Conversation: Lawrence Lek talks Sinofuturism, automation, identity, and communism
This interview was originally published in Issue #4 “ACROSS (岸)”. Get it now on BLURB.
The Chinese language refers to the future using back, behind, below, and to the past as forward, front, above.
Yet in the alternative realities that London-based artist Lawrence Lek creates, the two are melded together into curious and evocative simulations of seemingly familiar places — art galleries in Berlin, London locales from Dalston to the Crystal Palace, and most recently a vision of Singapore in 2065 a century after independence.
In August 2016, Lek released Sinofuturism (1839–2046 AD), a video essay exploring the idea of China’s contemporary technological advancement and the people behind it as components of a greater Artificial Intelligence (AI) poised not necessarily to take over the world, but simply outlive it. Taking seven cultural cliches associated with China, from copying, to studying, to labor and gambling, Lek illuminates a perspective on Chinese society so transparent it has gone unnoticed by domestic and diaspora alike — until now.
Viewed through the lens of automation and AI, stereotypes of Chinese society become self-evident vindications of a future that already exists. For Lek, Sinofuturism is not about resistance or liberation. Instead, it takes the diverse array of perceptions of China and uses them to underpin a blueprint for survival that has allowed a nation once dubbed backward to continue its plough into the illusive space of forward, front, and above.
Sine Theta recently sat down with Lek (@lawrencelek) to talk about everything from the age of automation to media and identity. The following conversation was conducted over Skype in February of 2017.
IRIS LANG: In Sinofuturism, you talk about wholly embracing these clichés of Chinese society as a means of subverting cultural stereotypes. As someone who is Malaysian-Chinese and born in Germany, educated in the UK, how did you become aware of these stereotypes and how did they affect your perceptions of China and your own ethnic identity growing up?
LAWRENCE LEK: For me, Chinese society, because of its focus on the family, is something that assimilates into a culture in very different ways. Of course, every culture does that differently. I think what’s interesting is that — obviously things like African diaspora or Chinese diaspora happen in many different ways — but for example, I also do feel there’s a reason why, let’s say, a very big feature of overseas Chinese populations is Chinatowns across the world. You might have Japantowns or Koreatowns but generally, Chinatown is the dominant one. And I think it’s to do with not just language barriers but also a different kind of family, clan, insular, isolated mentality that earlier generations of Chinese immigrants had, whether it’s in Southeast Asia like in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, etc. versus in the West like in the UK.
And of course, another thing that’s quite different is that the nature of Chinese immigration to America via New York or California is really different [from] the nature of Chinese immigration to Southeast Asia, and many of these came along at different points of history. In America, it had more to do with 19th-century American history, whereas in Southeast Asia it had much more to do with British colonial expansion. My parents, for example, are Malaysian-Chinese but they moved to Singapore like many people of their generation did because it’s majority Chinese — more opportunities and so on. Even within that specific post-colonial context, in Southeast Asia. I was born in Germany but I grew up until I was ten in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Singapore, so I always thought about what makes me different to, you know, people who just live in Kowloon going about their life. Why am I able to have what we would now call this kind of ‘millennial’ experience? And it’s a lot to do with the growth of globalised and neoliberal society, as well as economic development of Singapore and Hong Kong, and the opening of China, all of these things. It’s all tied together.
But it’s very rare to see an artistic representation of that. For example, you have 1980s Hong Kong films, whether it’s heroic bloodshed type stuff, or martial arts films. It’s the most one-dimensional view of Chinese development. I wasn’t thinking about it consciously at the time, but there’s so many, for example, huge amounts of references to Opium War stuff in Jet Li films, which is an incredibly pro-China, nationalistic type thing, and they’re all set in Shanghai in some kind of Chinese exclusion zone such as Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, which was based around that kind of setting. So there’s this idea of Chinese repression, as well as Western domination from this more Chinese chauvinism point of view. This idea of Chinese nationalism is really strong today as well. But at the same time, in Singapore and Malaysia, in the kind of English-speaking, postcolonial Chinese societies, there’s not as great of a problem about it, because Southeast Asian countries have benefitted more and they never had this trauma of the Hong Kong handover, or any of this stuff to deal with. They were kind of far away enough to be independent, yet close enough to still be tied geographically to the mainland and have that relationship.
So anyway, I’ve always been super conscious about all of these different ways of framing the debate about China and Chineseness, and also because of Singapore’s idea of being a multicultural, global nation that happens to be majority Chinese, it’s often been said that it’s kind of an ideal Confucian utopia because it’s really paternalistic, really hierarchical, the government has so much power and authority — but you can’t argue with it, so the argument goes because it’s been quite prosperous. And of course there are problems of civil liberties, but that is complex.
IL: While we’re on the topic of the Chinese empire, what relationship does Sinofuturism have to the history of the Chinese empire? I noticed with the date in the full title, Sinofuturism (1839–2046 AD), you began it with 1839 which is, of course, the First Opium War, so I was wondering what your decision-making process was in choosing these dates. What does Sinofuturism have to do with the so-called ‘century of humiliation’ that China went through?
