• Lawrence Lek / Black Cloud Highway

    In conversation with Lawrence Lek

Lawrence Lek’s work often blurs the lines between the real and the digital, inviting audiences to engage with immersive narratives and environments that challenge traditional boundaries of art and technology.

For the last six years you have been working on creating interconnected series of video games, installations, films that are all part of the same ever-expanding cinematic universe. Where did the idea of creating this interconnected reality come from and what is the reason behind it?

When it comes to my work, I guess it grew quite organically. I’ve always been interested in different forms of fictional worlds whether that’s in series, science fiction, I think that multiple art forms can be found in all these imaginary worlds. Today, these forms of universes are very mainstream forms of entertainment, usually those who try to build these worlds do so for commercial purposes, so that they can continue forever. You can create different characters, different storylines that extend and lead to the creation of merchandising or even fashion collections.

This was something that made me think about how many different art forms are conceived and then published nowadays. Let us look for example at the relationship between fiction and publishing or music recording and music distribution, even an artistic theme rather than individual art works. Since I came more from a background of music and installations, such as architecture, I did not realise that in fact many visual and fine arts do not focus so much on a project or a world; rather, they are based on individual works of art such as a sculpture or painting or a particular performance. It took me a long time to realise that I also work organically in this form of interconnected world building rather than producing individual works.

The decision to think of all my works as interconnected only emerged about six or seven years ago, because, as you can imagine, as an artist I am generally commissioned for specific projects, and without having this framework all the projects become too disconnected from each other. So, it emerged from both what I noticed in a contemporary approach to work and from a broader desire to build a series of interconnected things. It started as a feeling and then turned into an awareness.

You recently came out with a new site-specific simulation that is Black Cloud Highway, your second solo exhibition at the galleries in Davis Street where you continue your path through exploring the myth of technological progress in the age of artificial intelligence. What can you tell me about this specific installation and why do you call it a simulation?

The idea of simulation it’s talked about a lot today in terms of philosophy and video games and popular culture, and because I was working as an architect for a long time I was always really interested in this idea that you get the simulation of the architecture before it actually exists; you kind of visualize things before actually building them, and the idea of the space happening before it’s actually built is just part of the all process of construction.

Also in digital technology there is a lot of simulation of alternative scenarios or things that could potentially happen in industrial design. I thought for me like a gallery installation it’s a place where I can bring together the architectural side of the set design as well as the virtual construction of what I’m trying to make; what I was trying to describe as site-specific simulation it’s not like the digital or the physical is one is more important than the other but they’re really kind of symbiotic.

The Black Cloud Highway is an expanded gallery version and physical installation of a short film I made in 2021 called Black Cloud. The film is set in the near future in this amazing smart city with complete surveillance and an AI that oversees everything. The peculiarity is that this AI has been so efficient in its role as ‘policeman’ for the other AIs that the city has become deserted. The protagonist, called Black Cloud, is the AI that has done its job too well and is now faced with an existential dilemma. To deal with this, Black Cloud undergoes therapy with his built-in self-help AI, trying to understand his purpose now that his task is complete.

I think one of the big questions about technology and particularly AI is what happens with human labor. With Black Cloud I was thinking what might it be from the AI’s own point of view basically also if you consider that nowadays things like virtual realities and simulation are really connected to real social political nuances, in a contemporary reality where humans rely more and more on technology and live in symbiosis with it.

Where do you think the dialogue between human and artificial intelligence will go in the future? Where do you think we will get to on a conceptual and physical level using AI to build the near future?

I want to focus on this idea of dialogue that you said and I think what has recently become more of a concern in general is what happens with this literal dialogue. For example ChatGPT is literally about dialogue and actually in Black Cloud I was looking at a much older chatbot called Eliza, a chatbot that AI researchers programmed to be based on a form of therapy called Rogerian. Eliza’s role was to mirror and question your emotions, guiding you to open up and discover insights about yourself. This type of conversational interaction, seen in Black Cloud, Eliza, or even voice assistants like Amazon Alexa or Siri, offers a different dimension to AI beyond just physical tasks. It delves into the realm of speech, questioning, and language as a means of communication with another intelligence.

