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AI, Celebrities and Singapore: An Interview with Lawrence Lek

Curator Caterina Riva compares notes with digital artist Lawrence Lek on East and West, AI and his visions of the future.

SO-FAR studios

Lawrence Lek, AIDOL [still], 2019, HD video, stereo sound, 85'. Image credit © Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. 

Lawrence Lek, AIDOL [still], 2019, HD video, stereo sound, 85'. Image credit © Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. 

Lawrence Lek was born in Frankfurt in 1982. He grew up in different Asian cities: Singapore, Osaka, Bangkok, Hong Kong, following his parents’ jobs with Singapore Airlines. He studied architecture in the UK and in the US, and today lives in London, where he is working as an artist and pursuing a PhD in Machine Learning at the Royal Academy of Art. The languages, interests and habits that Lek has picked up in each of the countries he has lived in, now inform the methods and contents of the artworks he has been making. Lek’s work usually takes the form of film, where he applies his skills at CGI (computer generated imagery) animation and at composing soundtracks. With animated, filmic works like Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD) , Geomancer , AIDOL and 2065 , Lek conjures up future scenarios where the virtual is changing the definition of all human categories, including art. The artist ponders through different viewpoints — both human and artificial — and adopts English, Mandarin and Cantonese to describe how the world might be like a few decades from now. Today, Lek is busy preparing projects around the world.


Geomancer , his 2017 film set in Singapore in 2065, was one of my points of departure in curating the group exhibition head heap heat (2018) at LASALLE’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) Singapore [1]. I was looking for artworks using materials and storytelling in unexpected ways, and I was curious to present to a Singapore audience a film that was produced in London but inspired by Singapore. Around the same time, I asked Lek a series of questions about his working methods, his fascination for gaming culture and the dangers embedded in automated labour. We compared notes about East and West, artificial intelligence (AI) and what museums in the future would look like. That conversation took place three years ago.


Now, SO-FAR is republishing that dialogue, plus three new questions I submitted via e-mail to the artist. Algorithms, technological obsolescence and social media influencers have entered the conversation, as the previous considerations continue to feel relevant in global art discourse as well as in current technological trends.


2017


Caterina Riva: Can you please explain what you mean by “Sinofuturism”?


Lawrence Lek: While writing the script for Geomancer , I wondered why it was difficult to find critical discourse about 20th Century science fiction in China. Although there is a rich literary history from Lu Xun [2] to Liu Cixin [3], we are lacking in terms of cultural studies and post-Orientalist critique [4]. Although Asia is often the backdrop of science fiction, why isn’t Sinofuturism discussed as intensely as Afrofuturism, Gulf Futurism, or Italian Futurism [5]


Lawrence Lek, Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD)

Lawrence Lek, Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD) [still], 2016, HD video, stereo sound, 60'. Image credit © Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. 


So I began to develop an artificial intelligence that would be an appropriate avatar for this concept. Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD) is a piece of science fiction where an AI emerges from the same patterns that Chinese culture uses to replicate itself. But 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. I realised this when I started seeing so many parallels between AI and Chinese labour. For example, in Western news outlets like Infowars and Fox News, the arguments against automation or AI are the same as those against globalisation and China: “they’re stealing our jobs” or “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: they are both programmed for endless work. This is why the AI is the ultimate symbol of Sinofuturism. It’s really good at mathematics, dedicated to copying and studying massive amounts of data, with an addiction to gaming, gambling, and hard work. 


The computers used for deep learning research and the nameless Chinese workforce have much in common: they are both programmed for endless work. This is why the AI is the ultimate symbol of Sinofuturism.

CR: How does this concept sit with your upbringing in East Asia and your current life in London?


LL: It brings together paradoxical cultural patterns I’ve always been aware of, but without fully articulating them. Making the video made me reevaluate 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 ideas of independence, autonomy, and prosperity. 


How do we begin to understand the double-binds of East and 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 [6]. 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: What kind of audience do you imagine your works address?


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 wonder, what if a future art-loving AI could watch Geomancer and Sinofuturism online? How would it 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.


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. Living in Singapore, I resonate with a lot of these issues. What motivates you to analyse such a complex nexus of information and data in your videos?


You will never be an AI, but you can stand with and amongst them.

LL: With complex structures in my work, I’m interested in how you can build a world. Until recently, I have been 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. My 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 have started rendering the perspectives of fictional artists, imaginary creators whom the audience can inhabit, just like an avatar in a RPG (role-playing game). Geomancer is a continuation of this idea — you will never be an AI, but you can stand with and amongst them.


Lawrence Lek, Geomancer [still], 2017

Lawrence Lek, Geomancer [still], 2017, HD video, stereo sound, 48'15". Image credit © Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.


