Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns and today I’m joined by Ian Cheng, a New York-based artist whose work has its own nervous system.
Cheng has in many ways created his own form of art and his current exhibition BOB—which is Bag of Beliefs—is on show at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York until 23 March. It centers around an AI lifeform. The work is mesmerizing and surprisingly moving.
Ian Cheng: I feel free to play; free to take risks; free to explore things I don’t yet know; free to entertain dangerous or bad ideas. And I think fundamentally, that could be the cultural role of an artist.
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And now, onto today’s show. Thank you for joining me Ian.
Ian Cheng: Happy to be here.
Charlotte Burns: You grew up in Los Angeles; you now live and work in New York. You received dual undergraduate degrees in Cognitive Science and Art Practice from the University of California in Berkeley. After graduation you worked at George Lucas’s visual effects and animation studio, Industrial Light and Magic, where you were drawn to the company’s research division which was experimenting with ways to simulate natural phenomenon. You went on to graduate with an MFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University, after which you worked with artists including Paul Chan and Pierre Hyughe. That’s a lot of different experience and information.
You once said that you imagined the life of a cognitive scientist to involve living with a single research problem for 20 years under rigorous scrutiny but that you desired instead to work towards a position of freedom, to choose your own problems. You said: “Even though many artists don’t take advantage of the permission that art offers, it is nonetheless the one zone in culture where you can explore the present and cannibalize the past with relatively little oversight. It’s an ideal home base.”
I thought that was interesting, this idea of freedom. You apply that freedom to your works—has BOB’s own freedom to behave as it would like to. But you’ve programmed certain things. I wonder if you program your own practice that way, where you give yourself certain freedoms and certain restrictions? Or do you give yourself a totally blank canvas? Do you create problems for yourself to answer?
Ian Cheng: Yes, I think my approach to art—and my job as an artist, I’ve come to believe and see now—I always want to wake up in the morning and feel like I’m working on something that A, I’m learning something new and B, is a little out of reach from where I am now.
That’s, in its most basic form, the reason why I’m able to wake up in the morning. Because I think it can be quite depressing being an artist. I don’t mean that in a romantic way, it just seems true because for better or worse an artist does choose his or her own problems. What is the nature of their practice? You could decide arbitrarily to change it today or tomorrow, but with that comes certain risks.
It’s not like you wake up and you’re within a larger institution and you have responsibilities that are predefined. As an artist, you’re basically counting on yourself most of the time and setting up the nature of the problem that you’re aiming toward is the motivational structure that you need just to sustain doing what you do.
For me, it’s been a journey of defining what I call “worlds”. For me, making a world has been a technique to guarantee that when I wake up in the morning, I have something to pool or contain my efforts because oftentimes as an artist you’re making mistakes and that’s a good thing. You’re making failures and that’s a good thing. But what keeps you going from all those failures? For me, it’s been this idea of making worlds.
In 2015 I started this project called Emissaries. I decided “I’m going to make a trilogy of simulations.” I really wanted to explore the idea that the chaos of a simulation—which I’d been making and started developing—felt a bit meaningless. The thing that felt really meaningful at the time and still does is storytelling—
Charlotte Burns: Narrative.
Ian Cheng: Narrative. And how can I have those two forces collide but not necessarily give narrative the upper hand, which it does in every other form of media? If I had one character, who I called “Emissary”, be the narrative agent and have a little story, and have that character try to enact itself through the simulation—and all the other characters are purely simulated and reactive—that the story could then veer off course or the Emissary could incorporate the chaos of the other characters and put that into its story. These two things combined would sustain enough interestingness for me as an artist over three simulations and then two-and-a-half years.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Ian Cheng: I realized having a world made it a total joy. I had a blast making Emissaries. I talk about this with my wife, Rachel a lot. It’s so rare to actually enjoy what you do and by making a world I realized I could then finally enjoy what I was doing. Because I knew every little thing and every little failure and every little experiment was adding up to something—or I could at least delude myself into that.
I’m really into worlds right now, because I think that’s a sustainable way to get up in the morning and make something.
Charlotte Burns: Which is what people do every day anyway. You create your world, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.
Ian Cheng: But it’s very hard to create your own structure and be the only one that counts on that structure. Often structure comes externally. I do this schizophrenic sounding thing where I’m Ian, but then I see myself almost like as another person sitting next to me and looking at myself. And I’m saying, “Ian, you’re the artist over there. I’m the CEO over here and I’m telling you, this world needs to get done by Friday.” That for me is a dream. Because I can finally relax into a particular role.
