Credit: © Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo: Katie Morrison
© Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo: Katie Morrison
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Review

Lawrence Lek: ‘Black Cloud Highway’

4 out of 5 stars
Eddy Frankel
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Time Out says

Who cares if androids dream of electric sheep, the real question is do they ever get lonely? 

Black Cloud, the AI in Lawrence Lek’s film of the same name, does. It watches over an abandoned city, SimBeijing, which was built to test self-driving cars, and Black Cloud is its sentinel. But every crash it reports leads to the departure of other AIs. The more it follows its programming, its purpose, the more isolated it becomes. Now, Black Cloud is utterly alone, and the solitude is suffocating.

The film traces its efforts to seek therapy from the company that built the ghost city that Black Cloud now watches over for no reason. It searches desperately for answers. It feels trapped, miserable, its artificial intelligence is a burden. A fox wanders down deserted, crumbling highways, in a sort of emotional, virtual reimagining of Samuel Delaney’s ‘Dhalgren’. All around the screen, broken car parts hang from the ceiling on chains, the knackered corpses of former AIs. 

Upstairs, a game lets you play as a self-driving car, speeding down the highways of SimBeijing. Do you listen to the warnings of Black Cloud, or do you drive yourself into oblivion? It doesn’t matter, because choice is an illusion, you’re programmed to obey. 

Lek’s atmospheric, absorbing, clever work wants to be about technological autonomy, the independence of future intelligences. But it’s Lek’s best work to date because it accidentally ends up just being about us, about loneliness and freedom, and how we all end up pretty broken anyway.

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