In Continuity, an exhibition which was planned to open at Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, earlier this month, Tokyo art collective teamLab would have invited visitors to enter a small, dark space – a seemingly empty room. As they stood still for a few moments, audiences might have begun to notice colourful butterflies spilling out onto the walls, travelling across flat screens and over ceilings. Suddenly, the entire space would have been brimming with digitally rendered creatures. When audiences tried to touch them – willed by autonomy and interaction – they would drift lifelessly onto the floor.
Flutter of Butterflies Beyond Borders, Ephemeral Life is just one of the many installations in Continuity, a publication that coincides with the show. With a strong focus on the development of ideas rather than finalised projects, the text offers interviews with members of the collective, which includes more than 400 architects, animators, designers and programmers.
Founded nearly a decade ago, teamLab is known for its interconnected, “borderless” installations – the largest of which spans over 1,200 square meters. These digital experiences push the boundaries of contemporary art and its narrative within the gallery space. The subject matter is inspired by traditional Japanese works, and almost always points to nature – whether or not we can replicate or control it. Think wading through knee-high water whilst gazing down at projected images of swimming fish, or giant renders of Japanese pop-culture characters. “teamLab sees no bound ary between humans and nature. Everything exists in a long, fragile, yet miraculous continuity of life.”
Still, the members of teamLab are not strangers to how digital art has been perceived through history. The book references articles from critical theorists, charting the rise of such platforms and their place within the canon of art. Once such text is Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935). In the piece, Benjamin argues that the aura of a “traditional” work of art lies in its authenticity, originality and uniqueness. This, he argues, is fundamentally eliminated when the piece reproduced. “By replicating the work, it substitutes mass existence for unique existence,” he writes.
What teamLab does, however, is offer a response to this argument, pointing out that Benjamin’s text – written in the 1930s – doesn’t reflect the contemporary age. Now, usergenerated reproductions are on every social media feed and phone screen. “Perhaps what Benjamin saw as degradation – a work of art that went from a unique mass existence when reproduced – is replaced with a sort of amplification when the medium is inscribed with its own reproducibility,” they argue. In this age of digital interactivity – where VR and AR are the norm – projects are not just objects to be looked at anymore. Whether it’s through Instagram face filters, virtual avatars or digital fashion, we insert ourselves into technology every day, so it’s only natural that our artworks follow suit.
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Lead image: Forest of Flowers and People – Lost, Immersed and Reborn. 2017/2020. By teamLab, (Japanese, est. 2001) Sound by Hideaki Takahashi (b. 1967) Interactive digital installation.