Charlotte Burns: Is this the thing about masks? Is that different?
Ian Cheng: That’s certainly a part of it. I’m trying to write a book about that right now.
Charlotte Burns: Which is a great book. It’s really interesting to read it.
Ian Cheng: Thank you.
Charlotte Burns: It’s sort of like a mixture of a literature student taking on AI and art and, I don’t know, Chaucerian tales, children’s fables and morality plays—but creating a new life or world from that.
Ian Cheng: Yes, thank you for saying that. I’m trying to expand upon this idea of the artist’s masks. For me, this is simply a mental exercise to think of the different roles I can be within my own studio, because that’s the only way I can get outside myself and put some structure in my life.
Charlotte Burns: Yes.
Ian Cheng: So, on one hand, what I’m describing is a very free life: wake up in the morning and everything’s fair game. But that freedom is also a curse and so much of my job is to create this structure. And then—once I create the structure—then I think the real freedom of being an artist emerges. I feel free to play; free to take risks; free to explore things I don’t yet know; free to entertain dangerous or bad ideas. I think fundamentally, that could be the cultural role of an artist.
An artist is sort of what’s called a “frontier actor”. The artist ideally should be someone who confronts the unknown, confronts chaos, confronts things that are scary and tries to metabolize that from themselves and then also allow a viewer in the work to portal themselves into that unknown-ness. Imagine if culture’s a garden, and you just kind of edge the borders of the garden a little bit further out. I think that’s the basic job of an artist. But I realized you couldn’t do any of that without some structure.
Charlotte Burns: Yes. It’s interesting this idea of communication and storytelling. You’ve said in past interviews that you’ve come to believe that art is a form of communication. You were just discussing this idea of adding meaning by introducing narrative.
It reminds me of something I’d read. You’d said that ours is the “golden age of content”, and separately that there are a lot of things going on in the country right now that have to do with the sense that people’s stories are being rendered increasingly meaningless.
This idea of personal narrative, of cultural narratives, seems to be a big part of the work: that idea of trying to figure things out through shaping them, through an open-ended non-infinite narrative. Is that how you make sense of things yourself, through stories? Or what is it you want to communicate through these stories?
Ian Cheng: I’m trying to set up a relationship between the simulation which enacts chaos on its own—crazy things just happen when you set up a simulation that you would not expect—and put that in relief to stories which in a really basic way enact a sense of order. It’s a sort of yin-yang dichotomy of chaos and order, and they each are sculpting forces of each other. By putting them in relationship to each other, in a way I feel like a bit of a scientist to see who comes out on top: which force and in what way they shape each other.
I think they’re the basic forces that subjectively we as human beings are neurologically oriented toward. They say we have a left brain and the right brain. Why do we have two hemispheres that are basically the same symmetrical structures, but we have two of them? Essentially the findings of neurology right now—especially in this book called The Master and its Emissary by Iain McGilchrist—suggests that the right brain is for dealing with chaos and the left brain is for dealing with order. We are neurologically wired to conceive of the world and see the world in that way. That which is chaos is something you either want to run away from as fast as possible or, if you’re brave and you have to deal with it, you try to colonize it into some form of order: try to find meaning in it, you try to find organization in it, you try to simplify it, or you try to avoid it altogether.
Charlotte Burns: We have comfort in order. We’re order-making beings, even if we’re also chaos-inducing.
Ian Cheng: We’re equally excited to explore new things when we feel some basic level of security: that enough of our life is in order and we feel the freedom to be explorative. I would say most human beings are organized this way mentally.
In a basic way, I’m trying to enact that within in the simulations with characters like BOB and BOB’s life; or in Emissaries with entire ecosystems and the one Emissary, one ordering force trying to run through it.
You were asking me a deeper question that I was interested in hearing more about.
Charlotte Burns: I asked you about the stories you were trying to communicate. Or what you’re trying to communicate, rather, through the stories.
Ian Cheng: This essential dichotomy.
Part of what I feel like I’m trying to do with the simulations that include a story or some narrative element in it is—for myself as an artist, and hopefully for the viewer—I’m trying to create a relationship to systems that you can fall in love with. I really want to fall in love with a system. A system is something very impersonal and very hard to fall in love with.
