Lawrence Lek talks simulation art and his interest in the ambiguity between two paradoxes
Delve into the renowned digital artist’s inspirations, thought processes and topics of interest in this sprawling conversation covering his major works to date.
If you’ve ever seen an interview with simulation artist, filmmaker and musician Lawrence Lek before, it’s likely you were dumbfounded by his articulation of a highly synthesised digital art practice. I certainly was. Combining computer-generated imagery, video-game aesthetics and architectural concepts, Lawrence creates films, occasionally by himself and often in collaboration with other digital artists and musicians. A self-professed control freak (though it’s worth noting he’s trying to be less of one now) the artist navigates realms of virtual reality and simulation, imbuing his fictional three-dimensional environments with very real sociopolitical undertones.
This introduction so far can give you an idea of the compounded philosophies that underpin the artist’s digital practice. In our interview, conducted over video call back in May, Lawrence laid bare the fundamental architectural investigations which prop up his work. He studied architecture at three prestigious institutions: Trinity College, Cambridge, the Architectural Association and New York’s Cooper Union and when we spoke, he was in the midst of writing his 20,000-word doctorate thesis as part of his PhD from the Royal College of Art. In our comprehensive interview, we touched on three main works – Aidol, Geomancer and Sinofuturism – their individual evocations and a mutual expression of “discovering a place to exist”.
Below, Lawrence talks revealingly about the creation of fictional realities and what he finds interesting about them. He tells us about the themes in his work: nomadic post-colonial societies, Sinofuturism as a genre explored through a seven-chapter video essay, different ways of creating a space which isn’t necessarily a building, and how technology affects us psychologically. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this artist who, in his own words, “doesn’t particularly come from a cultural background”. He discusses his subjects of interest with enviable ease; an effortlessness well worth diving into below.
It’s Nice That: First off, let’s talk about how your practice has been influenced by your studies in architecture. How do the conceptual and the technical aspects of it fit with your work today?
Lawrence Lek: I was interested in architecture for this idea of what science fiction writers and game designers would call “world-building”. The idea of creating an environment that isn’t as much about the experience of a place as it is about building somewhere. But one thing I realised with this (and this pervades any kind of design education, including architecture) is that, cynically, architecture is beautifying property development in its best-case scenario. But I always found the philosophical side of things very interesting. For example, the word ‘civilisation’ literally means the nature of living in cities. Or ‘citizen’ means the person who lives in the city. So a lot of ideas about society, essentially, are tied to the kind of places that humanity builds for themselves.
In general, a lot of arts education, especially architecture, is born out of a modernist idiom where architecture is essentially some aesthetic intellectual exercise as opposed to something that’s really engaged with a society, broadly speaking. So what I was interested in was different ways of creating a space which might not necessarily be a building.
“The eternal idea of society, society having its own spatial expression, was really important to me and that’s something I’ve kept on experimenting with conceptually.”Lawrence Lek
When I was studying, there were a few different strands of thought to this (this was quite a long time ago so it’s slightly different now). At the time, digital technology was a huge thing. And more so than in fine art, architecture has always been intertwined with engineering. A lot of the 3D design programmes that architects were using were from this aviation 3D graphics company called Catia. It was actually from a French military aircraft designer and the architect Frank Gehry used it to design a lot of his buildings in the early 2000s. There is a long history of architects using 3D and CGI and so on to create buildings, not for any conceptual reason, but more for the functionality of them. To enable a new kind of sculptural practice by working with different shapes and forms.
But again, for me growing up in the 90s, my childhood was spent playing video games. Being an older millennial, [I saw] the rise of video games and the internet and basic other different forms of digital media or space that didn’t have to do with physical bricks and mortar. So, you know, the eternal idea of society, society having its own spatial expression, was really important to me and that’s something I’ve kept on experimenting with conceptually. And then, of course, there were a lot of 3D tools. Not necessarily ones I would have learned in architecture school, but in a filmmaking sense, set-design tools.
INT: When you were playing those games as a kid, did you ever think, “I wish I could do this as an actual job when I’m older.” What were you like when you were that young?
LL: I just liked playing with things, making things, drawing. I was curious in a kind of creative way. In the early days of the internet – Internet 1.0 – when there was dial-up and modem, there was a big fantasy of what cyberspace or so-called cyberspace could be. There were these big mid-90s films about the internet pre-The Matrix, which obviously look very retro now, but the things being talked about were fundamentally the internet, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. But what I was interested in – as much as the technological depictions of things like AI, VR, the internet – was the psychology of how it affects people in different ways and the way people interact. It’s new forms of society that come intertwined with new technologies. And of course, they just seemed to be playful.
