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Ben Vickers on Ian Cheng


I found myself at the Migros Museums in Zürich walking around a gallery marked with strips of tape, otherwise empty, following a virtual Shiba Inu via an interactive tablet computer. The Shiba Inu rewarded me for tagging along saying “good,” and then pranced off in a new direction, prompting me to follow. It dawned on me rather late that I probably looked like an idiot totally absorbed in the experience following a dog in an otherwise empty room. This work, by Ian Cheng, one of the best uses of interactive technology in museums in recent years. Serpentine Curator of Digital Ben Vickers writes about Cheng below. Full version via Artforum.

UNKNOWABLE SIGILS litter the landscape. This is the territory of an ancient community, a culture that drifts in a state of preconsciousness, the shamanic schizoid oblivion that was once the human condition. In Ian Cheng’s Emissary in the Squat of Gods, 2015—an animated simulation that unfolds stochastically, not according to the intent of an author but to the ramifying whims of code, a story with events but no definitive narrative and no predetermined end—everyone hears voices. Thought, in Cheng’s simulated world, takes the bifurcated form theorized by psychologist and 1970s cult figure Julian Jaynes, who argued that one-half of the human mind once spoke to the other in auditory hallucinations, giving rise to the concept of gods. These hallucinations guide the faltering bodies of the populace. It’s here that the first stage of an emissary’s special diplomatic mission to tame and normalize an alien world—a saga too sprawling to be contained in Emissary in the Squat of Gods alone—begins to unfold.

Before attempting to delve further into the cognitive planes in which Cheng’s self-spawning work lives and breathes, it’s necessary to set forth a set of preliminary concepts and assumptions and to describe technologies at once arcane and deterministic. While by no means exhaustive, and necessarily tailored to this text, this list highlights the key terms:

Emergence: Symptomatic of complex, almost unknowable systems, emergence is a result of simple rules and behavioral models interacting over time, giving rise to a near-infinite set of possible configurations and conditions.

Animalism: The theory that personal identity is a function of biology, and possessed by all animals, human and nonhuman alike.

Machine reinforcement learning: An evolutionary mutation in thought flowing from our development of the ability to recognize patterns; among scientists who work on artificial intelligence, the term is used to describe the process by which a series of algorithms becomes capable of improving a model by digesting and responding to the examples fed into it.

Slippery DNA: The movement of one strand of DNA relative to another, resulting in a scrambling of code, an error that, according to researchers, is “amplified” in future generations. Perhaps most clearly evidenced in the evolution of Canidae or, as we have come to know them, dogs.

iPhones and birds’ nests: “If there is an ethic, it is that [the] iPhone is as natural as a bird’s nest, just wrapped in a consensual social reality that allows us to not see the iPhone as a monstrous composite of rare earth material, which it also is.”1

Attempting to unpack the way in which these methods, ways of seeing, and expressions of a world are layered, integrated, and deployed in Cheng’s complex simulated environments would be a fool’s errand, particularly if one wishes to build a meaningful relationship with this world’s inhabitants. The work’s emergent properties are impossible to witness in their entirety. A simulation is not merely a representation, or a predetermined symbolic path. It just is.

These markers of thought give a particular and inimitable texture to the encounter with these living simulations, the habitat-forming ecologies initiated by Cheng. The artist intentionally constructs these habitats with an anthropocentric sense of scale, time, and space, so as to ease viewers’ cognitive load, acknowledging that “nature is often too fast, too slow, too big, too small for us. We desire a live simulation at scale with human space-time.” Over the course of the past few years, he has produced a sequence of increasingly sophisticated live simulations, and in 2015 he debuted the first two installments of a three-part series “dedicated to the history of cognitive evolution, past and future.”

In Emissary Forks at Perfection, 2015, on view in Cheng’s current exhibition at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Zurich, a Shiba Inu—that ancient and much-beloved breed of dog—performs the role of Emissary, which should not be conceptualized as anything like a character or identity that persists across time, but is perhaps better construed as a “ruleset.” Thirty centuries have passed since a volcanic eruption eviscerated the landscape, leaving in its wake the geologic devastation writ large in Emissary in the Squat of Gods. Now the ecological paradise that has formed in the crater of the volcano serves as the fertile terrain for an artificial intelligence named Talus Twenty Nine, and for the Shiba Inu that Talus breeds continuously—a tranquility interrupted only by the resurrection of a twenty-first-century celebrity. As described by Cheng, these are the necessary starting ingredients for an improvised “soup,” the recipe for all the dynamics and relationships that are set to emerge—a fluidity that is apparent at the Migros Museum, where a tablet-based version of Forks permits visitors to enter and walk around in the simulation.

*Image: Ian Cheng, Emissary Forks at Perfection, 2015