Behind The Screen: Meet Lawrence Lek 陆明龙

Introducing “Behind The Screen,” a look at the phenomenal artists participating in the Eyebeam xVH AWARD International Residency. A leap from our flagship residency, this program supports artists from the Asian diaspora who are developing projects that push the field of time-based media in exciting new directions.

Lawrence Lek 陆明龙 is a London, UK-based multimedia artist who unifies diverse practices into an ever-expanding cinematic universe. He uses video game software and CGI animation to develop digital environments as “three-dimensional collages of found objects and situations.” By rendering real places within fictional scenarios, he uses these digital environments to reflect the impact of the virtual on our perception of reality. Lek’s VH Award proposal, Black Cloud (2021), is the culmination of an ongoing body of work that explores the geopolitical implications of AI acting as a bridge between popular culture and critical discussions on technology.

Would you tell us what your response was to being shortlisted?
Super happy. Being ‘shortlisted’ already feels like a huge award. It’s been difficult to continue being productive during the pandemic, so being part of the residency is amazing. Like many artists, I depend on commissions to make new and challenging work, so the fact that it’s both an award and a very supportive residency is encouraging.

May we ask you to tell us a little more about your “expanding cinematic universe?”
For the last five years, I’ve been making a series of games, installations, and films that are all part of the same fictional world, which deal with the cultural impact of technology in East Asia. It’s like a science-fiction universe, where different stories are linked together. Of course, the idea of a ‘cinematic universe’ is drawn from popular media, from mainstream movie franchises or endless ‘sequels’ in video games. Part of the difficulty of being a media artist is that many projects are very short-term, and it’s hard for projects to have an afterlife beyond an exhibition or event. So for me, having a continuous narrative is very important because it helps me build longer-term and more ambitious projects – a kind of personal worldbuilding.

Would you tell us about your interest in “the impact of the virtual on our perception of reality?”
There’s always been a link between images and illusion, even from ‘Plato’s cave.’ Today, so many of the images that we see today are computer-generated images rather than photographs of real things. In computer games, there’s a direct link between ‘virtual’ and ‘reality.’ I used to study architecture, a field where the idea of ‘representation’ is very important. For example, most of the ‘work’ in architecture is about drawing buildings, rather than constructing them with your own hands. There is also a very important political angle about how labor is divided between ‘knowledge work’ and ‘manual work.. When I was a student, new digital 3D tools were overtaking the use of traditional hand drawing, and many practitioners were skeptical about digital technologies. However, I thought that these virtual tools can enable contemporary artists to create environments that can reflect some of the utopian ideas of architecture. Except these virtual spaces would not be limited by the same financial or political considerations that make a lot of real-life architecture a form of property development. I really enjoy the freedom in that.

Would you share with us your point of view on the “geopolitical implications of AI to bridge between popular culture and critical discussions on technology?”
Computer-generated images are an obvious example of how technology has impacted how we perceive real spaces. We see renderings of cities and buildings before they are actually built, for example. But artificial intelligence is a huge topic that isn’t just about how things appear. What’s so different about AI is how human-made things can think for themselves, and how they can have their own agency. Another interesting thing about AI is how popular culture has influenced the discussion, especially science fiction films and literature. That’s why I think the link between AI and art is so interesting. The reason I say it has ‘geopolitical’ implications is that AI depends on data, and different countries have different attitudes towards capturing data – from surveillance in cities to biometric data from healthcare. These differing attitudes, and the biases that are embedded within AI algorithms themselves, will come to impact how society is controlled in the future. This isn’t an imaginary dystopian situation, but is already very much in place, especially in online systems and in urban management systems all around the world.

May we ask you to tell us how you are using your online residency with Eyebeam, how is it supporting your ability to realize your project?
It’s a very structured residency, which is honestly a great thing because it gives me a way to break up my project (which is quite ambitious!) into more manageable parts. Having the regular residency meetings and discussions with Eyebeam has so far given me a way to get feedback about the research for my project. The project is about a smart city that becomes a ghost town, and I’m trying to find ways to make this abstract architectural idea into something emotional and atmospheric.

The group conversations and mentorship meetings have been very productive so far. My idea is basically a story about an urban surveillance AI who doesn’t have anything to do with because their city has been completely abandoned by its inhabitants. As with many of my projects, the narrative is playful but it also has dark or even gothic undertones. The team at Eyebeam and the invited guests have been very supportive so far, and I’m trying to get feedback about specific parts of the project, like how to think about scriptwriting as a kind of conversation with an AI. It’s been great.