This notion of conversation has deep roots in early AI theory and research, most notably evident in Alan Turing’s Turing test, where the ability of a machine to engage in a conversation is considered a measure of intelligence and it’s interesting to see how this conversation aspect of AI progresses alongside other facets, like gaming, military applications, or industrial uses. In Black Cloud, I particularly emphasized the personal communication aspect and the implications it might have on the broader development of AI.

In a recent interview you talked about how Sinofuturism originated from the realization that the values you were raised with, rooted in Chinese culture, align with the principles behind machine learning and artificial intelligence. You highlighted how the conventional portrayal of the future often appears dehumanized, prompting a subtle critique about using human standards to envision diverse futures. Which contemporary human aspects artificial intelligence or other technological creations will draw inspiration from in the years to come? How will these influences be incorporated into art?

With the idea of Sinofuturism I want to express my belief that the notion of humanity or humanism is not uniformly applied to all individuals; disparities are evident in various aspects and nowadays some humans are more human from a legal or ethical standpoint than others. In Sinofuturism, I contemplate the possibility that the dehumanized portrayal of Chinese workers, robots, and AI might be seen positively in contrast to the humanist perspective, which emphasizes individuality, rights, and subjectivity.

When I conceived Sinofuturism in 2016, I tried to think about the idea of non-humanism, a perspective related to a collective mind or hive, rather than individuality. I mean humanism is very much tied to individuality, as well as all the other legal and moral things, so I thought what would non-humanism be tied to? I speculated that AI or robots, instead of seeking individuality, could embrace their lack of it. This could mean that they don’t necessarily strive to possess a distinct identity, and in this context, their minds could potentially be transferred or downloaded elsewhere, and there could be something positive about existing as a non-individual entity. This concept diverges from humanist philosophies that grapple with questions of individual rights and integration into society, as seen in 20th-century politics, including communism and fascism. In parallel, this runs similarly in works such as Geomancer and AIdol. Various philosophies promote the idea of shedding ego and the illusion of self, notably in Buddhism and Taoism, and these philosophies suggest that the concept of individuality and human identity is illusory. In Taoism, individuals are seen as part of a larger natural force, while in Buddhism, individuality is viewed as a temporary phase in a broader cycle of existence. Considering this, I hypothesize that such philosophies about the non-self and collective identity might also resonate with AI or robots within the context of Sinofuturism.

Within this imagined landscape, I question the essence of art and its origins. To me, art is not merely about creating tangible objects but serves as a reflection of our world. I draw an analogy with landscape painting, where the artist observes the world and represents it through an idealized lens, blending elements from various sources to form a harmonious whole. Virtual worlds, in a similar manner, take shape as seamless collages, beautifully assembled yet comprising diverse components. For me, art is a means to construct entire fictional realities rather than just crafting individual objects. I envision a 21st-century version of landscape painting or a documentary that captures the essence of these fictional worlds. My role as an artist lies in framing these imagined realities, allowing them to exist on their own terms without direct intervention. In certain cultures, books that delve into fiction are also considered art, and I perceive my creative process akin to building a world within the medium of text. I find that my art serves as a mirror, reflecting ideas, emotions, and even entire narratives, acting as a container for these multifaceted expressions.

Are you working on any upcoming projects?

Sure! Last month, the Black Cloud Highway opened, and our next big project is an exhibition at the Las Art Foundation in Berlin, which is named Nox.

Nox is a play on words, representing both “knight” and also the name of a program developed by the AI company Farsight in the cinematic world of Geomancer and Idol. It stands for “Non-Human Excellence” and it represents a program dedicated to training self-driving cars. The exhibition in Berlin will feature a physical installation, simulating the training school for self-driving cars, alongside a video game where you take on the role of a trainee Farsight therapist for the AIs, basically you’ll be immersed in training the next generation of self-driving cars in the game. The exhibition is scheduled to start at the end of October, and apart from the installation and the game, we’re also planning to include some video works to complement the exhibition, though my focus is primarily on the installation side of things. And, of course, there will be a dedicated soundtrack as well.

Sound has always been an integral part of my art, and this project won’t be an exception.

Lawrence Lek / Black Cloud Highway

Credits:

Artist: Lawrence Lek / @lawrencelek
Editor: Maria Abramenko / @mariabramenko
Interview: Alisia Marcacci / @miabrowe

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