Nøtel, Lawrence Lek, Installation view at Stroom, Den Haag, Winter 2018. Photo by Tarona Leonora. Courtesy of the artist and Stroom, Den Haag.

Lawrence Lek
Stroom Den Haag 
The Hague

01.09.2018 - 04.11.2018

Honey Jones-Hughes

~ Zerø-Star Treatment 

Prior to a recent stay at one of the locations of the nhow hotel chain, I was offered the opportunity to check in and check out without needing to visit the front desk, or speak to anyone at reception. Located inside Rem Koolhaas’ De Rotterdam building, which he calls a ‘vertical city’, nhow Rotterdam promises “the best urban culture has to offer,” a pitch aimed squarely at designers, architects and other such creatives.

In Stroom’s gallery space, in Den Haag, I find myself reliving this experience. Stroom is the setting for Lawrence Lek’s Nøtel, trailed as “a marketing suite for the Nøtel Corporation; a fictitious hotel chain which promotes a fully automated luxury lifestyle.”  I sit in a white, circular ‘reception’, lit with fluorescent green lights; donning a virtual reality headset, I’m able to explore the facilities offered by the hotel, one of a flagship range within the Nøtel portfolio which Lek calls zerø-star™.  I move as though in a video game, navigating a loop which echoes the ‘reception’ where I left my real body.  The VR glasses take me through check-in and direct me to my room, whilst continually assuring me of total privacy, absolute luxury, and unbeatable security.  I am not in control of my movements.  As I look to the ground, I realise I am not in fact human, but a drone; I watch the propellers as they spin beneath me.  Scored by Kode9 (Steve Goodman), Nøtel keeps me ‘balanced’ and ‘creative’ as it learns my mood and composes music only audible to my ears.  A private symphony serenades me, based on advanced ‘body language translation services’.

The world of Nøtel is a world which facilitates minimal human interaction, and maximum comfort.  Lek uses the figure of the hotel to think about the nature of contemporary work and leisure, pushing us to examine our ways of living.  Born in 1982, the artist taps into widespread millennial concerns around precarity and privilege, inflicting feelings of unease, and inducing self-reflection in the viewer.  Nøtel is a near-future scenario in which all desires are anticipated, a world whose subjects have adapted to the zerø-star™ environment, in which labour is supposedly no longer performed by human hands.  We travel more, work more, and yet as technology advances, fewer of us are needed to complete the tasks required; everyday interactions are increasingly mediated through technology.

The work puts me in mind of the Port of Rotterdam and its ‘ghost terminal’ - the container port on reclaimed land which runs without human workers.  Vessels are automated: remotely monitored ‘drone ships’ dock, robotic cranes load cargo onto freighters.  Nøtel also provokes a discussion around organisations such as Security Delta, a government-sponsored weapons and security interest group based in Den Haag, whose motto ‘Together We Secure the Future’ echoes the dystopian tone of the installation.  In the exhibition literature, Lek notes Den Haag’s ambition to be a city of “Peace, Justice and Security”, and the role of the Dutch government in sponsoring Security Delta’s weapons programme.  In light of a rightward drift in European politics this feels especially pertinent.  Underlying anxieties, which fuel policies of increased border controls and tightened immigration legislation, surface in the work as repeated references to my own security, as a customer.  The space of Nøtel seeks to constantly reassure, a sardonic motif with dark undertones.

Some of the anxieties addressed in Nøtel have a material basis.  In the Global North, the economic crisis has ensured that most young people will never own their own homes; so-called ‘Generation Rent’ are projected to be living in shared or rented accommodation until their early forties.  In Rotterdam, a city constantly in the process of being rebuilt, the majority of new housing is comprised of one or two bedroom properties, designed to target a rental market of young professionals.  City centre social housing, built shortly after the Second World War, has been central to facilitating these changes; older buildings are cleared and the land sold on for the construction of more expensive accommodation, while low-income tenants are relocated further out.  Lek’s work reminds us not to ignore the role of creatives in such gentrification schemes, though it also reflects on the precarious, itinerant existence of the freelancer, and the increasingly standardised aesthetics which accompany this lifestyle.

The luxurious, multi-use spaces springing up in urban centres worldwide are the buildings evoked by Nøtel.  These constructions fulfil multiple requirements; they are places to sleep, work, relax, disrupting traditional categories of work and leisure.  Cocktails on the terrace, squeezing in a gym session, catching up on emails: they satisfy a certain set of needs, for a privileged, professional consumer.  In Lek’s Nøtel, as with De Rotterdam, the cultural cache is enhanced by the involvement of ‘world-famous architects’.  Hotel chains like Citizen M, which target a diverse, modern, creative class, offer customers a small four star room, containing the essentials, and a large ‘living room’ area instead of a lobby; where you can meet, work and eat in style.  A machine dispensing room keycards greets you on arrival.  While Nøtel and its real-life corollaries take care of everything they think I might want, they provoke two major questions: what kinds of desires are being met here, and who is being pushed out of these spaces in order to grant them?  Lek’s work is an exploration of a possible outcome of our current malaise, whereby cities and corporations create spaces which are increasingly optimised for the contemporary freelancing subject, at the expense of housing and public space.  It is frightening and conceivable in equal measure.

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