Forum 79: Ian Cheng

Videos Apr. 25, 2017

For his solo exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Art, Ian Cheng (b. 1984) presents Emissary Sunsets The Self, an open-ended digital simulation displayed on a massive, 17-foot LED screen in our Forum Gallery.

Cheng is best known for his digital simulation works that draw on his background in cognitive science and his research into artificial intelligence (AI). Coding these unpredictable animated worlds from the ground up, he uses the language of video games to probe complex themes such as evolution, human behavior, and the history of consciousness.

Emissary Sunsets The Self is the third work in the artist’s Emissaries trilogy (2015–2017). Each simulation in the series—set on the same volcanic site separated by thousands of years—explores a pivotal moment in Cheng’s interpretation of cognitive evolution, past and future. His protagonists, or Emissaries, are equipped with customized AI, allowing them to shape—and be shaped by—their strange environments as they work to accomplish narrative tasks. “In each episode,” Cheng writes, “the Emissary—caught between unraveling old realities and emerging weird ones—attempts to achieve a series of deterministic narrative goals, an analogy to the narrative nature of consciousness. But crucially these goals can be set off course, procrastinated, disrupted by the underlying simulation and its non-narrative agents who vex the Emissary with other kinds of minds.”

Emissary Sunsets The Self is set millennia in the future on a volcanic atoll now under the control of MotherAI, who begins to provoke radical mutations in the landscape that threaten the region’s ecological stability. Driven by instinct, the atoll’s inhabitants protect their world, while one agent, the Rancher, encourages MotherAI’s mutations to demonstrate their magic.