We need you to close your eyes and imagine this: you’re part of a futuristic elite society that’s always on the go; you neither need, nor desire a permanent home, and you’re headed to the next luxury destination of your never-ending vacation. The door of your vehicle opens up and in front you, glazing in the sun, is Nøtel—the AI-run, fully-automated opulence of your time.
Remove a couple of details from the above description and you’ll get the experience London-based artist Lawrence Lek quite literally generates with his newest installation Nøtel at The Hague’s Stroom. Created in collaboration with musician Kode9, the immersive multimedia project opens doors on September 1st and will present a fictitious futuristic hotel chain that invites its visitors to participate in a hyper-luxurious virtual reality where domesticity is replaced by AI, and where humans’ relationship with living, work and technology is entirely re-conceptualized. Fascinated with the ways in which Nøtel questions notions of architecture and the home, simulation and reality, we sat down with Lawrence Lek for a candid talk that fed our hunger for knowing more.
Your work transports us to an eerie yet impending future, but I want us to go a bit back into the past. Born in Germany as a third-generation overseas Malaysian-Chinese, who grew up in Hong Kong and Singapore to then spend most of your adult life in the UK. How does such a cultural background inform your work politically and socially?
Everybody’s cultural influences are quite specific to historical accidents. The places where I’m from are less important to me than the idea of a permanent state of uncertainty that results from movement and travel. I’m more interested in perpetual motion than a static place or fixed identity. The concept of flux is really central to all my work — even though it might be in specific places or locations, historical or futuristic time periods, it’s all about the transition from one state to another.
For instance, I was born in Frankfurt, which was in West Germany as opposed to East Germany. I was in Hong Kong about 8 years before the handover back to China, and when I was living in Singapore in the 1990s, it was the 25th anniversary of the founding of the country. All these places were in transition, from an old state to a new one, from a divided nation into a unified one, and from a colony to an autonomous government. There are lots of parallels between the evolution of the nation state and the individual.
Nøtel is the luxurious hotel of a future-to-come, where visitors spend time playing games and relaxing at the SPA, while AI keep the lodge intact. How does the existing economic and cultural symbolism of the hotel as a space of transience and universality permeate Nøtel? What is the ideal visitor you have in mind, and what would their idea of luxury and home be?
In Nøtel, luxury, automation and the idea of what a home is coincide. The ideal visitor would be a high net worth individual of the future—the global nomad that invests in cryptocurrency and is really concerned about cybersecurity. In Nøtel, luxury does not equate numerous butlers, but a state of infinite non-disturbance. Whereas most concepts of the home come from a 19th century ideal of the home as the mansion being the middle-class version of the aristocratic palace, with Nøtel it’s different. Our 21st century idea of living has less to do with domestic space, but is more involved with machine space. Furthermore, every hotel is a system that divides the master space from the servant space, so the whole structure is worked out both in time and in space, so you never really interact with the service staff, the cleaners and the cooks, but you interact through an intermediary, which is the room service or the receptionists that mediate between you, as the inhabitant, and the machine, as the hotel. Nøtel takes this idea, along with AI, to its extreme.
Speaking of AI and technology, can you elaborate a bit on how your educational background in architecture informs your practice of mixing those together? What is a discussion the two mediums have today?
Technology is implicit in the notion of architecture—what is to be built needs to be designed, or drawn, before it exists in its three-dimensional form. Their relationship extends both in the materials something is built with—the civic engineering to make something—and the technologies of representation used in architecture. The technologies of vision for architecture go from drawing a line in the sand to show where the building will be, to moving to 2-dimensional drawings in plans – a Cartesian representation of the ideal space—to today’s three-dimensional computer graphics. When I was studying architecture, a big paradigm for ideas was computational creativity in architecture, such as Zaha Hadid’s designs. These computational techniques have fed into numerous creative fields, such as industrial design, fashion, the visual arts. With me, however, it is less about fetishizing the CGI medium. I’m more interested in performing the future before it exists. In the case of Nøtel, living in the future before it is realized.
I can’t help but get philosophical with you on this one. Nøtel, and your oeuvre in general, makes me think of Baudrillard’s treatise on truth, reality, and simulation. He proclaims that what is simulated does not conceal the truth. It simply depicts the absence of a genuine, accessible and truthful reality, stipulating that what is true is the simulation itself. How do you think such philosophy finds its way through your work, and Nøtelin particular?
I think in architecture, in general, there are two well-defined stages—one that exists before the building is built and one that exists after the building is built. Thus, the architectural simulation precedes reality; the simulation precedes the physical object. Baudrillard’s simulation philosophy is vastly embedded within the culture of architecture, in the line between design and realization, between rendering and reality. About five years ago I said to myself, What if we perceive the simulation stage of architecture less as this ‘minor object’ but more as the real experience in itself. For architects, when you are rendering a building, you’re only rendering it for the purposes of getting it built. With Nøtel, the simulation is taken as the object and purpose of the project itself, where to create the experience of the real is equivalent to the real experience of architecture.
In this line of thought, there is a sense of escapism within your work, a desire to be somewhere else. What is escapism’s presence in Nøtel? What does it say about the current political and economic reality, and the relationship between humans and technology that such a reality feeds?
The universal critique leveled at immersive art forms, whether that’s cinema, VR or video games, is that it’s pure escapism. With entertainment, escapism is generally though of as a negative thing. I think the social purpose of escapism is to give an antidote to everyday life, whether that’s church on Sunday in religious times or Internet addiction today. And it speaks to a genuine need for change, which, if not realized within the political reality, could see light in an imaginary world.
Escapism is inherent to the Nøtel, but it is also very much aligned with accelerationism—a way to critique capitalism not through focusing on an alternative or a return to artisanal human labour, but via an embrace of technology as a means to realize liberation from capitalism. Nøtel is an extreme version of a capitalist-intensive machine that is entirely dependent on technology. In it, a paradox of AI regulation exists, since it is impossible to escape, or to hide that you are even thinking about escapism. With AI, Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon prison also gets exaggerated to a higher degree, because the system is no longer a human structure but an automated machine, a totalizing force. I think AI and the economics of the machine really feed into each other.
At last, it makes sense to escape 100 years into the future. The year is 2118. How do you see Nøtel’s essence and significance then? As a throwback, a reality… a future yet to come?
I’ve always been intrigued by the future perfect tense, or a future when something will be the past, especially as a construct within architecture, science fiction, and writing in general. Biographically speaking, I see my work as being part of a future art history archive—reflecting on the ways early 21st century artists were using technology to talk about a rapidly evolving world. Yet more interestingly, I also see this work as part of the infinite development of ideas around copying and originality, which AI will further advance. I find it fascinating that Nøtel could be copied by artists in the future, who were inspired by the design, or that future self-aware AI will arrive at the Nøtel via their image search engine. Then it becomes part if a future archive of AI-related works that would be seen not only by humans, but by AI as well. Those searchers might then end up seeing the Nøtel image next to Apple Campus’s design in Palo Alto, California, purely through visual similarity. And then it might inspire both AI and human architects, just like I’ve always been inspired by works from the past.