Inside the Sinofuturist Universe with Lawrence Lek

By Katie Chiou

Published April 2, 2024
Lawrence Lek is a Malaysian Chinese artist, filmmaker, and musician based in London. He studied architecture at Trinity College, Cambridge, the Architectural Association, and The Cooper Union, and in 2022 completed a practice-based PhD from the Royal College of Art about filmmaking in virtual worlds.

Lek’s artworks are as expansive as his background, combining film, CGI animation, essay, music, gaming, and large-scale physical installation. Lek’s work explores identity and self-expression in a speculative future underpinned by emotionally aware AI and algorithmic creativity. He poses to his audiences constant and open-ended questions: what does it mean to remember, to desire, or even to have consciousness?

Over a video call, I asked Lawrence a series of questions related to topics ranging from worldbuilding to AI and generative tooling to his interdisciplinary art practice.

Originally published in USURPATOR Zine Edition 01, April 2024. The following interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Still from film, 48m, 2017

KATIE CHIOU: You often refer to your practice as “worldbuilding.” To you, what makes for a “minimum viable world?” Is it the architecture, the aesthetic, the characters?

LAWRENCE LEK: I look at worldbuilding from two angles. First, there’s classical “top-down” worldbuilding; it uses a map or terrain as a metaphor, a spatial environment that has its own histories and geographies. It might be a virtual world which uses this analogy of navigable physical space. You see this clearly in my work too, as there’s a lot of literal set design and environment design.

But to me, the minimum worldbuilding for an individual is very different from worldbuilding as an external object of production or an object of study. The second angle of worldbuilding is thinking of it as a first-person journey, which can be as long or as short as necessary. It has more to do with sensorial space around an individual as a perceiving subject. In philosophical terms, it’s a phenomenological view of existence. It’s the sense that we, as the thinking and feeling subject, access the world through our senses. The worldbuilding happens through our sensory interface—what we see, taste, sense. Or, if it is an AI who is the perceiving subject, then whatever means the AI uses to perceive its environment.

This is different from the first kind of worldbuilding, which is the world as an object as opposed to the world as an experience. As a fiction-maker and creator of artworks, I try to balance both of these two kinds of world-making. The first-person view can only grasp a fragment of the world in its totality because you’re confined through your sensory apparatus; at the same time, the compositional, classical side of worldbuilding allows you to creatively think beyond your limitations as an individual.

KC: I wonder, then, how you consider collective sense-making in your work? For example, your video essay Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD) (2016) has a very collective, cultural lens.

LL: Sinofuturism came about almost by accident. I got a commission to make an artist film, which later became Geomancer (2017). At the time, I was making what I called “site-specific simulations,” virtual worlds based on uncanny or alternate histories of real-life places. Instead of basing it around the sites where I was getting commissions, I thought I’d set a film in Singapore because it’s an environment I know well. I thought, “What if I departed from reality more, and went a bit more science fiction? What if I go forty years into the future? What if I think about the possible consequences of South-East Asian identity and technology in forty years?”

Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD)
Still from video essay, 60m, 2016

I went through this thought experiment: maybe by that time, the discussion of China as a rising superpower would be old news. By that point, what would China’s cultural identity be? This initial thought experiment also became the video essay Sinofuturism, which was released online in 2016, a year before I finished Geomancer.

Through my work as a musician, I had friends who engaged with regional schools of futurism such as Afrofuturism or Gulf futurism. For whatever reason, there didn’t seem to be an equivalent for futurism in terms of China or East Asia. There had been a lot of discussion about “Asian representation,” but not an equivalent playful, critical way of dealing with the same subject. I made Sinofuturism as a response to that gap, and its theme of the “collective” was a product of the specificity of the subject itself.

I noticed that Chinese stereotypes had a lot of resonance with how AI research proceeded, and I thought there was an uncanny resemblance between how these topics were being discussed. I thought that while the Afrofuturist avatar is often a kind of superhuman alien, the Sinofuturist ideal avatar would be an AI because while Chinese cultural stereotypes are intellectual labor and infinite copying, that’s what an AI—at least in the age of machine learning—actually is.

The collective, cultural lens you observe in Sinofuturism is a product of channelling and absorbing the ideas of Chinese culture and “survival mentality,” which is, to me, a key reason why Confucian structures are so strong—the collective effort to survive and persist. I also think this resonates with how AI will operate in an intergenerational way, a way to perpetuate a certain kind of system.

KC: Your point about regional futurisms is fascinating. I’m curious how you think a more globalized, connected future that is largely driven by the technology at the centers of these schools of thought will impact regionality.

LL: I have a big interest in historical movements from a sociological and theoretical point of view and the question of globalization and even de-globalization, which many people would say we are returning to.

