Lawrence Lek “Future 2065” at K11, Hong Kong
Interview by Alvin Li
Opened on March 20 in Hong Kong, a few days ahead of the Asian edition of Art Basel fair, Lawrence Lek’s first solo exhibition will leave you wondering what art and a sinocentric world will be like in 2065. In this conversation, Lek talks to Alvin Li about posthuman agency, the future art history of sinofuturism, the politics of language, and constructing worldviews through his sprawling virtual world.
Alvin Li: The virtual worlds you create are not only site-specific; they also often take a future time node significant to that particular site as point of departure. Why choose 2065, the year of the Singapore centennial, as the time in which your new eponymous exhibition in Hong Kong is set?
Lawrence Lek: I’m interested in using my worlds as a junction between past, present, and future. While time travel is nothing new in science fiction, it offers a relevant framework in the context of Singapore and Hong Kong. Although the year 2065 refers to the Singapore Centennial, the idea of the hundred-year time frame applies to Hong Kong as well, except that it ended there in 1997 with handover from the UK back to China. In Singapore, the nationalism promoted by the government always promises a better tomorrow, with improved lifestyles, wealth, prosperity. So their future Centennial will most likely be a celebratory event, a milestone to look back on a century of successful social engineering. But in Hong Kong, the centennial coincided with the end of colonial rule, and the uncertainty of transition between political systems. In 2065, this blend of uncertainty and optimism is framed within the additional framework of posthuman agency. In Geomancer, also on show at K11, the protagonist of the film is a state-owned surveillance satellite who wants to become the first AI artist. I wanted to draw parallels between the independence of the nation-state and the individual’s search for freedom.
AL: It seems there are multiple worlds nesting within one another, which is activated by this 2065 time capsule. This is slowly revealed as the audience walks through the exhibition space, separated into four zones. For instance, in zone 1, the central piece 2065 first transports the viewer into the gallery space in 2065; as they walk into the second zone, the Farsight Corporation promo video turns out to be set in 2038, serving almost like digital archive that urges the audience to parse what has happened in between. Can you tell us how the spatial arrangement is intended to affect the audience’s experience and perception of reality?
LL: I’m interested in how virtual worlds distort what architectural theorists call genius loci— the spirit of a place. Of course, the totality of a specific location—its unique character and indivisible nature—is essentially unknowable for an individual observer. However, as a three-dimensional computer model, the virtual world of 2065 is a singular entity in time and space. Even though the virtual world is a collage composed of multiple places, the player can travel freely between zones. For the exhibition, I wanted to deconstruct the world, enabling the audience to experience their own version through fragments. 2065 is conceived as a physical portal into a sprawling virtual world, where the audience enters into the game itself. The “game” is not really a game at all, but rather a kind of speculative text or video game essay. Whether they play the game before watching the film, or vice versa, they would construct their own narrative of cause and effect—whether we are in Farsight’s game, or the K11 gallery, or within the exhibit in the museum in Geomancer. In so doing, each individual would come to form their own conception of 2065—or, literally, worldview.
AL: How does the new exhibition relates to your 2016 work Sinofuturism? It seems that many aspects of these virtual worlds, like the paradoxical relationship between work and play, and the notion of gaming as addiction, extend from ideas laid out in the video essay.
LL: In Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD), created in a half conspiracy-theory, half didactic manifesto style, I argue that the collective forces of Chinese technological production constitute a form of artificial intelligence. 2065 comes out of a thought experiment about the future art history of Sinofuturism. In the exhibition, I imagined that in 2065, a future group of AIs came across this video and decided to start an art movement from its principles. In the introductory video, the narrator explains: “These AIs mastered all the games long ago. Now they want to be artists. Proclaming themselves as the sinofuturists, they establish their movement by releasing a video game called 2065. The sinofuturists say their new game is a work of art; a game with no heroes, no enemies, no winners, no losers.” This draws from the framework of hyperstition, where fictional scenarios do not just remain speculative, but also affect the real conditions of the present.
AL: The exhibition also reflects on the precarious condition of AIs—conscious entities conceived as possessing human-like self-awareness and emotion—in the future, suggested by the fictional organization bio-supremacist alliance and laws prohibiting AIs from becoming artists. I’m interested in how you depict this paradox of technology, namely that it extends traditional notions of agency while also deterring access.
LL: In Sinofuturism, I wondered if the values of Western Humanist thinking are still relevant to AI. The paradox between agency and control is particularly relevant to AI because the notion of disembodied, autonomous intelligence highlights the most divisive legacies of Humanist thought itself—property relations, master-slave dynamics, individual rights, political freedom, colonial expansionism. Because of its reliance on input information, current AI algorithms and deep learning research is vulnerable to institutionalised bias—willingly or unknowingly created by the researchers who put together datasets based on certain skin tones, or facial structures, for an obvious example. So I thought of shifting the question to a more fundamental level, away from political idealism to a survival mentality. As I say in the video—“sinofuturism does not care about a dramatically better future, as long as it survives. it must replicate itself; it does not matter if it manufactures the greatest product in the world, as long as the engine keeps running. It is not the other, either. Orientalism is the shadow of Occidentalism. In the West, the East is the other; In the East, the West is the other. Sinofuturism moves beyond these boundaries. It is a world that exists in plain sight.”
AL: Both 2065 and Geomancer are narrated in Mandarin, while the Farsight Corporation promo video and Welcome to Play Station! are in English. I’m curious to hear your thoughts behind the use of different languages for the two sets of work.
LL: It’s about the politics of language. The Farsight promo videos are in English to address the international millennial audience in 2038. But the fact that 2065 is entirely in Mandarin suggests that thirty years later, a pro-China stance is more widespread. Geomancer is actually in three languages: English, spoken by the AI curator in the museum to address a globalised audience; Cantonese, spoken by the dealer in the casino to denote an authentic, autonomous regional identity; and Mandarin, spoken by the eponymous AI to communicate with a largely mainland Chinese audience. In the Tower of Babel origin myth, God punishes over-ambitious humanity by making them speak different languages so they cannot understand each other. While working with so many sources for the project, I became much more interested in the idea of everybody speaking different languages, but understanding each other. While this has a utopian implication of mutual understanding, it’s also there to suggest that we are seeing the film and playing the game through the eye of the AI. our ears permanently set to auto-translate.
at K11, Hong Kong
until 20 May 2018