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Worlds Beyond the Here and Now: A Conversation with Lawrence Lek

Writer and founder Jasmine Wang speaks to multimedia artist Lawrence Lek about the Sinofuturist cinematic universe, collaborative worldbuilding, speech acts and the passing of time.

SO-FAR studios

Lawrence Lek, The Shrine (Postcard) from Nepenthe Valley

Lawrence Lek, The Shrine (Postcard), Nepenthe Valley, 2022. Courtesy the artist, SO-FAR and AORA

I first encountered Lawrence Lek’s work after becoming interested in the history of telic imagining in 2019. I was reading about various aesthetic-suffixed punks, including the commonly known “ solarpunk [1] and the less well-known “ silkpunk [2], as well as other speculative imaginaries such as Afrofuturism[3]. I was interested in what an analogous cultural aesthetic would be for people who identify as part of the Sino diaspora. I Googled “Sinofuturism”[4] and one of the first search results was Lek’s Sinofuturism (1839-2046) . It felt like that media that had been tailor-made for me. A video essay that reframes various orientalist stereotypes to consider the parallels between Chinese technological development and artificial intelligence, Sinofuturism reconfigures the Western perception of China and by extension, Sinofuturism. Lek’s work felt like a shift — for many years, in my studies and in my professional life, I struggled with the perceptions of China, the place of my ancestors. I was inspired by Lek’s optimism and eagerly consumed his other works, including Geomancer and its sequel, AIDOL .

In a recent conversation with Lek, we discussed his latest project, Nepenthe Valley , an immersive experience that continues his inquiry into the reciprocal relationship between psychology and technology. In Lek’s work, humans and machines alike dream of worlds beyond the here and now, and grow frustrated by the continued immateriality of these worlds. In Nepenthe Valley , Lek asks: what would it mean to experience the riches of our dream worlds in our current reality?

Lawrence Lek - Sinofuturism (1839 - 2046 AD)

Lawrence Lek - Sinofuturism (1839 - 2046 AD) [still] 2016; HD video, stereo sound; Credit: © Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.

Jasmine Wang: My blood ancestors are from Lixian (澧县), Hunan, China. I grew up mostly in Edmonton, Canada, home to what was once the world’s largest mall. Before I left home for university, the only other country I had visited besides the US was China, where I spent a few months every few years vegetating in the under-conditioned rural heat. I was essentially only viscerally aware of these two places until I turned eighteen. That’s where I’m from and what has patterned me. I’m curious how you would introduce yourself, having heard my introduction.

Lawrence Lek: I come from a different angle; I think of myself as a product of where I am, so it’s always relative. But my overarching question is not who am I. It’s much more the sense of where am I? Or where are we? The second question that goes with that is when are we? How does the geographical past situate itself in our consciousness? At what point in my personal development am I existing, and at what point in this wider geopolitical moment in historical time am I existing? It’s such an elastic concept.

With all that said, I’m Lawrence, I have Malaysian Chinese parents and I’m based in London at the moment. I've lived here since I was eleven, and grew up in Singapore and Hong Kong before that. I grew up in a British colonial context, which has its own codes and histories of talking about, and dealing with things. The primary mode of thinking in my work doesn’t really have to do with identity — it’s more situational and related to place.

Lawrence Lek - Geomancer [still], 2017

Lawrence Lek - Geomancer [still], 2017; HD video, stereo sound duration: 48 min 15 sec; Credit: © Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

JW: Let’s sit with the aspect of time for a bit. How did you pick the year 2065 as the horizon as a fixed point across all your work?

LL: The year 2065 was chosen because it’s the centennial of Singapore’s independence[5]. The year 2065 was chosen first in the film Geomancer because it was set in Singapore. I was trying to draw parallels between the nation state’s search for independence and the individual AI’s search for autonomy.

A century is an interesting construct, especially in science fiction, because it is long enough that anything can happen but also short enough to be the limit of a single person’s lifetime. If we look at where I was when I made Geomancer in 2017, it was about 50 years after 1965, and about 50 years before 2065. It stands as a weird midpoint between two momentous phases of history.

I also wanted to place Geomancer in a setting that could conceivably be within my generation’s living memory. So I chose a date that I might live to see, in which case the disjunction between actual events and the imagined reality of Geomancer and other films in that series would become apparent. I’ve always been fascinated by the boundaries between speculation, nation building, self-mythologising and science fiction. When I was living in Singapore as a kid, and also in Hong Kong, the idea of nation building was so pervasive in the media. But back then, it had a slightly different tone to it. I think there are vestigial traces of this nostalgia for what might have been or what might be lost that you can definitely see in things like Wong Kar Wai films[6]. With a film, of course, it’s a creative construct, so a lot of things are naturally romanticised. But I wanted to bring some of that romanticism and nostalgia to science fiction and CGI, where they aren’t usually associated.

