Wandering through the digital wilderness of a reconfigured London
by Lawrence Lek
‘It is not London — but mirrored plazas of sheerest crystal, the avenues atomic lightning, the sky a supercooled gas, as the Eye chases its own gaze through the labyrinth, leaping quantum gaps that are causation, contingency, chance. Electric phantoms are flung into being, examined, dissected, infinitely iterated.’
— William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine
Bonus Levels is the continuation of architecture through other means. Conceived as a utopian fiction, each chapter is a site-specific simulation where players explore reconfigured territories and subverted power structures of existing cityscapes and cultural institutions. Rendered from a first-person perspective, each level brings together distant locations in space and time, flattening distinctions between famous and forgotten, public and private, existing and demolished, established and emerging.
Here, the architecture of art is used for its complex symbolism: as a container for creative activity, as a manifestation of power, as a fragment of a cybernetic market, and as a trigger for memory. Often commissioned for galleries, websites and institutions, the atmosphere for each level shifts between idealism and critique depending on the site. In the city, deeper forces are always at play. Hidden power structures lie beneath revered institutions while undisclosed territorial boundaries govern urban spaces — the Bonus Level exists to reveal these zones.
It is a model of the art world, a synthetic universe composed of places where objects made for pleasure are on display: in white cube galleries, classical archives, public squares, private homes, cathedrals, market-halls, streets, trains, on screens and network servers. Art itself is not simply chosen as a self-referential subject, but because it serves as a case study in the network of alliances that drive contemporary culture: desire, property, power, luxury, history, technology and aesthetics. Given the rise of immaterial labour and distribution, the site of production is no longer the studio or factory floor — it is a totality of interconnected environments, separated in space and time. Bonus Levels distils this hierarchical ecosystem into its constituent parts.
This space is in perpetual evolution through processes that are evolutionary rather than teleological. A time-lapse visualisation of the zones where art is made in the city would reveal patterns similar to the life of a natural ecosystem. In the city, artists are what biologists call the colonising species — an opportunistic, autonomous group able to relocate to areas that suddenly become available. Artists and their respective galleries grow up in inaccessible, post-industrial or otherwise undesirable places, gradually migrating to other areas as conditions become untenable. It is a transient urbanism, rarely recorded, of which each Bonus Level is a partial snapshot.
Architecture is the archetype upon which our understanding of virtual space is built. It is a form of pre-verbal language. While concrete structures persist through time, their interpretation changes as successive generations attain other, increasingly virtual, forms of literacy, from stone to paper to screen. Digital realms borrow the concrete terminology of architecture to make abstract forms more accessible. Through a process termed skeuomorphism, we understand unfamiliar technology through artefacts drawn from our pre-digital world; the monitor is a solid wall of light, the touchscreen is a pen of infinite ink. Yet the limitless depth of the data beyond the screen gives the viewer a sense of being lost.
According to its Proto-Germanic roots, ‘Hell’ refers to a concealed zone, a hidden place whose existence amplifies primal fears, neuroses and phobias. Architects counteract this latent anxiety by creating ordered spaces that persist in the dark, when the power is out, when wireless is down. Cartographers elevate the viewer from their earthbound perspective, revealing an orderly map of the universe where distant lands are given form, in turn granting the viewer the power of knowledge. Over time, these representations ossify into a Rosetta Stone of collective memory, an encoded crust of symbols, markings, territories, which form our conception of the city itself.
Despite our primal fear of the unknown, there is a certain universal character who takes pleasure in being lost within the city — the wanderer, the nomad, the surfer, the flâneur. In Bonus Levels, the player automatically assumes this role when they take the controls, transforming a genderless, ageless, wandering eye into a surrogate self. Activated by interaction, the world ceases to be a formal geometric construct, instead becoming a sensory, immersive landscape for the flâneur to explore.
The geographical concept of the genius loci — the unique atmosphere of a site in space and time — no longer applies in the virtual realm. Built from zero, each Bonus Level is a skeuomorphic landscape, its sense of place derived from familiar places extracted from everyday life. It is a deliberately distorted model; through processes of collage, disjunction and relocation, this new formation conjures other readings of its original structure.
