Lawrence Lek: ‘Musicians always find a way to subvert the system’

Lawrence Lek is a London-based artist, film-maker and musician who creates virtual worlds, simulations, and soundtracks. He uses computer-generated imagery, virtual reality, 3D animation and gaming software, as well as installation and performance, to simulate and develop digital environments that he describes as ‘three-dimensional collages of found objects and situations.’ By rendering real places within fictional scenarios, his digital worlds reflect the impact of the virtual on our perception of reality. The soundtrack to his film AIDOL is being released by Hyperdub.

In one interview you said: “I use art and the so-called art world as a microcosm to explore the impact of technology on culture.  I transpose my concerns about art now onto the future.” How do you view this dichotomy (technology / culture) and its impact on humans? What is the role of art in this? 

I think art is meant to blur the boundaries between any distinctions. Technology itself is often the subject of my work, but not in the clear-cut dystopian or utopian way in which it might often be portrayed. In the world I often invoke – a hybrid post-colonial Europe/Asia – technology is integrated into culture; it’s one mechanism that brings about societal change. I don’t mean that the political aspect of technology is erased, or that the forces of state power are absent, but that I’m trying to find a way in which culture – in all its terror and beauty – can somehow be integrated and flow with the tools it builds.

You were active in the DIY electronic music world around 2008, when more grassroots, self-organised musical structures that were the antithesis of music corporations seemed possible. What was the momentum that led to the change and do you still see hope in independent music operators subverting the new music platforms and algorithms?

I guess there are two big trends: this move towards the platform economy and the prosumer adoption of creative technology. In the platform economy, networked effects become the most important thing; the platform gains more value the more content and users it has, and this is a never-ending spiral until another platform emerges with a new feature – which is quickly replicated by yet another service. In the algorithmically-controlled music industry, it’s about accumulating users, fans, and content. As for the second aspect – what’s called prosumer technology, more content gets made because it’s easier than ever to make music. Music that used to take a long time to make. Think about all the software: one-touch beat sync, generative melody, genre sample packs, or AI-generated music. So, there’s both much more content and stronger control over how it gets distributed. Of course, musicians always find a way to subvert the system, or to work around limitations.

You are releasing the soundtrack to your work AIDOL via Hyperdub. Is it difficult to separate the sound from the image? How do you approach the sonic side of your work – do you first create the images, followed by the sound that evokes them? 

AIDOL is, literally, a film about music – the storyline follows a fading superstar who recruits an AI songwriter to ghostwrite new songs for her comeback performance. I usually compose the soundscape or soundtrack while I’m designing the environment or writing the script. With virtual worlds, music can fill in the space that images can’t capture. World-building is often discussed in terms of its appearance, whether visually, narratively, or texturally. But I always start with an idea about the experiential qualities of a place. Usually, I work in CGI or rendering, which is a very pristine medium and dates back to when I worked as an architect. You can make the fictional world more real, or immersive, by adding layers of detail to the artificial landscape within which the player or viewer exists. The soundtrack and the soundscape are essential. The sonic world expands the imagination beyond what the eyes can see.

Individualism has been a paradigm that has permeated humankind – from the Enlightenment to Capitalism. With the dawn of AI and machine learning, many fear humans might be replaced by machines. Humans, however, have always used objects, machines, prostheses (in the McLuhanian sense). Is this fear justified? Do you fear for the future? 

Fear isn’t really the right word. When I started researching AI for my film, Geomancer I had a strange realisation. Most narratives about AI or nonhuman ‘aliens’ revolve around anthropocentric projects: we imagine how much AI will be like humans, or how they will be against us. But the more I started thinking, the more I started wondering – actually, how much is my thought process like AI? This, coupled with thinking about the East/West dichotomy, is at the core of my video essay ‘Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD)’. It’s not just about how AI is human; it’s about how the human is AI. Isn’t being a composer or a musician just like being an organic algorithm? For example, you listen to things, categorise them; you learn an instrument; you copy from things you like, often hiding the original source; you study existing patterns and eventually might arrive at something ‘creative’; you work hard to learn from mistakes; you play games to learn how to improve. Of course, there are reasons to fear machinic computation; but right now, those systems aren’t autonomous, there are human networks intertwined with them.

