With over sixty galleries and artist-run spaces participating, the Art Licks Weekend is one of the most consistently interesting features of London’s art calendar. By dint of its disparate nature and vast geographical stretch, though, it suffers from a problem of identity. With venues pock-marking the map of East and South London, it’s difficult to impose a unifying character on it- and there remains a question of just how far a festival that celebrates independence can go towards suppressing its constituent parts into a homogenous whole.
For sculptor Lawrence Lek, the challenge was to find an imaginative solution to these dilemmas. Working in collaboration with Valentina Berardi, Clifford Sage and Andi Schmied, his response was as thrillingly progressive as it was ambitious: if the galleries can’t be brought together geographically or thematically, why not unite them virtually? Working from his studio in Hackney Wick’s The White Building, Lek and his team sought to put the idea into practice.
Bonus Levels, a first-person computer game that brings twenty of the space’s participating in the Art Licks Weekend, is the stunning result of this brainwave. Three laptops rest on perches under a crosshatched wooden structure with images from the screens projected onto the walls of the space around it. On the screens themselves, the visitor finds themselves in a hilly landscape, rendered into the stylised visual argot of 90s Nintendo games. In the middle of a digitally undulating lake stands an enormous, angular tower, of which each floor painstakingly recreates the floor plans and layout of the galleries involved.
The tower’s appearance- accurate digital facsimiles of existing galleries piled high, one atop the other- is, as Lek explains, no accident. Its jagged, unwieldy lurch is reminiscent of some of London’s more blustering new skyscrapers- apt, given that the colossally expensive Olympic development towers are a hop and a skip to the east. Jumping from floor to floor, the player can take in a view of the idyllic virtual panorama, and, if they so wish, plummet twenty storeys to the ground. The point-of-view combined with large-scale projections make for a gloriously cinematic experience. If nothing else, it must be the only computer game ever to feature a blueprint for the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre.
The participatory aspect of the work is as refreshing as it is conceptually satisfying. Lek encourages the player to become a “digital sculptor”, pushing around gallery walls and rearranging materials. Inspired by the theories of the Metabolists, who combined architectural principles with ideas of organic biological structures, his vision is to keep the game running online in perpetuity, adding new floors and maintaining it as a ‘living’ project.
Bonus Levels’ romantic landscape- a violent contrast with the post-industrial drabness of Hackney Wick- is by no means incidental to the work either. While it may be overstating the case to call it a ‘political’ work, it functions as an intriguing comment on the plight of London’s independent galleries and artists; priced out of areas once synonymous with creative endeavour, they find themselves relegated ever further towards the city’s margins- might means one day relocate them from bricks and mortar to pixels and graphics? Brevity precludes an essay on late-stage Capitalism, but Lek articulates these worries with effortless dexterity.