LL: So just taking those two dates, 1839 and 2046, completely ignoring the seminal events in Chinese history that may or may not have happened, looking at it through a kind of global perspective, you’re going through the Industrial Revolution, into the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution with automation and AI. This gives you a two-hundred year period that is more or less the bulk of industrialization and so-called modernity in the world, and urbanisation, changing from agricultural societies to industrial ones to post-industrial ones and so on. I think that timeline, which starts in the past but goes forward into the future, is something I’m particularly interested in. It can start with the Opium War, and it can end with this kind of film that people may or may not know it’s a reference to.
IL: The Wong Kar-wai film, right?
LL: Yeah, exactly. But with this idea of Sinofuturism — previously, I haven’t been particularly interested in making any kind of overt statement about geopolitics or whatever. For me, it should be embedded in the work, and biographically I don’t think it should be a main point of an artist’s work to talk about themselves unless they really want to for whatever reason, which is fine. I just particularly don’t. But for me, as you know, in the past 12 months my impressions of the UK where I’ve been living for what, 20 years now, have actually changed quite a lot, and made me realize that post-colonial countries have a strange relationship with their former ‘motherland’ or whatever. You see this with America and Britain, or Congo and Belgium, or Singapore and the UK, so it’s not so straightforward. The reason why I stayed in the UK is because I believed, and I still do, that it’s generally a liberal and quite free place. But things like the Brexit vote, which I understand for the same reasons that I don’t think the result…here’s the thing, the crazy thing is that I think if you had a similar referendum in America or in China or in Singapore, the result would pretty much be the same. They would be like, “We wanna be independent” and so on. So I think it’s a stupid thing to ask the people because they’re easily swayed. But at the same time, I don’t think there’s anything inherently ‘bad’ about Britain, or anything inherently racist or xenophobic about it. I think fundamentally, British people do believe in a kind of fairness.
But anyway, things like this, Brexit vote, etc. — this kind of cascade of events did make me think that actually, for me, Sinofuturism is not about a pro-China dialogue. The thing is, I had so rarely seen interesting discourse about China and futurism from anything other than a really abstract cinematic perspective. The kind of CNN perspective as well. And also, the fact that China, for some reason — and I still wonder why this is the case — Chinese culture and its relationship with technology or science fiction is very strange. For example, science fiction now, of course, is growing more, but it didn’t really have a place in Chinese cultural literature, and I feel that basically magic and fantasy take the place of science fiction in Chinese culture. You have lots of shenmo (神魔), gods and monsters kind of stories, and all the super martial arts experts who have superhuman powers but they’re not technologically enabled.
Basically, there’s no equivalent of the Marvel Comics Iron Man kind of character, who uses machines to achieve great ends. I always feel that even in Chinese movies, it’s never about machines, it’s always about loads of people really working hard to accomplish something. That has nothing to do with technology, and it really has a lot to do with work ethic and working together and all of these good moral virtues. Or like, if you want to beat that guy, you just have to train for like 5 years on a mountain or whatever, but there’s nothing technologically driven, you’re just punching the tree for 5 years and then you get really good at punching the tree. It’s kind of really dumb. The faith in technology [has] more to do with magic or knowledge, or supernatural things, or the knowledge of your special five-point heart exploding palm technique, that kind of thing — as opposed to actual technology.
Of course, that’s changing how I feel because there’s more interest in science and computers in Chinese society. Engineering is the thing now, and with the more technocratic society, it’s all slowly changing. But all I’m saying is, it took a long time to get to China, for whatever reason — maybe Cultural Revolution ideas to do with science and progress, and also maybe I’m guessing in the 60s, 70s, 80s, a lot of Chinese technology was very much to do with heavy industry, and they had a lot of their knowledge in partnership with the Soviet Union and that Communist bloc, as opposed to the kind of open science idea of the West. But science and technology, and science fiction are closely linked to portrayals of science in popular media. For example in America, the space race was obviously closely allied with the intercontinental ballistic missile program, but of course, it was the PR — the space program is PR for military stuff. Or in the SU, where the space race was tied in with military development. But I think since forever, China has had way more civil war problems than anywhere else, so it tends to stay more insular.
IL: I guess you kind of answered it already, but why do you think China took so long to embrace technology and sci-fi — do you think part of it stems from how China views technology as being associated with ‘the West’ and how so much of China’s cultural consciousness is built off of making itself different from the West?
LL: Totally, a lot of it has to do with the general refusal to learn from anything apart from a certain section of history, for example. Let me put it to you this way: I might be wrong, but in Europe at least, the Enlightenment kind of revolutions and political theory and philosophy and culture and science all happened in parallel with a destabilisation of religion as the central force in peoples’ lives. For example, if Christianity and the church still stayed the dominant force, of course, science would never go anywhere.