CR: As an art curator, I am both drawn to and terrified by the idea of a Curator-AI, which you introduce in a final chapter of Geomancer . Can you elaborate on the “Anti-AI Art Law” and “where all the artists go” in the year 2065?


LL: In Geomancer , I use 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 exclusive domain of humanity? The scenario is set in 2065, where there is 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 super-intelligent “Other” is to enact UN laws that stop AI-made works to be eligible for 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. Joseph Beuys imagined how “Everyone is an Artist”; but what if nobody eventually is [7]? If the endpoint of the creative industries is pure automation, where do all the artists go? Shopping? 


If the endpoint of the creative industries is pure automation, where do all the artists go? Shopping? 

CR: So art is 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 [8], Fredric Jameson’s Archeologies of the Future [9] and Hito Steyerl’s Is the museum a battlefield? [10]. Is this where institutional critique [11] is headed?


LL: Mark Fisher’s book has the subtitle, Is there no alternative? It’s a reversal of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative 1980s slogan “There is no alternative”, meaning that capitalism is the only system that works. What I like most about those three writers is their dedication to bringing together pop culture and social critique, while they are conscious of 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. 



CR: Are art galleries and museums still places which allow a collective experience, or should they 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?


LL: 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 subject to the loss of traditional forms of community, like religion, collective labour and 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 (virtual reality) 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. 


CR: Lately, I have been considering the coercive power of sound, such as the endless repetition of 90s pop songs on radio stations in cars and malls across Singapore and how those tunes unwittingly infiltrate one’s head. I wanted to ask you how you employ sound in the construction of your works.


Lawrence Lek, Geomancer [still], 2017

Lawrence Lek, Geomancer [still], 2017, HD video, stereo sound, 48'15". Image credit © Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. 


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 odd 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 — they’re not retro, or stuck in the past — but rather they create this perpetual feeling of lost time. 


2020


CR: Since we last heard from Geomancer and the Farsight Corporation (your fictive AI company), you have created a new CGI film: AIDOL . The AI in the title is coupled with the idea of the idol from ancient mythology to today’s American Idol. It is your latest take on the battle of creativity between humans (in the film they are called “Bios”, from the Greek word for “life”) and artificial intelligence (called “Synths”). In our society, contemporary technologies are predicated on anticipating the consumer’s desires as well as promoting a kind of ubiquitous and homogeneous lifestyle. How does art in 2020 fit into an algorithm and data-driven landscape for you?


Lawrence Lek, AIDOL [still], 2019

Lawrence Lek, AIDOL [still], 2019, HD video, stereo sound, 85'. Image credit © Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.


 LL: In my work, I use art and the so-called art world as a microcosm to explore the impact of technology on culture. I transpose my concerns about art now onto the future. This takes place in two dimensions. 


On the macro scale, AIDOL explores the global dimension of social changes, for example, how automation might affect employment and how a new kind of mass entertainment might arise from humanity’s liberation from work. Since people are free to spend all day playing video games, watch eSports and music videos, the “star” becomes the ultimate commodity. We can see this today with the rise of influencer culture with streaming channels and social media stars. Even though it’s set in 2065, AIDOL reflects on these changes, with the main character Diva having all of his products, releases, and performances broadcast 24/7.


The second dimension I look at is the personal level concerning the psychology of the future star. Diva is the product of how this liberation from work might inadvertently lead to a new kind of fear — the fear of being irrelevant, of being unseen. It’s a world of perpetual surveillance and algorithmic governance, except that the fears of “Big Brother” have given way to consumerism and the desire for spectacle.  


It’s a world of perpetual surveillance and algorithmic governance, except that the fears of “Big Brother” have given way to consumerism and the desire for spectacle.  

CR: I feel that the definition of an artist in your work can be a bit reductive when the viewer zooms out and realises that Lawrence Lek is the person behind the computer animating the CGI, writing the script, composing the sound and making a million decisions for each of your films. How have the means of production and distribution changed since you’ve been represented by the UK gallery Sadie Coles HQ? 


LL: At heart, I’m a huge fan of all the media that I work with — games, literature, music, film, art — so I'm pretty obsessive about all aspects of production. 


Lawrence Lek, AIDOL [still], 2019

Lawrence Lek, AIDOL [still], 2019, HD video, stereo sound, 85'. Image credit © Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. 


Distribution hasn’t changed that much to be honest, since each medium follows its own economy and audience. I was really engaged in DIY electronic music around 2008, when the Internet still promised self-distribution and self-organised platforms, labels, and structures were the future for independent musicians. Fast-forward barely ten years, and reality has turned out to be very different. Music was one of the first to be almost completely consumed by content platforms and algorithmically-optimised streaming services. It’s kind of tragic, but also a logical outcome. A lot of the subject matter of AIDOL draws from these observations.


