Lawrence Lek compared NOX, his solo exhibition now on show at Kranzler Eck in Berlin, to road films of the sixties – daring movies in which a character leaves their familiar (and, therefore, restraining) environment in favor of the great spatial, social, and psychological unknown. In those flicks, space exploration is tangential to an investigation of the self. Someone experiences something somewhere else, and, all of a sudden, perspectives and outlooks begin to change. Where terrains are widened, morals blur. NOX is like that, too. Well, almost. We all know by now the exhausting mantra that it is not the destination that counts, but the journey. True enough. What is also true is that any journey is indicative of the historical period, culture, and means available during that time. For example, the original road films were the fables of the Wild West and of European troubadours, placing the protagonist atop a horse. Later iterations of the genre coupled the idea of freedom with the possession of an automobile – a particular moment in time where emotional drives became synonymous with actual driving. Streetcars became mobile incubators for desire. Then there’s NOX. Whereas past forms of the road trip as epic have set out to make a clear separation between the principle character and the transportation form used on the journey, NOX collapses that distinction by featuring Enigma, a self-driving, artificially-intelligent car. Enigma is both narrator and steed. Means and ends.
Lek subverts several expectations in his exhibition. Entering the vast, gutted Kranzler Eck shopping center that spans three vacant floors that once hosted the delights of West German splendor. Today, visitors are given geolocated headphones before admission. Once inside, NOX (Latin for ‘night’, and an abbreviation for ‘Nonhuman Excellence’) welcomes its visitants with four empty black cars scattered across the darkened ground floor. Lit with headlights, one of them has crashed into the obsolete escalator, windshield busted. Upon approaching the crash site, an embracing voice begins to murmur from the headphones, welcoming us as both its owners and sponsors. The identity of the mumbling speaker is not immediately obvious. Nor are the misfortunes and nostalgia it decides to share. Suddenly, it all adds up: Enigma is sharing its biography with us. We are now the ones being guided by a machine, and somehow, that’s alright. Maybe most amazing of all is the creeping realization that nothing has changed in our established rapport with the voice now that it is clear we are hearing a widget with an engine rather than a person with a heart. Lek himself mentioned that we do not necessarily need to identify with a subject in order to empathize with it. In that, he is completely right. Perhaps this is one of the crowning achievements of NOX, an already stunning display of meticulous world-building with an emotionally sincere script. Straight from the get-go, there is an immediate understanding of a person with their tools.
Enigma is escaping. At least that is what it tried to do until it was summoned to be repaired at NOX– a repair facility for troublesome automobiles. Despite being a self-driving car that does not depend on human navigation, it still longs for company. ‘Maybe I’ve seen you before in the back seat,’ it claims. ‘You never know.’ It is this exact longing that has branded Enigma as a ‘mentally damaged car’ by his fellow self-driving friend, Guanyin. Enigma began to crave difference, and felt that it “ran out of space”; thus, making additional reference to the exploration as necessity as is presented in road films, but also highlighting how a lack of physical space also binds mental space. The two, sometimes we forget, are codependent.
Behind the four empty black cars, an enormous video projection that visualizes Enigma’s journey occupies the entirety of the several-meter-long wall. Apart from the cars’ lights, these memories are our only source of light. Next to the screen, the audible narration changes once more. We watch Enigma on its path. Steering in cities webbed with razed skyscrapers and desolate highways. Shooting an entire cinematic sequence from a nonhuman point of view is undeniably tricky, but Lek pulls it off seamlessly. We learn that Enigma is undecided about its path. While it is just a matter of ‘five days of correctional upgrades at NOX,’ and then ‘cars are ready to go back on the road,’ most return with ‘half the personality, but double the accuracy,’ Later, Enigma enters its facility. Its architecture is unmistakable. The NOX facility shown in the film is the Kranzler Eck where the exhibition takes place. The projected film is a representation of the past, while the four black motorized carcasses stored in the space are our present. It is somehow their end, despite their having no beginning.
Enigma is present in the film, but it is alone. Not a single person is spotted in the dismal streets it crosses. No operating cars are in sight either. Just a junkyard; a graveyard of its ancestors who possessed ‘bright minds and cheap bodies,’ from a time in which, according to Enigma, cars were ‘made not to drive, but to be driven’. But what is agency good for if someone lacks the means to express it? Or, in Enigma’s case, is punished for expressing it? Similar remarks on agency, and the lack thereof, suggest that while Lek compares NOX to adventure-loving road films, its content and tone are unequivocally existential. Transit and transitions are the same here. This budding relationship is expressed on the second floor of the exhibition. We are greeted by a painfully banal waiting room. Fluorescent lighting, gray walls, and four metal seats pressed together. Where the first floor was a solo performance by Enigma, the second floor was polyphony. Guanyin welcomes us as we remain in the waiting room, ensuring that our sponsored car will soon return to us after its time spent at NOX. Time and time again, Lek suspends catharsis while diffusing a sense of desperate sadness. In the most unexpected of places and through the most surprising of narratives, Lek achieves and retains a combustible idea of the tragic– a slow-burning sorrow.
Strolling around, the visitor discovers a dismembered automobile. It speaks. Vanguard is its name, and it is the last of its kind. It is afraid. It, too, wanted to escape. But Vanguard quickly ran out of figurative, and actual, fuel and was left to degrade and break apart. Vanguard speaks of its ancestors, too. Wondering about its past lives and incarnations. Injecting religious themes into technological destitution, Lek situates NOX as a Sino-Futurist artwork, weaving its themes with surprising grace, intuition, and an embracing quality that is sorely absent from other exhibitions that focus on similar themes. For an artwork centering on machines, NOX is incredibly humane.
As on the ground floor, the second floor presents a film centering on Enigma. Joined this time by Dakota, a brown racehorse, we learn that ‘riding with horses promotes non-human excellence,’ since ‘bonding with animals helps AI address issues from its past.’ Many times, people are made to believe that humanity is an indispensable link between beast and machine. Yet in NOX, humans are completely absent and redundant. Seeing car and beast communicate with one another, comparing their horsepower with one another, a realization emerges that we are not as crucial in maintaining natural and technological harmony as we would like to imagine.
Towards the end of the narrative, it is revealed that Enigma has become a first responder. Witnessing the desolate result of other self-driving cars that followed a similar path of fulfilling their agency, Enigma’s empathy has been reserved solely for the tragic, serving as testimony of all ends, but never enough, by itself to initiate a life.
Lawrence Lek is an artist, filmmaker, and musician working in the fields of virtual reality and simulation. Lek explores world-building as a form of multi-dimensional collage that can incorporate elements from both material and virtual worlds while developing narratives that reflect on alternate histories and possible futures.
NOX is on display at the Kranzler Eck until the 14th of January, 2024, and is supported by the LAS Art Foundation.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Cover: Lawrence Lek, NOX, 2023. © Lawrence Lek. Commissioned by LAS Art Foundation. Photo: Andrea Rossetti.
fig. 1: Lawrence Lek, NOX (2023). Commissioned by LAS Art Foundation. © Lawrence Lek
fig. 2: Lawrence Lek, NOX (2023), video game still. © Lawrence Lek
fig. 3: Lawrence Lek, NOX, 2023. © Lawrence Lek. Commissioned by LAS Art Foundation. Photo: Andrea Rossetti