Takashi Kudo & Michaela Kane (Ep. 45)
BY Future of StoryTelling — September 2, 2021

teamLab Global Brand Director Takashi Kudo and Social Branding team member Michaela Kane discuss the history and ideology behind the collective that has risen to become one of the world's most prominent digital artists.



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Additional Links:

Watch FoST's short film about teamLab Borderless

Check for current & upcoming teamLab installations near you



Episode Transcript


Charlie Melcher:

Hi, I'm Charlie Melcher, Founder and Director of the Future of StoryTelling. Welcome back to the FoST Podcast. My guests today are members of teamLab, a Japanese collective that over the past two decades has turned digital art into blockbuster experiences. Founded in 2001, the group blends projection art, immersive design, and cutting edge computer programming to create stunning artworks that invite interaction from their viewers. This has proved to be quite the winning formula. A year after its Tokyo opening in 2018, teamLab's debut museum, teamLab Borderless, overtook both the Van Gogh Museum and the Picasso Museum to become the most visited single-artist museum in the world. In a 2015 review, Pulitzer Prize winning critic, Sebastian Smee wrote, "It's hard to explain how charming, and at times, transporting the work is. There's a beautiful tension between emptiness and fullness, and between elements that splinter and those that cohere."

But in an exceedingly rare turn for an art critic, Smee ends his review by recommending that visitors bring their kids. For a work to win over both the art world gatekeeper and his children, speaks volumes. Rather than selling art to collectors, teamLab sells their work directly to the public in the form of exhibition tickets. This is the experience economy thesis as applied to the art world. Today's audiences prefer experiences to objects. And judged by this metric, teamLab may just be the most successful artist of our time. teamLab's fundamental guiding philosophy is one of breaking down barriers. So far, they've achieved astonishing success in this regard. They've transcended the boundaries between artists and entrepreneurs, between coders and creatives, and between artworks and their audiences. Yet teamLab would tell you that those boundaries have always been illusory. In reality, the true nature of everything is borderless.

Here to discuss the history and evolution of teamLab, are Global Brand Director Takashi Kudo, and social branding team member, Michaela Kane. Takashi has graciously agreed to do this interview in English which is not his native language. If you want to double-check anything that he says, we've included a link to the transcript in the episode's description. Takashi, Michaela, it's such an honor to have you on the Future Of StoryTelling Podcast. Thank you for being here.

 

Michaela Kane:

Thank you for having us.

 

Charlie Melcher:

I was so appreciative and amazed by the tour that you gave us. When I say us, the Future Of StoryTelling Explorers Club, when you gave us the tour of your Borderless exhibit in Tokyo. I was just blown away. I wondered if you could start by telling us a little bit about that exhibit and its origins.

 

Takashi Kudo:

So actually, I am very appreciative that you're blown away. We tried to create, with Borderless... The main concept is much more like, how to bring the people to be inside of our creativity with physical bodies. We would love truly to bring the people to be inside this huge museum, 10,000 square meters, where you're going to be inside of Borderless. This kind of experience is going to be something we cannot explain, even by words and even by movies.

 

Charlie Melcher:

So Michaela, just so that our listeners can understand, what physically happens when you walk through the space of Borderless?

 

Michaela Kane:

As Takashi was saying, it is so hard to convey through two-dimensional screens, whether it's through video or photo, exactly the scale and the experience that these exhibitions have. The whole concept behind Borderless was to create a museum without a map. When visitors enter, they're first confronted with a choice of three sort of pathways, one pathway leads to the forest of flowers and people. Another one leads to the athletics forest. Another one leads to a dark room filled with butterflies. And so people have to start by choosing their path. And of course, they can sort of circle back and come back to any room they want and spend as long as they want in there. It's a place where not only people can roam freely, but also artworks. So the other idea with Borderless is that the artworks themselves transcend the boundaries of the conventional frame.

So rather than being confined to one physical location, a pedestal, a frame, a box, many of the artworks transcend those boundaries, move around the space with visitors and interact with one another. So you might see crows flying around one room, but then they'll leave and go down the hallway ahead of you. And as they pass other interactive artworks, they'll trigger changes as well. They'll cause flowers to scatter, they'll cause butterflies to fall. Things like that.

 

Takashi Kudo:

The boundaries, maybe we can say it's an illusion—it's human-made. For example, inside of our mind, it's super chaotic inside our mind. But when we try to create something in this physical world, we have to use all these materials before us; and when we use materials, and our ideas, that chaotic idea, it's going to be fixed. So we think that a world without boundary, or life without boundary, is a beautiful. That is some kind of the motivation to create this space.