Since I engage with the art, music, and film worlds, I’m always trying to share various aspects of my projects in whatever way is appropriate or available. For example, AIDOL premiered at Sadie Coles as a film-in-an-installation. Then it will be shown as a cinematic release, and I’m releasing the soundtrack later this year. 



CR: When we showed Geomancer at ICA Singapore in early 2018, one of my aims was to see what would happen when we screened on future Singapore in Singapore. Three years later, you are one of the invited artists in the Singapore Biennale. The CGI of Geomancer was inspired by architecture from the cities you’ve lived in, be it Dalston in London or Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. Do you think it is fair to say that the work is gradually losing its resemblance to real places and becoming more abstract?


LL: That’s totally true. Years ago, I accepted the fact that “the future” — especially a computer-generated future — is always going to age at an accelerated pace. Take a simple case such as screen resolution, for example. We have become used to retina-like vision at such a rapid rate that what used to be normal — 360p, HD, 1080p, 4k — looks more abstract and dated from a technological perspective. If it’s old enough, it becomes retro, like 8-bit or 16-bit graphics.


What became interesting after this realisation is how I understood that if I keep on using CGI for decades, then my work doesn’t just become an archive of my artistic concerns, it also embodies technological change on a material level. Seeing a work set in 2065 in 2065 will doubtlessly be uncanny, much like how people commemorated the arrival of Blade Runner in 2019. Hopefully, I will make it that far. 


Lawrence Lek, Geomancer [still], 2017

Lawrence Lek, Geomancer [still], 2017, HD video, stereo sound, 48'15". Image credit © Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. 



Lawrence Lek's work 2065 (Singapore Centennial Edition) is featured in the Singapore Biennale 2019 at the Asian Civilisations Museum until 22 March 2020. More information here.


  • 1.

    Read the online catalogue for "head heap heat" here: http://online.pubhtml5.com/zkna/pxns/

  • 2.

    Lu Xun (1881-1936) is considered one of China's greatest 20th Century writers, Mao Zedong called him “commander of China's cultural revolution”. He wrote essays and short stories in a sophisticated style presenting his personal vision of Chinese society.

  • 3.

    Liu Cixin is a Chinese science fiction writer. Among his best known books is the trilogy of "The Three Body Problem" (2006), "The Dark Forest" (2008) and "Death’s End" (2010). His books have been translated in many languages, reached commercial success and won several awards.

  • 4.

    Orientalism refers to the depiction used in literature, cultural studies and art history of the Eastern world. Edward Said’s book "Orientalism" (1978) considers the definition through a western perspective, while Hamid Dabashi wrote "Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror" (2008), updating the concept with the intertwined political and social scenarios of the East and the West.

  • 5.

    The term “Afrofuturism" is found in cultural critic Mark Dery’s book "Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture" (1994), where he defines it as a speculative fiction dealing with African-American themes. Read more here: https://haenfler.sites.grinnell.edu/afrofuturism/. “Gulf Futurism” was first used in 2012 by artists Sophia Al-Maria and Fatima Al Qadiri to denote the Gulf/Middle East propensity for oil, money and consumerism. Connecting it to the avant-garde of futurisms, from Russia to Japan, they adopt a technological proclivity. Read more: https://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/15040/1/the-desert-of-the-unreal “Italian Futurism” was launched in 1909 when Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his manifesto for the movement in the French newspaper "Le Figaro". Futurism in art, music, architecture, design aspired to speed and dynamism, embraced technology, while it despised the past and traditional values. Read further here: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/cubism-early-abstraction/art-great-war/a/italian-futurism-an-introduction

  • 6.

    In cultural studies, "Occidentalism" is a representation of the Western world.

  • 7.

    Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was a German artist and teacher. He worked with performance, sculpture but also favoured an expanded understanding of art in society. His 1970s slogan “Everyone is an Artist” put the creative power in the hands of each individual. Read more about him here: https://walkerart.org/collections/artists/joseph-beuys

  • 8.

    “Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?” is a 2009 book by British theorist Mark Fisher (1968-2017) where he posits to go beyond the widespread neoliberal ideology and gives examples of capitalism’s malaise in contemporary society, from mental health to education.

  • 9.

    “Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions” is a 2007 book by Fredric Jameson, an American philosopher. In it he compares the technological disparities between the First and Third World in the age of globalisation.

  • 10.

    Hito Steyerl is a Berlin based contemporary artist and “Is the Museum a Batterfield?” is the title of a 2013 lecture and video where she traces the history of battles that were fought in museums and connects them to ongoing relationships between the manufacturers of those weapons and museums and foundations which still receive their money. Read more about her work here: https://walkerart.org/magazine/hito-steyerl-is-the-museum-a-battlefield

  • 11.

    “Institutional critique” is a term that started being used in the 1960s to identify art practices which were critical of art institutions such as galleries and museums. Read more: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/i/institutional-critique