Play Station: Bread and Circus for the new jobless society

Lawrence Lek, Play Station, 2017

Lawrence Lek, The Nøtel (with Steve Goodman/Kode9), 2015

In Ancient Rome, politicians used to court the approval of the masses with circus games and cheap food. The satisfaction of citizen’s immediate needs distracted them from any concern regarding the management of the state and made them more likely to vote for lavish politicians. Satirical poet Juvenal found the political strategy disgraceful and talked about panem et circenses.

What will be the 21st century’s bread and circus when the unavoidable impact of job automation puts many of us out of work? Where are we going to find satisfaction and self-worth in the coming years when, as experts predict, automated systems replace 50 percent of all jobs? Will our countries have to face waves of unrest as citizens flood the streets asking for employment, dignity and a reason to get up in the morning? If a universal basic income provides us with bread, what will be our circus?

Artist Lawrence Lek’s latest utopian fiction VR game imagines that in the near future tech companies might throw us a bone:

Set in 2037, Play Station takes place in a futuristic version of the White Chapel Building, the London headquarters of a mysterious technology start-up known as Farsight. A world leader in digital automation, Farsight trains employees to outsource their jobs as much as possible, rewarding top performers with access to exclusive entertainment and e-holidays.

Play Station is ‘a useless-job simulator’. Farsight has no need for human workers, because it relies on automation to ensure profit and growth. The VR simulation is only there to give people a sense of fulfillment. Because Lek trained and worked as an architect, most of his works are site-specific. Play Station, for example, will be installed in the atrium of the recently re-invented White Chapel Building in London where it will stand as a critical comment on the changing boundaries between workplace and playground.

I had a quick email conversation with Lek ahead of the launch of the work for Art Night 2017 on July 1:

Hi Lawrence! Should we rejoice at the idea that playing video games might one day become the new form of work? Or is there something more sinister behind the idea?

In the training and promotional video for Play Station, the guide explains, ‘It’s work! It’s Play! No, it’s Playwork™!’

Play Station is a VR simulation set in 2037 London, where the player is a new employee in a warehouse distribution training centre for Farsight Corporation, a company that specialises in AI automation technology. Here, all work is disguised as play.

The project continues my hybrid site-specific/science-fiction world of Sinofuturism, exploring scenarios where advanced technology, driven by Asian research and investment, poses an existential problem for humanity’s heroic vision of itself. In the Nøtel (made in collaboration with Steve Goodman/Kode9), a fully-automated luxury hotel has its staff replaced completely by drones; In Geomancer, a Singaporean satellite AI comes to earth, hoping to become an artist. With Play Station, I asked – if mechanical automation and AI have kept on replacing the human workforce, could this be seen as an unexpected form of utopia?

I think it would lead to some kind of crisis about work because so much human self-worth is defined in relation to an individual’s value as a labour-provider. It’s a universal syndrome. Whether these beliefs stem from the Protestant Christian or Chinese work ethic, an individual’s relevance to society has extremely deep-set roots in the basis of civilization in agricultural societies, where labour was necessary for survival and (hopefully) prosperity.

Modern work culture has its roots in the transition from an agriculture to the Victorian mechanised workforce; jobs that used to be performed by human labour have repeatedly been augmented and replaced by technology. But what if the ultimate conclusion of the Marxist liberation from drudgery was actually a life of leisure? What would people do if they had universal basic income and they never no longer had to work in order to enjoy a sustainable living?

One idealistic possibility is that everybody will be an artist, free to express themselves and explore the highest forms of human creativity (with lots of government grants and charitable funding of course). More realistically, people would spend time playing computer games, hanging out, and indulging in some kind of play. And at its most extreme, there will be a crisis when the justification for our place in society is no longer predicated on our ability to work.

Lawrence Lek, The Nøtel (with Steve Goodman/Kode9), 2015

Why did you chose a Virtual Reality game to explore post work society?

Play Station is essentially a useless-job simulator. In a way, it’s a future version of medieval re-enactment cosplay scenarios, where people dress up as knights and gather for banquets, tournaments and archery.

In the game, you’re being trained to perform a job that isn’t actually a financial necessity for Farsight corporation. They’ve made billions through AI automation projects. Play Station is one of their charitable goodwill projects. In the future, maybe ‘corporate social responsibility’ goes beyond sponsoring charities. The VR simulation is to give people the illusion that they are productive members of society!

Lawrence Lek, Play Station, 2017

Should we be worried that, soon, all we will have left to spend time is going to be game and VR?

Virtual reality is just the latest in a long line of entertainment mediums that seek to be more immersive. From theatre, to cinema, television, and video games, I think these forms of mass media are designed to envelop the viewer in ever-increasing forms of immersion. That’s why there’s been such a big push in investment, from Facebook acquiring Oculus, to Samsung and Sony developing their own forms of VR. It’s compelling from a multinational business perspective, because the medium can be distributed and domesticated into individual households. There’s a huge potential market for the devices.

So in a post-work society, if everybody has 100% leisure time then VR might be the new opiate of the masses.

Geomancer (Trailer), 2017

Your visions of the future tend to be quite dystopian. But is Play Station anchored in actual examples of trends, news stories and practices? How much of this piece and how much of your work in general is tied to reality and how much of it is the result of your own imagination?

In Geomancer, set in Singapore in 2065, the curator AI says, ‘Utopia VR is big business these days.’