But I think the history of Chinese insularity is very, very old, and this is very broad history — I don’t know how accurate this is — but it does seem there is a refusal to learn from not even just the West, but even from the Middle East and other places. I feel that because China never had religion as the guiding force of peoples’ [lives], they never had really doctrine-heavy “Thou shalt not xyz” because that was just Confucianism, which was tied into politics and management of society. They didn’t really have this parallel integration of church and state, like there was in, what, the whole of Europe or the Middle East. It’s much more about management and military, hard power like that, rather than the soft power of religion which is about social control in a different way.
I mean, the belief of Confucian societies is “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”, right? So if it’s not broke, what do you need technology for? And it’s also this kind of classic thing where, from what I understand, with many of the Chinese inventions they were like “We invented the compass and all this crap”, but what did you do with it? You didn’t go anywhere, it’s just for fengshui and stuff like that, right? It’s not to cross the ocean and pillage a whole continent. I feel also the whole attitude of newness and innovation is very different — the attitude towards the individual over the welfare of the collective, the attitude of innovation as opposed to continuation of history, all of these things are, again, cultural stereotypes, but really very strong I feel.
And even in the case of, let’s say typical Chinese stuff like the dynasties — no matter what dynasty took over, they would all implement the same system essentially. The Manchu emperors would take on some Chinese name, they would basically conform to the historical system as opposed to establishing a really revolutionary one, which is again probably more to do with good management than innovation. And then of course, there’s the question again of whether the Western Enlightenment was good in terms of what we call social freedom and social welfare, and whether you can implement that in tribal societies like in some parts of the Middle East without huge problems. It’s not the perfect solution.
The problem is, with China, that the scale of implementation and also the levels of development. Places like Singapore or America were basically inventions that came at a very specific time in history, to some peoples’ benefit and to some peoples’ suffering. And on a personal level, I just have this feeling, and I’m sure you do as well, that sometimes reporting on China is annoying. Even on the simplest level, in some of the news clips I use in Sinofuturism, all the time it’s just stuff like “China is making guns.” “American can’t make bullets.” There’s this phrase that this news commentator used, “China’s not just exporting metal, they’re exporting unemployment.” These kinds of ideas, which to a large extent are right and hugely accurate, but the interesting thing for me about Sinofuturism is that because China is such a huge part of the world’s industrial economy, just the shit that is made — the desk, the pen I’m using, the computer — it’s all part of it, so it’s not just about Chinese nationalism, it’s the furthest thing from that, it’s just about gaining a different understanding of how the world is made culturally and historically.
Because also, having grown up here [in the UK], I just assume everyone understands the same things or the same geopolitics as I do. And of course just because I’ve grown up in a different place, all these things I’ve grown up with — addiction to gambling, studying hard — it’s hard to see them as something other than… what your aunt does, do you know what I mean? To see them as something that actually reveals some kind of deeper truth. People love gambling because they work really hard, and it makes complete sense, right? And psychologically speaking, the desire to have these really strict hierarchies and structures — basically, Daoism and Confucianism go hand in hand, because one is about absolute personal freedom, and the other one is about absolute obedience and subservience to a notion of control. So I find that these two contrasting things are kind of like Satanism and Christianity, they almost go hand in hand perfectly.
But anyway, in the last year with personal Brexit stuff and my reaction to that, I was kind of disappointed after talking with some people that Sinofuturism as a thing just didn’t exist. It did in bits and pieces, obviously there [are] lots of articles talking — especially in American press — about whitewashing The Last Airbender or The Ghost in the Shell, but that’s not interesting to me, because they’ve done that with black culture for the last hundred years, and they’ll do it with Bollywood, they’ll do it with anime, whatever, who cares? That’s important from a kind of racial activism point of view, but for me, I don’t fully identify with either side so it’s just not personally true if I said I’m against xyz. I think it’s interesting to be mixed and to think about the kind of possibilities of that.
IL: In many of your works, such as Unreal Estate, Europa Mon Amour (2016 Brexit Edition), and Shiva’s Way, you make use of multiple languages in both audio and text. What role does language play in your art?
LL: First of all, it came out just by using a lot of different collage sounds and sources. I’d extract clips from films I like, those of Wong Kar-wai and Tarkovsky, that all talk about, in very basic terms, the disembodied experience of traveling and people on a journey — e.g. in films like 2046 or Stalker. And in those languages, characters reflect on their psychological state while they’re in a different place or experiencing a different environment. For example, in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, there’s a Zone which is this other place that people go to realize their fantasies, which is quite a common trope, especially in science fiction: this idea of a wish-fulfillment fantasy that gets realized in another place. And similarly, in Wong Kar-wai’s films, the place of memory or recollection can be something as straightforward as a bedroom, or a futuristic train. It’s all about the link between memory and the future. So for me, language is used to suggest the idea of an internal monologue like the thoughts that you think to yourself, and not just dialogue that’s spoken between characters. There [are] also dimensions where it’s more about the idea of what establishes a sense of place, because classically in cinema you’d have the setting, what city it’s set in, what language these things are spoken in, but I’m much more interested in the idea of disorientation and the place where you, as a viewer or player or audience or creator, are situated.
