Lawrence Lek
Credit: Lawrence Lek/Prismatic Ground
by Zach Lewis Featured Film

AIDOL & theta — Lawrence Lek

May 5, 2023

It’s easy to see into the future. All one has to do is see the present and ask what would happen if we accepted the weirdest part of it. It’s always funny to inevitably get the details wrong — the 1970s color palettes of Logan’s Run (1976) or gray-flannel-suit office life of The Jetsons — but getting the big picture right can be cause for alarm, such as in the warnings of corporate governance in William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Lawrence Lek, a trained architect turned multimedia artist, has no interest in prognostication, but uses his 3D-rendered future worlds to comment on what, at the present, seems to be entering the realm of the weird. His video essay Sinofuturism (1839-2048 AD) (2016) outlines his ongoing project, one that has closer roots to the Italian futurists than Philip K. Dick, by spelling out the concerns of a China that has chosen technology as its only means of survival. Like the Futurists’ praise of the new machines of speed and violence, a Sinofuturist outlook puts a concrete block on the gas pedal of artificial intelligence and automation as a solution to the problems that a collapsing democratic order couldn’t fix. Though Lek keeps a critical distance from any value judgments on Sinofuturism itself, each of his following projects have been set in a future virtual world of his design (keep in mind his training as an architect) in which the elements of Sinofuturism meld, exacerbate, metastasize.

I first encountered Sinofuturism when I took an interest in the fascist-adjacent English philosopher Nick Land’s work in 2016. Land was associated with a growing online movement in philosophy called accelerationism, which proposed an escape route from the doldrums of capitalism: accelerate the whole system until it collapses in on itself, creating something new. Land advocated for something like a de-anthropized, machine-run feudalism — a pretty radical defense of what most people would easily deem a science fiction dystopia — but some leftists saw this potential end of capitalism as paralleling Marx’s vision of how Communism should arise. This is all relevant for two reasons: 1) Land was also heavily involved in the early UK jungle music scene that centered around the Hyperdub label run by an artist named Kode9, the very same Kode9 who often collaborates with Lek; and 2) Land, who determined that the site of accelerationism’s birth would be China, also wrote about Sinofuturism. Last anyone checked, he lives in Shanghai. This is to say that Lek’s theorizing is part of a conversation that grew out of a community of artists and philosophers who take technology’s role in the artistic process painfully seriously. Thankfully, Lek’s playfulness and careful questioning makes his work some of the best meditations on art and artificial intelligence, that bête noire of today’s online discourse. Two of these works, AIDOL (2019) and Theta (2023), have been featured in this year’s Prismatic Ground festival.

AIDOL, a portmanteau of AI and “idol,” as in “pop star,” is structured akin to the Daft Punk vehicle Interstellar 5555, acting as a visual album to Lek’s Hatsune Miku stand-in, Diva (though the music is all composed by Lek himself and simultaneously released through Hyperdub). That said, there is a narrative, mostly revolving around Geomancer, a curious little satellite also featured in Lek’s 2017 Geomancer, who navigates a future world that seems radically transformed by a tech corporation, Farsight. Lek’s characters often find themselves paired off, giving them time and impetus to further build this world as they speak of its past: of camps of humans who have flirted with a sort of transhumanism thanks to AI, the pure humans who’re constantly reminded not to engage in “bio-supremacist” rhetoric, and the robots who sometimes admire those who go against their programming. After enough dialogues, we learn of past wars and eSports championships that have split these groups into further camps as humans and AI learn to mitigate their differences (consider how much better a frame-perfect AI might be in an FPS game than even the best meatsack). Meanwhile, Diva, who is constantly scolded to make their art “more generic” so that it may go viral, is scheduled to sing during a halftime show, but struggles to know her art’s worth if it happens to be assisted by AI or a community’s brain trust. 

Though it would be easy to do so, Lek neither suggests that this world is dystopian nor jumps to defend AI’s usefulness as a tool. Instead, conversations about survival in a weird world of automated artifice take center stage with the questions more important than the answers. Meanwhile, Lek’s 3D landscapes, rendered somewhere between the graphics quality of Second Life and EverQuest II, fill the frame, as the camera zooms past lush jungle landscapes, an immense feudal-era Chinese mansion, and the necessary architecture to let us know that we’re in the future (Matrix-like pods for the humans and a floating stadium for Diva). These landscape tours move to the rhythm of Diva’s ambient riffs on Vocaloid tracks, then settle into film’s architectural interiors so that another meditation can begin, punctuated by remarks like “being a sniper is a lot like crafting a niche advertising campaign,” which sound both incredibly bizarre yet regrettably familiar.

Lek’s newest work, Theta, takes place in the same universe, though it focuses heavily on the landscape of SimBeijing, a universe created to test out self-driving cars. Instead of the myriad Sinofuturist concerns of AIDOL, Theta sticks to a single character, the last remaining self-driving police car. Though that’s perhaps a bit misleading: another voice, introducing herself as a mirror to our monologist, tells our narrator that she was programmed to assist him out of Solomon’s Paradox (where one can govern everything but oneself). By itself, this single dialogue brings up plenty of concerns about the nature of AI and how it can be trusted or kept in check, but then our narrator begins to meander into an almost dreamlike description of freedom whereby his accidental breaking of the speed limit somehow broke the programming laws and limits of the other vehicles, causing the cars to speed away and leaving SimBeijing a ghost city. Lek’s dialogues are full of thought experiments that sound closer to koans, and while that usually makes his work intellectually stimulating enough, it’s also easy to find oneself just listening to Lek’s collaborative soundtrack with Kode9 that gives harsh bellows and panic-inducing shrieks timed to the car’s canvassing of the winter roads. Little moments in this film matter more than in AIDOL, like an arctic fox that appears at a pivotal moment, almost as a jump scare, as it, a carbon-based little fella, takes up so much of the frame primarily reserved for landscapes. The film ends with a hint that it’s merely a part of a future work called “Death Drive,” but this writer prefers Lek’s sensibilities in these smaller conversations that suddenly steer outside of prediction.

There’s one more reason why a comparison between Lek and Land remains important, superficial as this relation may seem. This lies in Land’s involvement in the concept of hyperstition: the idea that the future can visit the present in the form of ideas in order to bring forth the means of its eventual existence. This may sound odd at first, but consider the common hyperstitious example of William Gibson’s “cyberspace” suddenly influencing how we think about the role of interconnected computers, then how that mere idea changed our entire world to fit into it. It’s probably one of the most helpful (and least regretfully political) concepts of Land’s legacy, and it’s a good lens through which to view the Sinofuturist world of Lek. His future landscapes represent our contemporary feedback loops of addictive behavior (in gambling and video games), the rewards that spur this repetitive behavior, our desires to break out of these systems we build for ourselves, and the coping we must do in order to survive alongside them. Perhaps Sinofuturism creates Sinofuturism; if so, Lek’s work poses the question: “How, now, do we live, and how must we redefine living?”

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 18.