Interview: Lawrence Lek Turns London Into a Video Game

As gentrification continues to carve up the city, the UK artist’s video game offers a utopian alternative.

April 25, 2014


In artist Lawrence Lek's utopian video game world, Bonus Levels, ducks quack a raucous welcome to an alternative vision of London neighborhood Hackney Wick. Public art is displayed on islands in the sky, floating above an open terrain that seamlessly rolls from lush green to concrete jungle. Shopping malls sprout from verdant hills like fungus. The distorted strains of a lazy lounge track waft through the open space, as if someone's left the radio on. In the near-distance is the 2012 Olympic park, doors wide-open, free to explore. There are no barriers anywhere, in fact; no fences, no security guards and no door fees. For London-based artist Lawrence Lek, utopia is the online concept of open-access, realized in the material world.

Lek, who is based in the east London borough of Hackney, says Bonus Levels was born from personal experience: "My studio is literally across the canal from the Olympic Park, so I saw the transformation every day from my window." He started the project in 2013 as a means to explore his response to the march of gentrification and to bring together his music and video work as Radiant Dragon (check his latest track, "Descent") and the sculptural discipline that he's made his focus for the past couple of years. It was his vast skeletal sculpture, Twins, that first drew my attention to Lek a few years back, and it's thrilling to see him create a world in the digital realm that challenges our sense of space with just as much power and grace.

Where did the idea for Bonus Levels come from—and what is it? England’s Dreaming, as Johnny Rotten sings. There is a spirit lying dormant within every city, a collective consciousness you become aware of in a certain kind of atmosphere. Whether you walk around London listening to the punk rock or to Burial’s samples of Playstation games, you are forming your own personal utopia in your mind. I’m interested in how video, sound, and architecture can work together to evoke this dream state.

Bonus Levels is a series of exploratory video games where players explore utopian versions of reality. The project collages together fragments of London into a continuously evolving virtual city. There is no goal and the game never ends; it’s more about being given the freedom to wander around an idealised, surreal double of the city, observing new relationships between icons, symbolic buildings and open space. In the game, the player can climb cliffs, jump onto buildings, fall a hundred feet, get to places they otherwise could not.

The most recent chapter of the game, “Delirious New Wick,” reimagines the zone surrounding London’s 2012 Olympic Park as a primal utopia of floating islands, abandoned stadiums and post-industrial monuments. Here, the boundaries between private and public zones disappear, creating an environment of open access and free exploration.

"There is no goal and the game never ends; it’s more about being given the freedom to wander around an idealised, surreal double of the city."

What prompted the move from sculpture to video game architecture and how related are the two in your experience? I think sculpture engages the body while video games engage the mind. I’d like to explore utopia through both. Screens detach the mind from the body; when you look at somebody gazing into their laptop or their phone, you realize that they are actually in another place.

Physical objects have an aura that simulations can never attain—weight, texture, touch, feeling, atmosphere. And there are things you can do with video games that you can’t do with sculpture. You can give the user godlike powers: a portal into another zone, where you are free to move, build, explore, and destroy. It’s a simulation of reality, but the primal feeling is just as real. It’s also possible to give sculptures magical qualities. Installations make an appearance in Bonus Levels; for example, a pavilion I made becomes a teleporter to the sky in Bonus Levels.

We read the news about gentrification, see it all around us and know that skyrocketing rents are forcing people out of their homes yet, disturbingly, Bonus Levels with it's utopian vision of free, open space really brings it home. Was this an intention? Definitely. It’s a complex issue, and I’m dealing with different aspects of this in the chapters of Bonus Levels. Urban DIY initiatives like artist-run galleries and independent music venues are unable to afford commercial real estate rates, resulting in them occupying the fringes of the city. The first chapter of Bonus Levels creates an ideal tower where these places are brought together in a single place. Each floor in the tower is dedicated to a gallery participating in the festival, and the structure and curatorial concept of their physical space is reflected in its virtual double.

The second chapter deals with the iconic architecture built for the 2012 Olympics. While they are visually prominent, access is limited because of tickets, security, physical barriers. In Bonus Levels, I wanted to dissolve these boundaries. The viewing platform of Anish Kapoor's Orbit sculpture opened in April 2014, and a ticket for a family costs £40. It's just an expensive lift that goes up 115 metres. In the game, I thought I could take this to its absurd extreme, rip the ground up and turn the Orbit into a floating island. Except this time, you can teleport up to the top of it for free.

What is your personal experience of "the city in a state of becoming"? As the city you live in evolves, so do you. I moved to London when I was 10, and I remember it as an endless landscape of cold, tarmac, brick, fog. Weekends were dead—shops had to be closed on Sundays so that, in theory, more people would go to church. My most striking memory was of “Cardboard City." Below a roundabout near Waterloo station, there was a homeless community of around two hundred people living in makeshift shelters. It’s rare to see such clear evidence of two parallel worlds existing in the same city: one underground, the other above. It was cleared out quickly, probably as part of the year 2000 Millennium celebrations, and it’s now an IMAX cinema. There’s a project by the 1960s architecture group Archigram about a walking city, a huge submarine on legs free to roam around the world. Cardboard City was this idea manifested in reality, not theory. And now it’s a memory.

Do you think there is a market for socially conscious video games? Video games are dominated by genres—action, role-playing, adventure, puzzle. They are about some sort of power—war campaigns, global domination, hero identification, high scores. However, in every art form there will always be a demand for an alternative. Mainstream versus outsider, pop versus noise, pulp fiction versus poetry. So maybe the alternative in video games will be a form of utopia—distributed and downloadable.

What's next for you? I'm working with three ongoing projects to extend the idea of a prototype world. Bonus Levels is continuing with a new chapter: "Shiva’s Palace” is a glass cathedral exploring the simulated creation and destruction of materials. “Constructing Nothing” is a project in collaboration with Andi Schmied, and we are building up a model of a phantom cityscape based on unoccupied areas in Budapest. “Prosthetic Reality” is a series of optical devices and installations that act as interfaces to a world that exists in a state of becoming real.

Interview: Lawrence Lek Turns London Into a Video Game