Portrait Ian Cheng

Thousand Islands Thousand Laws, 2013 
Live simulation, sound, infinite duration
Courtesy of the artist, Pilar Corrias Gallery, Standard (Oslo)

Figures fall chaotically, cranes take flight, half-rendered dogs roam around threadbare computer-game landscapes. No matter how long you watch Ian Cheng‘s video installations, the logic of what‘s happening remains out of reach. The artist himself doesn‘t know how his simulations are going to turn out. He merely sets the parameters: a virtual ecosystem and characters whose actions are partly scripted and partly determined by chance. These works seem to circle around themselves, which raises several questions. Gianni Jetzer met up with the New York-based artist for an interview.

Gianni Jetzer: You studied cognitive science and then decided to become an artist. Both scientists and artists ask big questions such as: What is the fabric of reality made of? How can technology move society forward? Do you benefit from this dual experience?

Ian Cheng: Cognitive science remains in the background of all my work. It’s always there in the sense that I think about how art affects the mind and how you can trick the mind, rather than how to change the physical materiality of reality. When I studied cognitive science, I wanted to have tools to understand how people behave and think. After graduating, I found it hard to imagine myself inside a lab, doing research on one or two problems for the rest of my life. That idea felt very scary and removed from the world. Art can be a place where you have the freedom to choose your own problems, at whatever scale you wish. The legitimacy of art is measured on its capacity to offer perspective, no matter how experimental or imaginative, and that allows for a lot more freedom.

Your work was once described as “playing in a neuro-gym”. Can you relate to that image?

Yes, because I created that phrase [laughs]. My favorite artworks impose an immediate feeling or state in me. Even if the art contains complex ideas and perspectives, the force of that sensation becomes a portal into those perspectives. An artwork that invents a bodily feeling has a greater biological capacity to transmit complex ideas. I want my works to function that way too. The idea of the “neurological gym” implies that art can exercise a viewer’s mind, exercise pathways of feelings. It’s very hard for art to change the material world, but I think it can effectively change people’s minds, refactoring their relationship to that world.

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How did you end up working with computer technology?

Computers are simply a relevant tool and cultural motif for me at this moment. The basic material I am working with is behavior, which is a soft material. That’s what my live simulations are organized around. They’re not about the materiality of the installation, they’re not about computer animation; they’re about trying to ob- serve, play with, and sculpt behavior. The apparatus of the computer simulation just makes composing with behavior quicker, easier, cheaper, and more varied. Maybe ten years from now, when synthetic biology becomes affordable and accessible to artists, I will work with real organisms.

There was a lot of confusion around the term “simulation” in the art of the 1980s. Jean Baudrillard was quoted enthusiastically by many artists, until the French philosopher declared that it was all a misunderstanding. How do you define simulation in your work?

For me, simulation means compressing the full-spectrum dynamics of life into a closed system in order to examine a slice of those dynamics with greater clarity. In a simulation, you artificially establish a set of rules and principles, but then allow those principles to play out. Previous arguments against simulation were based on the idea that there is a simulated inauthentic world versus a real authentic world. I hate this distinction. It’s really false, because the human mind can never really connect to the full “fire hose” of reality. Instead, it must simulate reality as curated slices of life in order to function without having a sensory meltdown. Look at us: we are in the process of an interview right now, so we are deeply connected to this moment of conversation. But we are completely disconnected from so many other aspects of reality in this moment – our email, the Hirshhorn Museum, our families, our heartbeat, the citizens of Washington DC. To be human is to simulate little micro-slices of reality before jumping to the next simulation. Giving this a form and a name within the context of art is a way to deliberately appreciate and play with this natural fact of filtering reality.

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Can you give an example from real life?

When I play with my Corgi dog, it’s a completely simulated zone. I stop thinking about all my anxiety and stress, and I’d like to think that my dog ignores food, toys, and other people too. There’s this Philip K. Dick quote: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I think it’s really true. You can only touch upon a little bit of reality at a time, even as it objectively continues on wavelengths you cannot or choose not to give attention to. The best we can do evolutionarily is to become better at managing which simulation our mind is playing within; which simulation is best suited for dealing with the external reality at hand.

One important subject in the creation of digital identities is the notion of the body. Digital bodies are fluid, ethereal, they don’t age, they seem to have no limits. But when you switch o  the power, the screen goes black.

I took a DNA test: you spit in this tube, send it to California, and they tell you what your DNA implies. They told me I have a 49% chance of Alzheimer’s after age 75, which is quite high. The average American has something like a 17% chance. When you have Alzheimer’s, your mind erodes but your body remains completely intact. My body will still be me – it will look like me – but because of the decay of the mind and the decay of the continuity of who I think I am, who I thought I was, and who I am going to be, and my relation to people, my identity will be lost. It doesn’t matter that my body is still around; I am not here, the lights are off. It seems, then, that the thing we value is not the body of a person, it is the continuity of a person.

So the physical body is overrated?

