From the Archive: Lawrence Lek

We revisit the Art Licks Weekend 2014, when we commissioned artist Lawrence Lek to present a digital work both online and as an exhibition. The project, 'Sky Line' presented a virtual experience of the festival and a selection of its participating project spaces for the viewer to navigate along a tube line.


Can you describe the initial idea behind 'Lair du Temps (Camel)' and the process of making it?
When Holly asked me to contribute a project to the magazine, I just started collecting these perfume bottles. I was drawn to the absurdity of the forms and what they signified to the immigrant population in East London that collected them. I thought it would be fun to producing a scratch and sniff sample enclosed in the magazine, which is how people used to try out perfumes. I worked with Ken Kirton of Studio Hato, who has since become a frequent collaborator, to test out ways of creating this fragrant strip of paper that we can attach to the magazine. It was a bit of trial and error working out the most effective mixture of adhesive and really horrible perfume to get it right.
Where did the camel come from & what did the perfume smell like..?!
I bought the camel perfume for £5 at the Whitechapel Market and it smells exactly what you would expect a £5 bottle of perfume would smell like. A photograph of the camel perfume were shown at the Whitechapel Gallery later that year, so there ended up being a great circularity and specificity to the project.
At the time (2012, yikes!), was this a helpful idea to explore for your work—had you done something like this before?
Wow! Nearly 10 years ago! I remember doing this project towards the end of my MA at the Royal Academy which was an intense three years of questioning and doubt. It was great to do something fun for a change and to also think about different ways of disseminating my work. It has also led to meeting people that I have worked with since.
Have you continued to work with these ideas / the piece more recently?
I showed an actual camel bottle as part of an installation at the Gwangju Biennial in 2018, alongside other perfume bottles that I collected in 2011/2012 – including perfume bottle versions of the Burj al Arab and the Burj Khalifa. The installation, I think, best articulated the thinking behind collecting the objects. As a collection they present this false narrative of Middle Eastern progress through cheap perfume.
The day after the biennial opened, the—now rare—camel perfume bottle was stolen. Luckily, Holly still kept the camel perfume bottle we used for the project so I was able to find a replacement. It’s a great epilogue to the project and that £5 camel perfume is now more valuable than ever.

Video trailer: vimeo.com/107020605

Website: bonuslevels.net

Art Licks: When Art Licks commissioned you to make a work for the Art Licks Weekend 2014, what prompted you to create a game-like version of the festival that Sky Line presents?

Lawrence Lek: I wanted to make a project about other projects: a virtual world that acts as a kind of memory that remains after the festival is over. Moreover, it wouldn’t be like a simulation of architecture (as I had done for the 2013 Art Licks Weekend, when I made A Collective Tower out of some of the spaces of the festival), but rather would make a simulated Tube line that connected the spaces of the festival.

I thought of the experience of travelling on Sky Line akin to how infrastructure and transportation networks exist within the city—they don’t usually exist as places in their own right, and are usually seen as liminal spaces that barely register in the mind of the traveller because they’re so focused on their destination. But by making the project about this usually marginal space, I thought it would focus attention also on the transient nature of many of the project and artist spaces that make up the festival. Always on the move, always changing.

What was your process in making the piece? It must have been a huge amount of work in both planning and execution.

First off, I want to mention my thanks to everybody who took part and gave some of their time and space to be part of the project, many of whom continue to be good friends and occasional collaborators. A full list of credits is below.

The 3D mapping of the spaces was labour intensive but was also one of the best things about doing the project—I got to go and visit and talk to the artists and curators who ran the spaces. Some, like Hotel Elephant, had also been part of the previous year’s project, but had already moved. Others, like Project/Number, moved out of their space in Stoke Newington not that long after—we had a small performance of the game literally in the living room behind the project space, so Sky Line became embedded in a domestic setting for one night.

Re-making a space into the virtual world is actually very close to landscape painting, where you really have to go somewhere and observe how the environment is put together; except that instead of focusing on, say, the formation of clouds or how grass grows on a cliff face, you start deconstructing the systems of the city. For example, when I was programming how the Tube train operates, I had to really observe the sequence of events that I’d experienced thousands of times but never really thought about. A few seconds before the train stops, the doors start beeping, then the pneumatic gas releases and the door slides open, then it beeps again before the door closes. Not every tube line announces what station you’re at. Then you really start thinking about the community of people operating the world you live in, and all those also travelling and designing the networks you exist inside.

The work was presented both online on the Art Licks Weekend website, and as an exhibition at SPACE (The White Building). Could you describe how you situated the work within the exhibition?

