IN THIS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, LAWRENCE LEK DISCUSSES THE POLITICS OF THE ART WORLD, HIS BONUS LEVEL SERIES, AND THE AESTHETICS OF THE UNREAL ENGINE.
Lawrence Lek (b. Frankfurt, 1982) explores the uncanny experience of simulated presence through hardware, software, installation, and performance. His interactive virtual environments have been presented in countries including Australia, Hungary and China and his work has been hosted by the V&A, SPACE, Barbican, Art Licks, the Delfina Foundation, and he is currently a resident artist at The White Building in Hackney Wick. This virtual simulation of the Royal Academy, based on surveyors’ drawings as well as found text from Russian Tatler (translated into Mandarin and subtitled in English), invites the participant to a multilingual conjuring of the building’s potential future as repurposed by high-end estate agents. Lek lives and works in London.
This interview was produced by the students of Master's Degree Program in Arts, Markets and Cultural Heritage at IULM.
GVA: Can you briefly describe your education?
Lawrence Lek: I studied architecture at Cambridge University, the Architectural Association in London, and Cooper Union in New York. I was lucky to have teachers who emphasized the wider theoretical and cultural aspects of the art form, rather than its formal or practical aspects.
Lawrence Lek, Europa, Mon Amour (2016 Brexit Edition), Real-time simulation & HD video loop.
*I made this in May as a critique and comedy, sad to say it's become reality.* -- With the UK cast out of the EU, Dalston has degenerated into a post-apocalyptic utopia. Come and explore this drowned world of the near future: filled with forgotten nightclubs, neon-lit music venues, Election booths, Turkish snooker clubs and luxury penthouses. Building upon Lek’s original commission for Open Source 2015, this site-specific simulation brings together multiple histories of the area into a single zone. As players roam around, a voiceover extracted from Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour speaks to them about the nature of memory. It is a gradual, but relentless, sense of forgetting that comes with any form of urban transformation." (Lawrence Lek)
GVA: Can you name some influences - not necessarily artistic ones - that played a key role in your evolution as an artist?
Lawrence Lek: Jack London, Francesco Borromini, James Joyce, Final Fantasy (Nintendo Game Boy versions), Andrei Tarkovsky.
GVA: When and why did you begin using video games in your practice?
Lawrence Lek: It's a continuation of working in a site-specific way. In the first few years of my art practice, I had been building (physical) installations that related to the space they were installed within. For these, I usually created digital models to help me fabricate and assemble the installations. Of course in architecture you always make models, but it only serves to communicate the intention of your work or to convince somebody about your idea. I started thinking – what if the model was actually the main work rather than just a working tool? So with video games I could create the entire environment, selecting which aspects of reality I wanted to model, and which ones I could invent.
Lawrence Lek, Bonus Levels: Chapter 2, Delirious New Wick, 2014.
"Bonus Levels is a series of utopian video game worlds. The project collages together fragments of London into a continuously evolving virtual city. Here, the boundaries between private and public zones disappear, creating an environment of open access and free exploration. Chapter 2 reimagines the zone surrounding London’s 2012 Olympic Park as a primal utopia of floating islands, abandoned stadiums and post-industrial monuments. Based on the physical maps of the area, the level brings together three histories of the area into a single virtual landscape: primordial forests, commercial regeneration strategies, and artist-run colonies. As regeneration strategies and commercial property developments spread over East London, the player is invited to witness the conflict between the area’s past and its future. Teleporter Pavilions beam the player into inaccessible areas of London – up into the voids of Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit tower and into the Velodrome flying over the sky. " (Lawrence Lek)
GVA: Why did you specifically choose a video game to make art? What do you find especially fascinating about this medium? Its interactivity? Agency? Aesthetics? Theatricality?
Lawrence Lek: I am particularly interested in the first-person perspective and how the player/viewer very quickly becomes embodied in the character. Of course in commercial games there are usually goals or objectives even in the most open-world scenarios. But in my work, I like to remove these intentions so that the viewer only experiences a face-to-face encounter with the environment itself. Afterwards, they might become more aware about the differences between their agency in the art work versus the real world.
