The Virtual Darkness of Lawrence Lek‘s Imagined Future

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When I join Lawrence Lek at his studio in Hackney Wick, I feel welcomed into a cosy yet expansive feeling room, dotted with potted plants and works- in-progress. Framing the room is a wooden structure Lek calls the Pavilion. It’s by far the biggest object here, rising up above our heads like a palm tree with four trunks, encircling the room and covering us like a canopy.

“That was one of the last physical objects that I made, from when I still thought that being an artist or being an architect was about making big cool stuff,” Lek explains. Elsewhere in the studio, there are half-open laptops and sketch designs left waiting to be picked up again. I wonder if the studio’s a bit small for him, but he pre-empts me. “It’s a small space but it contains all these other places within it… I like collecting spaces.”

It’s a good summary of what much of his work is all about. Lek is a visual artist who creates virtual environments. A trained architect, he is able to design and construct virtual spaces using 3D modelling software, transforming these into playable artworks laced through with narrative. Recent work includes Unreal Estate, a playable story in which the Royal Academy is bought by a Chinese billionaire, and QE3, in which an anonymous Glaswegian philanthropist turns the Queen Elizabeth 2 into a new home for the Glasgow School of Art following its last voyage at sea.

The Notel he mentions is a similar, but even more striking work, again centred around a single place, but turned into a kind of dystopia. It’s a human-free, fully automated luxury building manned by drones, and while it’s essentially a sci- fi-inspired idea, it’s designed just like a real building would be. The Notel is displayed in partnership with Hyperdub boss Kode9, whose 2015 album Nothing acts as an accompaniment to the piece. Lek had initially reached out to Kode9 to discuss soundtracking a film commission he was working on, but their conversation steered towards the idea of The Notel.

“I was talking about creating architecture that needed to sound like something and he was creating an album that needed to look or feel like something,” Lek recalls. “He was making sound about space and I was making spaces about an atmosphere. That became The Notel. Notel was also one of the tracks on the album; it kind of happened like that.”

As displayed in a gallery setting, participants can take a tour of The Notel by picking up a controller and playing from a first-person perspective. Different areas of the building are paired with different tracks from Kode9’s record, and the pairing of the two artists works effortlessly based on their shared approach to creating work. “On the most superficial level we’re both really interested in getting complex ideas across in very straightforward mediums that can be quite elemental. The Notel is not just about luxury space and a certain sound, it’s about our hopes and fears about how the world is going to turn out. You can be really intellectual about it, but it’s not a book, it’s
an experience.”

"I'm interested in contemporary manifestations of the sublime"

This is typical of Lek, who doesn’t think of his work as a dry intellectual exercise. It’s supposed to be an experience, and an entertaining one at that. While some artists might turn their noses up at having their work viewed in such terms, he is more pragmatic, and talks about himself as both an artist and a cultural producer: part of a system of economic reality and increasing mass demand. “As people have more leisure time, we’ve achieved more life expectancy and we need to consume more entertainment. The last few years for me has been a process of coming to terms with that; the fact that I have a job, that I am producing culture and entertainment.”

Does he view this as tainting some kind of ephemeral artistic purity? “There’s a line, I wouldn’t make a video game for Coca Cola or whatever, but I am part of the culture industry. There’s still a very romantic ideal about having the space and time to create, but most creative people just have to write 600 words for a blog entry or release a couple of singles for download, or do a performance instead of an installation. The demand for entertainment – be it visual art, fine art, everything – has grown so hugely that it’s become hard to create an ambitious work in the classical sense.”

This thought process is visible in Lek’s work, which continually comes back to themes of human labour and leisure. The Notel is a fully automated luxury building dedicated to leisure in a world where technological advances have rendered human labour, and indeed humans more generally, pointless. Lek’s preoccupation with the idea of ever-increasing leisure time and the decline in the need for human labour stems partly from research into automation and artificial intelligence he undertook as a resident at Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridge. It’s research that will eventually lead to his forthcoming work, something he describes teasingly as “a portrait of the artist as an AI,” but in the meantime it has indirectly inspired two of his most prominent pieces from this year.

“Doing The Notel led me to think about ideas to do with automation and which when combined with geopolitics made me think about how China is portrayed in the face of all these things, as a threat to stability and as a geopolitical threat to world peace.” The product of this thought is a one hour video essay titled Sinofuturism, which suggests that Chinese-made goods in the form of mass-produced products represent an invisible artificial consciousness. Far from a piece of sci-fi dystopia, the idea is that it already exists today. The theory embraces clichés about the spectre of China and fuses them with fears of the spectre of artificial intelligence to create an overwhelming film.

The film has resonances with the work of Adam Curtis, and it’s a project Lek describes as “a bit paranoid and a conspiracy theory in essence, but a conspiracy theory I’ve been convinced by”. It’s the day after the second American Presidential debate and the Tory conference is only a few news-cycles behind us when we speak, and Theresa May’s assertion that “a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere” echoes in my mind with his post-human artworks, in particular his humorous impression of post-Brexit dystopia, Europa Mon Amour. I suggest that perhaps reality is catching up with the fantasy element in his work, and conspiracy theories like Sinofuturism aren’t as likely to be laughed off anymore. “She’s saying these things I literally could have written into a script about a year ago,” he confirms.

Still, far from a straightforwardly damning critique of contemporary society, Lek treads an emotionally ambivalent line. He admits that, while a post-work future seems in some way bleak, another part of him would love the luxury of a life devoted to leisure. The great shifts we’re witnessing right now – in technology, in culture and in politics – offer up opportunities to explore our ambiguous relationship to these overwhelming trends more deeply. “I think it’s definitely too grandiose to say I’m trying to create sublime feelings or anything like that,” he says, “but I’m interested in contemporary manifestations of the sublime. How do we as individuals feel when we’re confronted with something greater than us or a force more powerful than us? Whether that’s politics or Brexit or a flood or luxury. How do we feel when we’re confronted by that?”

In a funny way, this feeling of being overwhelmed by something is made all the more powerful by Lek’s borderline silly video game aesthetic. His artwork tackles huge themes and macro-historical trends, yet relishes in its ability to create something eerily real with the blunt tools of video game entertainment. As a sort of distorted mirror to our mass demand for entertainment, luxury and leisure, his work can be downright scary, but it’s also enjoyable and strangely hypnotic. Maybe, as sickly as they seem, the spaces Lek collects are worlds of our own creation, and objects of our own desires.

Kode9 and Lawrence Lek present The Notel at Clock Strikes 13, ICA, London, 18 November

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