Lawrence lek: Let’s watch ‘Sinofuturism: 1849-2046’  


{Dear Reader, This small interpretation of a recent artwork features topics that are currently very sensitive and so I offer this small disclaimer: I, in no way subscribe to any perspective that offers an unfettered judgment on or discrimination against any group of people. The reports on the abuse of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang are just the most recent example of the human capacity to inflict an evil on to each other. Another example from history could be Winston Churchill’s abuse of Bengal in 1943. Over two million Bengali’s lost their lives due to British war time policy. China states that its treatment of these Muslims as an act of “re-education” and a way of reducing a terrorist threat. Finally, I would like to say a truly great nation like China should be more open regarding the measures it takes to protect its lands and peoples. Such an openness is not something I am projecting onto the country; as a positive potential. Qualities of kindness, forgiveness, and compassion are found throughout Asian people and especially in the Han people of China; I would like to envision that if those responsible for the treatment of these Chinese Muslims reflect on their country’s history of Buddhism, Confucian, and Marxist teachings then they should see the error in mass incarceration and forced labor; regardless of the threat. Simultaneously, the Anglophone world should make steps to embrace Asia on a more equal footing and look inwards to the moral bankruptcy currently at play. I’m thinking of the current dilemma posed by a governing elite still stoking the flames of a domestic “culture war”. A tactic to divide and strip the public of its natural powers of deduction: the choice was never between wealth or racial equality but rather consolidation and centralization or redistribution and decentralization? […]}

I once had a conversation with the Singaporean artist Lawrence Lek. By conversation, I mean email and only a very quick exchange. I had discovered his work in London when he was a graduate student and was instantly impressed by his digital acumen. The way in which he uses game design engines to build his own simulations, worlds, and 3 dimensional realities. I had wanted to work/ collaborate with him on some ideas for projection mapping and augmented reality projects. But I moved to Tokyo and Lek was predestined to continue his rise or ascendance to a higher level of creative achievement. One good example of such a realm is Lek’s video essay/essay film, ‘Sinofuturism: 1849-2046’. In the artist’s own words this is a ‘hybrid video essay’ that blends found footage, documentary, and interview material into a narrative that focuses on this idea of Asian futurity. Sinofuturism is somewhat dominated by China but does not exclude any of the other Asian countries who also participate in this belief. Lek being Asian obviously has a personal investment in these topics.

Lek successfully puts extremely contemporary questions to the viewer. Sinofuturism is described as a science fiction movement rather than an ideology but I imagine it could easily be both. This futurism, we are told was already here before the rise of China. That it was in someway brought into being when the world agreed to let China become the center for manufacturing. In this way this ‘ism’ spread over the whole globe as the computer chips and various other commodities were shipped out of China. It is present and exists in the, ‘billion individuals who constitute a billion flows’. Here the quantity of the Chinese populace is used as a somewhat anthropocentric gateway into the video essay. The video is split up into seven chapters or stereotypes: computing, copying, gaming, addiction, labor, gambling, and studying. The following writing will roughly provide some thoughts regarding the video essay’s content. The technology theorist and contemporary philosopher Yuk Hui wrote a book on technology and China and at the very start he quotes an infamous German whose question shows the development of China has been under consideration for some time. Not just due to its current economic successes is it such an interesting nation. ‘If Communism in China should come to rule, one can assume that only in this way will China become “free” for technology. What is this process?’.[1]

The complexity of such a topic is artfully explored by this creator. The viewer is led through the chapters and offered a refreshing insight. One of the more interesting for me is the notion that the rise of China naturally undermines a Western narrative and identity forced onto Asia. An Asian otherness known as ‘Orientalism’.[2] The important point being made here is that right now what has been happening within China is an industrial revolution akin (but, different) to what conspired in Europe and the UK in the 18th Century. Innovation in technology leads to a dominant global influence that viscerally shapes human perception. This is what is inferred when Lek’s work states, ‘Orientalism is a shadow of Occidentalism’ that contemporary Asian society is experiencing a similar transformation to that of the West in the past. But, the notion that these two ism’s are overridden with and by prejudice should be acknowledged.

Those in the Orient have rightfully never forgiven those Western powers responsible for what they refer to as the 百年國恥 (bǎinián guóchǐ) ‘the Century of Humiliation’ the period of history where China was exploited by colonial powers. Such an exploitation has been well documented when Britain was home to the world’s factories. It was the workers who were exploited and when we hear that this otherness of Asia contains a process of ‘dehumanizing the individual’ we also hear the ghost of Karl Marx mutter or murren the word alienation. The Chinese have a perspective on work in which “hard work” is seen as the only insurance against an uncertain world; again quoted directly from this remarkable video essay. My potential future mother in law explained the Chinese view in terms of business and pleasure equating luxury or experiencing luxuries only through successful business. And so that is why in China there exists an extreme work ethic to rival that of the salaryman culture of Tokyo. I must confess to finding this difficult to appreciate as it does not encompass the experience of working hard and not experiencing luxury or becoming a victim to a chaotic world.

