ATC Revisited: Ian Cheng

27 Apr, 2018

ATC Revisited: Ian Cheng

Recap by KC Forcier, the 2017-2018 Graduate Liaison for the Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium.

"new art, flag art, good art, portal art" - Ian Cheng on Simulation and Narrative

Last Monday’s ATC lecture was something of a homecoming for Ian Cheng: the artist opened his talk by tracing his trajectory from undergrad study in Art Practice here at Berkeley to his current work involving artificial intelligence and simulation. Although now Cheng works in the contemporary art world, exhibiting internationally at institutions including the Whitney in New York and the Tate in London, he got his start working in commercial animation at Industrial Light and Magic. After becoming disillusioned with the lack of conceptual experimentation amongst the digital animation professionals, he decided to return to school to pursue his investigations into narrative, artificial intelligence, and change.

After completing his MFA at Columbia, Cheng began making the live animated simulations for which he is best known. The artist describes these installations as “a computer game that plays itself.” The hugely technical works are as much about the underlying code that drives the simulations as they are about visual design. On Monday night, Cheng offered a “peek under the hood” at his technical and creative process which begins with simple concept drawings. These goofy sketches (“Art is sometimes really stupid,” Cheng insisted) form the basis of the dynamic characters who populate his simulations.

Two of his most recent works, EMISSARIES (MOMA PS1, 2017) and BOB (The Serpentine Gallery, 2018), both involve two groups of fantastical creatures, each species with its own physics and logic. These creatures are brought alive with AI technology simulating basic drives. Ultimately, Cheng’s simulations resemble a digital terrarium, in which two types of creatures confront and react to one another. Their interactions are at times charming and slapstick, at times more sinister and bizarre, and always unexpected.

With these simulations Cheng was particularly interested in exploring narrative as a concept which gives meaning to our lives. If, as Cheng articulates it, “narrative is like a routine that has been interrupted,” then the introduction of a foreign entity into the routine lives of his simulated characters indeed comprises an exciting plot twist. Yet the ongoingness of his works seems to resist narrative: there is no sense of a structuring principle to these worlds, no objective for these creatures besides fulfilling basic needs and responding to stimuli. But that is perhaps the point: to structure a world without meaning and see what meaning arises. Cheng’s sims are programmed to remember: they store every memory and are able to recall emotional states, which in turn influence later behavior. In this way they evolve. There is therefore a sense of futurity, of potential for change in how these creatures relate to one another and to their world.

2018 ATC Ian Cheng