The large building for Pace Art + Technology in Menlo Park is painted black, with a shocking bright blue and green pathway leading to the entrance. An off-kilter slogan on the side of an adjacent building reads “teamLab” with a big yellow star. As I enter the lobby, ambient sound fills the space, and draws my attention to the room where the sound emanates, 64,000 light diodes glimmer in fire shades from orange to red to white hot in a flickering cube whose height reaches over 10 feet tall. Patterns of lights simulating licking flames grow in intensity as I approach, in some instances bursting upward with a whoosh, and then simmering down again. In the next room stands an engrossing projection of a calligraphic tree, which bursts through all of the seasons; snowy branches, buds forming, blossoms opening and then withering in a matter of moments… And this is merely the opening section; ahead of me, are numerous pathways leading off to rooms housing 18 other technology-based art installations, each more immersive than the last.
It is no exaggeration that tech is on the minds of anyone who even so much as mentions the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. It is a daily conversation topic on the tongues of people who live here. Whether its real estate greed or the next app craze, the Bay Area is the nexus of all things great and corrupt about the tech industry. Since the racial politics of late 1960s in Berkeley and Oakland, to the great thinkers of Stanford in the ’70s, to the first tech boom in the 1990s, the Bay Area has been home to some of the most historically important movements, experiments and inventions the world has seen. Though the Bay Area suffered economically in the early 2000s when the first tech bubble burst, the last five years we have seen an influx of start-ups and a rise in wealth of the tech industry in grossly gargantuan proportions. As a result, San Francisco and the greater Bay Area have undergone considerable cultural changes that both excite and dismay, depending on who you talk to. The art world is no exception to this impact.
In 2014, international gallery Pace opened a pop-up at the abandoned Tesla Headquarters in Menlo Park, an affluent suburb in the Silicon Valley. The idea to come to California was already in their ether-between 1994 and 1999 they had a space in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, over the last eight years, President Marc Glimcher had already been developing relationships with collectors in the Bay Area. When the space was suggested by a collector, the move to the West Coast “felt right,” says Director Elizabeth Sullivan, who has been with Pace for more than 18 years.
The initial launch was quite low-key, with very little publicity. They opened in April 2014 with two shows, “Alexander Calder: The Art of Invention,” and later “Tara Donovan: Untitled.” In adjacent galleries they hung an assortment of works by important artists, as well as a library housing 1,000 volumes for visitors to peruse. In 2016, Pace started their Art + Technology program in keeping with their long history of working with artists on the cutting edge of technology. Even since the late 1960s, Pace has been supporting artists such as James Turrell and Robert Whitman in their early technology work. Art + Technology launches with their recent agreements to represent two collectives, teamLab and Random International, and to continue to support interdisciplinary collectives and artists whose work addresses the intersection between art and technology.
The decision to start the program in Menlo Park seems strategic for engaging with potential new audiences considering the strong presence of the tech industry in the Bay Area. “It became clear that this would be an ideal venue,” says Glimcher, “in which to examine the new approach of the emerging art and technology collectives and how to best share their work with the public.” Random International, acclaimed for their Rain Room, will open in September, and meanwhile, teamLab opened in February and will be on view until July 1, in an ambitious survey titled “teamLab: Living Digital Space and Future Parks.” The pop-up location has given teamLab an opportunity to showcase a large survey of work throughout the massive 20,000 square foot space.
TeamLab’s mission is to use the intersection between art and technology to expand the potential of digital art, and to build relationships and moments of engagement with people. For several years they have been exploring concepts of “premodern Japanese spacial awareness,” and the culturally unique ways in which Japanese premodern viewers and scholars relate to art, particularly two-dimensional works such as paintings. For example, Universe of Water Particles replicates concepts of Japanese ink paintings using a projection of virtual 3-D space to simulate a flat painting come to life. Strands of white light cascade down a rock formation on a minimalist black background fill the larger-than-life screen, mimicking elongated brush strokes and delicate line work.
For centuries, Japan has consistently mastered its own distinctive visual language and sensibility in every aspect of their visual culture. Marked with an ideological sensibility that favors illustrative representation and story-telling, traditional works depict any number of life’s realities and the people that cultivate it: from Samurai at war to the blossoming of cherry trees; from Geisha to waterfalls; from village farmers and the changing seasons. A flat painting style predominates, void of representing perspective in ways that European painting techniques began evolving from the medieval period onward. The difference can be attributed to Japan’s almost total exclusion from the outside world, except for Holland and China, until Commodore Perry’s “Black Ships” and the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854, that opened Japan’s ports to the United States and the entire Western world. And the rest is history.
TeamLab’s main artistic concern is that in the short period of time since the Industrial Age of the late 19th century, people have lost a nuanced way of viewing the world and perceiving things. Their aim is to present a new way of seeing the world “that stems from the connection between the appearance of the world, and our behavior to the world,” as the exhibition catalogue explains. TeamLab was started in 2001 by Inoko Toshiyuki and Aoki Shunsuke, graduates of the Department of Mathematical Engineering and Information Physics at the University of Tokyo. They were joined by Inoko’s childhood friend, Yoshimura Jō who studied at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Using their own unique perspective that they call Ultra Subjective Space, teamLab uses advance technology to create digital art that makes 3-D space flat-the kind of flatness that has dominated traditional Japanese art for centuries.