 

Charlie Melcher:

And it seems very true because many of the artworks respond to the people that are in the space. So the risen to distance between you and the art, it's actually collaborative or responsive. I wanted to ask what was the inspiration for creating that museum?

 

Takashi Kudo:

I need to define what is inspirations, and what is the ideas? And most of the times, we use ideas for solving problems. That tends to be when we use ideas. We try to research on it, or we try to get data on how to solve the problems. That is ideas. And inspiration, suddenly, it happens. And sometimes, this comes from when we are in nature, and just walking around in the forest. Sometimes, it's in a conversation with other people. And then we have strong motivations and passion to make that inspiration, to make it a shape, to give it shape, and it's some experience. And that is all the process. And it's what the meaning is for inspiration, at least for teamLab.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Yeah, I definitely can see those influences both from nature and from other forms of art. Is there a particular room that's your favorite?

 

Michaela Kane:

It's so hard to choose a favorite because the artworks, as we mentioned, are constantly moving. So you'll go into a room at one minute, and you'll see something, and then you'll leave and come back 10 minutes later, and it will be a completely different room with a completely different artwork in it. Not to cop out of the question or anything, but because the space is constantly changing, one, it's hard to isolate the artworks, but two, every visit is so uniquely different.

I've been to the museum to sort of show people around, to help media with shoots. In very busy times, I'm there three, four times a week. So I've been there, truly, hundreds of times, but every time is sort of fresh and exciting because not only are the artworks moving around and altering each other and constantly changing, but what people are doing in the exhibition changes that as well. So what the person next to you is doing, what people were doing five minutes before you arrived matters. It really fosters connection between visitors, which is another reason it's so hard to capture in video or to sort of do justice on a virtual tour. So much of it is creating a new relationship between the artwork and a group of visitors. Not just an individual, it's not a one-on-one relationship. It's sort of the artwork and the group.

 

Charlie Melcher:

And I guess that's one of the messages you're trying to convey, the interconnectedness of everything?

 

Michaela Kane:

Right, certainly. So in addition to... So, there are sort of two ideas here. One of which is, as Takashi was discussing, the interconnectedness of anything. Humans are such a small existence. And when we live in cities, in small apartment buildings or taking trains places or whatever, we tend to feel very separate from people even in recent years, more so than ever just due to COVID and due to the pandemic. It's very easy to feel independent from others, to feel isolated, to feel like you are separate from the world around you and what we want to explore in Borderless, but in all of our exhibitions, is this idea of everything existing on a continuity sort of in a relationship with one another.

It's harder to see in the city but if you go to the forest, you'll see trees growing out of the earth, bugs in the earth and on the trees, birds eating the bugs, mushrooms growing from the dead trees. It is so clearly an interconnected system. And although it's harder to see in our everyday lives in cities and in urban settings, that interconnected system still exists. People are still influenced by one another. And so the goal of teamLab artworks, one of the many, is to make these influences and these relationships into something positive. To make the presence of other people into something beautiful, which we can do by having people... just by standing in a space, instigate change in the artwork.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Do you feel that digital art can actually make people appreciate nature more?

 

Michaela Kane:

I often hear this where people will sometimes ask, "Oh, is technology replacing nature? Is that what you're trying to do? You're making these flowers and these waterfalls with lights and projectors. Are you trying to be a replacement for nature?" And the answer is no, nothing can replace nature. We don't want people to think that they've seen a teamLab exhibition, and so they don't have to go out into nature or go for a hike or just spend time in the outdoors. Rather, artists have been representing nature for thousands and thousands of years. They just used the materials they had available to them at the time. So, in pre-modern times, sometimes that was parchment rock with carving and ink. Those were the tools that were available. Later on, it became landscape paintings, oil paintings, acrylic, watercolors, because those were the tools available to them at the time.

And so they would paint paintings of the nature and the trees and the mountains. And today, the tools available to us are digital technology. This is our brush, this is our canvas. And so we're just using the tools we have to create representations of nature, just like artists have done for generations. Rather than serve as a replacement for nature, we hope that people will come to our exhibitions, and although they might not have time to, or the resources to go hiking or camping or spend hundreds of years in nature to really gain a understanding of that continuity of life, perhaps they can spend a few hours in a teamLab exhibition and see this sort of accelerated form of nature, this representation and come to that same understanding.

 

Charlie Melcher:

I think that's true. I mean, even from the small bit of experience of it that I've had, I certainly felt the message and the appreciation and the respect and the awe maybe is a word, the being humbled by nature. Takashi, is there a favourite artwork in the exhibit for you?

