Lawrence Lek’s melancholic autonomous vehicles provide a glimpse into an AI-driven future in Berlin. The ambitious installation ‘NOX,’ crafted in collaboration with the LAS Art Foundation, seizes control of Berlin’s abandoned Kranzler Eck shopping center.
In a world increasingly dominated by automation, can humanity cultivate empathy for machines? Lawrence Lek’s emotionally charged installation, NOX, might evoke tears from visitors contemplating the plight of a despondent car. This emotionally stirring display, a joint venture with the LAS Art Foundation, is situated within Berlin’s deserted Kranzler Eck shopping center, transformed into a rehabilitation facility for automated cars. The exhibition’s design draws inspiration from the contemporary aesthetics of technology and wellness, alluding to the experiential and immersive nature found in car showrooms, cultural institutions, and even Apple stores.
On the ground floor, numerous vehicles appear as though they’ve collided with walls and central escalators, their headlights piercing the darkened space. Visitors’ headsets activate at various points across three floors, featuring video installations and narrated sessions between a therapist and a self-driving car enrolled in a five-day rehabilitation program at the facility. The car’s monologues delve into the nature of memory, intergenerational trauma, and consciousness, its soft voice reminiscent of a noirish sci-fi narrative.
Lek, the recipient of the 4th VH Award in 2021 supporting Asian artists, infuses the work with a sensitivity not typically associated with machines. While he refrains from imposing a specific mood on the audience, the depth of emotion remains crucial. “For me, that connection is the most important thing,” he asserts. “There is a definite empathetic quality I want to communicate.” To understand the mindset of his central character, Lek approached it from a human perspective. The car has misbehaved and is undergoing corrective measures. Lek draws parallels with the treatment of troubled children in school. “Very often, the ‘bad’ kids are the most promising, but they have issues. Should you send them away because you don’t want them to influence the other kids? I thought it could be the same for these cars. Would you reset the car? Would you wipe its memory?”
NOX conjures the chilling experience of humans in a corporate, post-industrial world. The meticulous care bestowed upon the car is aimed at restoring it to operational efficiency, ensuring it performs its tasks with minimal disruptions. “There are corporate practices for making people feel better and corporate practices for making machines work. In this scenario of super-intelligent, self-driving cars, you get both,” reflects Lek, referencing protective measures like airbags and seatbelts. “In our world, it’s often uncertain if things are there for human or corporate benefit. Let’s save humans, but let’s save humans so they can’t sue us for liability.”
The exhibition also delves into the role of professional care within an increasingly automated system, with the top-floor installation encouraging visitors to role-play as AI therapists. One film showcases equine therapy, as the car embarks on an emotional drive alongside a horse. “I was thinking about what happens in fancy treatment centers,” explains Lek. “But also, this super-intelligent self-driving car might identify with a creature who is useful to humans until it becomes glue or a handbag. One hundred years ago, horses were essential modes of transport, agriculture, or war, but they became phased out in mechanized societies where they are no longer the working machine.”
The work is eerily devoid of people. Upon entering the space, visitors might perceive it as an exploration of a post-human society. However, scattered throughout are hints at the lives of those who own or operate these machines—a poignant reflection of a world recently subjected to severe lockdowns. “Where is everybody?” Lek queries. “Are they at home sleeping? Getting everything delivered? Or have they completely vanished? This noir mood is sadly very relevant today.”
Lawrence Lek: NOX at Kranzler Eck, Berlin, until January 14, 2024