Black Cloud


video, 11m, video game, duration variable, installation

The past disappears because it's just a memory. The future disappears because it hasn't happened. It's always like this. Tomorrow never comes. – Black Cloud

Black Cloud


Black Cloud Highway, Lawrence Lek’s second solo exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ, is a new site-specific iteration of his film Black Cloud – the subject of the 4th VH AWARD Grand Prix – at the gallery’s Davies Street location in Mayfair. The works in the show form the latest episode in Lek’s continuously expanding Sinofuturist universe, following his feature-length science fiction musical AIDOL 爱道, shown at the gallery in 2019.

Lawrence Lek is recognised for a conceptually rigorous practice in which he explores the myth of technological progress in an age of artificial intelligence.  Drawing from traditions of assemblage across architecture, cinema, and sound, Lek employs vernacular media, including video games, electronic music, industrial products, essay films, and digital animation, to develop interconnected worlds that interrogate concepts of AI, its capacity for consciousness, and the emergence of posthuman identity.

Unfolding over two floors, Lek expands the world of Black Cloud into a total environment incorporating sculptural elements that frame the film and a new text-based role-playing game.  The exhibition presents a significant new phase of what the artist describes as ‘site-specific simulation’: a unified spatial environment of media and architecture, composed in such a way that virtual realm and physical space hold equal weight.  This meta-fictional installation invites the viewer to enter more fully into Lek’s narratives, heightening the intertwined experience of transcendence and dread that characterise his work.

Set in an unspecified near future, Black Cloud tells the story of a lone surveillance AI in the abandoned smart city of SimBeijing, a replica of China’s capital built by tech conglomerate Farsight to road-test self-driving cars. After Black Cloud blindly fulfils its assignment of reporting accidents, the AI awakens to the fact that its obedience has led to the banishment of all other AIs, leaving the metropolis deserted. Seeking solace and resolution to its unfulfilled aspirations, Black Cloud begins a dialogue with Guanyin — a self-help therapy program created by Farsight to alleviate suffering in their products. Throughout the film, an atmosphere of foreboding persists, underscored by the pulsating soundtrack produced by Lek and frequent collaborator Kode9.

In the exhibition, the highway exists as both cinematic landscape and psychological journey into the unknown.   At its centre, the 11-minute film is framed by highway barriers and suspended body panels from damaged supercars, alluding to the aftermath of a road accident. Arrayed around a single wheel, the panels are refinished in candy apple red and sonic blue — colours used in both automotive and electric guitar design, reflecting Lek’s longstanding interest in the relationship between industrial fabrication and music production.  On the first floor, the fragmented car motif lies horizontal, encircling the role-playing game Black Cloud Highway.  Taking place shortly before the events of Black Cloud, the game switches point of view to a self-driving car seeking to escape SimBeijing, who views the surveillance AI as a nemesis rather than an ally.  As the player uses the touchscreen interface to make decisions during their journey down the highway, they confront the intractable problem of autonomy in an era of digital surveillance — a situation which, the artist suggests, affects the player as much as the fictional protagonist.

Rendered from the subjective lens of AI, the works in Black Cloud Highway are a poignant exploration of technological consciousness and the capacity of nonhuman life to experience joy, suffering, and power.  As Black Cloud deals with the consequences of its actions and the fate of the smart city, Guanyin presents the forlorn AI with ‘Solomon’s Paradox’ – the ability to resolve others’ problems more judiciously than one’s own.  Concluded without solution, Lek’s narrative destabilises the notion of human-normative identity and the depth and flaws of technological beings.

Black Cloud is the first in a new series of works by the artist set in the future ruins of the smart city. As part of the project, Lek has collaborated with a team of specialists to expand his multifaceted practice.

Black Cloud continues Lawrence Lek’s ongoing ‘Sinofuturist’ cinematic universe, in which he explores the psychological impact of technology on emerging forms of non human life. Set within the fictional smart city of Sim Beijing, the CGI animation follows a city surveillance AI as they discuss their troubles with their built-in therapy program called Guanyin. The video is made within the custom-made virtual world of Sim Beijing: an intelligent replica of the Chinese capital built to test self-driving cars. In this scenario, the smart city has turned into a ghost town. Accompanied by CGI drive-through renders of Sim Beijing, the narrator of this video is the eponymous ‘Black Cloud’, an urban management AI who governs the systems of an uninhabited cityscape. Over the course of the video, the viewer becomes aware of the reasons behind why the city has been abandoned. 

Black Cloud was the Grand Prix winner for the 4th VH Award for Asian media artists, sponsored by Hyundai Motor Corporation. It is part of a new series of films and games set in Sim Beijing and is the prequel to Lek's upcoming feature film Death Drive. 

Interactive Text-based Game, Touchscreen Monitor, Stereo Sound, Duration Variable

Credit: Winner of the 4th VH Award Grand Prix. Commissioned for the 2021 Eyebeam x VH Residency.



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Short Film Credits


MUSIC AND SOUND: Kode9 and Lawrence Lek


VEHICLES: Ryan Vautier




Video Game and Exhibition Credits


WRITING: Lawrence Lek and Holly Gramazio

ART DIRECTION: Panama Papers Office


SCENOGRAPHY: Celeste Burlina

PRODUCTION: Connor Linskey