ATC Revisited: Lawrence Lek

06 Nov, 2020

ATC Revisited: Lawrence Lek

Lawrence Lek spoke on Monday, October 26, 2020 at the Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium at BCNM. Recap from ATC Liaison Jaclyn Tobia.

Lawrence Lek lectured on his work this past Monday from his London studio. We quickly became immersed in the complex concepts that permeate his cinematic virtual world building, where there is no clear divide between human and machine. Lek’s background in architecture and electronic music are seemingly divergent disciplines that inform his film projects. He takes site specific “stage setting” from architecture practice, and the performance of real time events from music, integrating both skill sets to form virtual reality films that are in dynamic relationship with place, time, and persona. Lek goes far with these created worlds, weaving narratives through real and imaginary histories.

Through Lek’s presentation, we got to know the stories behind the films included in the Sinofuturist Trilogy: Sinofuturism (2016), Geomancer (2017), and Aidol (2019), all of which attendees were invited to stream prior to the event. Sinofuturism is a video essay that critiques and subverts cultural cliches and media portrayals of modern day China. The film collages found footage with a synthesized voice over, creating an eccentric documentary to describe “a science fiction that already exists”. Like a manifesto, Sinofuturism embraces seve stereotypes: computing, copying, gaming, studying, addiction, labour and gambling. Sinofuturism exposes and furthers the concept that within these seven principles lies a conspiracy of the present moment, where Western views and fears of the East also align with fears and views around artificial intelligence.

Lek asks, what is the proper avatar and site for conveying the notions put forth in Sinofuturism? If Singapore is portrayed as a robot machine state in popular media, how can empathy with machines be generated? In Geomancer, we follow an AI weather satellite’s hopes and dreams, as it journey’s down to earth to the site of Singapore in 2065. The virtual landscape formed by Lek is sublime; our field of vision is submerged in to a beautifully rendered site specific cityscape. Through layers of architectural spaces, we get a contextual sense of the post colonial wealth accrued in relationship to Western ideals, influence, and consumption, as well as the Confuscian philosophy and work ethic that still permeates the society. In Geomancer, Lek creates not just a fictional art world and persona, but a fictional art history. Geomancer desires to become a visual artist in a utopia where AI is banned from art. Lek asks “What If we could take the lense of the future and reflect it back on the present?” He creates a nostalgia for a past that was never there, creating an appeal to the past that is fictive and imaginary.

Aidol takes on a similar themes of authorship, but instead of the visual arts we explore the world of pop music in a high altitude virtual jungle. Lek explained during the lecture that the music industry is always one of the first to adopt new technologies. He explains that the global economic worldview we know as pop music is a sort of algorithmic formula, that also has someone's true objective emotions in it. Through narrative, Lek asks us to look at AI not just as a labor producing subjects, but as beings with the potential for agency and autonomy. In Aidol, artificial intelligence has the ability to engage in creative process, not just make musical compositions based on algorithm. He asks us to reflect on how our impressions of reality are based on the consumption of media. In what ways are our own opinions algorithmic?

In Lek’s films, our point of view becomes one of the digital nomad, the wanderer of these created territories that have some semblance to both the real and the imaginary. Emotional ambience is conjured for the viewer with hyper real landscapes, cinematic soundtracks, and narrative loops. Using a hall of mirrors effect, Lek’s work asks us to ponder, "What does site specific mean in the 21st century, and in the virtual reality medium?” The inherent message and evolution of Lek’s films is that the virtual and the physical realms are blurred.

2020 ATC: Lawrence Lek