 

Takashi Kudo:

Oh, that is always... it's hard to answer it, what latest one is my favorite. But there's one exhibition we had, it's quite my favorite. It's called "prayer." It's a very weird exhibition. We spent a lot of time to create it, a lot of installations. And we couldn't actually open it... actually, so we can open it, but we cannot bring the audience. We made a exhibition without no audience. And that was quite interesting.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Where is it?

 

Takashi Kudo:

Somewhere in this world. And actually, it was in a real physical space, and somehow, we cannot tell. So it's almost impossible to explain by words. So next time the people come to Japan, or to somewhere, or to someone who gave us opportunity to make this exhibition again, I would love to make the people to be inside with this exhibition and its artworks. You can check all of it on Google or the internet. Just "prayer," "no audience," and "teamLab," and you can search it. And you can find all of this information on this exhibition.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Okay. That sounds like something definitely worth looking up. So I'd like to learn more about the role that you think art plays in our society today. Do you have thoughts about that? What do you think the role of your work is?

 

Takashi Kudo:

Role of art is... How do I say it? It's something to give a question to the world. Because with humans, as we try to make it logic, or a design, or some role or business or whatever it is, or the artist, I think it's very hard work, because we don't know. It's just sometimes, we are maybe looking for some new questions or new societies. So the role of this art is questions.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Questions for a new world. That's beautiful. I do hear a little bit of a conflict there because I feel like at one point, you're saying that making art to something you do whether you have an audience or not, even if there's no audience like this Pray piece that you just described. But on the other hand, I also hear you talking about the importance of communal experience and how the art is responsive to the audience and is in that way almost co-created with the audience or the audience has an impact on the art.

 

Michaela Kane:

Many of our exhibitions can certainly be enjoyed alone, but other people do often help enhance the artwork as they are a part of it. But I think another sort of side of it is it is certainly important to us, for people to experience our artworks and to hopefully come away having their perspectives broadened or to leave a teamLab exhibition with new insights and new ways of experiencing the world around them. But that's important to us teamLab members as well.

So one of the ways in which we measure the success of an exhibition is not just, oh, how many people came? How were tickets sales? How much money did we make? But rather did we, ourselves, as teamLab members who had a hand in creating this and had a hand in making this happen, have we experienced something new? Have we learned something new in creating this? That's one of the most important parts of the creation to us, is not just to have an output and say, "Okay, we did it," check that box, move on to the next, but to sort of be able to experience it ourselves and say, "Okay, we made this, what have we learned? What can we do for next time?" Not just in terms of technological improvements, but in terms of, oh, how does this help us as the artists, as the architects, the mathematicians, the programmers, the animators? How does this help us experience the world in new ways?

An early teamLab exhibition, we did an exhibition deep in the mountains of Shikoku, which is an island off sort of the South of Japan called Waterfall Deep In The Mountains. And this was just one day in 2017 in this incredibly remote area where we projected flowers across these sort of rock and waterfall deep in the mountains. And of course, very few people came. It was a one-day exhibition. It's in the middle of the forest. It's extremely hard to get to, but that wasn't the goal. We didn't make this expecting throngs of people to show up over the course of a six-month exhibition. We made it because this was something we were interested in as artists. We wanted to create this both for other people to enjoy, but also for ourselves. And that has consistently remained something that is important to us as creators.

 

Charlie Melcher:

That makes a lot of sense. And it is a sign of a kind of artistic practice where it is about your own discovery, as opposed to say, a marketplace or commercial work driven by economics. Of course, you also make me think of impermanence from the description of the piece you just were talking about. And that makes me think of things like the Tibetan sand mandala that takes all that week to make, and then it just gets picked up and distributed to the winds. How important is it to you to be thinking about works that last in terms of your own creations?

 

Michaela Kane:

Well, certainly having permanent museums like teamLab Borderless gives us a lot of freedom. There's something to be said that's certainly very positive about that. By having this sort of permanent museum where we can house our works gives us the freedom to experiment within that space, gives us the freedom to kind of explore the art exhibition world in a way that we hadn't been able to before. So permanent exhibitions and long-term exhibitions are highly valuable to us as well. That being said, we're happy to, if we can learn something from it, if we can experiment with new things, we enjoy the sort of temporal exhibitions as well. These things that are only on view completed for a day or a month or less.

 

Takashi Kudo:

In the future, if we had opportunities, maybe we would love to create a little city itself made by digital art, and people living inside it with this art. That can be quite interesting, but we are not that much rich, and we don't have that opportunity so far. Yeah, one day.

