The Real Office in Conversation with Lawrence Lek
With Geomancer, you decided to look into the relationship between notions that are often considered as opposing: human and AI, creativity and technology, the virtual and the real. By situating the story of an AI who becomes an artist in the ‘real’ world within a computer simulation, all these layers become intertwined. Can you describe how you see these fields and why you decided on this specific framing?
It's a complicated story! Geomancer is the middle part of a trilogy which began with the video essay Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD) (2016) and was followed by the feature film AIDOL (2019). I wanted to fuse together all the complex layers I had been dealing with for the last few years – from the questions of technology on a personal and political level, to the representations of East Asia in a globalised cultural context, to the more medium-specific questions about how we can deal with simulation as both a medium and a subject. In other words, since the so-called 'virtual world' had already been extensively explored from a philosophical perspective, as well as a pop cultural one (e.g., The Matrix, gaming culture), I wondered how I could make it more relevant to my own interests. The 'trilogy' began with Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD), which I actually made almost by accident while writing the script and making the soundtrack to Geomancer. To put it briefly, during my research into AI, I noticed parallels between the portrayals of Chinese technological development and AI; the hopes and fears that related to both fields were really mirror images of each other. So, while Sinofuturism is a video essay made using found footage downloaded from the Internet, Geomancer was made from the 'ground up' using 3D animation and video game engine rendering, and I wanted to wrap in the observations of Sinofuturism within an explicitly science fiction context.
The layer of Sinofuturist imagery, again, blurs conflicting ideas: How did you connect the anxiety of the economic rise of China, questioning the Western art ideal of originality, and overcoming the boundary between artificiality and human?
I want to point out that my definition of 'Sinofuturism' is only one possible interpretation of the phenomenon, which is why I have the '(1839-2046 AD)' suffix at the end of the title: it indicates that I want to deal with memory and futurity simultaneously. Of course, as a filmmaker, and moreover as somebody who uses CGI a lot, you can't ignore the aspect of imagery and the visual culture that already exists. However, I'm interested in questioning the ideas and histories that I've inherited and in thinking of the complexities hidden within them. For example, since imagery drawn from East Asian metropolis is so pervasive in both cyberpunk literature and science fiction film worldbuilding, there's a pre-existing idea of what is 'Sinofuturist', which arose long before the twenty-first century. So when I was researching and learning about the geopolitical discussions concerning AI and technology, I came across – again and again – a dynamic which is often oversimplified into a conflict between the 'rise of China' and the corresponding 'decline of the West'. I think it's much more complicated than that, of course. With the recent films, I wanted to look into the complications of all of these influences, something that could exist at the messy, chaotic intersection of conflicting ideas.