Last February, shortly after the opening of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s show of recent computer-generated art, called “Suspended Animation,” Ian Cheng received an urgent text message. Cheng’s work in the show, Emissary in the Squat of Gods (2015), is about a prehistoric girl trying to decide how to respond to the threat of a volcanic eruption. But there was a problem—the girl had been idling and staring at an ash particle for two hours. Was that supposed to happen?
It was, and it wasn’t. Cheng makes what he calls “live simulations,” and each one, he says, is something like “a video game that plays itself.” He doesn’t know what will happen in his works because they are infinitely mutating, never finished, and quite literally evolving. Cheng may not have intended for the girl to get stuck for two hours, but if she did that, he accepted it. The girl’s actions were no longer up to him. The work wasn’t under his control anymore.
“I can’t fully hone in on the emotion that it should capture because I honestly don’t know what it’s going to do,” Cheng told me on a chilly February day in his small, one-room office in New York’s Chinatown. “You can resolve that into something really elegant or beautiful. But it is, in fact, in a feeling of confusion.”
Describing Cheng’s simulations can be a challenge. The characters in them look like computerized versions of real-life animals and humans, but, because Cheng is working with a video-game engine that keeps creating new combinations, the figures can smash into each other and break into overlapping geometric planes. Though what the work will do is left up to chance, Cheng has a narrative in mind before he starts working, and his works loosely follow it.
When I met him, Cheng had just returned from Zurich, where he had opened a solo show at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, and he was still jetlagged. Cheng had also recently overseen the installation of his simulation at the Hirshhorn, and another work of his had just gone on display in MOCA Cleveland’s “Stranger,” which surveys artists who depict humans in odd, new ways. All three shows opened in the past three months, and all speak to the way Cheng creates scenarios in which humans have to rethink their relationship to technology. What if software updates and new models aren’t the only way technology is evolving? What if technology is evolving us, rather than the other way around?
In his studio, Cheng had a white desk with two computer monitors and a flat-screen television. He wore all black. The only object that stuck out in the room was a copy of Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Cheng’s favorite book. Most of Cheng’s work happens in the computer, opening what seems to be a highly organized space into something random and uncharted. Raphael Gygax, the curator of Cheng’s Migros Museum show, said that this randomness even extends to how Cheng’s work is displayed. “As soon as you have technology as a partner at your side, unforeseen things can happen,” he wrote in an email. “Loss of energy, loss of Wi-Fi signals, updates, conversion problems. A new set of problems—but nothing that can’t be resolved.”
When he was growing up in Los Angeles, Cheng’s mother took him movie-hopping on Saturdays. They sometimes saw six and a half movies in one day. After he graduated from UC Berkeley in 2006 with a dual degree in art and cognitive science, he worked at Industrial Light & Magic, which has done special effects for the Star Wars and Transformers movies. Then, after a year of doing visual effects, he went back to school and received an M.F.A. from Columbia University in 2009. “It’s a little bit weird because I love movies, and I sometimes love movies more than I love art,” Cheng (who has also written speculative fiction based on the structure of Game of Thrones) said.
But Cheng also mourned the fact that films have fixed narratives—in a theater, you can’t change how they’ll play out. Video games, he explained, put narratives in the hands of players. Cheng loves The Sims, a computer game in which the player controls a person and guides him or her through life. The genius of The Sims, Cheng said, is “this idea that intelligence is not just in your head. It’s distributed between you and all the objects and other people that are around you,” so by having a Sim interact with an environment, players create stories. In a sense, Cheng’s work is movies plus video games: they can be watched like a film, but the film progresses seemingly through its own willpower.
Gianni Jetzer, the curator of “Suspended Animation,” compared Cheng’s simulations to bird-watching. “It’s not really a Frankenstein moment where the figures walk offscreen,” Jetzer said, but viewers come to see the live simulations “as a form of reality. That’s an important part of Ian Cheng’s work—that you really get into the skin of a cyborg anthropologist, that you watch this strange digital tribe, which reflects the history of human evolution, basically.”
For instance, in his simulation Thousand Islands Thousand Laws (2013), an urban soldier with a gun, who is appropriated from a real video game, stands in a white landscape that also has birds and plants. The birds keep attacking the soldier, something Cheng never even anticipated. The soldier, the birds, the plants, “They each have their own laws,” Cheng said, “but in overlaying them, the idea was that some kind of implicit law would emerge in how they organize themselves, how they negotiate being together with conflicting scripts.”
Since then, Cheng’s narratives have become more intricate—he’s now conceiving the third work in a trilogy of simulations about cognitive evolution. The trilogy begins in the distant past and ends in the far future, in a scenario that Cheng described as an “abstract” ecology that is “definitely not human.”
The first, Emissary in the Squat of Gods, the one in “Suspended Animation,” is set in prehistoric times and follows a shaman who gets hit on the head after an earthquake. The seismic shift is the result of a volcano, but the shaman doesn’t know it yet—he’s never seen an eruption. Should he uproot the community or not? He and his apprentice disagree. “It’s precisely in this moment where it’s the threat, and not the actual disaster, that humans find the most anxiety-provoking and the most stressful,” Cheng said. “You don’t actually know which way to go. It’s an uncertain moment, and so the shaman’s bias is roughly toward wanting to stay, and then the emissary apprentice character’s bias is toward wanting to convince everyone to leave.”
In the semi-sequel Emissary Forks at Perfection (2015), which is now on view at the Migros Museum, a dog character named the Shiba Emissary, a descendant from the first simulation, appears 3,000 years later. The landscape is the same, but now it’s populated by artificial animals that resurrect a dead celebrity from the 21st century. The dog, Cheng said, is “a means of talking about where consciousness can go, without eradicating powerful emotions like fear and anxiety, which can be very useful.” (The artist is currently working on an app for the Serpentine Galleries called Bad Corgi, in which users play as a dog herding sheep.)
Cheng has been known to describe his work as a “neurological gym,” and Jetzer said that it’s this quality of Cheng’s work that intrigues him. “His work makes people more fit, more adept to dealing with digital relations,” Jetzer said.
A large part of Cheng’s Migros Museum show is devoted to a new installation that uses Google’s Project Tango devices, which can sense where a user is in a room. Museum visitors can use the tablets to follow the Shiba Emissary. The dog will say “Follow me” to viewers, and, once viewers move close to it, the dog will make the clicking noise animal trainers make to reinforce good behavior. “It’s a virtual dog quite literally forcing your physical behavior to become different,” Cheng explained. In other words, as he later clarified, “You are its pet.”