... or continuity is underrated. Remembering your past, knowing the link between the past and the present, and – beyond that – imagining your future. When you look at a photo of yourself as a child, not a single atom in your body in that photo exists anymore. Physiologically and materially, that’s a whole other person. All those cells – skin cells, internal cells, brain cells – are gone, dead, renewed. But we know there is a link between that childhood organism and the one you are now; there is continuity. I think maybe that’s the perspective that will get us beyond moral arguments against future modifications of the body, the mind, and of networking with the mind.

If the focus becomes about an appreciation for continuity, the future suddenly seems a lot less about cliched visions of dystopia or utopia.

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In the case of the main figure in Emissary in the Squat of Gods (2015), how did you go about developing her behavior?

The work contains almost 50 characters. She is the main protagonist, but also part of a larger community. All the other characters have a very basic intelligence that is inspired by the Sims, which was one of the first video-games to develop the idea that intelligence is not just in your head; it’s distributed into the objects in your environment. Intelligence arises out of a relationship with your context and its changing affordances, not out of a platonic ideal of inner smartness. From the perspective of an AI character, it has a set of needs, like hunger, being social, organizing the environment, and maintaining energy levels.

How do basic needs work for a digital character in your simulation?

All the objects in the environment, including other characters, contain advertisements that announce the fulfillment of a need. If I look at a water bottle, it will say: “Drink me, if you are thirsty!” All the characters in this simulated community generate a kind of emergent crowd intelligence. In contrast, the emissary character sits outside of this AI model. Instead of having needs and looking for advertisements, she has narrative goals. Her goal might be to climb to the top of a mountain, acquire a bucket, put ash in it, go talk to the shaman. Those goals are a way of simulating the idea of consciousness as an ability to imagine yourself narratively in the future, when you face a new problem. But because all the other AIs in her little virtual community behave reactively, based on their impulsive needs, they can distract the emissary from fulfilling her goals. The work is about these two forces sculpting each other and seeing which one wins; which one is more adaptive under various conditions.

In your virtual landscape, two stages of cognitive evolution collide. Do you also create a parallel between the history of cognition and the emergent consciousness of machines?

If machine intelligence is built right, it necessarily means there is a distance: we can never really know what or how machines are thinking, just as we can never really know what a dog is thinking. My favorite book, Julian Jaynes’s The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, suggests that ancient humans didn’t have the consciousness app. They couldn’t imagine into the future narratively, and instead heard vocal hallucinations that told them what to do in situations that habit or life experience had no reference for. Imagine a world where everyone in your community basically behaves like a schizophrenic talking to voices. It sounds like a hellish place to live. But back then, it was as normal as answering email is to us. And I think the same will happen in the future, with artificial intelligences communicating with each other, our relationship with AIs, and our unfolding relationship to ourselves. It’s actually hard to imagine how alien we will become from our 2016 selves.

In science fiction, artificial intelligence often goes rogue. How far would you go in the creation of artificial intelligence?

One of my dream projects is to collaborate with an artificial intelligence, and not just to say, “This work is by Ian,” but to say,

“This work is by us: Ian and Sally the AI.”

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And looking at this work, you would understand that it is indeed a collaboration of equivalent status, the way that Fischli/Weiss are collaborators or, John and Paul, or Jobs and Wozniak. You would understand that the machine has the same creative status in making something as the human. It’s a dream of mine to reach that level: not only in production, but in a world where we as viewers would recognize the legitimacy of this status.

Will virtual reality eventually make the physical body obsolete?

I think virtual reality will have the opposite effect: it will give us a deeper appreciation for physical reality and for the physical body; an appreciation for how truly weird it is, how we are already disembodied from it, how meaningless it is without context or life scripts. When I brush my teeth, I am not thinking of the physical sensation of brushing my teeth. Imagine how tedious it would be to think about each step you walk. Virtual reality forces us to consciously think about walking again, or simple gestures like coordinating your hand to touch your teeth. Over time, VR will allow us to more fully understand the virtual reality our biological senses and sensory processing already submit us to. It will offer a quicker, faster, and more agile way to manipulate all the problems that come from living in such an objectively weird world.—

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GIANNI JETZER is an independent curator and critic as well as curator at large at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC. He lives in New York.

IAN CHENG, born 1984 in Los Angeles, lives in New York. EXHIBITIONS: Liverpool Biennial (forthcoming), Migros Museum, Zurich (solo); Suspended Animation, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC (2016); Emissary Forks At Perfection, Pilar Corrias, London (solo); Co-Workers, Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris / Bétonsalon, Paris; Emissary in the Squat of Gods, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin (solo); Open Source, Max Hetzler, Berlin; Real Humans, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf (solo, with Wu Tsang, Jordan Wolfson) (2015); Taipei Biennial; Triennale Di Milano (2014); Baby Feat. Bali, Standard (Oslo), Oslo (solo); Lyon Biennial; ProBio, Expo1, MoMA PS1, New York (2013). REPRESENTED BY: Pilar Corrias, London; Standard (Oslo), Oslo; Formalist Sidewalk Poetry Club, Miami

Ian Cheng's solo exhibition "Forking at Perfection" at Migros Museum in Zurich is on view until 16 May 2016.

This text appears in Spike Art Quarterly N° 47 and is available for purchase at our online shop