What happens when capitalism decides humans are useless?

Artist Lawrence Lek’s latest installation anticipates the next phase of recruitment in the corporate world – a dystopian world where humans play games while robots do their jobs

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Lawrence Lek's Play Station
Lawrence Lek's Play StationImages courtesy of Lawrence Lek, commissioned for Art Night London

Have you ever wondered whether a robot might be doing your job in 20 years? When I read that Google had funded the Press Association to develop a robot reporter project, I certainly did. But could artificial intelligence (AI) ever do the job of an artist? “Absolutely,” says Lawrence Lek, winner of the Converse x Dazed Emerging Art Award (2015), who imagines near-future scenarios in his video-game installations. “There’s this romanticised notion that we associate with creativity, but from my point of view, what is creativity apart from following the rules and then trying to break them? Breaking rules is a rule in itself.”

Lek’s imagined what it would be like to work for a technology start-up in 2037 for his recent installation, Play Station, which showed earlier this month at Art Night. Visitors to the exhibition at the White Chapel Building watched mock-corporate recruitment trailers for a futuristic start-up named Farsight. Jingly lift music accompanied the promise of “fun employment forever”, as new recruits were introduced to their alternative workspace, Play Station ™. You can watch one of the trailers below.

“There’s this romanticised notion that we associate with creativity, but from my point of view, what is creativity apart from following the rules and then trying to break them? Breaking rules is a rule in itself” – Lawrence Lek 

Inspired by the ad agencies and government services running from the newly renovated White Chapel Building, Lek’s Play Station anticipates the next phase of recruitment in the corporate world. Described as “a video game ‘job simulator’ where all labour is disguised as leisure”, participants or “players” in Lek’s exhibition were given VR headsets and taken through video tutorials before carrying out tasks in order to gain bonuses including e-holidays and entertainment credits. Work essentially becomes a game as a sunny voice-over poses the question, "Who needs a work/life balance when it's all so much fun?"

“Of course, there’s a political implication in all of that,” says Lek. “If there’s no need for human labour, what will the Labour party represent? What politics or employment might have to do is give people some form of meaningful work, even if it is just playing video games; pretending, or at least feeling like they’re unemployed.”

The artist, who has spent most of his life in London, recognises the symbolic meaning that the city setting brings to his work. “I think that idea of moving to the big city and having big dreams, which may or may not come true, is something that goes through every London project,” he explains. “So with Play Station, it’s like, ‘I’ve got a job in the city – I’m so excited!’ but actually, the job is totally mundane and crappy.”

“What politics or employment might have to do is give people some form of meaningful work, even if it is just playing video games; pretending, or at least feeling like they’re unemployed” – Lawrence Lek

Lek introduced the idea of an AI artist in Geomancer (2017) and remains fascinated by the idea that his own work might feed into AI software. “The work I make today is not just for my peers, or the public, but it’s for a future public that will take many forms,” he says. “There’s a conscious audience and an unknown audience and I find that quite an interesting thing. For example, if you post a photo on Instagram or Facebook, your conscious audience is your Friends, or Followers, but your unknown audience is all these algorithms that analyse your posts, for what kinds of words you’re using, what you like, and so on.”

“The idea of the internet as this wide open space has completely been eroded, not just through political things like WikiLeaks and manipulation of perception, but also through targeted advertising. I think that large digital technologies (social media, VR, AI most likely) will very quickly become politicised and exploited in the same way.”

Play Station by Lawrence Lek was commissioned for Art Night London on Saturday 1 July 2017, 6pm - 4am at the White Chapel Building, 10 Whitechapel High Street

Animation by Clifford Sage
Architecture by Johnny Lui
Music by Seth Scott
Voiceover by Alp Mehmet
Translated by Joni Zhu

A co-commission by Art Night and Outset Young Patrons Circle. Supported by Derwent London. Curated by Fatos Ustek.

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