building in Tokyo’s Odaiba, teamLab Borderless is the world’s first Digital Art museum. A feast of light, colour, sound and scent within a 10000m² labyrinth, it is such a unique experience that I had to write about it.

It’s from a Japanese art collective called teamLab, who describe themselves as an “interdisciplinary group of ultratechnologists” and with this project have focused on giving the visitor an immersive and fluid experience. The many artworks on display may move from one room to the next, communicate with other artworks and with you. The effect is a sui generis world to explore and discover and I’ve taken some snaps and videos to give a bit of context.

A visitor gazing at the ever-changing patterns on one of the walls

Having spent five hours here during a recent trip to Tokyo, I found that the museum more than lived up to my expectations. Not only did it provide new ways to enjoy and interact with art, but also a social environment in which interaction with fellow visitors enriches the experience. The sections for children were a particularly special, providing a safe and stimulating area for kids to appreciate and experiment with art.

I do hope that other cities around the world can learn from Tokyo and consider the many benefits of interactive Digital Art exhibitions. Here are some of my thoughts, please do feel free to add your musings below the article.


Entering and Exploring: A gentle walk-through

Entering teamLab Borderless is quite something. You are immediately hit by a wave of floral colour, subtle scents of flowers and ambient sounds in the background. Everything is moving and the patterns on the walls change in the Forest of Flowers.

Butterflies mingle with the flowers

I noticed that the butterflies tended to be coming from one direction and traced my steps to a small room where they were being hatched on the backs of new visitors in a dark room, which I later discovered was called “ Flutter of Butterflies Beyond Borders, Ephemeral Life Born from People”. Cool.

This gentleman isn’t aware that he has coccoons forming on his back whilst he is watching little fluttering butterflies. They formed and disappeared into the main floral room

In the Forest of Flowers itself, interaction with the moving petals created new animals, which formed and later followed the visitor around. These animals then faded and died when there was a bit too much interaction. The creators call this artful lesson on balance “Symbiotic Gardens”.

teamLabs have purposefully placed the bare minimum of navigational aids throughout the museum, advising the visitor to get lost and discover their own itinerary. As I left the Forest, I wandered through corridors which seemed to have their own moving art and stories. These then interacted with visitors and other artworks, and sometimes entered other rooms to replace or change the art which was previously there.

There were lots of little scenes playing out in the corridors between other exhibits. Often, the characters interacted with each other and with visitors. Other times they entered and changed other exhibits.

The museum has 50 different exhibits, and so stumbling upon something new was very easy. My first discovery was a little room where people were lying on beanbags in the centre and were watching artistic waves crash upon each other. A few were asleep. The scene ,called Black Waves, was so surreal, and underlined the point that we as visitors are providing the art as well.

People lying on beanbags in the centre of a round room, watching waves hit each other

These smaller exhibits have contrasting vibes, and often the room itself will shake things up to give you a new experience. I walked into a room which was empty apart from a few gentle lights, the direction of which was being changed by people’s hand movements.

Everyone was staring into the ceiling and I wondered whether I had entered an impromptu cult meeting. Suddenly, the whole room changed into a rave club of dancing lasers. All good clean fun and a young couple starting dancing in the middle, though I imagine not recommended if you suffer from epilepsy:

At this point, I was wondering how long I should spend in each room. The laser place was certainly interesting, and I noticed there were a variety of different types of show in both monochrome and colour, but I didn’t think it warranted too long a stay. The point is that you can always move on instantly if you feel inclined to, and return later. After leaving the lasers I stumbled on the Crystal World, an ethereal use of Pointillism.

“The Way of the Sea in the Crystal World”

You could spend a month watching the silhouettes of people find their path through the Crystal World. But there would probably be better ways to spend that time. At this point, I genuinely thought that I’d seen everything in the Digital Art Museum besides the various experiences which you need to queue for. As I was about to leave, I noticed a path and escalator to the second big chunk of the museum, which houses the Athletics Forest and Future Park.


Discoveries

The Athletics Forest is hyped as a way of combining art with movement and visuo-spatial awareness. As you walk in, the first thing you see is people of all ages, shapes and sizes frolicking on a bouncy castle where each bounce generates patterns in a specific colour.

Bouncy castle. Not really a castle but suitable for bouncing.

I did wonder at this stage whether this part of the museum was catering to the theme park aficionados who regularly visit the Odaiba district. But the busy Athletics Forest had a lot more than first was visible to the eye. The uneven surfaces of Graffiti Nature allowed for a different sort of interaction with the moving artworks (including beasties which were being designed live elsewhere in the museum, more on that later…).

A lizard of some description in Graffiti Nature

Elsewhere in the Athletics Park, there were multi-coloured balloon-like objects of different sizes which were the location of many a pointless selfie:

Having got a bit lost, but enjoying every second of my travels, I stumbled upon the En Tea House. This little sanctuary allows you to drink various concoctions of green tea, with ambient sounds and smells complementing the experience.

