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Seated is artist Lawrence Lek, a Chinese man with brown shoulder-length straight hair. He wears a olive color work jacket.Seated is artist Lawrence Lek, a Chinese man with brown shoulder-length straight hair. He wears a olive color work jacket.

Photo: Ilyes Griyeb, courtesy Art Basel.

With Lawrence Lek
Date and place of birth
b. 1982, Frankfurt, Germany
Current location
London, UK
Year(s) of residency and/or fellowship
2021, VH Award Resident

How do you characterize the media you work in?

I make site-specific media installations, films, video games, and virtual worlds. Prior to that, I was doing a lot of architectural installations that were driven by this question of what public art might be today. My interest has always been: how do I use all the affordances that my tools give me? That involves a lot of work with music and soundtracks as well.

How does your practice engage with technology?

The media that I use feel intuitive to me in that they’re the vernacular of my generation. I wonder about the ways in which video games can be a cinematic medium, what new combinations of possibilities exist with time-based media, what site-specificity means in a virtual age, and so on. The question of technology is so implicit in the subject matter I work with, and it’s something I think about often, as someone who grew up in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. Of course, technology isn’t operating in a vacuum; the societal and the technological grow symbiotically together.

Pictured is a photo of installation, which at its center, the 11-minute film is framed by highway barriers and suspended body panels from damaged supercars, alluding to the aftermath of a road accident. Arrayed around a single wheel, the panels are refinished in candy apple red and sonic blue — colours used in both automotive and electric guitar design, reflecting Lek’s longstanding interest in the relationship between industrial fabrication and music production.

Installation view, Lawrence Lek, Black Cloud Highway 黑云高速公路, Sadie Coles HQ, Davies Street W1, 20 May – 24 June 2023
© Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Commissioned by VH Award of Hyundai Motor Group
Photo: Katie Morrison

You were the Grand Prix Recipient of the 4th VH Award. Can you tell me about the work that garnered you the award?

Black Cloud (2021) is part of my Sinofuturist series, an ongoing project that grew in response to these lacks and gaps that I saw in the discourse around Asian technological futures. Black Cloud is set in SimBeijing, an imagined smart city built for testing self-driving cars. It frames the smart city as something that is actually quite mundane, and everyday instead of futuristic, and lived-in and worn as opposed to new. The video follows a city surveillance AI, who is in therapy with a built-in self-help AI called Guanyin, letting the viewer in on its inner monologue. I was looking at histories of chatbot conversations and thinking about how dialogue has always been at the heart of AI, from the Turing Test to ELIZA to ChatGPT. Black Cloud is concerned with new perspectives or subjectivities that are brought up by artificial intelligence and emergent forms of nonhuman understanding, and the awakening of a consciousness that comes at the price of death and destruction. It is also looking at ideas of working yourself out of a job or automating yourself into unemployment

What was your focus during your time at Eyebeam? Was there a culminating project?

The residency was a great experience that involved five artists in total from throughout Asia. It was tied to the development of a new media or video work, which was then put up for the VH Award. I came in with an idea about a self-aware smart city that has existential dilemmas, and that took shape over the course of the residency, through script writing, 3D modeling, and so forth. The result was Black Cloud.

How has dialogue or collaboration with Eyebeam artists and alumni factored into your work?

All the residents met up every week or two while developing our work, and so having this regular informal presentation session really felt like the best bits of being at school. At the same time, we’d be talking about ideas with the invited guest artists. I think it was actually [Eyebeam alumnus] Zach Lieberman who suggested I have a look again at ELIZA when I was talking about the project that would later become Black Cloud.

How do you think about the role of the artist in society?

It’s so different for every artist; their embodied answers take such varied forms, from the hands-on activist to the storyteller to the entertainer, and we need all of that. I think that my role is to offer a different perspective of how things could be, from the point of view of fictional characters that I craft who are plausible in the world we live in. I guess the role of the artist in the broader sense, might be to make impractical visions tangible in some form, which isn’t the same thing as making them true.

Eyebeam models a new approach to artist-led creation for the public good; we are a non-profit that provides significant professional support and money to exceptional artists for the realization of important ideas that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Nobody else is doing this.

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