IL: What makes something a ‘place’ for you? From the way you describe it, it almost seems like using language as a way to explore one’s internal monologue can also paint that monologue as a place in itself, is that how you view it?
LL: Yeah, I mean there’s many different interpretations of the idea of ‘place’, and I think especially nowadays, the idea of ‘place’ — let’s say, site-specificity, or any concept of a certain location that has to do with the identity of that particular place — generally goes back to this idea of disempowering some kind of certainty in life. For example, political acts of ‘place’ had to do with nationalism, migration, immigration — this very legal definition of borders that reinforce both the legal structure and social system of any particular country or city. There are a lot of formal borders in that kind of place, which of course we have to navigate in our daily lives. So there’s that very infrastructural notion of place. And then there’s a much more psychological and loose notion of place, where you’re sitting on the train but you’re thinking about somewhere else, which of course certain film directors do particularly well, especially when it’s about uncertainty and memory. So there’s that notion of place as well, which in cinematic or virtual world terms is much looser, because of course the audience is seeing the film, which is generally set in a different place, which may have been shot in a different place, to where it’s actually portrayed in a film studio and rendered on a computer or something like that. It’s multiple places nested in each other.
So there’s infrastructural ‘place’, then the representational space of portraying somewhere else, and also a more ‘fine art’ definition of the distinction between space and place, where space might be universal, and place that e.g. site-specific art or environmental architecture deals with more specifically — the idea that every location on earth is different from the next one, either culturally, or topographically, or physically. I’m interested in all of these, and it’s quite a dynamic thing I guess.
IL: What kind of relationship does Sinofuturism have with this burgeoning notion of techno-orientalism, of ‘the East’ as this huge technological and financial giant that will take over the world and how that view is another way of ‘othering’ East Asia? Do you think Sinofuturism in a way perpetuates this view, or does it subvert it?
LL: I mean, I don’t know. Let’s take the statement, “Chinese people are good at maths.” Because actually, in Singapore, I was not particularly good at maths, but when I came to London, I was a freaking maths genius, right? Why is that? It is unmistakable to say that even though technology came late to Asia, they took it up so readily. Why is that? For example, what happened in Japan on the manufacturing side because of American investment after the Second World War, and investment in Korea after the Korean War. You could say a lot of it has to do with the multinational company influence that bleeds into local education and skillsets and visas to study overseas. The problem with any stereotype is there’s a lot of truth in it. I’m a Chinese guy making video games as art, what is nerdier than that? There’s definitely a true point in that, and whether I’m subverting or perpetuating these myths is not for me to say.
“The problem with any stereotype is there’s a lot of truth in it. I’m a Chinese guy making video games as art, what is nerdier than that?”
What’s important for me with Sinofuturism is simply that nothing about it existed before. What I’ve seen, in Asia as well, is this increased interest in learning about culture and the humanities, as opposed to sciences and professions over the years. And that means many more art institutions — I mean you get NYU in China, Yale in Singapore. And of course the academics who are a part of these institutions, with the best possible intentions, also can teach views of Asia — they don’t want to, but what happens is they end up reflecting back Asia, to Asians, through the eyes of someone not from Asia. And of course, that’s always been the case. I mean, even if we go back to Orientalism in the 20th century — that became hugely unfashionable of course, but if you look at early chinoiserie stuff in Paris or whatever, there really were these people who were just interested in Asia because it was different, and of course that became this ethnic othering, exoticism kind of thing and took on negative connotations. But at the end of the day, it’s like, I like listening to music from Marley for example, because it’s interesting and a human made it and I like listening to it, what’s the bloody problem with that?
So on the first level of orientalizing, it is quite simply you are interested in a different culture, nothing wrong with that whatsoever. Then on the next level, which of course Americans especially are particularly militant about, is cultural appropriation. Like, don’t make chow mein because it’s not real Chinese food for example. I cook pasta and I’m not Italian, who cares? So what? But of course, it’s more to do with the exploitation of minorities who might not see the benefit of what you’re doing, which I agree with. In principle though, there’s nothing wrong with appropriating cultures, because that’s what culture is. It moves and mixes around. But again I also feel that it gets more problematic when we talk about — let’s be kind of left-wing about it and say, ethnic minorities in the arts, or black actors who’ve won Oscars, this kind of conversation. One way of framing it is: there are no Chinese artists in American museums because of racial discrimination. Then there’s another way of framing it, there are no Chinese artists in American museums because their work is shit and derivative. There’s also another way, there’s just not very many [Chinese artists]. And I do kind of feel that it’s all kind of true and valid.
