Ian Cheng, Emissary Forks at Perfection (detail), 2015, ongoing live digital simulation, color, sound.

Ian Cheng, Emissary Forks at Perfection (detail), 2015, ongoing live digital simulation, color, sound.

Ian Cheng

Ian Cheng, Emissary Forks at Perfection (detail), 2015, ongoing live digital simulation, color, sound.

Ian Cheng has described his craft as the sculpting of behavior: The figures that populate his virtual worlds are digital objects endowed—programmed—with tendencies and protocols that vary their interactions while also allowing for certain developments to recur. Cheng calls these works “live simulations”; they are essentially models of systems that are simulated in real time and visualized as digital animations to approximate human perception of space-time. As such, they incorporate features of cinema and video games but play themselves, unraveling without human input or influence, capable of infinite variation.

The second in a planned trilogy of works devoted to the speculative pasts and futures of cognitive evolution, the simulation Emissary Forks at Perfection (all works 2015) was projected in an expansive panoramic format along one wall of the gallery opposite a long platform for visitors. Near the gallery entrance, an algorithmic flow chart, titled Emissary Forks at Perfection Map, diagrammed the system, highlighting the collision between deterministic narratives and stochastic elements in the work. Each run of the simulation begins with the same staging and is programmed so that particular outcomes trigger a conclusion and subsequent reinitialization. Usually this cycle lasts fifteen to twenty minutes, but it could also end much more quickly or run on for hours. Unlike looping presentations of film and video, staying for the next turn didn’t ensure catching up on what was missed, and it was difficult to discern what aspects would necessarily or likely repeat in this recursive performance in which the script is constantly shifting.

Visually, the simulation renders a beautiful if harrowing world of baroque flux. A disembodied artificial intelligence, Talus, lords it over the posthuman scene. The simulation always begins with Talus, occasionally barking out questions and commands, reviving the cadaver of a twenty-first-century celebrity and sending a Shiba Inu as the titular emissary to entertain the resuscitated human. Restrained by a taut yellow leash, the initial Shiba forks—self-replicating like software under development—into a pack of identical bounding pups. Emblematic of the core dynamics at play, the leash indicates the extent to which a kind of mastery and control, or its lack, is at stake at the level of both the simulation’s content and its coded structure.

The Shiba emissaries, meant to mediate between the revived human and the disembodied, godlike Talus, become the real objects of interest. Even the vantage point of the digital animation pivots around the main Shiba, as on a tether. Atavistic accoutrements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are conjured to entertain the revived human, among them an array of Brancusi sculptures. Despite these attempts at succor, this world is inhospitable to the human; in at least one iteration, the celebrity was battered by the ecstatic leaps of the canines until bent over backward in an absurd reversion to quadrupedalism. Unlike Talus and its shibas, the revived human, as programmed, is incapable of forking. Its only possible outcome is death.

Cheng’s live simulations are absorbing. The artist describes these works as apparatuses for cognitive training, what he calls a “neurological gym.” One wants to return to them, to get under their skin, to trace the emergent behaviors of a system that parallels our own. How to live with and learn from the simulation—as well as how to let it be alive—is central to how the artist casts the work of art in the net of cybernetics and societies of control, updating, in some sense, the twentieth-century avant-garde type of the artist-as-engineer for the age of informatics. Yet Cheng doesn’t design tools so much as write ever-morphing parables. A gallows humor stands behind them: Rich in ironies and populated by creatures of inscrutable complexity, Cheng’s simulated worlds are Kafkaesque. To Walter Benjamin, narrative art in Kafka holds a power to postpone the future and the judgment it would bring. Without accrued memory or the possibility to adapt from their prior passages, Cheng’s simulations always play again.

Phil Taylor