INT: What you just said made me think about how people who are kids now will look back at their childhood and question how Animal Crossing has influenced them.
LL: I don’t have a Switch; I would like to have one but I also have a very addictive personality so I don’t think it would be a good thing. But I would say that the more experience I have designing video games, and without being too dystopian about it, I’ve realised there is a real science to addiction. There’s a real science to addiction and there’s a science of cuteness as well, which of course Nintendo are complete masters of. What’s interesting for me is that behind the immediate appeal of cute animals and things like that, there is something to be said about the companies who make these games and the people who play them. Not to mention the online communities which form around them which can also be seen as simultaneously amazing. It’s all very cute but at the other end of cute, is there something very strange?
“It’s all very cute but at the other end of cute, is there something very strange?”Lawrence Lek
INT: A couple of years ago in an interview with the RCA, you said something intriguing – you talked about architecture as a way of “discovering a place to exist”. Are you still exploring this avenue of thought and if so, how?
LL: It depends. In general, different places are always floating around our minds or our dreams. But when it comes to a new project, it depends whether that project is necessarily tied to somewhere or not. A few years ago, when I would do an exhibition, I thought about the actual location of that exhibition and then branched out from that, like the project I did for Glasgow International Festival, which was about Glasgow basically. But lately, I’ve been creating fictional places, and all these fictional places are based on somewhere I know.
So in Aidol, the location is really inspired by Genting Highlands, a hilltop casino resort about an hour’s drive from the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. It was built in the late 70s on this border between two states. Basically, the guy who created the project convinced his friends in the government to let him open the casino – it’s pretty difficult to open a casino, especially in a Muslim state. So you have this humid, hillside resort. Every hill has got this misty, very foggy atmosphere kind of like a Werner Herzog film. You know like in the jungle, very misty. But the funny thing is, it’s got this mix of sublime atmosphere, this amazing landscape, but it’s also so tacky and commercial. You’ve got cable cars zipping up, a multi-coloured entertainment complex and, of course, a casino. It’s got this combination of the hyperreal and slightly crappy and it’s this landscape that I wanted to reference amongst other aspects; the history of the region, for example, which is also referenced very indirectly.
INT: Wow, I didn’t know Aidol was influenced by Genting Highlands but that totally makes sense. I was wondering about the use of personal experience in your work. When you’re constructing these fictional realities, do you purposely hint to places or experiences that bear personal significance to you? I guess it also ties into the question: How does creating your own fictional reality differ from making site-specific work?
LL: Referring to the first question, like how conscious is it? Yeah, very conscious. This goes back to my studies in architecture. One point of reference was always this idea: What’s the difference between physical and virtual space? More so than that, what’s the difference between sculpture and architecture – they’re both objects, right? They’re both objects made with some aesthetic in mind. There is a history of sculptors during the 20th Century who were playing with different ideas with the objective. You get the maximalist monumental sculptors like Richard Serra, Anish Kapoor, Anthony Gormley. It’s really a dudes-making-massive-objects kind of sculpture. And then there is also the tradition of land art. Anyway, I was interested in what sculpture was trying to reinvent for itself. You know like, taking the sculpture off the base, or the idea that sculpture is not about the object, it’s about walking around a space. An experiential thing. I was thinking, could architecture work that way as well? So to answer your question, yeah, I’m always thinking, what place does this remind me of? And of course, sometimes it doesn’t remind you of anywhere, which is interesting in itself.
“I was interested in what sculpture was trying to reinvent for itself.”Lawrence Lek
INT: And are the places that you want to recreate built because you want to spend time in them again? Do they feel like emotionally prevalent places for you?
LL: Of course I have an emotional connection to these places but I don’t think that’s enough to make it interesting for someone else. Personally, I’m not particularly interested in integrating too many biographical things. I’m referencing different things and things I’ve experienced, but I don’t think because it was interesting to me, it would necessarily be interesting for anyone else. It’s not just about the emotion for me, it’s about the contrast of emotions. Like how Genting Highlands, for me, is amazing and also funny, as well as happy and sad. To me, it’s not just a single register of emotion, it’s having two different things that coexist at the same time.
INT: That’s really interesting, certainly different to many creatives I’ve interviewed previously who are intentionally trying to recreate a certain memory or atmosphere. Whereas you’re more objective about it. On a similar line to your work influenced by Malaysia, I wanted to ask you about this phrase which you’ve explored in your work: “nomadic, post-colonial societies”. Can you tell us more about this?
