Lawrence Lek: 'It isn’t a manifesto, it’s a conspiracy theory'

We talk to the video artist about Sinofuturism and dystopian AI

Eriver Hijano
For anyone who’s spent a bit of time in 21st-century China, Sinofuturism, a one-hour video essay released last year by London-based artist Lawrence Lek, can feel like the opposite of culture shock. It triggers not the sudden bang of a new, alien experience, but the dull awareness of an underlying reality one’s been living in without being able to put into words. In its chaotic, dense and thoroughly bleak depiction of a post-human landscape dominated by a self-propagating AI, Sinofuturism gets much closer to the future-shock weirdness of today’s China than almost anything else currently on the art market – or in the sci-fi stacks, for that matter.

'It’s a mechanism for pattern recognition' says Lek, who himself has recognised these patterns from afar. Born in Frankfurt, Lek moved frequently as a child, following his parents’ jobs at Singapore Airlines. He spent his formative years in pre-handover Hong Kong – 'It was in the ’80s, skyscrapers were going up... when I think back on it now, it’s really that kind of Wong Kar-wai romanticised modernity' – and came of age in Singapore, later moving to London to study architecture. For the last five years he’s worked primarily as a visual artist, creating depopulated video animations depicting near-future scenarios in which architecture is inhabited, if at all, by art world ruins and flitting, autonomous drones. Sinofuturism – one of three pieces by Lek in the UCCA’s current group show, The New Normal – grew out of research he was doing on machine learning, artificial intelligence and inherently Chinese visions of the future. 'I basically realised [these] were all the same thing,' Lek says of his eureka moment.

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Capital-'F' Futurism typically refers to an Italian artistic movement spearheaded by the 1909 publication of poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Manifesto del Futurismo, a tome worshipping speed, industrial development, and the violent destruction of the past in the name of erecting a new phase of Western civilisation. At its best, the movement gave form and meaning to a rapidly changing era, closely influencing the aesthetic of 20th-century art, architecture, and music. At its most insidious, Italian Futurism, which praised the political expediency of fascism, presaged some of the worst horrors to come, clearing way for the rise of Mussolini and later being echoed in the brutal ideology of the Cultural Revolution.

More recently, several non-Western Futurisms have been proposed to reflect today’s post-colonial globe. The term 'Afrofuturism' gained currency in the early ’90s, and has been retroactively applied to the work of African-American sci-fi writers Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, as well as to the avant-garde jazz luminary Sun Ra, who attached an interstellar, Afrocentric cosmology to his compositional process. 'Gulf Futurism' was coined in a 2007 essay by Qatari- American artist Sophia Al Maria to identify a distinct aesthetic and vision of future engendered by the prevailing economic interests of the post-oil-boom Persian Gulf.

Shiva's Way

For Lek, Sinofuturism moved from a vague topic of interest to a concrete speculative idea after a conversation with Steve Goodman, better known as musician and Hyperdub label founder Kode9. Goodman is no stranger to this paradigm, having himself explored topics such as 'Afroatlantian rhythmic futurism' during his time as a philosophy student at the University of Warwick’s notorious Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. 'He’s been exploring this idea of non-Western futures for a very long time,' says Lek. 'So I asked him, why is it that there is no Sinofuturism? And then we were talking about how if the symbol of Afrofuturism is this super robot, or hyper-human, there’s no equivalent [for Sinofuturism]. That conversation really got me thinking, and I realised that actually, the robot is for Afrofuturism what the AI is for Sinofuturism.'

In the eponymous video, which is composed entirely of footage found online, a non-human narrator informs the viewer that Sinofuturism is 'a science fiction that already exists… a massively distributed neural network focused on copying rather than originality.' Lek identifies seven cliches about Chinese society – computing, copying, gaming, studying, addiction, labour and gambling – and uses them to argue for Sinofuturism as a self-interested artificial intelligence that employs deep-seated cultural qualities like Confucian filial piety and agrarian-industrial labour capacity to spread itself across the planet in a Darwinian conquest of ideas; it is an agent of meme warfare. Sinofuturism’s seven core components are visually reflected by media reports such as a BBC documentary on internet gaming addiction and paranoid rants on the dangers of globalism from the far-right talk show Infowars.

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In an opaque way, Sinofuturism manages to tie together many of the most salient and bewildering features of contemporary China into a grandiose narrative that’s so outlandish, it almost seems obviously true. In historical terms, Lek places the beginning of Sinofuturism in 1839, a date corresponding with the launch of the first Opium War. It ends in 2046, an explicit reference to Wong Kar-wai’s film of the same name and a tentative prognostication of some flashpoint of technological singularity that Lek expects we might reach within 30 years. 'Globally speaking, [this time period] is the peak of a certain kind of hard technology, like mechanisation, to industrialisation, to digitisation,' he explains. 'I think these 200 years, without being able to look into the future, are what will probably set the blueprint for a lot of things to come.'

The blueprint metaphor is apt: according to Sinofuturism, the 'things to come' will be more machine than man. Post-humanism is a theme that recurs through many of Lek’s works. Shiva’s Way, another video featured in The New Normal, tells the tale of a Buddhist nun who 'journeys to Korea to help rebuild the Seoul Museum of Art' after an apocalyptic civil war. Its figureless terrains literalise the uncanny condition of art – decontextualised Chinese landscape paintings; a half-submerged statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha – after the death of all human observers. One of his latest creations is The Nøtel, a collaboration with Kode9 that sets the latter’s 2015 album Nothing in a 3D-rendered hotel that hosts no human guests. Lek and Kode9 will bring The Nøtel to Beijing in May as part of the Wetware music festival – keep an eye on the Time Out Beijing website for event details.

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Lek is careful to point out that Sinofuturism is not a call to action, nor an instruction manual. 'It isn’t a manifesto, it’s a conspiracy theory,' he says. Referencing Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, Lek explains that 'the reason conspiracy theories are so popular is that they give people a way to understand the world. Our cognitive map of the world is too impossibly complex right now. So the thinking is that reality is like a branching tree, and if we go back to the very root of it, we can solve things. This isn’t true, of course, because the problem is never that simple. But the conspiracy theory is like a map to help us understand the world. So Sinofuturism is not a manifesto for the future, it’s more like a conspiracy theory to understand the present and maybe parts of the past, and maybe parts of the future as well, through these patterns.'

Nevertheless, like the Italian Futurist manifesto, Sinofuturism can be seen as intellectual preparation for difficult transitions ahead. One irony deeply embedded in the video is Lek’s awareness of the potential for AI to usurp even his own line of work. 'In the same way that the Government might subsidise the coal industry, they’ll have to subsidise the knowledge industry,' Lek says of a near future where AI art trumps the work of humans. Lek envisions an 'anti-AI art law' that might come into being to safeguard the cultural value of human artistic output, if only in our own minds.

Shiva's Way

While this argument can be applied to AI and culture generally, it has a special relevance in China, where critics often reject visual arts and music coming out of the country today as imitative copies of Western originals. Sinofuturism suggests that this cultural reaction is a desperate gambit of Enlightenment-Western thought in defense of its own conception of the ego, its own Futurist fetishisation of the new. Sinofuturism puts no stock in originality, only useful copies. 'Because the physical components of high technology are literally made in China,' its robot narrator intones early on, 'it makes no sense to produce visions of the future. It’s already here.'

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