Interview with Lawrence Lek

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Lawrence Lek, Geomancer, 2017, CGI film, Commissioned for the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2017. © Lawrence Lek

Lawrence Lek’s CGI film Geomancer (2017), set in Singapore in the year 2065, tells the story of an environmental satellite that wishes to become an artist.

This interview explores Lek’s fascination for futuristic scenarios and the dangers embedded in automated labour. His vantage point between West and East provides a lens through which to consider economic and political knots that are affecting the world: from Brexit to AI.  

Caterina Riva 2018

Caterina Riva: Can you please explain what you mean by ‘Sinofuturism’ and how it sits with your upbringing in Hong Kong and Singapore and your current life in London?

Lawrence Lek: Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD) is a science fiction that imagines an Artificial Intelligence emerging from the same patterns that Chinese culture uses to replicate itself. It’s not only about China, or even East Asia – it’s about viewing the global techno-industrial complex as a posthuman intelligence whose central purpose is to survive. 

While writing the script for Geomancer, I wondered why it was difficult to find critical discourse about 20th century science fiction in China. There is the literary history from Lu Xun to Liu Cixin, but I’m talking more in terms of cultural studies and post-Orientalist critique.  Although Asia is often the backdrop of science fiction, why isn’t Sinofuturism discussed as intensely as Afrofuturism, Gulf Futurism, or Italian Futurism? 

I realised that the AI would be an appropriate avatar for Sinofuturism when I started seeing so many parallels between artificial intelligence and Chinese labour. For example, in Western news outlets, from Infowars to Fox News, the arguments against automation/AI are the same as those against globalisation/China (‘they’re stealing our jobs’; ‘they work for less pay’). Furthermore, I thought that the computers used for deep learning research and the nameless Chinese workforce have much in common: programmed for endless work. So that’s why the AI is the symbol of Sinofuturism: really good at maths, dedicated to copying and studying massive amounts of data, with an addiction to gaming, gambling, and hard work. 

Sinofuturism also brings together paradoxical cultural patterns I’ve always been aware of but without articulating. Making the video made me re-evaluate my time living in Hong Kong, Singapore, and the political context of my existence in London. Looking past the moral entanglements of post-colonial politics, I began to see each nation struggling for their own idea of independence, autonomy, and prosperity. How do we start to understand the double-binds of Left/Right, East/West? 

As I say in the video, “Sinofuturism does not care about a dramatically better future, as long as it survives. it must replicate itself; it does not matter if it manufactures the greatest product in the world, as long as the engine keeps running. It is not the other, either. Orientalism is the shadow of Occidentalism. In the West, the East is the other; In the East, the West is the other. Sinofuturism moves beyond these boundaries. It is a world that exists in plain sight.”

CR: You seem to be interested in the construction of social space by means of virtual reality, and also through the lenses of architecture, gaming and automated labour. Singapore resonates with a lot of those issues. What motivates you to analyse such a complex nexus of information and data in your videos? What kind of audience do you imagine your works addressing?

LL: I think of an audience not just in spatial terms, but in temporal ones. Let’s imagine that any work created today will exist in perpetuity through digital reproduction. I wondered: what if a future art-loving AI watches Geomancer and Sinofuturism online? How would they react to a human trying to imagine an AI? That idea of an unknown audience is fascinating. You don’t know who – or what – future archaeologists will be.

As for complex structures my work, I’m just interested in how you build a world. Until recently, I was mainly dealing with the idea of site-specific simulation. By using architecture as a starting point for virtual worlds, the audience can understand a specific locality and point of view. Previous works – from Delirious New Wick to Europa, Mon Amour – were more wandering, ‘ambient’ journeys built up using a collage-like technique within video game engines. 

Lately, I started rendering the point of view of fictional artists, imaginary creators whom the audience could inhabit, just like an avatar in a RPG [role-playing game]. Geomancer is a continuation of this idea: you’ll never be an AI, but you can stand with them.

CR: As an art curator working in Singapore who remembers the film WarGames (1983), I am both drawn and terrified by the idea of a Curator AI, which you introduce in a final chapter of ‘Geomancer’. Can you talk more about the Anti-AI Art Law and ‘where all the artists go’ in 2065?

LL: In Geomancer, I’m using ‘Art’ to symbolise humanity’s appreciation for creative thought and beauty. But what happens when an emotionally-aware AI gains the power of self-expression? What do you do when creative genius is no longer the domain of humanity? The scenario is set in 2065, when there’s a group of pro-human ‘Bio-Supremacist’ activists who ban AIs from all the cultural awards in the world. Their way of dealing with the superintelligent ‘other’ is to enact UN laws that stop AI-made works to be eligible for the Biennials, Oscars, Pulitzers, and so on.  

On one level, it’s a reflection of the eternal human charade of tribal inclusion and exclusion, enacted through legal means. But on a deeper existential level, I’m also thinking about the crisis that might happen when humanity will no longer be considered that special.  Beuys imagined ‘Everyone is an Artist’; what if nobody is? If the endpoint of the creative industries is pure automation, where do all the artists go? Shopping? 

CR: I have been considering the coercive power of sound, such as the soft torture of 1990s pop songs on radio stations in cars and malls across Singapore, and wanted to ask you how you employ sound in the construction of your works.

LL: In 2011 and 2014, I made full-length soundtracks for films that didn’t exist. Sound escapes the confines of the frame, helping to conjure up another world. I usually make sketch soundtracks before I finish working on my scripts or 3D worlds, because I know music and voice set the emotional tone for everything else. 

Making Geomancer was an opportunity to be more ambitious with integrating sound and imagery. I wanted to create a sense of timeless pop in the Geomancer soundtrack. It’s strange for me that the same middle-of-the-road pop songs that I heard in early 1990s Singapore are still being played today. That creates a strange sensation – it’s not retro, or stuck in the past, but rather this perpetual feeling of lost time. 

Art is at the same time painted in your work as the last refuge of humanity and as the ultimate portion of metaphysical land to be conquered by techno-financial venture capital. Some of your references are Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, Fredric Jameson’s Archeologies of the Future and Hito Steyerl’s The Museum as Battlefield. Is this where institutional critique is headed?

Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism has the subtitle: Is there no alternative? [a reversal of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government 1980’ slogan ‘There is no alternative’ (to capitalism)].  What I like most about the three writers cited above is their dedication to bringing together pop culture and social critique as well as understanding the limitations of their own perspective. 

After a few years of making site-specific virtual worlds that integrate institutional critique and utopian speculation, I started wondering what other paths I could take. In other words, what happens when critique itself becomes a commodity? I’m still exploring that.

Are art galleries and museums still places which allow a collective experience or they should grant an isolated solace to each unique individual or will they be, as you articulate in Geomancer, the last place to conquer and build walls around?

Art galleries and museums emerged from a particular socio-economic climate where private patronage focused on the creation of public institutions. Their establishment reflected a fundamental shift towards the idea of an enlightened audience, hungry for culture in an age of mechanisation and the loss of traditional forms of community (religion, collective labour, agriculture). 

Digital technology, by extending physical spaces into the virtual realm, further complicates this development. But the desire for collective experience won’t disappear, and neither will the desire for privacy and isolation. VR, as it stands in 2017, is a good example of this conflict: users isolate themselves through hi-tech blindfolds in order to enter a collective space of entertainment. 

Simulation has its use: video games, cinema, and virtual worlds aren’t purely about escapism.  Only by seeing things from another point of view can we begin to unravel the institutions of the 21st century. 

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