LL: Sure. I think it’s a gradual process. It’s a huge question. Say, in relation to the last thing I said: To what extent are our biographical or personal emotions important? Because as an artist or writer, anything goes, there isn’t a rule for anything. In southeast Asia, in particular, because most countries apart from Thailand were under colonial rule at some point in their history – French, British, Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese and so on – it’s complicated, so it totally depends on what the project is. So the video essay Sinofuturism that I made, came about when I was writing the script for Geomancer, which is set in Singapore in the future.
I noticed that a lot of things I was reading were kind of like a mirror image between how Chinese industrialisation is portrayed, as well as AI. They’re both often seen as a threat to civilisation, or like it’s going to save civilisation. So again, there’s this weird paradox between these two. The other thing that I am not particularly interested in is identity politics because, for me, it’s just not a starting point. Again, what’s interesting to me is having two paradoxical things. So in terms of the Malaysian-Singaporean context (which I probably know best), the problem with post-colonial society is: How does one deal with the benefits of being a colony?
There’s the question of, are you on the privileged side of being a net beneficiary? You know, here I am, speaking English and all this kind of thing. So the way I talked about “nomadic, post-colonial societies”, I was basically interested in ambiguous conditions where it’s neither a good nor bad thing. It is both. In Geomancer, for example – Aidol doesn’t talk about this so specifically – the undercurrent is informed by what’s happened with post-Commonwealth societies. In the two or three decades after the Second World War, there was a lot of solidarity between newly independent nations from all around the world. They had sudden solidarity between them. Then, some ended up being ruled by dictators and some of them ended up being pretty functional. There’s an insane range of post-colonial conditions and it would take a lifetime to understand any one of them. But for me, it’s something I grew up with. Very often, post-colonial conversations are angled from an ethical point of view. And lots of terrible shit happens so, of course, that should happen. But to me, as an artist, it’s more about thinking what are the weird paradoxes that come with this split basically.
“It’s not just about the emotion for me, it’s about the contrast of emotions.”Lawrence Lek
INT: One of the fascinating things about your work is that impartiality both in the conceptual and thematic sense. You don’t need that break in the fourth wall or that first-person video game perspective. It’s nuanced.
LL: The whole idea of breaking the fourth wall is that you’re calling attention to how artificial the medium is that you’re working with. But while that was very revolutionary for Bertold Brecht, in 2020 everyone knows that everything is a facade. Before we sat down, you asked me: “your work is very intellectual, what do you expect people to understand from it?” But actually, my work is not abstract at all. If I’m talking about AI, there’s an AI there, and they’re like, “I’m an AI, and this is how I feel”. So there are depths to the references within it, but it’s not abstract. So the way I’m interested in “breaking the fourth wall” (now that everyone knows the fourth wall is long broken) is just using the kind of media that comes naturally to me. Let’s say architecture is no longer about bricks and mortar, it’s about polygons and virtual planes.
Everything I have to talk about is literally embedded within the work. It’s not that you have to understand colour theory, abstract painting and the history of modernism to know what the hell a painting is. So you know, if I have a satellite in my film, they look exactly like a satellite. It’s kind of the opposite of abstraction. It’s super literal.
“I’m not just interested in how the camera moves, but in how many different ways there are of framing a video.”Lawrence Lek
INT: That’s very revealing, especially for me as a member of the audience and what I subjectively expect from watching an art film. It says a lot about what I expect from watching a film touching on AI (something I don’t fully understand) and what I am projecting onto the viewing experience. I’ll definitely have to rewatch your films after this interview. Can we talk about your video essay Sinofuturism and Sinofuturism as a concept? [Sino being a prefix referring to China, its people and culture.] How has the idea changed (if at all) with changing attitudes to China?
LL: Again, it’s a huge question. When I did the video, I deliberately chose to express Sinofuturism as a thing: 1839 to 2046. It’s bookended by the date of the first Opium War (1839) and 2046 which is both the Wong Kar Wai film and the end of the 50-year period after the British handover of Hong Kong back to China. There have been many other futurism movements – obviously Afrofuturism, Gulf futurism, Italian futurism and so on – so when I was doing this video essay, I was talking to some friends and trying to conceptualise: Why do I feel like there’s something very strange going on here that no one’s really picked up on when it comes to Sinofuturism? When I googled Sinofuturism (there was nothing supernatural about it) but the first thing that came up was a text written by one of my friends Steve Goodman, who’s also the musician Kode 9. I was talking to him about that and one thing he said was really interesting. Disclaimer, I am no race or colonial scholar whatsoever, this is just my interpretation. Basically, in Afrofuturism, the problem is not just the representation of Africa as a place but also the historical problem of the Transatlantic slave trade: the ownership of the body, freedom, personhood. We were talking about it and it was like, instead of appealing to Western humanism as goodwill (which is essentially part of what created slavery in the first place) some Afrofuturists would say, instead of appealing to humanity and kind-heartedness, actually, screw that, we’re beyond human, we are alien-hyper-super-beings, essentially.
