Magazine article The Spectator

Interview: Ian Cheng

Magazine article The Spectator

Interview: Ian Cheng

Article excerpt

The artist Ian Cheng creates digital life forms that bite and self-harm. Sam Leith meets him (and them)

Digital art is a crowded field. It's also now older than I am. Yet despite a 50-year courtship, art galleries have been reluctant to allow it more than a toehold in their collections. Things are changing. Take MoMA's visit to Paris last year. Alongside the Picassos and Pollocks was a very popular final room, made up of a single, beautiful computer-generated animation, in which a huddle of humans tramp across a constantly disintegrating landscape. 'Emissaries' (2015-17) is the work of the 33-year-old artist Ian Cheng, who two weeks ago opened his first show in the UK at the Serpentine Gallery.

Cheng's first inspirations were video games like The Sims, and working in special effects on Pirates of the Caribbean. 'They were trying to simulate a whirlpool that was like several kilometres wide, and they were trying to simulate it water particle for water particle... It was just like mind-boggling -- just that they attempt to do that was very beautiful.'

Noticing that a number of his colleagues had artistic ambitions of their own -- but had been working on the same short film since Return of the Jedi -- Cheng packed in his production job to pursue a career as a fine artist, and made simulation his thing.

He started out being interested in rendering, in the idea of making something material-seeming in a digital space. 'Brats' (2012) saw a motion-capture Elmer Fudd chasing a motion-capture Bugs Bunny around a digital nowhere; 'This Papaya Tastes Perfect' (2011) was the weirdly ethereal simulation of a New York road-rage incident.

But his interest gradually shifted from the surfaces to the depths: not to the rendering of digital objects but the generative algorithms that could determine their behaviour. His last major work was 'Emissaries', a virtual world in which, having set things running, the artist would play the deus absconditus and stand back to see what happened. Answer: everyone started fighting and a lot of stuff caught fire. Cheng shrugs cheerfully: 'Heh, yes. A very uncontrollable environment.' The Serpentine will screen 'Emissaries' in the gallery from 24 April.

First up, though, is BOB, the latest development of his digital art. BOB stands for 'Bag of Beliefs'. Having created a digital ecosystem of sorts in 'Emissaries', Cheng wanted to 'focus on just one agent': a single isolated character -- in a sense, an internal ecosystem 'tremendously more complex than "Emissaries"'. And that's BOB.

It's basically (as Cheng acknowledges) a sort of next-generation Tamagotchi: an artificial intelligence life form, living in an imaginary space, that looks like the result of a messy accident in an orange twig factory.

Two screens -- one for each BOB -- greet the viewer at the Serpentine Gallery (the main gallery space, behind them, is filled with the computers that run BOB) and show a pair of white spaces, each given the suggestion of depth by a single steepled window high on the right-hand side of the frame.

Beneath this window, BOB bobs; or, if you like, BOBs bob, since there are two of them and each is different. Each BOB starts out as a little orange 'stub' with a wee face on it, and over time will grow and wiggle about -- sometimes becoming like a large bush; sometimes like a jointed worm gone wrong. Greyish dead bits of BOB, disconcertingly, cling to him or litter the digital floor where he has pruned himself. BOB gets fed twice a day ('the gallery assistants push a button, basically'), learns from his experiences, such as they are, at the rate of 300MB a day, and you can interact with him through an iPhone X. …

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