Fact is proud to present the trailer for Lawrence Lek’s Theta, which features an original score and sound design from Kode9 and is showing as part of Future Shock, which is open now at London’s 180 The Strand and runs to 28 August 2022. You can catch Lawrence Lek in conversation with Kode9 at Reference Point on July 28, where the collaborators will deliver a talk, with AV support from Nanzhen Yang – tickets are available now.
Lawrence Lek describes Theta as a CGI road movie set in the same Sinofuturist cinematic world he has been working within for the last half decade, from which essential works such as Nøtel, Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD), Geomancer, 2065, AIDOL 爱道 and Temple 寺庙 have emerged. Some of these installations and video games have featured original music and sound elements from Hyperdub founder Kode9, with whom Lek reunites with for Theta. Set in an abandoned smart city, SimBeijing, the film follows a driverless patrol car conversing with its own cloud consciousness as it attempts to understand the source of its dissatisfaction and sadness as it careens around a ghost town that, despite being abandoned, is still under constant surveillance. “For a long time I’ve been making science fiction films and video games, but recently I’ve tried to think about what is in the very near future, or even the present moment, what might be happening, somewhere else, right now,” explains Lek. “It exists in a weird realm between documentary and and fiction. It’s not making a judgment about whether that’s optimistic or pessimistic, but it’s saying that these things are happening somewhere and imagining how that might be experienced by the car, from the non-human point of view.”
Constructing a intricately designed speculative present, Lek explores questions of total automation, the expansion and development of surveillance states and an uncanny form of computational psychoanalysis, all through the lens of hyper-connected artificial intelligence. As the driverless patrol car participates in a surreal machine therapy session, it expresses melancholy: “I feel sad, it’s been so long since everybody left.” “Are you sure that everybody left,” the cloud consciousness responds. “I see everything that happens. Everywhere, all the time,” the car replies. While simultaneously speculating on how self-aware machine intelligences might react to human presence while demonstrating the ways in which the non-linear computational processes of an artificial consciousness might be resistant to bureaucratic management structures, Lek gestures towards what kind of workplace problems the world might face in a period of total automation. “When and where this work is set is the the closest thing to our present day situation within the Sinofuturist universe I’ve been building” explains Lek, pointing out the similarities between the rise of contemporary smart cities and the world of robotic efficiency presented in Theta. Taking refinement culture to its most extreme conclusion, if human-level thinking is completely subsumed by systems-level computation, Lek submits that a smart city might exist most efficiently without citizens, depopulated by the infinite ouroboros of machinic self-surveillance.
Created entirely using Unreal Engine, Theta is just the latest example of Lek’s continued fascination with the software, which has become a central part of his art practice. “I was first introduced to Unreal Engine when I was working with Clifford Sage, who was working with it,” Lek describes. “On a very simple level, what it allows a filmmaker to do from a very conventional design perspective is to create scenes and locations that would just be unfeasible on the kind of shoestring budget sets we’re used to operating with. You can create these landscapes that set the tone, not just with a video game aesthetic, which has its own nostalgic memory associated with it, but very specific versions of environments and sets that just wouldn’t be possible through other means. The fact that it’s a real time engine also lets me to do performances with it as well.” It’s this mastery of the game engine that allows Lek to present speculative visions of the future, as well as alternate visions of the present, with both technical precision and emotional resonance, something that is only amplified by Kode9’s score and sound design. “Many different artists have shown that working in game engines, or working with animation, does not limit any kind of emotionality, or any engagement with the body. Artists such as Jacolby Satterwhite and Lu Yang show that there’s no limitation of intimacy, or of the idea of the body, with a digital medium.”
For more information about Lawrence Lek and his work you can find him on Instagram and visit his website. Theta is showing as part of Future Shock, which is open now at London’s 180 The Strand and runs to 28 August 2022. For tickets and information on opening times, visit the 180 The Strand website.