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Sydney art lovers may be familiar with Japanese collective teamLab’s screen work People and Flowers – Gold, 2015, on display a year ago at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Unlike the inanimate textile, ceramic, and ink on paper artworks nearby, teamLab’s work sensed your approach and evolved in response. That gallery piece is more than five metres long, but it’s about to be utterly eclipsed in scale by teamLab’s massive multi-installation interactive work Learn and Play! teamLab Future Park at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences’ Powerhouse Museum this summer.

A Table Where Little People Live featured in Learn & Play! teamLab at Future Park.

The Powerhouse does child-friendly interactive pursuits confidently: the life-sized Zoe’s House, which kids could build together using a hand-cranked crane and child-propelled railway wagons, was much mourned after its closure a few years ago. Future Park takes this active making and amps it up digitally. It merges visitors’ drawings and bodily movement with current digital technologies and the kind of large-scale projections familiar from events like Vivid Sydney. With changes generated from visitors’ input, any repeat visit will offer a different experience. teamLab representative, Claire Martin, calls it a “giant playground.”

Giving new meaning to a ‘blockbuster’ show, visitors here are likely to encounter (digital) blocks, and then bust them into a new configuration.

teamLab have devised a series of eight different installations with ideas of visitors’ creative engagement and whole-body experience at their core. There are opportunities to make music by rolling giant balls around, animate drawings to generate huge shared digital environments, print then assemble a 3D paper model from sketches, interact with drawings that respond to your touch and play hopscotch that triggers
a visual response. With algorithms based on ecological principles, Martin suggests you may find flowers budding, blooming, and dying on the ‘hillside’ you’re sitting on.

It’s also possible the creature you draw could be eaten by another one. Parents might want to brief little kids on that one before they share their creations.

A Table Where Little People Live featured in Learn & Play! teamLab at Future Park.

With collaborative creative activity already embedded in Australian schools and in institutions’ public programs, this need to provide opportunities for kids to co-create may feel more pertinent and urgent in teamLab’s home turf. Certainly, the idea that kids need to use their bodies more to sense, understand and become creative participants in the world may be congruent with Australian parents trying to pull back from excessive cotton-wooling and helicoptering (to mangle some current metaphors). Current playground design looks to more open-ended engagement tools and a higher degree of opportunities for kids to assess risk and problem-solve. So it’s interesting to see such ideas about creative engagement applied here to a digitally-generated environment that kids can literally hurl themselves into.

More digital stimuli may not be quite what they had in mind, however, no matter how many pre-printed animal outlines are provided to colour in and scan.

Though with its 450-plus team of professionals underwriting the educational and creative benefits of these activities, Future Park is likely to be a solid hit with families looking to spend a weatherproof day creating together over holidays. Martin explains that The Powerhouse was “an obvious site for an installation fusing science, arts, and technology in which children learn through play.” The simulated ecosystem was developed by experts across many fields, including anthropologist Shiori Shakuto, architect Shizuka Sasaki and head of teamLab Future Park exhibition Akitae Matsumoto. Not that the kids will know. They’ll be too busy generating physical movement and drawing to act as the creative catalyst from which these digital environments are generated – this is screen time with benefits.

The scale of Future Park is audacious, (having a corporate sponsor helps).

The scale also means that this is a rare chance for Sydney kids to legitimately run and leap about in a museum. Just like adults, children benefit enormously from the increased opportunities for visual and aural learning that art galleries and museums offer, especially those disengaged from classroom-based learning. With its stimulating physical environment, Future Park is likely to score particularly highly with younger visitors in kinaesthetic learning. It’s also likely to be all over a certain photo-sharing social media platform. With its immersive light, movement, and colour, expect Future Park to be feeding our feeds soon.

Learn & Play! teamLab Future Park
Powerhouse Museum
24 November 2017 – 30 April 2018

Rebecca Shanahan