In the exhibition, there were three consoles with the game set-up, projecting outwards from a pavilion which I had made previously for a residency at the Design Museum. Sometimes video games are seen as a solitary activity but actually the experience is much more communal than that, especially in a collective gallery space. So the idea was that even though it was a single-player game, people would observe each other playing and then explore the world for themselves.

Within the game however, the pavilion serves as a teleporter. If you miss the (virtual) train, you can go inside the pavilion to teleport you inside the closest train. That way, you never really miss the train...

Giving visitors the opportunity to explore the festival and its participating spaces in this way was really unique and exciting.

What experience did you hope the viewer to have through being able to navigate this virtual world themselves?

The surprising thing is that people explore the virtual world in the same way they explore the real world and really express their personality in doing so. Some want to win—they look for goals and conventional symbols of a video game, like tasks to complete or a sense of competition—others are explorers, where it’s not about winning but rather about finding out what lies on the next train stop, or behind the building or on top of the roof. There are also many anarchists—those who want to walk off the edge of the world or try to find the glitches or breaks in the system. There’s no right way to play the game, but somehow everybody finds their own entry point. Another idea also is that people perceive the physical world differently after seeing how it can be reconstructed into a synthetic reality. It’s that heightened sense of perception that I was hoping to evoke.

I feel like Sky Line's utopian setting has a new significance now that we have experienced London in lockdown – its empty, deserted landscape feels closer to a reality than it did six years ago. How do you feel about the work looking back on it, and did it lead you to other future works?

Definitely. Even when I was making it, it already had this aspect of nostalgia to it. Like I already knew that many of the spaces would have moved or would have morphed into something else within a year or two. Although Sky Line doesn’t literally have avatars of virtual humans in it, it does have traces of inhabitation—the carpet in Conduire, mushrooms growing in the back yard of Jupiter Woods... So even though you don’t see anyone, it doesn’t mean there’s nobody around.

Sky Line was part of Bonus Levels, a larger series of ‘site-specific simulations’ that I put together on a website (www.bonuslevels.net). After a while, I became even more interested in the narratives of these worlds, which up till then had been composed more through a method of collage and found fragments of text. For example, the video trailer for Sky Line used voiceover from Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 and Tarkovsky’s Stalker: films that were as much about psychological landscapes as literal journeys. Also, I started thinking of the virtual worlds more like film sets rather than adaptations of real places. The series eventually lead to the more recent trilogy of films Sinofuturism (1830-2046 AD), Geomancer, and AIDOL, as well as the ongoing video game 2065.

Sky Line is a project by Lawrence Lekand was the Digital Commission for the Art Licks Weekend 2014.

With the generous support and participation of:

Art Licks—Holly Willats and José da Silva

395—Pavilion Projects—Sophie Yetton

38b—Luke Drozd and Eva Rowson

A Brooks Art—Julia Riddiough & Sadie Hennessy

Amatorska—Agnieszka Szczotka

Arbeit Gallery—Nimrod Vardi

Art House Foundation—Caroline Rolf

Conduire—Sophie Risner

Dig Collective—William Bock

Enclave—Lucy A. Sames

Gowlett Peaks—Elinor Morgan

Hotel Elephant—Lucy Woodhouse

Jupiter Woods—Hanna Laura Kaljo, Lucy Lopez, Carolina Ongaro, Barnie Page, Cory Scozzari & Emma Siemens-Adolphe. (Artists: Anne de Boer & Eloise Bonneviot)

Ladette Space—Elena Colman

Legion TV—Kiera Blakey & Matthew-Robert Hughes

Millington | Marriott—Sean Millington, Will Marriott

Project/Number—Chris Rawcliffe (Artist: Tristan Stevens)

South Kiosk—Dave Charlesworth & Philip Serfaty

Studio 180—Ella Phillips

The White Building—Rachel Falconer

YYY—Charlotte Law

Funded by Outset Contemporary Art Fund

Supported by SPACE and The White Building

Lawrence Lek is an artist, filmmaker, and musician who unifies diverse practices—architecture, gaming, video, and fiction—into a continuously expanding cinematic universe. His works include the feature-length CGI film AIDOL (2019), the video game Unreal Estate: The Royal Academy is Yours (2015), the video essay Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD) (2016), the AI-coming-of-age story Geomancer (2017), and Nøtel, a simulation of a fully-automated luxury hotel in collaboration with Kode9 (ICA, London; Art Basel). As a musician, Lek composes soundtracks and conducts live audio-visual mixes of his works, often incorporating live playthroughs of his open-world games. His most recent release is Temple OST, the soundtrack to a site-specific installation at 180 The Strand, London (The Vinyl Factory 2020).