A lot of my thinking is influenced by architectural theory. A big point of discussion in modernism was questioning what are the universal features of culture or an artwork. Of course, Western modernism leaves its imprint in cities around the world as globalized architecture and construction industries that replicate the same structures and urban forms around the world. This was a big pattern in city design. The antithesis of that idea is site-specificity.

In the case of virtual worlds, there is no concept of site-specificity because they are not in any literal physical space and can be based anywhere. If you look at early representations of cyberspace—Tron (1982), Atari, etc.—cyberspace is always modeled as a glowing cube or some grid of neon light stretching into the infinite horizon. These are all modernist visions of architectural design where every place is a grid of uniform territory. When I started building virtual worlds, I thought it would be interesting to bring this idea of site-specificity or regionality into the virtual world, which is why, for example, Geomancer is set in Marina Bay in Singapore.

The idea of regionalism is really interesting. What if virtual worlds aren’t neutral territory but are a lived-in environment somehow? The architectural theorist and historian Kenneth Frampton had this idea of critical regionalism as a response to universal modernism. Critical regionalism essentially says that architecture should reflect some attribute of where the structure literally stands on Earth because places are inherently unique.

I was always thinking about how that idea in architecture might relate to my work as a digital content creator. What could I do as someone who writes and builds these spaces in virtual space? Part of that is referring to cultural histories, like a screenwriter looking to create a believable universe might.

KC: Sinofuturism is generally considered the beginning of your work’s cinematic universe, being followed by Geomancer and AIDOL (2019). Did you know when you were making Sinofuturism that you wanted to extend it into a broader universe? When you create new pieces now, are you always thinking about how you may reference them in the future?

LL: It’s a mix between intention and improvising. I’m super interested in how fiction impacts reality and vice versa.

Specifically in the fields of technology and science fiction, they co-exist in that one is a laboratory for the other. My friend Steve Goodman (a.k.a. Kode9) is a founder of the record label Hyperdub and is part of the philosophical research group Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU). One of their core ideas is the idea of hyperstition. So, what does this mean?

First, we have fiction. It is a parallel world that serves as allegory or entertainment, but it’s clearly make-believe. Then there’s superstition, where there are imaginary beliefs in causality that may or may not be true. “Don’t cross a black cat’s path,” and things like this.

Then, there’s hyperstition. It’s the idea that there’s fiction that generates reality. A self-fulfilling prophecy, in other words.

One thought experiment I had was that if I made the Sinofuturism essay in 2016, then by 2065, the year when the events of Geomancer take place, the future AI would have seen Sinofuturism because they would have downloaded, processed, and learned everything on the internet. Therefore, the works do refer to each other, both within the fictional world and outside the fictional world. In terms of literary theory, Sinofuturism operates both diegetically because it appears in the storyworld of Geomancer and non-diegetically because I use it as a reference point in the wider cinematic universe.

Beyond its use in fiction-making, I find the idea of hyperstition really interesting and it even led me to later start Farsight as my own production studio.

KC: Farsight Corporation is a fictional conglomerate that builds AIs and is a recurring character in the Sinofuturist cinematic universe. Can you tell me more about Farsight?

LL: After finishing Geomancer, I was thinking about what might follow logically. I needed, for financial and practical reasons, to start my own production studio as a limited company. I thought it would be funny to take the timeline of Geomancer seriously; that by the year 2065, there would be a multinational conglomerate called Farsight that works across entertainment,  and cultural and urban AI that has created this superintelligent satellite that wants to be an artist.  What if, I thought, I might be a Farsight employee existing in the past to realize the AI-driven entertainment company that exists in the future of the cinematic universe of my work? So, I legally started Farsight as a studio to accompany the character in the cinematic universe.

Play Station™
Still from multimedia-installation, 2017

There was this playful component, but the other unexpected realization that occurred was that capitalism was not what I originally thought it was. In liberal circles, capitalism is often considered bad because of a perception that money flows one way, it’s a limited resource, and it leads to injustice. I do subscribe to that, but as a small business owner of Farsight, I realized that businesses exist as a non-human entity whose purpose is to survive. It’s supported by many legal and accounting systems that minimize risk and ensure that the corporation can live a long and healthy life beyond that of mortal human beings.

By having my own small media company, I had insight to write better stories about Farsight as a character. It’s not a nemesis or a mega-corporation. It’s a survival mechanism that decreases risk over many accounting periods. The character of Farsight as a legal entity later inspired my recent SimBeijing trilogy (2021—), which looks at AI not just as a coming-of-age story, but more closely at the relationship between the corporation and its sentient AI products.