My favorite video games growing up as a kid were games about systems, especially games by Will Wright, who did The Sims and SimCity and Spore. These, for me, were the best games. In SimCity you’re some sort of abstract mayor, and in The Sims you’re some sort of abstract god of a family or some spirit lording over a family or dollhouse. You’re essentially manipulating different influencing forces in these games to generate the city in SimCity or to generate a thriving family in The Sims.
I really felt as a kid: “I’m in love with this system”. To be in love with a system is something incredibly essential for me today because it feels as if, right now, things are more complex than ever—
Charlotte Burns: You mean in the world?
Ian Cheng: In the world. And at the same time, because of that complexity we’re all on defense. We’re all in this defensive mode and the last thing we want to hear is the long, complex description of how things work or how some process unfolded, or why it’s not a straight shot, why—I don’t know, like, Trump won the election. There’s so many basic narratives about that but they all are maybe pointing at Trump as the result. But actually, maybe he’s the symptom of a larger complexity that’s undergirding the entire country that’s much more historical and much more boring to have to think about at any given moment.
So, my feeling is that if you can love a system: of climates and climate change, the system of the electoral college. These are boring topics for most people, including myself. But, if there’s a portal or way to get into that system, then you actually want to take the journey to understand it.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Ian Cheng: If there’s any role for art—especially my work right now—I think it’s this “portaling” effect to get you to fall in love with things that are more complex than yourself—
Charlotte Burns: Than you have the patience for.
Ian Cheng: Yes, I think so. I think maybe the best tv shows or the best movies do that. I really love The Big Short because it gave me so much more insight into the financial crisis than I would ever bother to sit down and read about.
Charlotte Burns: Yes, it’s a different understanding on that.
It’s interesting what you say about systems. I remember reading this great book once called The War Machine by this guy called Daniel Pick. It was a very helpful book to read at the time, and it was also an incredibly depressing book to read at the time. The fundamental premise is: why do people go to war? If you stop most people on the street, they would say they didn’t want their sons and daughters and sisters and brothers to go to war, so why does that happen? Essentially, it looked at lots of different wars over the past “x” centuries. The way I remember this—however many years ago—is it’s sort of a mathematical formula, which is quite simple: just make people feel afraid. And make them feel that that fear is actually honor that they need to defend and that they’re not the aggressor, they’re the defender. You can sort of position anything as a necessary evil.
Ian Cheng: Totally.
Charlotte Burns: I remember reading that at the same time as watching—you know, I would turn on the news as some sort of light relief and it was the time of the Iraq War. In England, Tony Blair was arguing for snipers on the Mall, there were posters on the Underground about the possible danger of nuclear attack. I would go to the pub with friends in the evening and people would talk about the way that no one really wanted to go to war, but perhaps we had to defend ourselves. It was so depressing to have been given an insight into this system and realize you couldn’t share it beyond that portal of academia and that maybe I would write a thesis on this that even my parents wouldn’t read.
So, the point of insights is that they’re limited unless you can share them, which I guess is the point about telling a good story—which is something you’re focused on in your work.
Ian Cheng: Yes, and I’m focused on how that lodges itself or is rooted in, literally, the structure of your brain. There’s a part of your brain called the limbic system which is way more ancient than the part that wants to even think about a good story or a system. It’s the part of your brain that reacts to threats, that reacts to status, that reacts to fight or flight—
Charlotte Burns: The lizard brain.
Ian Cheng: The lizard brain. That’s an ancient, fundamental structure of your brain on top of which we are now the beneficiary of higher-level thinking as physically, literally, the top frontal layer is just built on top. If you open the head and look at the brain, it’s like looking at the cross-section of a tree. You see the more ancient parts are just more deeply rooted and more fundamental across different animals. That part is necessarily much more active, much more responsive because it’s there to keep you alive.
It’s a funny time we live in because that part of the brain is also the most easily triggered and exploitable and completely overshadows any higher-level cognition. It’s, I think right now, a battle for in a way how to deal with this instinctive reptile brain that’s just so easily triggered. I think maybe art, in a basic way—the best art, the art that really moves me—is like a Trojan horse. It taps into that part of our brain, but really it gets you to exercise like a muscle the minimal necessary limbic functionality you need to feel safe enough to be explorative, to be open-minded, to be conscientious. Once you can get to that minimum level, then you can start to exercise this more frontal cortex muscle that wants to be interested in things like systems.
Charlotte Burns: I was reading a review of your work, and someone had described a piece as “engrossing and boring at the same time”.
