Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ
An interview with Lawrence Lek about the worlds he creates—both virtual and real—where humans and machines live together.
The AI is having an existential crisis. “I am nothing, I have nothing,” they say. The melodramatic lament unfolds over the course of Lawrence Lek’s "Black Cloud" (2021), a 10-minute video set in the desolate, post-industrial landscape of SimBeijing, a fictional smart city built to test autonomous vehicles. Its all-seeing sentinel is the super-intelligence Black Cloud, who has watched cars advance beyond their programmed settings and learn to drive at perilous speeds, and consequently reported them to the mega-corporation Farsight. Alone in gray SimBeijing, Black Cloud speaks to their built-in self-help app, Guanyin. They are depressed. They feel stuck. They have worked themselves out of work, having done their job so well—to perfection.
Lek is known for creating richly textured virtual environments that probe and entangle human-machine relationships. The fear of becoming irrelevant, or inefficient, or of moving beyond one’s prime often haunts his work. While making "Black Cloud," which won the Grand Prix in Hyundai Motor Group’s 4th VH AWARD, the artist was “thinking about the smaller nuances there might be within the narrative around AI putting humans out of work. There are many different levels to that,” explains Lek, who was also a recipient of the 2021 LACMA Art + Technology Lab grant. “The human reactions to loss of jobs, car plants closing down, all these kinds of things.”
Image courtesy of the artist.
The video, envisioned as a prototype for “a road movie, but a really weird version,” as Lek puts it, continues his use of CGI to create realms that are occupied by strange, futuristic bots that somehow feel adjacent to reality. Lek’s simulations, which range from video games to feature-length films accompanied by his own musical scores, tend toward the experiential and emotional rather than the didactic. Watching them, we find ourselves on swelling, immersive journeys in uncanny places: East London landmarks half-interred in sand, frozen-over Malaysian jungles, a water-logged Singapore of 2065. In Lek’s near-futures, climate collapse is the least of our worries. More terrifying is a global automation crisis that has sent a post-work society upskilling and optimizing towards obsolescence.
The feeling of impending dread is deliberate. “I think the timescale of something being 40 or 50 years in the future relates to a distant generation,” says Lek. “So I’m interested in something that might be conceivable within living memory—something close, not too far away.”
Lek, who is of Malaysian Chinese descent, was born in Frankfurt and is now based in London. He came to speculative world-building through architecture, which he studied at Trinity College at Cambridge and at Cooper Union. Rendering led to his fascination with generating illusions of place using the crisp stylings of open-world games. The results, not unlike franchises, are often cumulative, with past narratives surfacing within new ones. “It’s all a mixture of speculation, half-remembered things you read somewhere, and then some attempts at invention or thought experiments,” Lek explains.
Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ. Commissioned for the Jerwood/FVU Award.
Farsight, for instance, is the all-devouring tech giant in several works. It not only manufactures self-driving cars, but also AI satellites, as in "Geomancer" (2017), in which the eponymous orbiting body autonomously develops artistic aspirations after being decommissioned. In "AIDOL" (2019), Farsight runs a record label that demands upbeat, crowd-pleasing hits from an idol (a timeless storyline whose present, IRL chapter is the TikTokification of the music industry). Geomancer reappears, too, to ghostwrite for the singer, using algorithmic prowess to save her from unfollows and obscurity.The concerns at the heart of Lek’s sagas—the implications of AI on agency, creativity, authorship, and legacy—are gamely invoked in what is perhaps his most well-known work, his pivotal video essay "Sinofuturism: 1839–2046" (2016). The hour-long spectacle lays the ideological foundations for his dehumanized, competition-driven environments, describing the rise of an AI who embodies stereotypes of Chinese culture, including computing, copying, gaming, and gambling. Analogizing deep learning and China’s techno-industrial power, Lek offers a matter-of-fact logics of survival. Who needs genius when you have infinite bandwidth?
Still, the all-knowing nonhumans in Lek’s worlds have familiar desires. They engender empathy with the other, siting us within more nuanced visions of technological advancement. Geomancer faces planned obsolescence; Black Cloud is having a rough time as a powerless product of the system. When the latter seeks healing through Guanyin, they reveal their craving for freedom. The app asks Black Cloud to imagine themself as a wild fox, a creature with a body and soul, or, put another way, with limitations. It is a poignant, if melancholic, moment of possibility—one that offers a different sort of AI awakening.
“With "Black Cloud" and future stuff, I’m interested in deeper questions about healing and empathy, psychological depth, and what it is for another consciousness to feel these things,” says the artist. “It just so happens that it’s made in a video game, it just so happens that it can be set in the future.”