Opera Turandot, at Grand Théâtre de Genève, Geneva © Magali Dougados, Courtesy Daniel Kramer, Grand Théâtre de Genève, and Pace Gallery


teamLab Members Discuss Their Latest Exhibition with Pace

And their Scenography Debut for the Turandot Opera, and Collaborative Art Making Today

Published Thursday, Jun 30, 2022

To coincide with two major projects in Geneva by the interdisciplinary art collective teamLab—teamLab: Existence in an Infinite Continuity, an exhibition on view at Pace Gallery in Geneva through July 2, and scenography for Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot at the Grand Théâtre de Genève—Writer and Curatorial Associate Saskia Flower interviewed two members of the group. Adam Booth, art director of the collective, has spent several years working on the scenography for Turandot, and Kazumasa Nonaka, catalyst of teamLab, worked closely on their first exhibition in Geneva. Here, Booth and Nonaka discuss their work in teamLab, how the group’s two latest projects came to fruition, and what it’s like to be part of the collective. The interview below has been edited and condensed.

Well, let's dive in. Adam, could I start with you and ask about your role in teamLab? I understand that you started by studying Japanese painting.

Adam Booth: I ended up doing a PhD in Japanese painting. Before that, I'd studied the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, and before that I studied fine art in the UK and I did installation work, which was quite scientific. I think that's kind of the connection with science and technology.

Although, thinking about it, during my childhood the first home computers came on the market—that was a big deal. My dad bought one for me and I started with that, trying to make little computer graphics and playing games. So, it's something I've always been interested in.

I was also interested in art and making art. For me, it's how you take influences, cultural references, and influences from art history and create something new, which is exciting for me.

Kazumasa, what about your entry into teamLab—how did you find yourself part of this amazing collective?

Kazumasa Nonaka: I originally studied architecture but never practiced it and, at some point after graduation, I started working for a small art gallery. An old classmate from my college kind of invited me to join teamLab and I’ve been part of it ever since.

Could you tell me about the new suite of works in the teamLab exhibition at Pace’s Geneva gallery? What was the impetus behind them?

KN: We [teamLab] see our bodies as open systems where you constantly exchange energy from the outside to the inside. Without that flow of energy, we would not exist. Our new body of work, Dissipative Figures, illustrates that condition by simulating the air movement around human figure and flocks of birds.

The new body of work eliminates color, which feels quite different from many of teamLab’s other works. Could you tell me a bit about that decision?

KN: We've always been dealing with the relationship between humans and the surrounding environment—the world around us. In our exhibition with Pace in Geneva, this is much more directly represented than in typical installations or exhibitions of monitor-based works. Sometimes we try to blur the boundary between the work and the viewer, but one is always influencing the other. Here, that relationship is happening between the figures moving in the video and the air.

At the same time, these works are still made under the concept of “Ultra-subjective Space”.

So, although the color and some of the visual language is totally different from previous works, there are a lot of things that remain consistent from our past works in this new series.

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Installation view, Existence in an Infinite Continuity, June 9 – July 2, 2022, Pace Gallery, Geneva © teamLab

Would you say that the elimination of color in the Dissipative Figures works is about removing distractions and centring just the figures and that transmission of energies?

KN: Exactly. We actually tested it in several colors and backgrounds.

AB: I totally agree with what Kazu is saying. But I don't think color was such a big issue for us. It wasn't really about that. It’s about connectivity to the environment and how humans are a part of the environment.

That sort of “Ultra-subjective Space” is a kind of more Asian, layered, or supposedly flat understanding of space. We've made lots of spatial calligraphy, which is a kind of ink calligraphy that moves around in three-dimensional space, but it appears like a pre-modern Japanese perspective, which is flatter. So, the black-and-white language, the ink language, is not particularly alien to us. Even in our interactive installations, we may have a blaze of color with flowers, but we still kind of draw ink through it, which is visually exciting.

This time we didn't use color, but I think it was just not necessary, really.

It's so interesting thinking about it from the perspective of calligraphic ink drawing and that very long-standing Japanese tradition. I suppose in your Wave works you are also using a similar web of countless fine lines to build three-dimensional space.

AB: Exactly, it's very much about the extension of time and the connections with the surrounding environment. We are simulating points in a three-dimensional space, but then we're drawing lines to explore that idea that we are traces in time and space. These works aren’t in isolation, they’re completely in line with our other work.

There seems to be an interesting parallel between the opera project and the works in the Geneva show in terms of the centralization of the body as subject and having to think about narrative.

AB: All our work is about destroying the boundaries between us and our environment and other people. With the opera, it's an extension of that in a different way because we have to collaborate with singers and people with other expertise. So, yes, it's been a challenge in that respect, but it's still a continuation of this relationship with the viewer—we would like to them to be not just a viewer but a part of the artwork.


Opera Turandot, at Grand Théâtre de Genève, Geneva © Magali Dougados, Courtesy Daniel Kramer, Grand Théâtre de Genève, and Pace Gallery

Could you tell me a bit about how the opera project came about and how long it has been in the works?