But anyway, I feel that what’s been nice is that Sinofuturism, for all its problematic hypotheses or whatever, a lot of people have been interested in it from many points of view. To a Western audience, it’s interesting from a philosophical point of view. But I think to a Chinese audience it’s actually quite genuine, because everything I’m saying there is true and it also rings bells of “Why hasn’t this been said before?”, which is kind of strange. But it’s also to do with a cultural stereotype, which is passivity and [is] very hugely dominant. Not just in the context of orientalizing, where a beautiful Chinese lady is passive or whatever, but it is also slightly true in the sense of “don’t stir up trouble.” So I think in the future, there will be even more scope for artists and writers with different points of view and I think that’s only a good thing. For example, a generation older, you have people of Chinese descent, let’s say, who have done interesting stuff that has been recognized in the West. But if I were to look at that interesting shit that has been recognized in the West — it’s so fucking limited, it’s unbelievably limited.
IL: There’s like, Ang Lee, and that’s it.
LL: Exactly! The problem is, when any culture has just a few stars in any field, they tend to dominate so hugely, which is completely a double-edged sword, right? I also think the role of like, Jackie Chan, and Bruce Lee for those a little younger than my parents’ generation — people [would] just go up to you in the street and karate chop you. I guess this is the issue with not only representation in popular media and especially in America, it’s also to do with visibility and cultural visibility. The difference with like, the African American community is because their particular employment niche for stars is basically sports and music, so they’re highly visible. It creates this crazy contrast between the perception of the multi-billionaire Kanye Wests and the Boyz n the Hood kind of thing.
I think the difference for Asians is about visibility in the arts for doing something other than being like, a token actor in something, or something so niche. But America is a particular case of that, where I feel like I’ve never been identified as a ‘Chinese artist’, thank God probably, you know? Just as someone who makes stuff, sometimes in Chinese. But maybe it’s also to do with the generational thing, that if I was like 15 years older, I would definitely be a ‘Chinese artist,’ or an ‘artist of Chinese descent’ or whatever. Which I am but it’s never highlighted, because of course if you saw my work in those terms, it would be different. I guess it might also have to do with the more liberal culture of the UK or London. If you don’t want to identify yourself as xyz, it’s not forced on you — I imagine it would be quite different in the States, because of the notion of visibility. Visibility is about like, whitewashing of Asian stuff, or Jung Chang or Tiger Mom that kind of book. It’s so insane to me. Like are you fucking kidding that that’s the discussion, the model minority thing and all this shit, like it’s interesting but it’s nothing — do you know what I mean?
“But America is a particular case of that, where I feel like I’ve never been identified as a ‘Chinese artist’, thank God probably, you know?”
IL: It’s very one-dimensional, like it’s all we ever talk about.
LL: Exactly. It’s kind of like — I can even in the smallest way imagine how one-dimensional it is to be African-American, like Jesus Christ. It’s a really different situation.
IL: Why do you think this kind of discourse has a relatively smaller presence in the UK? Because if you compare the US and UK, they both market themselves as ‘multicultural’ nations with ‘diversity’ and so forth — why has this discourse around ethnic discrimination and representation risen so much in the US and not as much where you are?
LL: Well, I mean, again I think it’s super complex. But I think from my limited understanding, it seems that the history of ethnic discrimination in the USA hasn’t been solved. Far from it, especially today. But also its very foundation, basically — you can’t really say this without sounding like a left-wing spokesperson — but its very foundation is horrifically unfair, whether it’s for native populations or to do with slavery, which of course the UK is totally complicit in. It seems that America has always struggled with this idea of supremacy and kind of like, ethical innocence, and white guilt, and all these terms that are very specific to America. And of course, the more ethnic minorities or cultures become aware of it — you know, classic Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps, Native American reservations, all of these things — it kind of all just feels insanely unfair.
I read this quite nice description by this British political writer called Will Hudson, and he framed it quite well. He said that the core belief of America is justice, in the sense that “okay, you shoot me, and I’m gonna shoot your kid, because that’s justice” and that’s kind of exactly what gun laws are based on. So the American core values are based on justice, and retribution, right? It’s very Biblical, eye for an eye. In the British system, the belief is less about justice and more about fairness — this is kind of what he described it as. For example, you might say that the British belief is like, “You took this away from me, but I don’t need exactly the same thing from you, but we should compromise and find some kind of solution to it.” So it’s kind of more like soft power, which on one hand is highly manipulative and lets them control colonies not just by military force. The British way of control is not by military force but by wanting the elite of a foreign country to be British. So this is exactly what happened in India, Malaysia, Singapore — you just have English-speaking schools where the elite indigenous people go, and they grow up wanting to play golf and cricket or whatever, and then tada, you don’t even have to do anything — it’s just the ultimate consolidating power.
