United States artist Ian Cheng explores the arbitrariness of human behaviour and power systems.
Multimedia artist Ian Cheng is the recipient of Louis Vuitton’s 2017 Award for the Filmic Oeuvre. Art Radar takes a look at the monographic exhibition entitled “Emissary Forks Featuring Thousand Islands”, on display at Espace Louis Vuitton in München, Germany, until 9 September 2017.
Video games that play themselves
Like the Louis Vuitton Award for the Filmic Oeuvre’s previous winner, new media go-to artist Cory Arcangel, Ian Cheng’s practice also revolves around the critical and sometimes disobedient appropriation of commercialised technology. Two of the works included in “Emissary Forks feature Thousand Islands” on display at München’s Espace Louis Vuitton are characteristic of this artistic strategy: Emissary Forks at Perfection (2015-2016) and Emissary Forks For you (2016) form part of Cheng’s “Emissary” live animation trilogy, which was created using algorithms from video game engines.
The result of Ian Cheng’s appropriation of gaming algorithms is a “live animation” video in constant fluctuation – glitchy landscapes or urban environments populated by Cheng’s figures. These move around, sometimes smashing into each other or breaking up the overlapping geometric planes of the background environment, as if movement around a space was an interruption in the space-time logic of Cheng’s virtual world.
Emissary Forks at Perfection (2015-2016) is the middle chapter of the trilogy. Displayed as a panoramic projection in the gallery space, the work could be described as a post-mortem analysis of a recently deceased species: humankind. The animation sketches a fertile Darwinian playground in which new mutant beings interact with older beasts. The scenario is “managed” by an Artificial Intelligence, a robot figure designated with governing powers. The AI proceeds to “resurrect” the remains of a 21st century human, inserting the revived human figure into this dystopian future. Another character, Shiba Emissary, a canine super-pet, is sent to extract information relating to 21st century “stress” as it affects humans.
Where is the artwork?
While each enunciation of the work is different and governed by the random logic of the video game engine, the structure of the artwork is designed to follow a loose narrative controlled by the artist through the contained set of possible environments (or geometric planes) and defined set of characters, each of whom has been given certain tendencies or behaviours.
The computer-generated simulations used in the work are similar to those used by predictive technologies applied in complex scenarios, such as measuring climate change or polling in elections. By drawing attention to the inherent tensions between narrative design and chance in his own works and the use of such “live simulation” logics across the public sphere, Ian Cheng poses a question about causality, impunity and who is in control of the unfolding of events in a given situation.
With the work hovering between artistic intention and software restrictions, the viewer is left wondering: what is and is not controlled by Cheng? How much control does the game engine have in terms of guiding the final product? In this sense Ian Cheng’s critique of the relations between narrative design and change spill into an art critique of the conditions of production of the artwork: what, or where, exactly is the artwork if it is in constant transformation?
Site-specific virtual relationality
Emissary Forks For you (2016) is a development of the previous work, this time focusing more closely on the relationship between the human viewer and the Shiba Emissary pet character. The work is an augmented-reality simulation echoing the new Google Tango tablet, a platform recently released that allows any mobile device to identify its exact position in relation to its surroundings without using GPS or other external signals.
Visitors are invited to use tablets to interact with the Shiba Emissary character, making use of Espace’s wifi and effectively materialising the galleries’ virtual space as a real space to be explored and interacted with. Shiba Emissary invites visitors to “browse” and “wander around” the neighbouring virtual space in the Louis Vuitton hall. As Shiba Emissary gives increasingly direct verbal instructions to the viewer, the viewer assumes a new role: that of Shiba’s pet. Here Ian Cheng confuses the distinction between viewer and character, participant and player, controller and controlled.
Self-contained ecologies: “they have their own laws”
Also included in the exhibition is Cheng’s earlier simulation Thousand Islands Thousand Laws (2013), presented for the first time as a room-sized LED screen. Like the “Emissary Trilogy”, Thousand Islands Thousand Laws creates a complex and unpredictable self-contained ecology with multiple plotlines that often produce violent and unpredictable situations. The protagonist of the video is an urban soldier carrying a gun – a figure Cheng stole from a real video game – who stands in a blank landscape decorated by birds and plants.
Originally designed as mere landscape decoration, the birds and plants unexpectedly began to attack the character, gaining agency in the simulation and thus imbued with narrative force. When asked about his reaction to this surprising innovation to his original storyline, Ian Cheng stated:
The soldier, the birds, the plants, have their own laws […], 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.
In this “video-game” the gunman, a flock of herons and an island of plants endlessly mix and mutate – not only in shape and behaviour but also in status: as protagonists, as extras and props. The camera moves through the simulation like a nature documentarian, uncertain as to what in the frame is of interest. The camera thus becomes synonymous with the viewer – a keen onlooker hedged nervously on every possible emergent story.
Navigating chaos in the neurological gym
The notion of navigating chaos, embodied in Thousand Islands Thousand Laws as “documentarian”, stands at the heart of the artist’s practice. A recent digital commission from the Serpentine Galleries entitled Bad Corgi (2017) is another interactive simulation, but this time available for download as an app. Players are encouraged to win and loose points as well as experience loss of control over another canine character. Bad Corgi reflects, as the press material states, “on the human mind’s mercurial states of focus, distraction, discipline and, an uncanny ability to become possessed by an inner impulsive autopilot”. About the work, Cheng has stated:
I see my simulations as a kind of neurological gym in which art becomes a means to deliberately exercise the feelings of confusion, anxiety and cognitive dissonance that can accompany life in a world of intense change and uncertainty. In this way Bad Corgi functions as a shadowy mindfulness tool about refusing to eradicate stress and anxiety, and instead learning to deliberately setup and collaborate with those bad-feeling feelings.
Bad Corgi and the works on display at Espace Louis Vuitton, reveal the influence of the artist’s education in Cognitive Science, as well as his stints working for George Lucas’s special effects company Industrial Light & Magic. Cheng’s practice is thus characterised by his fascination with the dynamics of unpredictable systems. The algorithmic modelling techniques the artist has encountered in the gaming industry are appropriated and diverted towards creating complex virtual objects and characters.
In our image-saturated world, Ian Cheng warns us away from being the keen documentarian who awaits the emergence of a narrative that makes any sense, advising us to pay more attention to the underlying arbitrary structures of the algorithms that create them.
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