Ian Cheng: Emissary Forks at Perfection
Pilar Corrias, London
13 October – 14 November 2015
by HARRIET THORPE
American artist Ian Cheng (b1984, Los Angeles) is exhibiting his first solo show in the UK at Pilar Corrias in London. The work is a live simulation titled Emissary Forks at Perfection (2015), a follow-up to his Serpentine Digital Commission created earlier this year, Emissary in the Squat of Gods. Both works explore biological evolution through an unwinding and always distracted narrative.
The piece is projected across the long wall of Pilar Corrias Gallery, an oblong-shaped space that stretches back from the street, located near London’s Oxford Circus. The scene in the simulation morphs from a paradise of silver sand and sprouting green-leafed plants to a soft purple landscape with yellow clouds pooling in the sky. Characters, including an orange pointy-eared dog, and objects, from lamps to pot plants, appear to move in tandem to a rhythm, crossing paths and interacting with each other along the way.
Although the work is repetitive, it is never quite regular. It is unpredictable, with a life of its own, which was one of Cheng’s intentions with the piece. “So many times, and rightly so, we think of a computer, or any kind of software, as a glorified calculator,” says Cheng, “But with 3D simulations, I’ve tried very hard to create a format where it has enough complexity and life of its own that you have to accept the computer-simulation programme as an organism in itself.”
So how did he achieve the “live” nature of his simulation? “It starts from a prototype of very basic behaviours of individual objects or characters, even something as basic as the ability to walk from A to B,” he explains. “A lot of the complexity that emerges when you see it, is just having a lot of very simple behaviours and creatures in the same space as each other.” Curating those basic characters and objects creates numerous outcomes, and some interesting “dog/waterbottle moments”, as he calls them.
The main character in the simulation is a Shiba, a Japanese breed of dog, accompanied by a fellow pack that tumbles along behind, circulating in a stream of consciousness, following their whims and fancies. On Cheng’s Instagram feed, there are quite a few orange dogs to be seen, as well as some cats. These were photos sent by his mother-in-law, he says, before adding that he never had a dog when he was growing up, but always wished he had. “When I see dogs now, I feel a tremendous amount of stress-release – secretly, the backstory of this work was that I wanted to make a project that would relax me, and part of that was emulating and exploring dog behaviour.”
In the simulation, the viewer watches the dog moving from the green and silver paradise to the purple/yellow and later into an orange one. We keep up with the dog from a strange sense of perspective, as if we are tumbling, swinging, never quite focusing on anything. The viewpoint, explains Cheng, is nature itself. “Early on, when I started making these, I tried very hard to create complexity from a god’s-eye, top-down perspective, and micro-engineer the whole thing, but there were so many dead ends and I realised that the way forward was to mimic nature itself, which is brutal, hellish, stupid and genius at the same time. Nature doesn’t have a big-picture view, it just lets every little thing go its course.”
While in previous works Cheng was making simulations in a very open way, selecting characters based on internal feeling, with more recent simulations he has begun to work with a fixed narrative, in which the Shiba is the protagonist. The simulation is set in the ecological paradise of a volcanic crater, thousands of years in the future when there is no human civilisation – “not in a dystopian way, but simply that there’s nowhere in occupancy or no tourism”. In the story, the guardian of the crater is an artificial intelligence character who is breeding a pack of dogs. One day, the pack discovers the body of a 21st-century human. The AI resurrects the human and sends the dogs to give it a tour of the crater and help it recreate objects it understands, such as a hotel room.
Cheng constructed this narrative, he says, mainly as a device, a way to constrain his decision-making process, and that of the simulation. The narrative acts as a force for the live nature of the simulation to interfere with. “The idea was to hijack or sabotage the script and not to do that by myself, but have the simulation ruin the script.” He makes an analogy to explain further: “I’m trying to make a soup, but I have to decide up front that, if I’m going to improvise a soup, I have to start from some base, like a Thai soup. Then I can let the kitchen boiler go wild, but before that I needed a seed for the simulation, a narrative foundation and then they are the ingredients, the materials that the computer plays with.”
He describes the collision of the two structures, the deterministic narrative and the endless live simulation, and how their combination creates an unknown length of simulation: “The main dog – unlike all the other creatures in the landscape, which are reactive and have different modular behaviours – has a primary behaviour, which is a set of narrative goals. The Shiba does eventually fulfil its narrative goals, but it’s unclear how long it will take it. It could take it five minutes, though usually it takes it around 20 minutes. In testing, it sometimes takes three hours because it gets so disturbed by other things.”
It is this lack of control over the work that Cheng enjoys most. “The cause of basic human stress is when your habits, memories and life experiences are no longer relevant to the problem at hand, and in a way I try to sabotage myself to create that moment. After a while, it’s out of control and the best thing I can do is to train the work itself as if it were a dog.”
Just like his interest in the Shiba, his motives are linked to his personal experience. “There’s so much uncertainty and unknowingness, I think that’s a feeling everyone experiences being alive, but especially not really having a nine-to-five job. No one really cares more than myself about what I’m doing, which is completely fine, I’m my own boss. But what that means pragmatically is that I face a void everyday. I don’t know what tomorrow is. I don’t know quite where this is going to go.
“On one hand, there is a sense of pretty chaotic, endless possibility, of unknown-ness in the nature of the simulation itself, and, on the other hand, to meet the unknown-ness with a sense of relaxation, because that’s basically an acceptance, but also putting aside a feeling of fear and I think that’s an important emotion to take to the mental gym.”
What about the title of the work, Emissary Forks at Perfection? Cheng says he loves a great title. “I like the ability of a title to be a mini portal in your brain, such an economical little portal, and then your brain naturally unfolds into an entire set of feelings. I definitely seek to create titles that capture feeling rather than a conceptual idea.
“Forking is a very nerdy term,” he explains. “It’s a computer science term used in software development. If a team of software developers are working on a new product, they will ‘fork’ the product during its making whenever they want to try to add something really radical or a new feature. Rather than disturb the original product that they’re working on, they fork it and make an exact copy so they can work on that. If it’s good, they’ll merge it back into the original product, and if it’s bad, they have a safe place to discard it as backup.”
He continues, gathering momentum: “The idea that I have is, what if, and it’s fantasy, but what if you could apply that to biological systems, what if you could apply that to creatures, if you could fork yourself? If you could fork Harriet, if I could fork Ian? You would then have an amazing and cognitive ability, if you could just imagine for a second, that you could basically create a temporary clone of yourself, a nice backup that can be the one that worries for you, and you can go ahead and leap off some ledge and test your own limits. The idea of the dog in this narrative is that the AI is constantly forking the dog, and, over time, evolves it much quicker than it would actually evolve and, in part, helps it to eradicate certain instincts and amplify certain others, and eradicate certain fears it might have of the unknown, by simply putting it in another vessel of itself so it’s like a temporary clone.”
In the gallery, the dogs tumble along with ease, their colourful shapes multiplying, heightening and falling across the wall, morphing between scenes, quite oblivious of this new layer of meaning that Cheng has woven within their very existence inside this crater. Cheng describes himself as the zookeeper, overseeing nature, yet still just letting every little thing go its course. “There are so many kinds of animation and moving image that it’s very easy to be very spectacular,” he says, “but I really wanted to create a dynamic that was endless and changing, but that was very relaxing almost like a spa.”
As you stand in the oblong-shaped bubble of the gallery and the hypnotic simulation continues to roll on for an unknown period of time, the work allows you to escape for a moment, from the thumping pulse of London’s aorta, and float up inside the forked version of yourself, imagining that maybe, for once, when you step back out into the unknown, that step could be a fearless one.