Case Study: teamLab Borderless Mori Building Digital Art Museum, Japan

The intersection of art and technology highlights the outer limits of what can be achieved with AV products and systems. The teamLab Borderless exhibition at the Mori Building Digital Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan proves the case in point.

An art collective of self-defined ‘ultratechnologists’, teamLab’s collaborative practice seeks to navigate the confluence of art, science, technology, design and the natural world. Various specialists such as artists, programmers, engineers, CG animators, mathematicians and architects form teamLab.

Borderless at the Mori Building Digital Art Museum is a showcase of teamLab’s artwork from around the world, featuring approximately 60 different works of art.

It is a diversion for teamLab from standard practices. For starters, teamLab had control over all aspects of the development of the Mori Building. Ken Gail Kato from teamLab says: “Everything that you see at Borderless has been designed and implemented by teamLab, from the artwork to the floor plan. We even designed the ticketing system. The complete control we had meant that we could tailor the user experience to our liking.”

The unique nature of Borderless meant that teamLab had to adapt. Kato says: “We make our art by trial and error, by throwing a lot of things at the wall and seeing what sticks. But in this case, the process was different. The art installations and the composition were directed by the floor map because the space we were working with was huge. We put the floor map up and we got together all the artwork that we had exhibited around the world under one roof.”

Stitching together a coherent experience that flowed was the main challenge teamLab faced. Kato details: “Before Borderless, all of teamLab’s artwork was isolated and presented individually. How do you move organically from one artwork to the other? How do you make sure that all the artwork communicates with each other? That was our challenge for Borderless.”

The answer to the challenge was found in the digital nature of teamLab’s art. Kato says: “We find that art can be liberated from the world of physical materials. To do this we use light as our pigment.”

The light that serves as teamLab’s pigment for Borderless comes primarily in the form of projection. A total of 524 Epson projectors, including those held in reserve, are used across the Mori Building to bring approximately 60 works of art to life. The projectors include Epson EB-L1105U units, EB-L1505UH high brightness units, EB-700U ultra-short throw units as well as a variety of different lenses.

The selection of projectors was crucial not only due to the scale of the project but also due to the critical role the technology had to perform. Regarding the choice to go with Epson, Kato says: “Conflict between software and hardware happens and is one of the common challenges we face. But for Borderless, this conflict didn’t really exist. Our software worked really well with the Epson projectors so we were able to avoid a lot of problems. Because of the details present in the artwork, the openness to adjustment on the side of the projector was key. In addition, Epson projectors are really good and the quality is very high which was also important for Borderless.”

Using the digital medium also allows teamLab to further explore how art is perceived. Kato says: “At teamLab we really consider what the relationship of art and people can be. We think that classical art ‘divides’ people. When you see the Mona Lisa, it is on a wall and there is bulletproof glass in front of it and then there is a barricade and guards and crowds between you and the art. You are separated, many layers removed from the actual artwork. But with Borderless, with light, you can touch the art and it will never break. I think being immersed in the art itself can change how you perceive it and this is an important concept for us.”

The effect of ‘being immersed in the art’ is achieved in a number of different ways. Interactivity is delivered at the Mori Building Digital Art Museum with the help of a range of sensors which can detect movement and proximity. The art created by teamLab takes this input and responds.

Kato says: “In some cases the viewer and the artwork are the same. Viewers activate the art, they are a part of the art. This is a core concept that we wanted to explore and play with. One of the main artworks for this museum is the Waterfall which directly interacts with the people. As people walk, flowers sprout at their feet. If there are no people there are no flowers, it is just a waterfall and it is just a simple depiction of this one scene.”

The inclusion of the viewer in the frame so to speak posed an interesting challenge with regards to the deployment of the projectors. In order to avoid shadows, multiple projectors casting visuals on the same screen, but from different angles, have been used. This ensures that the artwork remains visible even when the viewer might cut across the field of projection.

Other artworks posed a different set of challenges for projection. In particular, one installation required visuals to be projected onto trampolines. An elastic screen and vibrations are difficult problems for any projector to overcome. Care had to be taken regarding the interaction between the projectors and the software as well as with how the projectors were deployed and installed.

While visuals might be at the forefront of the artwork, teamLab has not neglected the audio components. Soundscapes help blend the disparate artworks together. Localised and spatial sound helps increase the immersion for viewers. Audio is provided by Yamaha VXC and VXS series loudspeakers which are powered by MA/PA and XMV series power amplifiers.

Borderless is intended to be a permanent exhibition at the Mori Building Digital Art Museum. For the future, teamLab intends to update the art and installations to reflect its latest work.

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