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Lawrence Lek, NOX, 2023. Installation view, LAS Art Foundation, Kranzler Eck, Berlin Commissioned by LAS Art FoundationCourtesy of LAS Art Foundation

Inside Lawrence Lek’s rehab clinic for depressed self-driving cars

The artist’s exhibition with LAS Art Foundation takes place in a former department store in Berlin

Imagine a near future where artificially intelligent cars roam the urban environment. But what happens when the car gets depressed and no longer wants to do its job? This is the starting point for Lawrence Lek’s latest exhibition at LAS. Taking place across three floors of an abandoned shopping centre in the middle of Berlin, the London-based artist’s NOX is a work of speculative fiction that transports visitors to a high-end rehab centre somewhere in an undisclosed third-tier smart city – think London’s The Priory but for malfunctioning automobiles through the POV of a sentient car. 

The exhibition invites visitors into a facility where Farsight Corporation, a fictional artificial intelligence (AI)conglomerate, trains their sentient self-driving vehicles. “The idea is that you are the owner of a self-driving car, which has malfunctioned because it’s emo and moody, so you’ve returned it and the company is putting the car through this five-day rehab programme,” explains Lek. It’s a plot that could be taken from an episode of Black Mirror, but Lek uses the corporate-coded NOX facility – “NOX is a rehab centre but it’s also a mood, like how in corporate branding, it’s a brand, a vibe, an entire experience” – to cast a compassionate lens on machines, encouraging viewers to reflect on society’s relationship with non-human entities, such as animals and AI, and how they’re usually trained to serve capitalist interests.

“Dear sponsor, your car’s got some various issues, their memory is full up, and we need to operate somehow,” says the voice in your headphones. It’s Guanyin, an AI therapy bot, who informs you that your car is exhibiting undesirable behaviour and must be transferred to NOX, short for ‘Nonhuman Excellence’ – to undergo a five-day rehabilitation programme. Moody ambient music gives a dream-like quality, spliced with voice logs and poetic passages left behind by Enigma-76, one of Farsight’s wayward cars, which guides visitors through each day, from a waiting room to a video game-powered treatment centre. 

“The thought experiment is, if I was a self-driving car, and a company employee, how would I feel about my job? I’d probably feel I'm better than my job because why am I just delivering loads of packages and meal delivery services when I'm super intelligent?” he expands. “There would be this huge dissonance between your function and your potential.” In one section, there’s an equine therapy video that’s meant to soothe cars back to health, though this also harks back to earlier modes of transportation, creating a strange kindred connection between both car and horse. “I was thinking in terms of intergenerational trauma, the car sees the horse, not just as a therapy guide, but as a kindred spirit.”

It’s a useful tool in exploring the relationship between man, machine and nature. It’s something Lek has been exploring for half a decade – anyone who’s familiar with the artist’s work will recognise familiar themes of lonely future intelligence, ultra-smooth tech corps, and fictional smart cities. In particular, I’m reminded of last year’s Black Cloud Highway, which follows a miserable self-driving car seeking therapy from the company that built it. Set in the shadows of a tech-advanced ghost town, there’s one particular moment where the car sees a wild fox and the two begin conversing with each other. Lek explains, “[In Black Cloud], the car sees the fox as a wild spirit, but here, the horse is another beast of burden who’s only useful to humans until it’s not.”

To think of a car having an existential crisis is an absurd position to find yourself in, yet it’s through these ‘human’ qualities that the viewer is forced to think outside themselves. One particularly emotional audio snippet sees Enigma-76 reflect on the “cars he grew up with. Bright minds and cheap bodies, dreaming of getting permits and making it out of the town”. By the end of the exhibition, or ‘experience’, there’s a videogame that allows you to heal or train your autonomous car – you can’t help but pause, sometimes it’s better to place the car in the driver’s seat.

NOX is commissioned by LAS Art Foundation and runs until January 14, 2024

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