Ian Cheng: Emissaries
Ian Cheng’s trilogy of simulations Emissaries (2015-17) came to the Serpentine in the second half of his two-part exhibition.
The Gallery hosted Cheng’s Emissaries trilogy (2015-17), 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.
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.