New York

Ian Cheng, Bag of Beliefs (BOB), 2018, eighteen monitors, computer hardware, artificial-life-form software. Installation view.

Ian Cheng, Bag of Beliefs (BOB), 2018, eighteen monitors, computer hardware, artificial-life-form software. Installation view.

Ian Cheng

There seems to be a long, tongue-in-cheek tradition of giving machines with artificial intelligence monosyllabic names that hover somewhere between the casual sobriquets of garden-party guests and the vanilla acronyms of corporate lingo. Consider HAL 9000, the murderous AI in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Or Tay, Microsoft’s ill-fated chatbot. Playing along, perhaps, Ian Cheng has dubbed his latest simulation Bag of Beliefs (BOB), 2018. A digital-age gargoyle with a catfish-like head and a spindly, segmented body textured like red coral, BOB was set loose in a beige-walled virtual vivarium, left to writhe around and explore its surroundings across a three-by-six-panel grid of screens.

In the field of AI, researchers sometimes focus their efforts on “single-agent systems.” That term is just a fancy descriptor for worlds divvied into two basic elements: a lone critter of some kind, and the environment or task it must negotiate. Unlike many of Cheng’s previous works, which often burst with life-forms galore, BOB seems to emulate this pared-down, single-agent model. Seen in the context of a contemporary art gallery, the fruits of that approach start to echo the subject/background divide of traditional portraiture. But Cheng also upends the genre. If portraits have long thrived on a particular conundrum—the riddle of what to make of the chasm between a sitter’s outward aspect and the person’s unknowable inner life—that question here becomes refreshingly moot. BOB’s portrayer is also the architect of its psyche.

Cheng can code-switch like nobody’s business. He channels whatever it is that makes society view simulated intelligence with awe, unease, or outright terror. But he also conveys whatever else it is that induces AI researchers to keep doing their work: the giddy experience—call it an aesthetic one, if you want—of watching simple, fixed rules bloom into a universe of utter complexity and serendipity. Just the level of technical coordination needed to make his work was impressive. In addition to creating an AI able to learn and evolve, and enveloping it in a space replete with simulated physical laws and biological constraints, Cheng and his team developed an app that visitors could use to create and drop cartoonish treats or obstacles into BOB’s world. “Offerings,” as these objects were called, could only be generated at a virtual “shrine,” a lonely, domed building with a glowing blue interior that appeared on visitors’ phones. “Spiny fruits,” “proximity bombs,” mushrooms, rocks, and orbs tumbled through dilating holes from the sky whenever BOB chose to let them in. Their effects on BOB’s body shaped both its feelings about these playthings and its levels of trust in the gallerygoers providing them.

As Cheng once reflected in an Artspace interview, “All of these little changes in our technological landscape recondition what we think of as sacred and profane.” Elsewhere, the artist has acknowledged the influence of video games, a form that makes copious use of religious language and iconography as source material, remixing it to hypnagogic effect—cultural appropriation be damned. Characters in video games, especially those of the role-playing kind, constantly improve their weapons, or inch closer to endgame triumphs, by performing acts of purification and prayer. They light candles at altars, join or leave cults, and ally themselves with warring denominations. In Cheng’s work, visitors’ oblations to BOB are limited by their number of “blessings,” an in-app currency of sorts. It’s a classic video-game feature: a substance at once holy and transactional, deployed for trackable growth and rewards. By referencing video-game constructions of spiritual mythologies, Cheng complicates our responses to artificial intelligence (which these days tend toward a well-worn roster of clichés trotted out at panels about the future): What if AI isn’t just to be used and feared, but also to be approached with a sense of reverential play? Simulated beings aren’t our all-powerful overlords yet. Cheng repositions them as something a lot more interesting: critters closer to the enigmatic animals and deities of old.