A group of contemporary philosophers, including Graham Harman and Timothy Morton, have the idea of object-oriented ontology (OOO). One of their central concepts is the hyperobject. Harman uses the example of the East India Company as one such hyperobject. The company lasted hundreds of years, longer than the lifespan of any individual employee. The company cannot be said to have been truly based at any particular location, but it was a colonial being with many relationships, inventory, and knowledge. It was a kind of superhuman network, but it also had qualities like a living thing.

So I had this idea about the corporation as a living hyperobject, which fed into AI characters that I later created in the SimBeijing trilogy.

KC: Something I noticed about your work is that it usually centers around anthropomorphized AI objects, rather than human-like forms of AI that you see in works like Her (2013), Ex Machina (2014), etc. Was that intentional?

LL: At some level, it’s intentional. Part of that is because of the evolution of my work. I started with virtual worlds that were de-populated. People would ask—and often still do—“Where is everyone? Why is the world deserted?” And my answer to that is that the world isn’t deserted. You just don’t see anyone, which is quite different. As the viewer or player, you experience an empty world, but your mind is full of thoughts. There’s memories of people and questions about where they are. In my filmmaking, I went from empty space with a travelogue-style voiceover, then to machines with voices, then to AIDOL, where there’s two people.

Still from feature film, 83m, 2019

Part of it is the idiom I’m working with, but it’s also because of limited means. Essentially, I’m making micro-budget, indie video game films while projects like Her are produced and financed within the world of commercial filmmaking.

As a director or producer, when you go to pitch your film, the first question you get asked is, “Great, cool story, but who’s going to be in it?” So Spike Jonze is like, “Scarlett Johansson’s going to be in it. You won’t see her, but she’s the voice.” Then, everyone says, “Great, amazing, let’s make it happen.” The casting is a big part of the film as a product.

Of course, if I had access to great motion capture facilities and A-list actors, I’d be happy, but the most important thing for me is creating the work that embodies certain ideas. But if you’re a filmmaker with a different language or production values, the requirements for casting aren’t the same.

KC: In a 2022 interview you did with Hito Steyerl, you talked about how much you value the process of physical fabrication, in relation to automated, generative tools. Can you speak more about your views on that and how they might have evolved as more generative tools have made creation more accessible?

LL: The strange thing is that even though I work so much digitally, I still think through working with my hands. This kinesthetic way of bringing things together feels natural. Even if I can’t literally collage things together with my hands, I’m still always trying to synthesize different materials.

One of the benefits of doing that is that I can intuitively feel when things are coming together in the way that I intend. The drawback is that there’s investment bias. Although I like making everything, not everything has equal importance. Let’s say I spend two weeks modeling and texturing this water bottle. If I’m also the director, I’m going to make sure that this water bottle has a prominent place in every shot—what’s called a “hero” prop—because I don’t want to feel like my work is wasted. However, that isn’t a wise thing if the bottle is irrelevant. Sometimes that investment bias is really precious, but it can just get in the way.

I have no doubt that automation is going to increase with new tools and so, of course, I think about how I can synthesize things in a unique way. I generally try not to use the latest tools because that can result in a “tech demo” kind of artwork, but at the same time, I’ve acknowledged the fact that I’m never going to be right on the edge. The best I can do is give myself a tangible framework for finishing a project and know that it will be a snapshot of what I’m interested in and also what’s possible technologically at the time. The work will always have its conditions of production baked into it. With new tools coming out all the time, if you’re too aware of them, you’ll never catch up.

KC: Your work explores existential questions like “What does it mean to desire or to dream?” How has your relationship to your own humanity changed or evolved as you’ve worked within these subjects?

LL: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. With the Sinofuturism series, the question was to think through futurism and technology from the point of view of some sort of individual or collective awakening. In all those stories, the AI, who is the avatar for myself or somebody who’s also questioning these things, is trying to understand their existence within a historical lineage that keeps on evolving.

Still from film, 48m, 2017

In the more recent SimBeijing series, even though it’s also about algorithmic surveillance, the core question is focused on the recurring character of Guanyin, who’s named after the Buddhist goddess of compassion. Guanyin is an AI therapy chatbot designed to help Farsight’s AIs. The question that comes up is essentially, “How can we hope for harmony in a world that is not headed in that direction and with algorithms that, if anything, are accelerating in the opposite direction?” For example, if you think of current uses of mental health data or medtech, they have as much to do with drug discovery and predictive surveillance, as they do with helping anyone with medical issues.

For me, a deep moral question is: “Is my work helping anyone?” And even if it isn’t in a direct way like with activism, am I opening up dialogue that leads to some kind of better world? Not in a top-down, utopian sense, but I think that if there can be a contemporary version of the Buddhist ideal of relieving suffering for all sentient creatures, that can only be a good thing.

That’s the recurring question I have. I try to wrap it up in narratives, worldbuilding, characters, and installations that I work on. I try not to be too direct about it, but there is a real desire to somehow communicate that.

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