JW: Ethics takes a long time to catch up to technological development; meanwhile, we are incurring “ ethical debt [7]. Regulatory development lags behind even more. Artists who aim to incorporate cutting-edge technology into their work are thus usually quite immediately operating in an ethical grey zone. One of my collaborators on a book of poetry coming out in autumn 2022 is GPT-3 [8], so I’ve been thinking a lot about citation and acknowledgement. When using language models such as GPT-3 we don’t yet have the technical interpretability tools to know where a voice, a particular turn of phrase, an inflection, or a metaphor came from; we couldn’t cite if we tried.

How do you situate the technologies that you currently use in your work within these concerns?

LL: I’m interested in the problem of automation on an existential level. The interesting thing I see in all creative fields is the move towards what I might call the prosumerisation of creativity. In the near future, there will be an Adobe one-click button that auto-generates many, many different things.

If I feel an ambivalence towards the materials I’m using it will come through in the work because, to a large extent, the subjects I’m making work about have the capacity to embody these concerns. I have characters who say my thoughts and characters who say opposing thoughts. So in a very simple dramatic sense, through making narrative-driven games and films, I can voice this ambiguity or ambivalence within the work itself.

For example, in Geomancer , the protagonist is an AI satellite invented in Singapore, probably because there was a government-funded national defence satellite project, and now it’s going to be decommissioned. So you have, simultaneously, a geopolitical situation, a technological situation, and a situation of mortality. Phased obsolescence in conscious machines is planned death, as has been very well explored in many science fictions. There’s a mixture of the visceral and personal and technological in that.

Lawrence Lek - AIDOL [still], 2019

Lawrence Lek - AIDOL [still], 2019; HD video, stereo sound duration: 85 mins; Credit: © Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.

JW: I’m curious how you think about your own references given how you work through moments of aberrance — like when you created a game called Call of Beauty within AIDOL , riffing on the popular video game series Call of Duty — as well as how you would like others to reference you. Thinking about citation and consent-filled worldbuilding, how do you relate to the Sinofuturist cinematic universe that your works help illuminate, and how would you hope others engage with that cinematic universe?

LL: I feel with many things like quotation, sampling, fan fiction, all these kinds of derivative works or tributes, it’s not a problem until it’s a problem. In fact, it’s great because it’s a sincere form of flattery, unless someone benefits economically or through cultural capital, and then erases the original creators of the work. If people discover my work decontextualised from me, I think that’s a good thing. Because that’s how I arrived at culture or creativity — from films, TV, video games, music. When you’re younger you don’t care about authorship. Things just appear and you gravitate towards them. Then, one day you grow up, you have a sense of identity, and you realise — I could do these things, I want to put my identity on it.

In my experience, it’s when you get really interested in a work that you then become more interested in the people who created it and the sociopolitical, technological context in which it was created. If you look at the development of computing in relation to ancient civilisations, or how cybernetics, AI, and machine learning all came out of the interwar period, it makes the technology more interesting. At least for me, because then I have a personal connection to it. If I can think about the context in which these people were trying to invent things, it’s no longer just a problem to solve. It also has to do with a life to live.

Lawrence Lek - Nepenthe Valley

Lawrence Lek, The Spring (Postcard), Nepenthe Valley, 2022. Courtesy the artist, SO-FAR and AORA

JW: I would like to hear more about Nepenthe Valley .

LL: Nepenthe exists on a slight parallel track to the Sinofuturist work. While developing Geomancer and its sequel AIDOL , I became very interested in the mental health and healing side of things. In both of these films, the satellite has a built-in self-help AI called Guanyin [9], named after the Buddhist goddess of compassion, who’s essentially a built-in therapist chatbot to the AI, similar to meditation apps. I thought, if this super intelligence is going to be born in a lab, created by some government startup, they’ll probably have some issues. Imagine the contrast for this super intelligence, someone who has watched everything online and has built up an algorithmic construct of family or love, or identity or freedom, but simultaneously has very little physical experience of those things.

With Guanyin, I was interested in this idea of automation and mental health. Not just in the existential effects of AI and full automation but rather what interesting psychological angles it could have. In Nepenthe , I’m really focusing on the psychological angle and how simulation, or worldbuilding, or video games, might intersect with this idea of a healing environment. I intended to use the very specific spatial characteristics of the game world — a series of doorways, a journey that you follow through a landscape — to create a healing simulator.

Nepenthe was originally a fictional drug from Homer’s Odyssey , a drug for forgetting. It’s a drug to help sadness, but the kind of sadness that is alleviated by forgetting your troubles. In parallel, I was reading about a psychological effect called the doorway effect, which is, for example, when you go to the kitchen but can’t remember why you’re there. Apparently, it’s because when you go through a threshold, or a doorway, the environmental context shifts, so your attention becomes focused on scanning the environment rather than on your short-term memory. You forget because your surroundings have shifted. With Nepenthe and this new game version of it called Nepenthe Valley , I’m trying to think about how a game world can embody these ideas about the doorway effect and forgetting as a kind of healing simulator.