Ian Cheng: That’s the highest compliment.
Charlotte Burns: Which is great, I think it’s really true. I took my daughter to see your show at the weekend, and it’s the most engrossed she’s ever been in any art that we’ve ever been to—
Ian Cheng: Wow, thank you.
Charlotte Burns: —because she just sat and watched this and was talking to me on the way home about BOB, the creature BOB. It was so interesting how much of it she understood in a way more than me, because I have a different set of ideas when I go into a gallery than she does as a three-year-old.
But it occurred to me that your work is so often discussed as something that you program. You program BOB, you program the Emissary, you program the various works that you’ve made. But in a way, what you’re really programming is the viewer to think in a different way.
Ian Cheng: That’s a quite nice way to put it. Yes, I guess so. That, I think, would be the aim of the work.
I think that is an accurate remark in that I really want to make art that taps into some part of a viewer’s neurology, gets them into a different state and in that state can both appreciate the complexity they’re seeing and also simply fall into it.
It’s sort of like, when you see BOB, maybe at one level you see a pet, or you see a creature which any child might be interested in as an animate thing. But on another level, maybe you start to see the course of its entire lifetime, changes in its behavior, changes in the ecosystem that it lives in. Within that, I want the viewer to feel that flicker. I want the viewer to feel totally bored and totally engrossed at the same time. And I think animals really help with that.
Charlotte Burns: It would be really good to talk to you a little bit about BOB, because for people listening to the show who haven’t been to see the exhibition it would be great for you to talk people through what BOB is—or should I say who?
Ian Cheng: “What” is good. Well, “who” is even more generous.
Ian Cheng: I’d hope you think “who”. BOB stands for “Bag of Beliefs”, and it is a virtual creature. I really wanted to pursue this idea of creating a virtual creature where you could observe the entirety of its life. When other artists talk about “mining the edges” of their work, like a painting, the container that the work lives in. The container, BOB, in its inception was to be a lifeform. And the edges of a lifeform for me are of course birth and death and how a creature between birth and death—within that canvas space of a life—negotiates learning, development, growing. So, for me, this was essentially the compositional space of the work.
I hope that what one sees in the exhibition at Gladstone is observing a lifeform—although artificial—you feel has an aliveness and you feel that, were you not to be there on any given day, you could trust that it’s had experiences that actually count toward its evolution. It’s a bit like when you see your neighbor’s dog who you haven’t seen in years, or your kid cousin and they’ve grown five inches. You trust that some development has happened and that even if it’s very minor, that it counts toward some change in their personality or perspective or their outlook, and definitely some change in their mind.
That’s essentially what BOB is. I call it sort of an artwork with a nervous system because it’s constantly adapting to the stimuli in its virtual environment.
Charlotte Burns: You created this creature; in what ways does the evolution of the creature—I think you spoke about it once as sort of progressive parenting, that you try and factor in certain behavioral coding and then you watch unexpected developments take place. What’s been surprising to you?
Ian Cheng: In this project a viewer can have the opportunity to influence BOB’s life through the BOB shrine app.
It’s a free app you can download and it creates a little shrine on your phone, and you can create little offerings. You can attach a parental caption. By that I mean, maybe you’re offering BOB a starfish but you can say: “starfish are evil” or you can say “starfish are yummy” or you can say, “don’t touch this”, the way a parent might tell a child how to relate to objects in the world.
When BOB chooses one of those shrines, all the contents—the offerings from that shrine—dump down. If they’re attached with a parental caption, part of BOB’s mind evaluates and is forced to ingest or be incepted with this parental caption—
Charlotte Burns: And BOB has to decide.
Ian Cheng: Well yes, exactly. BOB—just as when you’re a kid and you have to decide when mom says, “don’t touch the fire”. Of course, you’re curious as a kid. There’s literally a demon inside of you, a sub-personality—some part of your neurological wiring—that is deeply curious and wants to touch this unknown thing that’s so attractive and interesting. And then there’s a part of you that’s also equally powerful in its neurology: of your mom saying “don’t touch this fire”, and you know that if you do it’s either she’s going to punish you or you’re going to get punished somehow by the experience.
So, what we tried to do with the AI of BOB is to really express and model these sometimes opposing but sometimes congruent forces.