Many of your works also draw on concrete historical events – like the setting of AIDOL, inspired by a resistance movement in the jungle led by miners and labourers involved in resource extraction on the Malaysian peninsula (if I’m correct). Can you perhaps talk about the references in your films?

The projects often use a combination of alternate histories and speculative futures. AIDOL is set in the year 2065 in Malaysia and is about a human-machine conflict embedded in an eSports game called ‘Call of Beauty’. I thought of the AIs in the film as a hybrid of two groups of people who lived on the Malaysian peninsula – the Senoi, one of the groups of the indigenous Orang Asli, and the Communist anti-Colonial movements of the 1950s, who were predominantly the descendants of Chinese immigrants. Why these two groups? The Senoi were (wrongly) identified by Western anthropologists in the 1960s as having a unique relation to the dream-state. The anthropologists claimed that the tribe treated dreams as a kind of group psychoanalysis. However, this was later seen to be an invention of the observer, who saw in the tribe only the utopian fantasies that they wanted to project. This fantasy-projection relationship is one side of what I see humanity projecting onto AI: our hopes for how technology will create a brighter society. The second group relates to how the conflict between Communists and colonialists becomes mapped onto the AI and humans – via Farsight Corporation, the fictional company who own and develop the machine learning systems.

Can you talk about the Farsight Corporation, whose online presentation resembles that of a fancy creative tech company?

In the screenplay for Geomancer, which is also set in 2065, there was an AI company called Farsight. I thought: what if I take that fiction seriously? What if I have fifty years to fulfil this prophecy that was made? So, in 2018, I started a production company with the same name, framing subsequent exhibitions as if I were an anonymous content creator employed by this entertainment corporation. Farsight is thus a kind of ‘reality fiction’. In AIDOL, the sequel to Geomancer, Farsight expands into the music industry, and their record label attempts to manipulate a singer to produce the kind of music that is so generic it can appeal to anybody, all the time. That’s why they end up recruiting the AI composer to be a ghostwriter.

Your work Sinofuturism (1839–2046 AD), which was recently presented online by Rokolectiv, subverts Western cliches about China, which has become a global power perhaps in spite of its political system and its repressive features. 

As mentioned earlier, I made Sinofuturism in 2016 almost by accident, largely because I observed how polarised debates were about China and technology. Being Chinese myself – a definition that is complex in itself – I thought it was strange how little subversive discourse there was in the field. Of course, Afrofuturism, Gulf futurism, and other futurisms were being discussed as ways to challenge the implicitly and subtly one-dimensional viewpoint that is imposed on places that do not come from a Western Humanist mode of thinking about politics. After all, there is often an implicit assumption that humanism is the ideal for contemporary society. I made Sinofuturism to play with this idea.

One of the principles of the video is that Chinese cultural development contains many principles that run against the rational humanist ideal. The seven chapters of Sinofuturism are organised according to these characteristics embraced by Chinese culture that are somehow seen as anti-humanist. When I was researching machine learning, I noticed how portrayals of AI in the media mirrored those of Chinese industrialisation. The identification of the workers in the tech manufacturing industries as a nameless mass who are only useful for endless work is exactly how robots are presented. Both are portrayed as a threat to humanity. The difference is, of course, that the Chinese workforce is biological but becomes dehumanised through the media. The political idea is that rather than denying these corrupt traits, Sinofuturism embraces them and embodies them in a non-human life-form, an AI robot whose goal is to survive. Just like any culture, I suppose.

What are your current and upcoming projects? 

Working on a new film… and soundtrack, of course!

Interview by Lucia Udvardyova
Photo: Ilyes Griyeb, Courtesy Art Basel

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