Although it’s often set in the future, my own work is very much tied to reality and what I see in everyday life, from promotional stands at Westfield shopping centre to the hyperactive ads that pop up before Youtube videos. Play Station and Farsight are fictional entities based on how tech companies continuously attempt to improve their public persona through architecture and branding. As part of the installation, I’m creating a marketing video based on promotional videos for hi-tech companies seeking investors and customers. Many of these companies’ founders have genuine utopian dreams about the potential of technology to create a thriving company and to benefit humanity. Naturally, those two things don’t always work together. But in the fictional world of the promo trailer or the VR playground, they do.

I don’t make these works as judgemental criticisms, they are simply more of a reflection of the symbiosis of society, culture, technology, and corporate growth. Whether that’s dystopian or not, I don’t know. But it’s what I see around me every day.

Lawrence Lek, Play Station, 2017

Lawrence Lek, Play Station, 2017

Is there anything about The White Chapel Building that call for this type of post-work/game scenario?

I’m very interested in the interdependent relationship of property economics and architectural aesthetics. The White Chapel Building itself is a newly-renovated former centre for the Royal Bank of Scotland. It’s now leased out to digitally-driven companies and agencies. The new interior reflects trends in workplace design; the 1980s anonymity of big-business architecture (stone cladding, vast central atrium, muted colours) has given way to the post-Millennial workplace (the atrium has a cafe and is open to the public, and you can see the open-plan offices, colourful furniture, and contemporary artwork all around).

We know the ‘playground’ aesthetic of Google workplaces, and Play Station is an imagined continuation of this kind of primary-colours-and-bean-bags aesthetic. But while the interior design of the future workplace will look ever more playful, the underlying economic prerogatives won’t change.

Could you describe the interaction? How do people explore the game and participate?

Play Station is set up as a mandala-like pentagon in the atrium of the White Chapel Building, with each of the five points housing a ‘promo’ station with an Oculus headset, PC, and TV screens playing the instructional video for Farsight Corporation’s ‘new brand of automated workplaces’. The video is for training new employees how to become more efficient workers. Once they put on the VR headset, players engaged in a variety of tasks for fulfilment services (goods distribution). Lucky employees even get to go on Farsight’s rollercoaster ride…

Just like Amazon’s distribution warehouses combine robot and human workforces, there’s a certain kind of automated performance that the player has to learn in order to progress in the game. I’m interested in how video games use ‘fun’ and interactivity to make the player forget the actual physical work and repetitive motion required to play the game.

I actually really dislike putting on those ugly, unhygienic VR goggles. And i’ve had to wear them A LOT over the past few years. Sometimes it was worth it though. What do you find compelling and relevant in VR technology? What makes you want to work with this technology?

I’m most interested in the how the player becomes a performer to other members of the audience, who are also waiting for their turn to become a performer themselves.

There’s a huge difference between ‘ideal’ VR where the virtual world is indistinguishable from the physical one, and the sheer clumsiness of the technology itself. VR headsets add a comedic element to interaction in a public space. At its most basic level, putting on goggles is being blindfolded to your immediate surroundings. When you’re playing, you become the object of attention for other viewers to look at, but you remain happily complicit in this relationship because you’re in another world. This results in a strange kind of reverse voyeurism, where the player’s mind is in another world, but their body stays in the public space of the exhibition.

I find these invisible relationships and social connections very interesting. While exploring, people express subconscious parts of their personality in how they interact with virtual worlds. Some want to win the game by exhausting all possible routes; others want to walk off the edge of the planet. All of these approaches express an attempt to make sense of the world, to master it, to explore the joy or sadness within it; except that it’s literally through the lens of this absurd VR technology that we see as somehow ‘advanced’.

Lawrence Lek, Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD), 2016 

Lawrence Lek, Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD), 2016

Lawrence Lek, Geomancer, Commissioned for the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2017

Lawrence Lek, Geomancer, Commissioned for the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2017

Is the future of work something that concerns you personally? Because i suspect that one day AI will take an even more ‘active’ role in the field of creativity as well.

I think AI will increasingly learn to perform ever more complex and creative tasks. I’m interested what this means in my own role as an artist. Can every job be replaced? Is being a writer and artist any different in essence from being a warehouse worker or stockbroker? We all have to make decisions based on certain rules that govern our task. Of course, there’s the romantic ideal of an artist making genius masterpieces. But these are also the result of a very large series of decisions, tastes and preferences as well as the mastery of a range of skills.

My last film, Geomancer, addresses this a problem specifically. While seeking independence from the Singapore government, the satellite AI decides that the most illogical (and therefore most compelling) thing for them to do is to become an artist. What kind of art work would a consciousness create if they had the whole store of human knowledge, of every human and machine language, the entire archive of the internet from 1969 to 2065? And also the capacity to use machine vision on an unimaginable scale, perceiving and recording the movement of every wave and living creature within the ocean? The places where this posthuman idea of creativity will lead are terrifying and beautiful, and maybe even sublime. I think that’s where technology and art are heading.

Thanks Lawrence!

You can experience Play Station at The White Chapel Building for Art Night 2017 on July 1. Lawrence Lek will also be joining Art Night curator, Fatos Üstek at Whitechapel Gallery on Thursday 6 July to discuss his new project.

Play Station by Lawrence Lek for Art Night 2017 is a co-commission by Outset Young Patron Circle and Art Night, supported by Derwent London. Art Night is sponsored by Phillips.