Every time I sipped some of the tea, petals were shed, scattered and then spread beyond the cup. Even spilling a few drops of tea caused little flowers to bloom. The frustration with this amazing piece of drinkable art was the knowledge that finishing your tea would mean the zen-like petal shedding would end. And I really wanted to finish that cup of tea…. It was good to see that I wasn’t on my own, and that others were facing the same quandary though:

Cups of tea in the En Tea House, with petals forming around them each time the liquid within is imbibed.

Smaller rooms have tiny changing artworks that you can enjoy for yourself, including immensely high resolution moving works. I can’t lie to you about the name of the work below — Impermanent Life, at the Confluence of Spacetime New Space and Time is Born

Following the corridors also lead to a number of other discoveries, as the artworks in the corridors ended up filling spaces which were previously empty, such as this one:

People were mesmerized whilst watching the poetic movement of crows with trails of light in the frankly ridiculously named Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as well, Transcending Space. These crows ended up travelling through almost every room in the Museum, turning up and interacting with other artwork. I spotted them again when they entered another room called the Layered Ultrasubjective Space room.

Dem Crows…

A Social Environment

Art is often best appreciated in a quiet environment with few obstacles between the viewer and the art itself. Obstacles which might include other people. Not so in this place, as the presence of others often complements the scene and changes the art in fascinating ways, from the way the rain lands in the Universe of Water Particles on a Rock Where People Gather to the way the dancing figures in the corridors interact differently with individuals and groups of people.

Indeed, interaction with art and with each other produces relationships which create memories beyond the experience of the art itself. Here I am being recorded by two Japanese ladies after having discovered that the words on the walls can be rubbed out using hand movements in one little exhibition:

This zenith of this interaction featured in the room where people were collaborating to draw all manner of fauna for Graffiti Nature. It was arguably some kind of surreal performance art watching visitors silently and diligently sketching their patterned animals ready to be digitized and projected.

Sensory Stimulation — An Eye Doctor’s Perspective

In my blog article here I briefly discuss the therapeutic uses of immersive technologies. Children with lazy eye suffer from the vision in their worse eye not developing properly — a condition also called amblyopia. Managing the vision in the poorer developing eye involves blocking out the stimulus to the stronger eye, and providing extra sensory stimulation to the poorer eye can help advance visual training in the weaker eye. This can be done through immersive technologies such as virtual reality, however teamLabs Borderless highlighted the potential of art and entertainment in a large open space, which would surely be much more tolerable for children (and adults) than unwieldy headsets. I saw toddlers running around in the area which was called Inverted Globe, Giant Connecting Block Town and thought that these feasts for the eyes would be of immense potential in children with amblyopia.

Inverted Globe, Giant Connecting Block Town

Excitement and experimentation for Children

Indeed, this entire experience served as a taster for the potential in inspirational digital art for children. In the Sketch Aquarium, children were drawing bits of artwork which would be transformed to life around them

A little girl drawing in the Sketch Aquarium

Elsewhere, kids of all ages could have lots of fun playing something which I considered to be a slide-based variant of the classic Fruit Ninja game. Did the author get on this slide? I will let that be a mystery for you, dear reader.

“Sliding through the Fruit Field”

The Death of the Art Gallery?

Buoyed by the success of this project, teamLabs appear to be creating their own coccoons and sprouting galleries elsewhere. They have another temporary gallery in Tokyo called teamLabs: Planets and two galleries in a Kyushu Hot Spring complex — A Forest where Gods live Earth Music and Ecology and The Nature of Time. There are galleries opening outside Japan, in Shanghai and Macao. Who knows what else this team of “animators, programmers, architects, mathematicians and designers” have up their sleeves, I for one hope they bring this experience to other countries.

Do you think that this ultra-immersive form of art detracts from, or complements, conventional appreciation of art (be it contemporary or traditional)? My own thoughts were that this is a new type of experience in and of itself, and can only be complimentary to ordinary art galleries and museums.


Practical Advice

A few little bullet points

  • Buy your ticket online to avoid a queue for tickets before the queue for entry
  • Certain times are less busy than others, with 14:00 suggested as a reasonable entry time on weekends. But prepare yourself for other people as, regardless of the time, there will always be people around you. And remember that this is an exhibition in which people are part of the art.
  • This is a very large museum with 50 different exhibits. Don’t be too anxious to visit all of them as spending time on each will make for a rather exhausting experience. Remember that the artworks change too, so relax and just go with the flow — this is your personal experience, not a tick-box exercise.
  • A very small number of exhibits have separate queues, due to the finite space and demand for them. There are boards held by museum staff stating the projected wait. Ultimately, the decision to queue depends on your own preference and the amount of time you have. It does seem that the more popular exhibits have shorter queues earlier on in the day.
  • There is an app you can get for iphone and Android which gives you new ways to interact with the artwork. I downloaded it but couldn’t get it to work, and swiftly gave up as I didn’t want to be looking at a screen when there was so much else to enjoy and appreciate.

Credits: All photos and videos are mine and are taken at the teamLabs: Borderless exhibition. Please ask before reuse, thank you

The Yak

Yakking all day about technology, healthcare, culture and art.

Doctor Yak

Written by

Yakking all day about technology, healthcare, culture and art.

The Yak

The Yak

Yakking all day about technology, healthcare, culture and art.

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