Art By Ian Cheng Brings Virtual Worlds To The Smithsonian Hirshhorn

For Ian Cheng, art is less about craft as it relates to the manipulation of traditional materials to create tangible items than it is about being in the moment. It is art as sensation, and if Cheng has his way, it will be the next vista for artist.

Cheng creates virtual worlds based on narratives he sets in motion and then leaves them to run on their own. Once the programs are launched, their behavior can be unpredictable. Sometimes characters combine and morph into new creatures. In another instance of strangeness, a denizen of one of Cheng’s virtual worlds simply stared at a flake of volcanic ash for two hours as curators placed a frantic call to find out how to nudge his art into doing something else.

The reality of this virtual world is that Cheng admits he has no foreknowledge of how things will go. He has a framing narrative in mind as he creates his work, but it is the art equivalent of an academic’s artificial intelligence project. His pieces build upon what they come to know and behave accordingly. Some of his pieces, such as “Emissary in the Squat of Gods,” which is part of the Hirshhorn group exhibit “Suspended Animation,” reflect instincts and actions that are recognizably human.

Suspended Animation: Ian Cheng from Hirshhorn Museum on Vimeo.

The protagonist of Cheng’s piece at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn exhibit is a shaman in a prehistoric setting who has seen signs of an oncoming volcanic eruption, but never having experienced such a thing before, is not sure what she is seeing or what should be done about it.

“It’s precisely in this moment where it’s the threat, and not the actual disaster, that humans find the most anxiety-provoking and the most stressful. You don’t actually know which way to go. It’s an uncertain moment, and so the shaman’s bias is roughly toward wanting to stay, and then the emissary apprentice character’s bias is toward wanting to convince everyone to leave.”

While Ian Cheng will allow for his work being labeled as animation, he does not see what he does as a movie or a video game. There are superficial similarities. Cheng uses technology similar to the tools used by game designers to create his art. However, his digital art differs from both media in terms of the manner he expects viewers to interact with his pieces.

Alex Greenberger, who reported on Cheng’s work for the current issue of ArtNews, spoke with the Cheng about the nature of his work. The artist grants that there is a random nature to what he calls his “live simulations.”

“I can’t fully hone in on the emotion that it should capture because I honestly don’t know what it’s going to do. You can resolve that into something really elegant or beautiful. But it is, in fact, in a feeling of confusion.”

In the ArtNews interview, Cheng revealed that his first creative inspirations came from movies. This love for film led him to work at Industrial Light and Magic, a special effects shop best known for their connection to Lucasfilm, between his undergraduate and graduate studies. His observation of film and the continually developing art of creating gaming worlds led him to formulate the functional framework of his digital art. The narrative structure of movies is static — once it is created, it cannot be changed. The framework of games also work on their own internal logic, but there is a deeper level of participation, with a large proportion of the experience determined by the player or players.

Gianni Jetzer is the curator of “Suspended Animation.” He sees the interaction between visitors to the show and Cheng’s animated pieces as an encounter with “a form of reality. That’s an important part of Ian Cheng’s work. that you really get into the skin of a cyborg anthropologist, that you watch this strange digital tribe, which reflects the history of human evolution, basically.”

For Cheng, this stage in his gallery work is a continuation of his exploration of the way we process experience. In an archived issue of Italian humanities journal, Mousse Magazine, Cheng presents a thought experiment, “Simulation: Forking At Perfection,” in which he sets up a scenario and offers some ideas about how it would proceed and why he comes to his conclusions. The Deistic absent clockmaker he plays in his recent work is already present in this DIY performance art piece.

“Baby Island Simulator is a little game for encounters with a baby. To play this game you need a human baby who cannot yet walk, placed on a large isolated surface like a bed or a kitchen island. You also need the presence of sympathetic adults. Now you do nothing.”

The result is as Jetzer described it in ArtNews, a sort of “neurological gym.” Ian Cheng might see it more as an exercise in rewiring. His approach might best be summed up by a quote that was included in a press release for show in Oslo.

“The firmware inside you had already made its one update at conception. So get to work on that software and don’t get hacked.”

[Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]