GVA: Digital games often create parallel, alternative experiences for its users. How do you relate to the complex relation between reality and simulation? How do you address this tension through your work?
Lawrence Lek: The suspension of disbelief happens quickly when you watch a film or play a game or engage in a performance. For example, after only a minute of watching the screen-captured video, you stop being conscious of the fact that it's only coloured polygons on the screen. You're inside the world. In each work, I've already embedded hundreds of symbols and messages through the set design of the level and its sound, lighting and interactivity. But in the end, it's very much up to the viewer or player how they want to perceive the work. Some people might see it as an escapist fantasy, others as an alternate reality that exists between fact and fiction, others as a socio-political commentary. All of them are right.
Lawrence Lek, Bonus Levels - Chapter 1: Art Licks Weekend, 2013.
GVA: Would you agree that machinima has democratized the art making process? Has it lowered the entry barrier for creators of video art, as some critics argue?
Lawrence Lek: By providing a readymade platform for creating digital animations, of course machinima makes it easier to create a certain kind of video art. However the problem with any emerging process in digital art is that the vast majority of artworks lie within a narrow spectrum of expression. When you're learning a new tool or program, you have to rely on default presets. The challenge is to make the democratized tool a personal medium.
GVA: In your artwork Unreal Estate (The Royal Academy is Yours) how and why do you use video game aesthetics?
Lawrence Lek: I wanted to use video game aesthetics to combine fantasy and critique. In Unreal Estate, I was invited to make a new work for an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. I thought to create something site-specific that also referred to the cultural implications of an elite art institution. In the simplest terms, it would be a fantasy if that was your home. But to be in a position where you could afford to buy the Royal Academy, you would have to be part of a financial elite, capable of buying expensive art but also paranoid about security and getting kidnapped.
GVA: Can you describe your creative process in developing Unreal Estate?
Lawrence Lek: It’s essentially a reconstructed version of the Royal Academy, but modelled as if a Chinese billionaire (or Tony Montana in Scarface) had redecorated it. When constructing the environment, I'm always thinking how it will look cinematically. For example, you have to make an impression at the beginning – in the first wide shot of the courtyard, there's a Lamborghini, Ferrari, and Jeff Koons sculpture. And to end, why not look at your mansion from above, in a helicopter?Also key to the composition is the voiceover by Joni Zhu and soundtrack by Oliver Coates. I actually edited the sound together as a guiding track when I captured the video. The voice was guiding me – I knew I had to be in the gallery, or living room, or basement by a certain time.
GVA: How is Unreal Estate related to the Bonus Levels series?
Lawrence Lek: Unreal Estate is chapter 9 of Bonus Levels, an ongoing series of virtual worlds that create either utopian or dystopian commentaries of reality. Previously, I had worked with public squares, post-industrial areas, and independent project spaces and galleries. So the Royal Academy was the most established institution I had worked with up to that point, and so I wanted to use the opportunity to explore the complex relationships that exist in an institutional context.
Lawrence Lek, Sky Line (Virtual Tour, Parallel Narrative Version), 2014.
"Two travelers search for meaning while traveling on a utopian railway that connects independent galleries across London. The video is created from a virtual world commissioned for Art Licks Weekend 2014. Sky Line is the most recent chapter of Bonus Levels, an ongoing project interrogating the construction of utopian narratives through videos and virtual worlds. Lek draws from the compositional techniques of cinema, using software to explore altered states of presence, memory and materiality that are unique to digital space. " (Lawrence Lek)
GVA: How do you reconcile the fact that a game-based artwork aspiring to be recognized by the Art World is simultaneously criticizing the inner workings of such environment, i.e. the Art World itself?
Lawrence Lek: I see projects like Unreal Estate being more like a mirror than an object. The conventional left-leaning viewpoint is that the established or commercial Art World is a bad thing because of its complicity in elitism. However, looking at the Art World as a subject reveals larger aspects about culture, economics and history. Through the Royal Academy, you can think about wealth, desire, but also fear and oppression. At the same time there's a certain brutal honesty to it: I would love to live at the Royal Academy.