Whereas the American system is like, fuckin’ throw them in jail or hang them. The difference is that the British evolved their notion of power from a force-based military, because it’s a small island, to a more manipulative but, you could say, fairer system. America just has much greater resources in comparison to do what it wants, unfortunately for some, especially nowadays. And it’s also interesting with these two things in mind, to question how China will exercise its power. Because a lot of it is to do with internal stability, which is obvious since Confucian times been the most important thing. Otherwise, literally millions of people die, so that’s fair enough.
IL: Going back to what you said earlier about this notion of passivity in Chinese culture, how do you think this notion of ‘victimhood’ as part of the modern day Chinese narrative figures in with Sinofuturism? Is Sinofuturism built off this narrative of Chinese people previously as victims?
LL: At the end of Sinofuturism, I kind of say that the thing about Sinofuturism is nothing to do with guilt or victimhood or being a manifesto. It’s to recognize that these aspects of Chinese culture are what allow this organism — which we might call an AI or which we might call Sinofuturism — to exist and persist and basically survive. I feel that the strongest motivation — I’m generalizing here — but the strongest motivation for Chinese culture/civilisation is not for it to prosper or stand out or achieve fulfillment in whatever. The main motivation is survival. It’s really as basic as that. Because I feel in places where survival is taken for granted, in tropical countries, survival is taken for granted because you’re hungry, there’s a mango, you eat it, you’re fine. I mean, I really do feel that that is a model for life. In the West, the idea of survival is taken for granted because of social safeguards, and quite sophisticated social welfare and things like that, even in America.
Whereas in China I feel it’s much more to do with survival, because life has been threatened so much more. I think that’s the main motivating factor. What’s interesting, if we think of the concept of “survival of the fittest”, is this kind of self-driven narrative. It’s survival of the fittest so you just have to kill the other monkey or whatever, and then you survive. Whereas the Chinese one it’s like, you can kind of run away and as long as you don’t stick your head out, you’ll also survive. So it’s another model. And both work, at the same time. But I think as this idea of Chinese passivity — as people are exposed and just want to make a name for themselves, quite simply, this will definitely change. And I also feel it’s a generational thing, where it’s just part of millennial culture. Everybody wants to be an individual and be like a free-floating butterfly and that kind of thing. And there’s also [a sense of] “I want to escape from responsibility.” Every generation wants to have greater freedoms than they think their parents or grandparents had. I think that’s natural as well. And I’m not saying anything new but I think that’s also emphasized more with a kind of one-child generation, single child generation.
“You can kind of run away and as long as you don’t stick your head out, you’ll also survive.”
IL: Moving onto a different piece of your work, in Unreal Estate, you created an alternative version of the Royal Academy where its fate had fallen into the hands of a Chinese billionaire. Why specifically a Chinese billionaire, and do you envision China itself leading a ‘new world order’ in the future whether that’s technologically, economically, or politically?
LL: As a Londoner, since I’ve been here — even in popular media, let’s say, 10–15 years ago — there was this ‘rich foreigner’ who changed his identity. So people from the Middle East for example, rich Arabs with their ‘dirty oil money’ would come and buy whatever, and then it became like, dirty Russians. Roman Abramovich comes here and bloody buys Chelsea Football Club, and then people from the Emirates come and buy our football clubs. It’s kind of a play on that, and you see in the Evening Standard and whatever newspapers that Chinese come and buy all the penthouses in London, pushing up property prices, etc. So I thought, what’s a way to comment on that kind of social othering? But also, at the same time, I thought as a relatively poor Chinese artist or person in London, there’s an element of critique to it obviously with that — the idea that everything, including art, is for sale. And at the same time, this idea of fantasy where it’s like, I would love to live there. Like, it would actually be awesome if that was your house, like wouldn’t that be crazy?
So there’s both this complete fantasy, like what I would genuinely want, and what would also be a bit of a nightmare for London as a whole. Also in the voiceover, which was taken from Tatler magazine and actually just translated into Mandarin — the things that are being said are kind of insane from a certain perspective. Like, “be careful when you hire your servant, have a butler,” that kind of stuff. But at the same time, they’re still incredibly genuine, because it is genuinely good advice from one billionaire to another if their friend just had bought this mansion. So that’s the crazy thing — it’s both completely surreal, and completely genuine at the same time. I kind of like that combination.
IL: Going back to Sinofuturism, what place, if any, do ethnic minorities in China have in this narrative of Chinese people?
LL: There’s one point of view, where let’s say I made a video called US-futurism or whatever, and it was all focused on 25 Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and their assistants in California churning out pristine products. Then it would be problematic because it’d be like, “what about the American car industry, or what about the ethnic minorities who pick oranges for orange juice,” stuff like that. In terms of my model for the futurism part of Sinofuturism, the culture of China is to do with what I’m more familiar with, which is the South, and in particular coastal cities.
