Tank meets the video artist (left) and the musician, who collaborated on a work, Unreal Estate (the Royal Academy is yours), which recently won the ICA’s Tenderflix Prize and the Converse x Dazed Emerging Artists Award. In the installation, which was created as a first-person video game, the Royal Academy has been sold off to a foreign billionaire.
Portrait: Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie
Tank So when did you meet? Had you worked together before Unreal Estate?
Lawrence Lek It’s quite interesting actually – out of the blue, Olly sent me a track called “Dragons”.
Oliver Coates Oh yeah! I think we had written to each other before that, after we found each other online.
LL Olly didn’t know I was working on a piece for the Royal Academy. I was experimenting with a few things, extracts of songs and ambient tracks I had made. Then I just put “Dragons” over the video and it worked perfectly. I don’t know why it’s called that, but in medieval map-making, when the cartographer didn’t know an unexplored part of the world, he wrote “hic sunt dracones” – “here be dragons”. It’s probably a myth, but I thought it was interesting that there was a term about our mental conception of an unexplored land. I asked Olly if he wanted to do the entire soundtrack, and I ended up using five out of the 30 or so unreleased tracks he sent. That became the video work.
OC “Dragons” comes from thinking about the Royal Asiatic Society, where my wife works and has access to these old Chinese dictionaries. She’s adept at finding various bits of text based on ancient sword-making legends. Around the same time I made a track called “Geoengineering”. I was really interested in the control of weather systems and at the same time how belief systems are constructed. Geoengineering is a scientific process, but in my mind I connected being cut off from modernity in a rural setting and seeing the weather change artificially, then believing dragons in the sky are making it happen. It’s also there in the ancient chronicles of Ireland. This ancient and modern aspect – that’s also what you were working on.
LL The Royal Academy is a neoclassical building. It’s old, but when it was built it was referencing a historical Roman style, so it’s doubly ancient somehow.
OC There’s a lot of that when people talk about classical art or classical music. The classicism they refer to is often a sort of Greek neo-Hellenism, in opposition to baroque style. You hanker after a more pure form. It’s funny that those sorts of words get used to refer back to a golden time, of ratios and empirical ways of building – it can be within a phrase of music or it can be a building.
LL When did classical music become “classical” music?
OC Right, I feel I have some answers on that but they’re contentious. It comes from the 19th century and the canonising of a “golden period” of Western art music beginning with J.S. Bach. The idea of a classical style in music is more recent and contentious. In the 1960s, there was a box set released of Herbert von Karajan conducting all of Beethoven’s symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic. There had been other complete cycles of Beethoven’s symphonies, but von Karajan was probably the biggest conductor yet.
LL Was that also to use the recordings as a form of dissemination: to commercialise classical music?
OC Right, that’s also part of enshrining or canonising. To box everything together, the hours of symphonic sound in one place, is a statement. It’s like somebody writing the history of the world in nine volumes. The liner notes compliment the performance on these records as having a hallmark of classical style. Meaning that the tempos are uniform. This is the first recorded instance of someone describing a classical way of playing a piece of music, as opposed to a romantic way. The different themes and melodies are played at the same speed: the sad, lyrical, slow theme and the pumped-up, heroic one are metrically connected in performance. It supposedly creates cohesion across a longer span of time. Whereas the other idea, in the 19th century, was that you improvise it a bit more. If the theme gets more sentimental and lyrical, the conductor slows down – you milk it. There’s some evidence that Beethoven himself changed the tempo often, rising and falling with the emotion. Then comes this idea of the classical style in the 20th century which is this idea of order, reining in your impulses to have one collected vision of tempo. That, for me, refers to classical style. I actually think classical music is more of an industry or economic term.
LL The interesting thing is, neoclassical architecture came about at the same time – what would later become the romantic period. The difference is that it was consciously replicating architectural styles of the past and refining and unifying them to create civic landmarks in newly formed Germany or France or the United Kingdom. The Houses of Parliament is a good example: a half-gothic, half-classical attempt to find the right style for a new kind of enlightenment-inspired government.
OC What I love so much about your work is that it suggests the utopian. You have these flights of fancy, like when you connected all the art galleries in London on one circular Tube line.
LL Unreal Estate is really about the ownership of space, and the complex nature of desire. The premise is that the Royal Academy is now a luxury playboy mansion which some billionaire has bought. The voiceover begins, “Congratulations! Your bid for Burlington House was successful. The former home of the Royal Academy of Arts is now yours.” The viewer becomes the owner of the building. Institutions are great for what they do, but the model is so static: here’s a space containing art. The situation improves when art or music can be distributed more freely. It’s like the Royal Academy becomes a gift.
OC I think about codes of behaviour in a particular kind of space. In many predefined spaces, a gig venue, an art gallery or a classical concert hall, what comes with that space and that architecture is a kind of ritual. You’re meant to go at a certain time; you know how to behave. Some gigs you’re meant to turn up later than it says on the billing; some gigs woe betide you if you’re a minute later than 7:30. What I really love is when I see people of all types and ages being liberated because they enter a space and there is not yet any known code of behaviour. I played in this abandoned swimming pool in Norway, and when you take away the purpose of the building, the functionality of the changing rooms, suddenly you see all these Norwegians getting crazy, being like children again, running around and testing what is and isn’t permissible. People love wide-open space where no social group is telling you this is what you ought to be doing – the rules are as yet unwritten. You put music on in there and you get this incredible, wild utopia.