AB: We met with Daniel Kramer, the director of the opera, in about 2017. Daniel had seen some of our light sculptures, which at that time we made with moving lights, and we experimented with using about 400 moving lights to create sculptural, almost architectural, forms. Daniel was interested in whether they could be used on the stage as a kind of extension of the stage itself, which is an idea that appeals to us. We don't really work with material so much—we work with light and sound. So, that was appealing to us and that's kind of how it started.

And then after that initial contact, Daniel sent us various texts explaining his idea behind the metaphors and how he was going to interpret Turandot. It's a very new interpretation. Daniel is interested in the male and female roles. He came up with the idea for a futuristic game show where Turandot is the prize and Calaf has to answer the riddles.

We had to work out how we could fit our visual language to satisfy how Daniel was imagining the opera in a way that also fit with our work. It was quite an interesting process. Because we have an architect team and other specialists, we were able to work with Daniel to construct the scenography and create the stage. Instead of trying to create a complex stage, we decided to go for quite a simple design with a large white rectangle that's kind of floating in the middle of the stage and a black rectangle. The white rectangle above is for the women, the black one is for the men, who are subservient to the women. It's a matriarchal society.

We use 45 lasers to create light sculptures in front of these boxes, but the boxes also feature different material qualities. They have a soft gauze material that the singers can push, and we can use different lighting to create walls or make them transparent.

And then on the back, when the stage rotates, the other side of the game show is a kind of internal, subconscious world. We use a triangle with many mirrors, which create a kind of kaleidoscope that continues for an eternity. So, it's like a dream world, and Calaf enters it and continues on for an eternity. Everything is kind of confusing and very bright and kaleidoscopic. So, that's where we worked with Daniel to create this kind of psychological journey for Calaf to go through.

It's very simple but it enables us to use our technology and light with the sound of the opera to create the new interpretation of Turandot.


Opera Turandot, at Grand Théâtre de Genève, Geneva © Magali Dougados, Courtesy Daniel Kramer, Grand Théâtre de Genève, and Pace Gallery

In some ways it feels like this opera project is a very natural progression for the collaborative work that teamLab does. But it must have been an interesting shift to work with musicians, actors, and some narrative constraints.

AB: It’s been a different way for us to work because we're used to creating our large, immersive exhibitions in which we control the whole environment. This time, it had to be much more of a collaborative process and there were many, many difficulties to overcome. One of the difficulties with designing this stage is that a full Turandot choir is about 100 people, so there has to be quite a huge stage with many people, many singers. And then we have the lasers, so we obviously have to work out how they're going to work on the stage. There were big challenges in that, but in terms of doing an opera, we've always sort of drawn on historical and cultural influences and tried to do something new. So, really, it's just another exploration of this medium to see how we could make it more immersive. For us, the advantage of light is that it can break physical boundaries, so we don't have to actually stay completely within the stage.

It's been difficult, but we've done our best to break out of that, and we hope that the experience for the audience will be more immersive than they perhaps are used to with a normal opera.

KN: In our work, bringing in a narrative or story is something new, isn't it? Because typically in our exhibitions it's the viewer who makes the narrative. Plus, you have to navigate the exhibition and there is no start or end. So, it is completely different from how we typically show our installations. Did you struggle with that?

AB: Yes, it's interesting—in our exhibitions, you create your own narrative. Each person interacts with and creates the world around them and moves around and it depends on the people, the number of people, what their actions are, etc. So, it's a kind of “real time” narrative. This one is more determined, but each person still takes away their own interpretation.

Have you ever had any particularly touching or surprising responses from the public?

KN: I once heard about someone who stayed in the teamLab Borderless museum in Tokyo for five hours. They must have been completely immersed in that experience and loved it.

To finish, I'd love to know what you find most fulfilling or exciting about working as part of the teamLab collective?

KN: From my end, when you are working on a project, you never see where it's going. But at some point, together we start to figure out where this may go. And then you get to see it until the completion. The goal or the scale of the project is always different, so the variety is really something you never get to experience anywhere else.

Also, it's not like a typical studio where there's one artist and other staff. In teamLab, of course we have a founder who is still leading the projects, but everyone has some control. That's the exciting part. It really feels like creating something together.

AB: I totally agree. For me, it's exciting because there are different people with different specialities and skills. So, for the opera, I've been able to work with architects and sound people and programmers, and it makes you realize you are just a part of that creative process. I couldn't do it on my own, I couldn't move 45 lasers!

It's nice to feel that each person has a part in creating the artwork. And that enables us to do larger scales and more interaction—so, it's a really fun and exciting process.

KN: It's always tough though!

AB: Yeah, it's tough sometimes.

KN: There's no precedent. Every time it's new. We have to find new asks or a new goal every single time.

AB: With any work of art, it's like giving birth to something. Today, I saw the opera in its entirety, and it started coming together and it was great. This is worth the effort!

KN: That feeling is what makes us continue.

  • Essays — teamLab Members Discuss Their Latest Exhibition with Pace and their Scenography Debut for the Turandot Opera, and Collaborative Art Making Today, Jun 30, 2022