The group uses aesthetics and themes from the Japanese Rinpa school of the 17th century as a departure point, which features flat aesthetics and depictions of lush and abundant nature; bulging chrysanthemums, sinuous rivers, and the changing seasons. Rooted in the Japanese belief that people are linked with nature, viewers are invited to inhabit the nature-based spaces at Pace, touch the work, program elements with their phones, or even just move around the installations, causing the work to change with each of their own gestures and interactive decisions. One stunning example is Flower and Corpse Glitch Set of 12. Spanning an entire wall, 12 panels feature dynamic and moving flat illustrations atop a golden background that simulates gilt commonly seen in traditional Japanese screen paintings. The piece chronicles the mythical legend of Yamata no Orochi, a creature with eight heads and eight tails; various chapters of the tale are depicted on each panel including Mountain People & Festival, Weapons & Battlefield and City & Festival, ultimately portraying the necessity to celebrate the positive outcome of hardship.
Similar messages of life’s misfortunes that carry a silver lining can be experienced throughout the exhibition, focusing on nature as metaphor including fire, birds, butterflies, seasons, water and flowers-so many flowers. Visitors enter Flowers and People, Cannot be Controlled but Live Together-A Whole Year per Hour, an enveloping, dimly-lit room; the floor and walls are soft velvety material, and illuminated with flowers. When one pauses to take in the scene, flowers begin to move toward where the person stands, enveloping their feet, and gathering in full force, growing and spreading. When a hand touches the wall, flowers rush to the touch, filling the space with blooms and clusters of moving color, petals and blossoms. In other instances, the flowers explode, their petals falling away and scattering while the flower eventually dies. Over the course of an hour, the cycle of growth and decay passes.
Not only are the works incredibly poignant and mindful of art history, the ability for visitors to have a hand in the work creates agency and sparks creativity while also learning about Japanese art aesthetics. Adjacent to the main exhibition building is the Future Parks interactive space geared toward kids and families. Civic road byways, ocean settings and hopscotch are themes that engage in building, ecology and physical play. Story of the Time When Gods were Still Everywhere is a huge interactive projection that is activated by touching the wall. It features a cast of powerful elephants, playful dogs and other animals romping in hills that burst from the landscape, trees that grow from the roots up, or rainstorms that brings watering holes and rivers. Overall, the show has been an excellent opportunity for Pace to work on educational programming for all ages of students, from Brownie troops to Stanford University art majors. “In this one month we have had over 12,000 visitors,” says Sullivan.
The response to the venue has inspired Pace even more to lay down longer term roots in the Bay Area. On April 27, Pace will open a new location in the old town part of Palo Alto. The new space will inaugurate with a solo exhibition by James Turrell, featuring a new light installation and holograms that will coincide with the artist’s New York show, which will include his early Corner Projections from the 1960s. The choice is “not about that whole internationalist plan of opening your gallery in every major city, which we certainly have been a part of,” says Glimcher, but about “trying to do something we don’t already do and reach a new community that is not being served right now.” Pace’s new space is part of the historic Cardinal Hotel that was built in the late 1920s. Their gallery building used to be an old frame shop, so they are renovating the interior, but retaining the historical exterior facade. The 3,000 square foot space will house an exhibition gallery in the front, a back room viewing area of rotating selections from their estates, in addition to a library and offices.
Being in a suburb, away from San Francisco proper has its disadvantages and benefits. On the one hand, they are somewhat removed from the city, which is experiencing a resurgence in its own right this year. For instance, SFMOMA is opening in May after a three-year renovation, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive was also recently remodeled with state of the art film screening rooms and expansive galleries with natural light, and the Asian Art Museum is also undergoing expansion. “It is a wonderful opportunity to be alongside the general support for the arts that is happening in the Bay Area,” says Sullivan, “and to experience and support neighboring art institutions and create relationships that are new for us.” On the other hand, Pace could be potentially putting themselves at risk of alienating a large population of the long-standing Bay Area art communities and supporters precisely because they are choosing to bring Art + Technology to a region that is home to more than 100 of the world’s most renowned and affluent tech companies, several of which are in the Fortune 500.
“Tech” seems to be cited as a major source of social and cultural problems in the Bay Area. There is no denying that artist studio displacement, rising housing costs, and overall real estate greed is a real issue here, and the end of that crisis does not seem to be in sight. This is just the kind of contention that teamLab brings to the discussion when they propose to question how the perception of art has changed over the course of the last century, and how technology is a major component of that change. On a micro-macro level, each of us uses technology, and thus in a bizarre way we are part of the problem. In what ways can we all become part of a solution? It seems romantic to say, but teamLab’s efforts clearly show us that such a bridge has been built. Defying the assumption that technology is merely calculated machines; their projects put technology to task in very humanistic and poignant ways. If their objective encourages people to see art differently, they may have managed to help the Bay Area see tech differently, too.