You get to do that a little bit when you riff on a pre-existing space. I love the idea of faked, found spaces – that’s why I like Mike Nelson’s artworks so much. They are labyrinthine, set-like works that take a lot of time to build and they’re hauntological and all this. People love going to them – people love being given permission to explore where they’re not really meant to. So to be told that the Royal Academy is no longer an art gallery, you get to explore it in an altered state, I think that’s kind of fun.
LL It’s an uncanny experience, the joy of trespassing in a virtual replica of a real place. Sneaking around becomes a playful activity. Most spaces, not only a gallery, but even a private house, are highly codified; you don’t just open doors and wander around. What’s interesting in showing it through a video-game format is that everyone becomes an active wanderer as opposed to just a passive visitor. They’re meant to treat the Royal Academy like their home.
OC There’s something else about the format. One of the best ways that people get to know music obsessively is through video games, when you would attempt a level over and over, for many hours over many weeks. You would know the feeling of going into that forest and the elvish music that would kick in.
I love that. The album no longer has a primacy in people’s lives, we’re more shuffly with the way we pick and choose, so that relationship in your work, where you move into a new room and new sounds are triggered, that’s wonderful because it takes work to get to know the patterns in unfamiliar music, and repeatability is one of the best ways. It goes deep. We’re looking for gold dust all the time; we’re looking for little bits we can return to. I love this idea of the World of Warcraft fan entering the forest for the 2,000th time and the choir starts singing. That’s a happy place in my head.
Tank Who found the excerpt from Russian Tatler that you used for the voiceover?
LL Susanna Davies-Crook, who curated the show, mentioned it while we were talking about neo-liberal commerce and the idea of luxury. Underlying a lot of media discussion about property and luxury is xenophobia. It was the Russians five years ago and now it’s the mainland Chinese. The “other” billionaire always changes. I wanted to translate the Russian text to Chinese to reflect that.
OC Who’s next after the Chinese billionaire?
LL I think it’ll go in cycles. Now it’s kind of back to people from the Middle East. You’ll see it in the Evening Standard: “Saudi prince parks £3m Lamborghini illegally.” The enemy shifts all the time. But with luxury and wealth there’s an underlying jealousy that’s tied in with desire. It’s revulsion and envy together. Sadly, it’s much easier to have a moral judgment than to have any agency over actual living standards. Unreal Estate was about a really simple fantasy: I would love to live at the Royal Academy. It would be great if that was my flat rather than being a property guardian in Whitechapel.
OC The sound at the Royal Academy is amazing. When we played the live show, just one note on the cello would bring people in from far away. Art galleries and cellos are to die for – the acoustics do all the work for you. I love it when we move away from the structuralist properties of the music – it becomes about activating space and activating a sense of communal love, when people come for no intellectual reason. They don’t know why, they’re just chilled, coming into the light of the space. So often, in galleries, there is this educational quality. It’s often chronological. I want to activate that sense, that atmosphere of magic, and permission to unlock spaces in your head.
LL History and chronology are so interesting, especially now when everything is available. Even though the experience of art and music always happens in the present, the way it’s communicated, or documented, or exhibited, will always be looking backwards, retrospectively. I think that helps people make sense of what would otherwise be this sea of content. Maybe it’s comforting to imagine that music has developed and evolved in a particular direction. It’s like cultural Darwinism: here are the great composers, these are the great artists. Their work survived history, so it must be great.
OC It can be sinister, I think. The great composers are ring-fenced off as examples of genius, whereas they were messy musicians who made a lot of great music. Mozart left the writing of his overture to Don Giovanni to the day before the show. He’s a last-minute guy as well. He’s just as permeable and as subject to social and material forces as any of us.
LL I think the psychology of the last-minute producer is so different from the historian who reconstructs the timelines of culture. They have very different ways of thinking. I’m really glad I’m not a writer or a critic because it doesn’t come naturally at all. In the end, I make things – I’m not responsible for my future history.
OC Do you care whether somebody will one day accurately portray it?
LL No. If my work is about subjectivity, it’s kind of insane to insist on a single interpretation.
Tank History is littered with people who say in their will that their archives must be destroyed, trying to preserve this idea of the single interpretation. And then someone slips some letters into their pocket.
LL When I die, please delete my Dropbox, archive my Twitter and set up an autoresponder for my email. Forever.
OC Now that uploading my consciousness to a hard drive is going to happen, I’m ready. I’ll need Lawrence’s world so my mind doesn’t go completely mad – this digital consciousness will have to have something to exercise itself within. I’m not worried about it. I’ll mingle with other consciousnesses and it’ll all become one. §
Unreal Estate will be released by Slip and performed live at Cafe Oto, London, on December 1. slipimprint.co.uk; kammerklang.co.uk