I was in this workshop by someone who had just written a book about people who recovered after extremely traumatic life events. The speaker was saying she interviewed hundreds of people who had overcome some terrible stuff, but had recovered. I was writing a new script about that time, separate from Nepenthe , and I asked her, “What do these recovered people have in common?” She said, basically, they had a job to do. Some people were in the military, for example, so they had to go back to work. Some people made a promise to someone. Others had some rituals that they kept. What I thought was interesting about that is that having tasks to do gave these people the space for time to pass. After undergoing traumatic events, one of the danger zones is the immediate aftermath. But I think for a lot of these people, having work to do, having a task or job to do, helped them cross that bridge of time.

JW: There’s a return to structure from a place of unsettledness, a period of re-orientation after a period of disorientation. I personally loop between the two states.

LL: I was thinking about this in relation to games. There are many types of games — from compulsive, casual games, where you just click, click, click, driven by dopamine feedback loops, but in most games there are tasks to do. Are they useful in a conventional sense? No, they’re absurd. But this idea of having tasks to complete, which can help time pass, might also help healing happen automatically. That repetitive, task-driven game mechanic, which can be healing in a sense, wedded together with the idea of the doorway effect of a repetition to space and time might be an interesting way to think about this healing simulation as well.

Ludologists often say that game space is interesting because it’s a structured world, but one with a huge amount of freedom within it. A very important part of everything that I do is the setting and the narrative. The idea of the wilderness is really important within Nepenthe , which relates to the well-worn narrative trope of the archetypal hero’s journey. At the start of their journey, the player encounters the wilderness, and has to overcome their fear of that metaphysical unknown or chaos, with its lack of structure. But there’s also this potential that the wilderness or the unknown has something else to offer.

  • 1.

    Solarpunk is a speculative aesthetic that counters the nihilism of cyberpunk with a vision of a world where technology enables ecological harmony. Elvia Wilk, “Is Ornamenting Solar Panels a Crime?”, e-flux journal, 2018.

  • 2.

    Silkpunk is a term coined by science fiction writer Ken Liu to describe the fusion of poetics and technology in his Dandelion Dynasty series. Ken Liu, “What is ‘Silkpunk’?”, 2020.

  • 3.

    Afrofuturism refers to a cultural aesthetic and speculative philosophy that examines the history and ancestries of the Black diaspora and imagines a future in which Black people experience freedom from white supremacy. It includes works by science fiction author Octavia Butler and jazz musician Sun Ra. Contemporary works of Afrofuturism include Janelle Monae’s album, Dirty Computer and Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham’s anthology, Black Futures.

  • 4.

    Sinofuturism is a term first used by Western sources that has since been re-appropriated by Chinese creators to imagine their own futures free of orientalism. Contemporary artists working within the aesthetic include Lek and author Ken Liu.

  • 5.

    The British colony of Singapore was dissolved in 1963 and, with the signing of the Malaysia Act in July of that year, Singapore became a part of the Federation of Malaysia. Two years later, in 1965, Singapore became independent from Malaysia.

  • 6.

    Wong Kar Wai is a Hong Kong director whose films include In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express, and 2064.

  • 7.

    Jasmine Wang, “Value Beyond Instrumentalization”, Letters to a Young Technologist, 2021.

  • 8.

    GPT-3 is a language model developed by OpenAI that uses deep learning to produce human-like text from simple inputs.

  • 9.

    In Chinese mythology, Guanyin (觀音) is a goddess of mercy who embodies compassion for all sentient beings.

Artists and Contributors

Jasmine Wang portrait of the author

Jasmine Wang

Jasmine Wang is a writer and technologist interested in phenomenology, myth, and ethics. She is core steward of Verses, a new cultural collective, and the editor-in-chief of Kernel Magazine. She has published poetry with Sine Theta Magazine, and her collaborative poetry collection, “What Makes Us Human”, is forthcoming in Fall 2022. Jasmine is a technologist by training, and has worked at organizations including OpenAI, Microsoft Research, Lyft, and Square.

Lawrence Lek

Lawrence Lek

Lawrence Lek is a London-based filmmaker, musician, and artist who unifies diverse practices—architecture, gaming, CGI, music and fiction—into a continuously expanding cinematic universe. His works include the video essay ‘Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD)’ (2016), the AI-coming-of-age story ‘Geomancer’ (2017), the open-world game ‘2065’ (2018), and ‘Nøtel’, a CGI simulation of a fully-automated luxury hotel (2019). His debut feature film ‘AIDOL’ (2019) was presented at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2020, and transmediale 2020 festival at Volksbühne, Berlin. Lek composes soundtracks and conducts live audio-visual mixes of his films, often incorporating live playthroughs of his open-world video games. Soundtrack releases include ‘Temple OST’ (The Vinyl Factory) and ‘AIDOL OST’ (Hyperdub). Performances include ‘Doom’ at Somerset House, London and ‘ProGeo’, ICA, London. Recent solo exhibitions include ‘Ghostwriter’, CCA Prague (2019); ‘Farsight Freeport’, HeK, Basel (2019); ‘Nøtel’, UKR, Essen (2019); ‘AIDOL’, Sadie Coles HQ, London (2019); and ‘2065’, K11, Hong Kong (2018).