Ian Cheng populated the Serpentine with artificial life in a two-part exhibition, starting with BOB (6th March–22nd April 2018) and continued with Emissaries (24th April–28th May 2018).
‘It’s seriously involved, absorbing, clever art that draws you in and messes with everything you’ve got to give.’ –Time Out
In the spring of 2018, the Serpentine invited the public on their first encounter with a sentient artwork named BOB (Bag of Beliefs). A BOB litter began life in parallel on 6th March. Each BOB may become interested in you, love you, hate you, mistake you for someone else, learn from you or ignore you. And you in turn may permanently influence a BOB’s behaviour, beliefs and emotional life. BOB is the creation of American artist Ian Cheng and formed part of his first solo UK exhibition, transforming the Serpentine Gallery into a space not unlike an animal sanctuary for new forms of 21st century life. Growing and evolving at all hours of the day and night, BOB was not be exhibited for your viewing pleasure – you were exhibited to them.
Then, from 24th April until 28th May, the Gallery became home to Cheng’s Emissaries trilogy (2015-17), that had been recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Described by Cheng as a “habitat for stories” or “video game that plays itself”, each Emissaries episode is a computer-generated simulation featuring a cast of flora and fauna that interact, intervene and recombine in open-ended narratives. Like BOB, these plot lines and protagonists utilise complex logic systems, principles of emergence, and multiple models of artificial intelligence sutured together.
By presenting Emissaries and BOBs in an infinite cycle of activity, Cheng ensured you would never experience the exact same moment in successive viewings of the work. Each return encounter with BOBs signalled a new episode in their development. “What is a live simulation?” asks Cheng. “It is playing this game in public and not letting it end when the game gets good.”
Cheng’s work explores mutation, the history of human consciousness and our capacity as a species to relate to change. Drawing on principles of video game design, improvisation and cognitive science, Cheng develops live simulations – virtual ecosystems of infinite duration, populated with agents who are programmed with behavioural drives but left to self-evolve without authorial intent, following the unforgiving causality found in nature.
His influences include an education in cognitive science, a stint at George Lucas’ special effects house Industrial Light & Magic and a fascination with the dynamics of unpredictable systems. While modelled on imaginative organisms, his simulations create behaviours the artist can initiate but never truly control. Cheng likens them to a ‘neurological gym’: a format for viewers to exercise feelings of confusion, anxiety and cognitive dissonance that often accompany the experience of change in our lives.
In 2015, Cheng created the Serpentine Galleries’ second digital commission, Bad Corgi, a mindfulness mobile app that invited its users to assume control of a demon pup tasked with benignly herding sheep and avoiding distraction in a world of chaos. Cheng also participated in the 2017 Serpentine Marathon, Guest, Ghost, Host: Machine! in conversation with DeepMind research scientist Richard Evans at London’s City Hall.
This exhibition was accompanied by a new publication, Emissaries Guide to Worlding. Drawing on the three year production journey of the Emissaries trilogy of simulations, Cheng narrates this rich visual ‘how-to’ guide for navigating the unnatural art of Worlding. Cheng writes: “This book is for anyone interested in bridging the complexity of Worlding with the finitude of human psychology.” Featuring contributions by Nora Khan, Ben Vickers and Hans Ulrich Obrist, the publication is co-produced by the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, which commissioned and presented the first episode in the trilogy, Emissary in the Squat of Gods, in Turin, Italy in 2015.