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While discussing the imagined worlds he creates, artist Ian Cheng points to a short parable written by Franz Kafka about the human capacity for change. It goes something like this: Leopards break into temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incorporated into the ritual.
“It’s so beautiful,” says Cheng, sitting in his small, tidy studio in New York City’s Chinatown one hot July day, his chair positioned in front of an air-conditioner running on high. “The leopard is a threat, but if you let it stay it can become incorporated into the ritual, into your life script, into your narrative about your own culture. These are the conditions, narratively, that I try to write.”
Cheng writes—or, one could say, composes—complex and evolving digital worlds that he describes as “a video game that plays itself.” Infinite in duration, these simulations use a form of artificial intelligence to model human behavior. Some take place in the same geographical locations but thousands of years apart. What viewers encounter is a live color projection of a distinct, imagined, and fantastical scenario playing out in real time.
“If you just approach it not knowing what it is, his work may address you like an animated film,” says Eric Crosby, the Richard Armstrong Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Carnegie Museum of Art. “But as you observe this hypnotic thing play out, you realize it has this wonderful aliveness about it.”
Cheng’s works, in fact, are entire ecosystems with characters who have the ability to make decisions that ripple outward and change the world around them in ways unpredictable to even the artist himself. “It’s like that game The Sims,” Cheng says, referencing the popular open-ended simulation series. “Kind of like playing house, but here it’s with a fantastical premise, and something very specific that I wanted to explore.”
Cheng’s most recent work is a trilogy titled Emissaries that tells the story of three communities living in the same landscape but during vastly different eras. Over thousands of years, the environment morphs from erupting volcano, to verdant lake, to sandy expanse. In each simulation, as in Kafka’s parable, a group of computer-generated people and animals such as owls and dogs is presented with a threat and must respond.
Beginning September 22 in its Forum Gallery, Carnegie Museum of Art will exhibit Cheng’s Emissary Sunsets The Self (2017), the third and final piece of the trilogy, inviting viewers inside a vast and desert-like space populated by people who fear a growing plant-like presence that appears sporadically and with increasing sentience. One of the central characters is a member of the community who ventures out and tries to cultivate this plant, become its ambassador, and thwart those who seek to destroy it.
“ I sit down and I start drawing the situation that I’m interested in. Then the greatest pleasure, for me, is figuring out different models of the mind.”
– Ian Cheng
“In each of Ian’s worlds,” says Crosby, “there’s wonderful depth of narrative and philosophical content, which I think is reflected in his unique path to art.”
Cheng grew up in Los Angeles as an only child with deep curiosities. As a kid, he remembers going to the beach with his family and peering into tidal pools like a bunch of petri dishes and seeing “a whole little theater of weirdos,” he says. “I couldn’t tell what’s an animal, what’s a vegetable, what’s a mineral.” If he observed long enough, though, what he thought was a rock would start to creep along. “You realize it has intentions and a sense of agency. I’m just fascinated by that,” says Cheng. In fact, the three Emissaries taken together tell the artist’s version of the history of consciousness itself.
At the University of California Berkeley, Cheng studied cognitive science and art practice before spending a year at George Lucas’ visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic. Along the way, he discovered the work of improv teacher Keith Johnstone.
“His whole approach to improv is that improv is a safe space for the exercise of this other part of your mind that often gets clouded or lost once you leave childhood and you enter the world of school, rules, grades, university, job, life,” says Cheng. “The version of you that’s kind of like a dog or a cat. The version of you that’s hangry. The version of you that’s clownish.”
The goal behind Cheng’s work is to extend that same practice into the artificial surfaces and landscapes of his digital creations. Each work is likened to a kind of “neurological gym” where viewers might feel a sense of confusion, anxiety, and cognitive dissonance—sensations that, typically, we know to avoid or to fear. Whether experienced for 30 seconds or five hours—and audiences do both—the works are meant to be a safe space for exercising our ability to tolerate meaninglessness, surprise, and constant change.
“That kind of risk and complexity is really apt right now,” says Crosby. “Today, we are simply saturated with data, and Ian finds a way to unleash it, allowing art to discover a mind of its own.”
“To see so much surprise in the world is an opportunity to understand this condition, how it feels, and do something with that feeling besides being scared,” says Cheng.
In developing these experiences, he doesn’t start with a computer. “I sit down and I start drawing the situation that I’m interested in,” says Cheng. His notebooks are filled with sketches of each character on repeat—the daughter of a village elder, an adventurous Shiba Inu, a 21st-century human re-awakened in the distant future. “Then the greatest pleasure, for me, is figuring out different models of the mind,” says Cheng. The coding itself is what he considers to be his art; the projection is merely the manifestation of the work that people can experience.
Much of the time, the simulations demonstrate a kind of tediousness of daily life. “It can definitely go to very boring places,” he says, comparing the whole thing to a nature cam or a video feed of a panda at the zoo. “It’s super boring 13 hours a day, and then there is one moment when it’s feeding time or it starts to play with bamboo in an interesting way, and it’s exhilarating.”
“The thrill and wonder of Ian’s work,” Crosby adds, “is that moment when you realize something dormant has come to life.”
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