There are no goals in Bonus Levels. Although modelled in video game software, the player begins when the game is already over, with nothing to do but wander in a meditative state. Yet the digital wilderness fills the player with existential desires, for the mind abhors a vacuum. The longer they spend in the environment, the more their psyche populates the world with its own ghosts: desire without objects; sounds without sources; rain without water; buildings without weight. It is Architecture for Art’s sake, a world of light and space. Everybody wins.
Delirious New Wick
London’s 2012 Olympic Park in Stratford is the epitome of contemporary masterplanning — the choreographed regeneration of a post-industrial area into an economically thriving zone centred on the creative industries. The park itself contains iconic structures commissioned for the games: the Olympic Stadium, the Velodrome, and Anish Kapoor’s Orbit tower for the multinational steel conglomerate, ArcelorMittal.
‘Delirious New Wick’ explores the disjunction between the masterplan and the adjacent area of Hackney Wick, a place with an unusually high density of artist-run colonies. Teleporter Pavilions beam the player into inaccessible areas — up into the voids of Kapoor’s tower and into the Velodrome flying over the town below. Here, the player becomes a speculative critic of government-endorsed regeneration strategies as they witness the conflict between the area’s past and its future.
‘Shiva’s Dreaming’ uses the Crystal Palace to symbolise the transience of technology and its physical artefacts. Originally in Hyde Park to showcase Victorian engineering at the Great Exhibition of 1851, this oversized glasshouse was later moved to South London before burning down decades later.
Accompanied by fragments of video and dialogue from Werner Herzog’s film, House of Glass, each element in the world explores the creation and destruction of simulated architecture. Players roam around a digital replica of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham on the night of the 30th of November, 1936, just as the building is slowly being consumed by flames. As players explore the smoke-filled scene, their movements shatter the crystalline architecture into cascades of glass shards, falling apart in slow motion — only to regenerate itself afterwards, endlessly.
‘Sky Line’ proposes a form of utopia where the vision of London is not of financial skyscrapers, but of infinite access. Modelled as a floating version of the Circle Line, each station is based on a location that participated in the Art Licks Weekend festival of 2014, with their physical architecture transformed into idealised digital models. Travellers have unlimited access to the hovering trains, moving between independent galleries, domestic exhibitions, subterranean spaces, and other fragments of the city.
Voiceovers are collaged from films about travel and memory, including 2046 by Wong Kar-wai and Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. The simulation is programmed to loop in a specific way — each day lasts for ten minutes, the same amount of time it takes for the train to complete its journey around the circular railway.
Dalston, Mon Amour
Forgotten nightclubs. Neon-lit music venues. Turkish hangouts. Wild gardens. All of these fragments of the well-loved East London neighbourhood of Dalston will one day disappear, only to be replaced with the same generic residential and commercial developments that follow mass demand for property and entertainment. The process may be inevitable, but these places could have a digital afterlife.
‘Dalston, Mon Amour’ exaggerates the sense of collective amnesia brought about by perpetual redevelopment in the area while paying tribute to its character. As players roam around a post-apocalyptic vision of the Dalston of the near future, a voiceover from Alain Resnais’ film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour speaks to them about the nature of memory — a gradual, but relentless, sense of forgetting that comes with any form of regenerated cityscape.
The Royal Academy of Arts has just been sold to a Chinese oligarch who has rebuilt the estate on their private island. Created for the Dazed Emerging Artist Award exhibition at the RA, this site-specific simulation is based on surveyors’ drawings and a text from the Russian edition of Tatler magazine on how to recruit an army of household staff (translated into Mandarin and subtitled in English).
Set against the backdrop of the UK’s current crisis in affordable housing, this chapter plays on the precarious nature of the RA itself, which is on a special rental contract from the government for £1 per year. Here, helicopters swoop on the penthouse helipad of a vast neo-classical complex. In the grounds, Jeff Koons sculptures glint in the sunlight. Heat rises in the summer air, condensing into mist to reveal the laser alarm systems surrounding the estate. Welcome to the world of desire.
Lawrence Lek is a digital artist based in London. His work explores the affect of simulated presence through software, hardware, installation and performance. His ongoing project Bonus Levels is a utopian world that unfolds as a virtual novel.