But, here my Western individualism moves us to far away from one of the main feature of Sinofuturism that is it is a uniform, communistic, and singular phenomenon. Such a singularity is shown in this video essay as a “way” of doings things. Jeremy Clarkson the idiot presenter of ‘Top Gear’ (a British car TV program) is appropriated as he describes the way China produced cars by copying western designs; in many circumstances just altering the name. One might believe that this would fly in the face of copyright and so called intellectual property but BMW tried to sue these Chinese companies their lawsuit failed. The video essay does provide an explanation for this process of copying, ‘the future is already here so there is no use in making images of the future’ just renaming shall suffice. However, this does not absolve a darker implication: all these cheaply reproduced objects result in a much lower quality and it was found that within the automobile industry one manufacturer of airbags created bags that when used caused more harm then protection. Such an act of blatant copying and appropriation should not be cornered to one big industry. A good essay on Chinese creativity by Byung-Chul Han expresses this vary well.

‘The Chinese have two different concepts of a copy. Fangzhipin (仿製品) are imitations where the difference from the original is obvious. These are small models or copies that can be purchased in a museum shop, for example. The second concept for a copy is fuzhipin (複製品). They are exact reproductions of the original, which, for the Chinese, are of equal value to the original. It has absolutely no negative connotations.’ [3]

The uniformity of Sinofuturism is also present in the way China educates its youth suggesting, ‘knowing the correct and applicable information’ to be sufficient disregarding any skills related to critical thinking. This is observable in the 高考 (gāokǎo) national higher education exam where students are focused on requiring the correct information to give the correct answer… the singular correct answer rather than offer a critical elaboration as to why it is correct. When this visual essay moves onto gaming the antagonisms and social unrest that come hand in hand with a future emerging at digital technology’s high speeds. There is an interview with a young man whose father has taken him to a facility to deal with his internet addiction. It should be immediately obvious there is something contradictory operating here. The Chinese state heavily monitors and regulates the internet but simultaneously allows an e-sports team to compete against Korea. Here one of Sinofuturism’s characteristics is clearly visible it has an expansionist behavior where, ‘it doesn’t care about the future as long as the ism survives’. A mentality that can be also widely observed in the speed of technological innovation; especially in the field of artificial intelligence.

When Google Mind’s Alphago beat the world champion of the board game ‘Go’ by four games to one. Korean grand master Lee Sedol remarked, ‘I observed moves so profoundly different that it could only come from an “alien” intelligence’, and ‘it appeared that it wasn’t primarily focused on the quickest way to win but also on how to minimize the possibility of losing’. This latter aspect of how Google’s A.I adopted this strategy of the least likely to lose is also a part of Sinofuturism’s behavior. Lek describes this by suggesting in the narration by building a relation between the computational neural net/machine learning and the culture of the Chinese people: the work ethic, the togetherness, the communism. So the clear binary demarcation between winning and losing finds its social parallel in controlled education and gaming as training. Resulting, in what lek’s video essay states as a distinctly Sinofuturist quality, ‘it doesn’t care about the future as long it survives’. Here we have a hueristic challenge. How to interpret a belief in a future so heavily invested in survival?

I think we should begin by thanking Lawrence Lek for this video essay because you will be hard pressed to find a better articulation of the changes that East Asia are accelerating. Such is the insight offered that when we take a wider look at the situation today we see contemporary China and its leader on the offensive. Xi xingping warns not to mess with the Han people as the new silk road initiative moves towards completion. Analyzing the reality behind this Sinofuturism is a difficult task. Some of the claims made by China are valid: best managers of capitalism, unique poverty alleviation, and even the geographic claim ‘to be at the center of the globe’ could have some validity depending on whose map you look at. One more thing before I leave you to your own reflections. Although I am sure a lot of Asian folk would like to safeguard their belief in the future but I want to suggest that Sinofuturism shares some structural matters with Afrofuturism.

The two isms have a necessary anti-colonial aspect, a positive goal, and a need to protect their specific cultural identity. All I am suggesting is that they are both participating in a kind of struggle; a very necessary struggle. But, I will leave this as a  need to interpret and deduce the reader’s conclusions as we are increasingly confronted with the topic of survival. Will our species future be determined through an ideological war wrought with racial prejudices and the very terms of success found only on a market? Or, is there a way in which the living matter we call humanity can manifest a less one sided belief in the future? Lastly, I have made no mention of John Searle’s famous philosophy of language thought experiment ‘The Chinese Room’ which features in Lek’s Sinofuturism: 1849 – 2046. I will be writing about it at a later date for sure…See you then…                             

– ‘You can not see… of all things to live in darkness must be the worst’

‘Fear is the only darkness. You think that I can not see, what do you hear?’ –

– ‘I hear the water, I hear the birds.’

‘Do you hear your own heartbeat?’ –

– ‘No… old man how is it that you hear these things and I do not?

‘Young man… how is that you do not?’ –

Listen >>>>Mala (DMZ), Boiler Room London DJ set. (2016).<<<<


[1] Heidegger, Martin. ‘GA97, AnmerKungen I-V’ in Hui, Yuk. (2016), ‘The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics’, Urbanomic/MIT Press.

[2] Edward Said. (1978),‘Orientalism’,Pantheon Books.

[3] Byung-Chul Han. (2018), ‘The Copy is the Original’, Aeon Essays. Edited extract from ‘Shanzai: Deconstruction in Chinese’ MIT Press, (2017). []

[4] Gary Zhexi Zhang, ‘Where Next? Imagining the dawn of the ‘Chinese Century’’ in Profiles, 22nd April (2017).

[5] Lawrence Lek, Interview with Iris Lang, ‘Conversation: Lawrence Lek talks Sinofuturism, automation, identity, and communism’, Sine Theta Magazine, October 10th, (2018).   

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