 

Charlie Melcher:

I look forward to living there. I can't wait til you make it. Thinking back to my history of art and the reading that I've done about stained-glass windows and that the role that they played in cathedrals. In the Dark Ages or Medieval Europe, people didn't see much art. They didn't even see many images. There wasn't a lot of pictorial representation. And then they'd walk into a cathedral and the light would hit that stained-glass and they would see these pictures and they would come alive. It must have been just so magical and so much like a spiritual experience. And all of a sudden, I just keep having the sense of you're using digital technology now to create something that is very similar to what people must've felt walking into cathedrals and looking at stained-glass. Is that an influence on you?

 

Takashi Kudo:

Yeah, it can be, and it should. But somehow, I have been at this place, too, so I cannot say it doesn't influence me. When the human just started to make it, art, inside of the mind, there is the creativity and the imagination, and they try to share that imagination with other people. And they try to experience an emotional part to express it.

 

Charlie Melcher:

I think about also the role of storytelling in your work. Do you think about there being a narrative or is it more about creating a story world that has certain rules and then people are let loose to explore inside?

 

Takashi Kudo:

The story, it very much depends on each person. So we don't make it one story to pause to understand. Even just walking around in our installations, in the museums, exhibitions, each person has a different story. That is something we want.

 

Charlie Melcher:

It certainly seems to me that you're making a statement of an appreciation for nature and for our connection to it, our place within it. I do agree so much of modern society has become so disconnected from nature, both from the green wildlife, but also from our own nature of this self-alienation and societal disintegration. And if anything, the message I seem to feel most from Borderless is that appreciation for the interconnectivity of everything and the need to have a kind of respect for all the other elements of the world, all the other living beings.

 

Michaela Kane:

Yes. And it's not just recognizing this connection within nature, but as you touched on a little bit, Charlie, this idea of connecting to other living beings, including other people. These past couple of years have been extremely hard and unsafe to do that. There were times where our museums had to close due to public safety and then reopened, but with fewer people, and then close again. But even in those difficult times when we were all working from home, and we still wanted to keep on reminding ourselves and reminding others that we are still connected even if we can't see each other in person for a little bit. We recognize the value in creating works that connect people even over distances. Although that's not our ideal, it is a helpful thing.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Yes. I understand that in Borderless, when people come in, the artwork responds in a beautiful way to more people in the space. So it actually rewards there being more people there. You're trained to appreciate your fellow guests. And I think that's a little bit the opposite at most museums where you're kind of overwhelmed by there being too many people there. And you have a kind of opposite response.

 

Michaela Kane:

Right. Well, I think that's also partially because the relationship in traditional museums between artworks and people tends to be a very sort of one-on-one relationship, right? How does the artwork make me feel? How do I experience the artwork? What the people next to you, or in front of you or behind you are doing doesn't change the artwork. They don't matter, they're not a part of it. But by making people a part of the artwork, by making their presence sort of integral to the artwork's visuals, that is how we hope to sort of foster that connection between people, even if they're unrelated, even if they're not your friends or family in the museum, they can still create and perpetuate change. Visible, beautiful change in the artwork.

And that's something that technology has given us the freedom to do, and not even in the same museum. So we have teamLab Borderless in Tokyo, which we opened in 2018. And then we opened a teamLab Borderless in Shanghai in 2019. And now we have artworks that actually transcend the boundaries, not just between rooms in a single museum, but between the two museums. So there are artworks that will travel from Shanghai to Tokyo and vice versa. And sometimes, there are artworks that will overlap in the two. So if you have one person interacting on the Tokyo side, the Shanghai side can see that interaction from where they are as well.

 

Charlie Melcher:

Well, I certainly think that more people will be excited to come experience your work. I think the time is very good for people to really get to explore teamLab's artistic vision, and creativity. And I can't think of a better place for people to go to celebrate being able to be together again, than to experience a teamLab exhibit. So, thank you both so much for sharing with us on this podcast and for the beautiful work that you do. And I can't wait personally to come to Tokyo and see you there and your work. So again, thank you so much. It's really an honor to have you on the podcast.

 

Takashi Kudo:

Yeah, thank you.

 

Michaela Kane:

Thank you so much.

 

Charlie Melcher:

A big thank you to Takashi and Michaela for joining me today. You can find a full transcript of our conversation and watch the short film we made about teamLab's Borderless by visiting the link in this episode's description. Thank you for listening to the podcast. If you enjoyed this episode and would like to hear more, please subscribe and share it with a friend. The FoST podcast is produced by Melcher Media, in collaboration with our talented production partner Charts and Leisure. We also send out a monthly newsletter, FoST in Thought. Join the community by subscribing at fost.org/signup. I hope we'll see you again in a couple of weeks for another deep dive into the world of storytelling. Until then, please be safe, stay strong, and story on.