The crazy thing is that the kind of interface of China with the West is on the East side of China, simply because of the ports and Opium War blah blah blah, the maritime side. And it’s to do with the sides of China that have been industrialized because of this exchange, whereas to the best of my knowledge, the ethnic minorities in China have been those on the Northern borders, Mongolia, the Hui in Xinjiang, and those towards the Southwest in Guangxi and stuff like that, where they’re not just isolated geographically, but they’re also isolated industrially as well, because there is relatively little industrial — and of course Tibet too — because most of the industrialization, and I’m talking about the modernised industrialization as opposed to heavy industry which has kind of spread around, but the modern industrialization which is centered along the coast. I don’t know enough about how ethnic minorities in China are treated. I know they have special autonomous regions and there’s obviously a lot of problems that I’ve read to do with like, not whitewashing, but let’s say Han-washing Tibet, replacing populations. Of course that creates problems with Uyghur nationalists and stuff like that, but I don’t know enough about that to say much about it.
The Chinese situation maybe has more in common with Russia and its former Soviet countries that it likes bullying basically, and the many ethnic minorities that live within Russia as well. So the Chinese situation is more to do with how China has expanded over the centuries, kind of like Russia, taking over these places and then retreating, and then having bits of other countries inside themselves. It has more to do with the Russia thing than with America, because America is more to do with lots of people from different places or who were there first, who live in what’s now America.
But with China it’s more: the heart of China is this and then it expanded, and that’s where all the problems lie. Whereas America has grown to be a massive thing, and now it’s distributed in a different way. For example, obviously there’s the Dakota Pipeline, but there’s reservations all over America scattered around, but in the Chinese sense they kind of basically keep the minorities in the same place. I don’t know what the legal restrictions are to their movement, but I’m sure they’re not free to move anywhere they choose. But I think it’s definitely an interesting and different problem. What do you think, do you know more about it?
IL: I know as much as you do, but I just question whether China can continue [to] exist as all these regions it encompasses, and I’ve read about how China has brutally invaded Tibet and the southern parts of China in the course of its empire, and nobody in China that I know of really talks about that. There’s this narrative of ‘peace’ and ‘the five principles of peaceful coexistence’ or whatever and it often feels like the Chinese government tries to brush a lot of its own imperialism under the rug.
LL: No totally, and how closely that imperialism just morphed into like, communist imperialism and so on. I might be wrong, but there was a Republican revolution yet I don’t imagine that much really changed. Because maybe it can’t — for example, let’s say in the UK there was a civil war and stuff like that, but it’s more of a gradual shift of power away from one side to another, it’s not like the French Revolution where it was a huge break with the past and they just killed everyone. It was [a] more gradual transition and not as traumatic as in China or in Russia, and also maybe the scale of paranoia in early leaders wasn’t as bad [in the UK]. But I don’t know, like, I also imagine just an economic map China is very unequal, so I guess the desire for autonomy from certain places — like Quebec in Canada, of course, they want to be autonomous, they’re wealthy. Whereas with Xinjiang, it’s like, what are they going to do? Or like Scotland right, it’s wealthy now but really?
IL: Now that you’ve mentioned communism, do you see communism as fitting into Sinofuturism in any way? Do you think it’s another indicator of Sinofuturism? Because I’ve read a lot about how communism, like true communism, is sort of the ultimate end goal of this age of automation and AI and everything.
LL: There’s a lot of accelerationism which talks about emancipation from labor, basically. From what I understand, Engels-and-Marx-style communism is based on a kind of emancipation of the proletariat, from the terrible bourgeoisie. So the next stage is like, we can think of automation as the way to liberate humanity from the drudgery of work altogether, and live with a universal basic income, happy lives of tomato farming or whatever we so choose.
The really interesting thing is, say, if you were to ask what politics Futurism subscribes to. For example, if I were to say, “communism believes in the absolute equality of every individual and the eradication of property distinctions between them, irrespective of whether someone’s an absolute genius or just the laziest whatever in the world, totally divorced from actual active input.” So let’s say the politics is based on the principle that full equality is number one. The politics of Sinofuturism, if there was one, I think is much messier because it involves the belief that technology will liberate — actually no, it won’t liberate you from anything — Sinofuturism isn’t about liberation, it’s simply that your life will improve, and you will survive. So I don’t think it’s incompatible with capitalism or neoliberalism or late communism. It’s more of a cultural theory on how the very patterns which allow you to survive — literally survive and eat and travel and so on — should be seen not just as inherited traits or genetic stereotypes, but as something you can develop or challenge, whatever that means for you.
“Sinofuturism isn’t about liberation, it’s simply that your life will improve, and you will survive.”
It’s also about taking things that are very culturally inherent and completely strong, and thinking about which of them are just inherited and no longer useful, for example, your appendix or whatever — like communism, right? Like many political theories, it’s beautiful in intention and in theory, but because it has to be executed by individuals, it’s hugely flawed — because people are not all the same, they should have equal rights but not equal rewards. For example in terms of left-wingness in the UK, I find it really problematic as well. You see all of this Jeremy Corbyn Labour Party in disarray and it’s exactly the kind of case where they might have very strong values and they go down to coal mines and they cut trees down or whatever, but their work is just like everyone else’s. The paradox of human existence is that when people work really hard, you dream of like a free life where you’re just eating strawberries, but in reality, when it happens it’s difficult.