So I started thinking about the equivalent for Sinofuturism. Seeing as the discourse on Chinese industrialisation and technology is represented as robots – you know, Foxconn factory workers living like Chinese athletes and all this kind of thing – but rather than saying like, “Hey, no, we’re people too,” I thought the equivalent for a Sinofuturist avatar would actually be to embrace AI as its kind of ‘identity’. And why is that? Well, the video essay is divided into seven chapters, each of which is like a pretty canonical cliche about Chinese culture, shall we say: “I’m good at computing and maths, only copying, not original, addiction, video games, labour, and studying” and so on. All the pillars of Chinese being which I kind of grew up on are actually the same things that machine learning and AI were developed on. So really, these two things are mirror images of each other and that’s kind of what the video essay Sinofuturism does. It’s often slightly – how should I say this – oversimplified because from the outset, it could be interpreted that I’m saying Sinofuturism means China is the future. But that’s not what I’m meaning at all. What I’m saying is, the future has been represented as dehumanised, so it’s slightly problematic to use the same human standards on a completely different future, whether that future is Chinese or AI or intelligent or whatever.
Lawrence Lek, Sinofuturism (1839 - 2046 AD) [still], 2016, HD video, stereo sound, duration: 60 min (Credit: © Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.)
Lawrence Lek, Sinofuturism (1839 - 2046 AD) [still], 2016, HD video, stereo sound, duration: 60 min (Credit: © Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.)
INT: It’s funny because when I’ve engaged with your work before, like Sinofuturism, what I took from it is quite different to what we’ve been talking about. It’s interesting because although my first-hand experience of your work is authentic in its own way as an experience, it’s also so great to hear you talking about it and your ideas that have gone into it. Interpretation is a great thing.
LL: I’m glad that it speaks to people. That’s really important because basically, the idea of an audience is important. But the reason I made it (a bit of circular thinking here) is that it literally didn’t exist. There was nothing when I searched for it on Google. There’s a lot on the rise of China, the kind of airport book that’s like, “The Dragon Shakes the World” and a lot of Fox News anti-China stuff but nothing that dealt with it in a playful, weird way. There are amazing young artists like Lu Yang who make work dealing with technology in China, but not from this weird kind of sociological point of view.
INT: For sure. There was just one last thing that I wanted to ask you about. Your films do really immerse the viewer in an environment and I wanted to know how you think about moving through a digital space?
LL: Well, there’s a physical way to move through a space and a cinematic way, which is kind of similar, but also means you have things like cutting and montage zooming, so the camera lens is similar, but different to the human eye. I’m not just interested in how the camera moves, but in how many different ways there are of framing a video. So in Aidol some of it is like a film, some of it is like a video game and some of it is like a music video. It’s not just that the camera moves in a different way but in the back of your head, you subconsciously feel that you’re watching an ad and watching “reality” and a video game. It’s all rendered using a kind of video game engine, but what kind of video it implies is something else.
But in terms of navigation, I think a lot of artists, researchers and so on are interested in how digital states are navigated in a different way online. In the early days, the idea of cyberspace was that you could navigate it in a three dimensional way. Similar to virtual reality where you could gesture with your hands and all the information will be free floating around you. But we’re really dominated by screens and that’s still a very flat experience. Graphic designers and UX designers know this well, navigation isn’t this idea of a body moving through architectural space, it’s flipping through a page. So you know the biggest paradigm in online interaction is the scroll. The endless scroll on Facebook or Instagram is really just like turning pages as opposed to moving through space. And of course, there are technical reasons why that’s the case. It’s faster to programme a two-dimensional image than it is a three-dimensional space, right? There’s also a lower barrier to entry to understanding that space, most people under 30 generally understand how to navigate a 3D video game even if you’ve never played before.
INT: That’s so true. Thanks so much for this Lawrence, I realise these questions are pretty huge.
LL: That’s totally fine. I’m really happy going in as much detail or broadness as possible because you know, I don’t particularly come from a cultural background. I’m just interested in everything so whoever gets to encounter my stuff, that’s amazing really.
Lawrence's accompanying soundtrack to AIDOL is now available to purchase through Hyperdub. At the end of last year, he also released three new music videos to coincide with the release: Superstar, Followers (Diva's Theme) and Unreal.
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.