IL: When you talk about embracing cultural stereotypes, or pushing them further, do you think doing that — as opposed to counteracting them — is a more effective means of deconstructing them or kind of diminishing their power?
LL: Let’s say with any phenomenon — okay wait let’s get philosophical here. Let’s say you have a thing. The Hegelian way of dealing with anything is you have a thesis, so let’s say “Chinese love gambling,” right? And artistically I’m going to make a film about Chinese people gambling. The antithesis is this kind of hubris thing, “Chinese people love gambling because they think they’re going to win the world but actually they lose everything and then they die.” And then the synthesis, which is like the finale where “They lose these things but they realize that life is actually more than gambling”, for example. So you could deal with this cultural stereotype of gambling by tackling it head-on. The most extreme example would be, I’m going to make an Adam Curtis-style documentary about the gambling problem in China, and I’m going to be straightforward about it. You might term that the most one-dimensional embrace of that way of thinking.
Or you could think like, how can I get away from that? What’s the farthest I can get away from that? So you might make a work about like, working really hard at doing something and taking no element of chance left aside. You know the Tehching Hsieh Time Clock thing? He’s a Taiwanese performance artist who did this performance where every hour, he punched a clock. It’s an amazing performance, but that’s basically the epitome of a [Sino] person working insanely hard at doing something all the time. It’s kind of like a work that has no element of chance in it, no element of fate or gambling. On one hand, you can do the most random playful thing, let’s say not even a film about gambling, but that I got a £10,000 grant and I’m going to spend all of it at the casino. On the other hand, I’m going to do this performance piece where I am literally working so hard for one year and proving it. They’re not a million miles away from each other, if that makes sense. And I think with a lot of these cultural patterns, not even stereotypes, like gamble, work hard, they actually go perfectly together.
For example, the idea of studying and working — they’re kind of like total opposites at the same time, right? The more you work, the better you can do your particular job. The more you study, the more you can change the nature of the job that you do. So the paradox is, you can study what you’re working — so like, “I’m a Chinese brush painter and I’m going to study the old masters” — and you can also work really hard at studying. So they’re all very closely related and linked together. And I think depending on your own personality, people tend to prefer following patterns in order to gain their freedom, and some people like leaving all that stuff to one side, and then reintegrating into the society. Either they burn their bridges first and then they find their own way, or they find their own freedom through particular systems, and both work.
Maybe another thing that’s interesting with this post-automation communist thing is the notion that you can’t escape because the world is changing, and the climate is changing, for the worse probably, the nature of automation and artificial intelligence is also going to totally revolutionize both human knowledge-based work and service sector work as well as mechanical work. So the question is, what are you going to do? Not in this conspiracy theory way, but in a really tangible way. Can everyone really be a creative worker and write things for a living, is that feasible? Maybe it is.
But from a cultural perspective, these things are certainly happening. From an artistic perspective what’s interesting is when these things do happen, are we just going to replicate the same kind of work, or the same kind of thinking that people have done before us? Because for our generation, we’ve learnt more and communicated more. I probably have more tertiary education than the last 6 generations of my actual family, which is insane right? But knowing this, what is possible?
Let’s say for someone who has dedicated their life to studying or being involved in arts and culture — there’s one way of saying it, where the kind of self-doubt involved can be: “Why am I not being a dentist and being of use to society”, right? “Why don’t I have a real job?” That kind of question, which is very valid. “Is what you’re doing of use?” Then there’s another way of thinking: Of course what I’m doing is of use, because culture will only be of more importance in the years to come, and that will give us our sense of self-worth or whatever.
“Is what you’re doing of use?” …“Of course what I’m doing is of use, because culture will only be of more importance in the years to come.”
And then there’s also the notion that probably your great-great-great-great grandparents would think it’s quite cool if you’re like studying in the UK and you have freedom. It’s also this notion of time, which is very different and of course, it’s a very traditional ancestral thing to think about — your family but also the people who came before you. But I feel that it’s like how religion gave way to science — when that happened, individuals and society lost a lot of psychological support networks that they used [to] have like the promise of an afterlife and all this shit about how heaven is great.
IL: That cushion.
LL: Yeah exactly, that cushion right? In the same way, I also feel that modernity and industrialisation and blah blah blah in China will also have big repercussions on those psychological safety nets that I guess Chinese culture has depended on for so long. The family in many ways provides psychological support for the individual in Chinese culture. So as that gets eroded, or changes because of smaller families and technological changes, I think there’s a different set of things that Chinese artists will respond to subconsciously. But the way in which that will turn out, nobody knows yet.
Original interview by Iris Lang. Medium article edited and uploaded by Jessica Ho.
Sine Theta is a creative arts magazine made by and for the Sino diaspora.