I call it the “Congress of Demons”. BOB is constructed by and governed by a whole set of demons, and each have a very specific micro-story. The story might be as stupid and simple as an “Eater Demon” who’s obsessed with trying to forage for food and sees every single object in BOB’s environment as useful or not to it.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Ian Cheng: But then there’s also the “Sleep Demon”, the “Play Demon”, there’s an “Explorer Demon”—
Charlotte Burns: Why do you call them “demons”, rather than angels
Ian Cheng: Because angels… I don’t mean demons in a negative light. When you look at a demon, they have an obsession over something. They become demonic toward something and, in contrast, there’s a whole set of angels within BOB’s head. Those angels are manifestations of the parental directives.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Ian Cheng: They’re angels, but they’re not necessarily angelic. They’re not good. Because—
Charlotte Burns: You can’t control the parental captions that are coming in. People may have bad intention.
Ian Cheng: Exactly. They might be bad parents, they might be purposefully malevolent tutors who’ve lied to BOB about the nature of the object that they’re offering—perhaps with good intentions to teach BOB a lesson. It’s hard to say. This is for, I think, the viewer to decide and in a way be in a moral position to influence BOB.
This conflict between the angels and the demons in BOB’s brain, who each compete at any given moment for control of BOB’s body—literally how BOB acts is through its body—and the angel or demon that’s in control is the one that then fulfills that action. And then the consequences are the consequences.
Essentially, BOB feels like the village dragon and we’re all trying to influence BOB. BOB is also, of course, being influenced by the demons which are its given nature—its nature at birth, in a way.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Ian Cheng: And think of the demons as nature and the angels as nurture. And some mix of that over time, and over people using this app, will result in an emergent personality.
Charlotte Burns: You said at the beginning that it’s the life and death of a creature—does BOB die?
Ian Cheng: All the time.
Charlotte Burns: Oh.
Ian Cheng: Yes. BOB can die. All the time. People send BOB like, mean things. Poisonous things. Explosive things. And when BOB dies, BOB goes through a rebirth cycle and roughly 20% of BOB’s accumulated brain and experience—its AI—gets just flushed. 80% stays, that’s quite good. But there’s a kind of epigenetic thing going on where when BOB sustains such a catastrophic experience that BOB dies. It can then still carry on and learn from that past life. It’s a bit like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day when he gets so desperate he commits suicide or does such crazy things that he dies, but he wakes up with the accumulation of most of that knowledge of the day before.
Charlotte Burns: Right, uses it as a set of information.
Ian Cheng: Yes, and over time the hope is that BOB—or what we call BOB—across many different lifetimes and many experiences, many different ways of dying, that some pattern of behavior emerges from BOB that is reoccurring and is the essence of what BOB is. That behavior which reoccurs across lifetimes of BOB that just doesn’t seem to die or go away.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Ian Cheng: For me, that’s actually what BOB is.
Charlotte Burns: Are you seeing signs of that?
Ian Cheng: Yes, it’s mundane, but I see for example BOB’s attraction to certain of the offerings. He loves the mushrooms, and that might be either a function of people tending to want to offer non-poisonous, interesting mushrooms, or it might be some emergent predilection within BOB’s demons and angels. I’m not sure.
I’m still waiting to see what else emerges from BOB’s behavior. If, for example: one hope is that over time that BOB isn’t so obsessed with eating and all these immediate desires, but maybe BOB starts to emergently learn how to hoard things or save things. I’m looking for that, for example.
Charlotte Burns: Oh, that’s interesting.
Ian Cheng: That would be very beautiful to see.
You can recognize the story of BOB’s life if you watch carefully. “Oh, there’s certain pattern of behavior that he’s following. He’s going to eat now, he’s going to sleep at this time.” You can kind of recognize his day if you watch long enough. It’s a bit like The Real Housewives. You can see a story of a Real Housewife’s life across many episodes. At the same time, you have this parallax view of seeing just the immediate behavioral response, the immediate dynamics of the relationships between the characters of the Real Housewives and you can start to see how they just play out a moment.
It’s much more immediate, it’s much more behavioral. It’s almost like watching a human zoo, in a way. There’s a flicker in your attention span between when they’re triggering the limbic part of you and they’re triggering this long-term view. Because you see a detail: a snub at dinner. You know ten episodes later—if you’ve watched ten episodes before—that snub is about cancer and there’s cancer in their family and that’s a big fucking problem. And that’s something they’re reckoning with that.
I really like that parallax. To me, it’s both trivial and profound at the same time. I desperately want to recreate in some ways the qualities that you see in shows like The Real Housewives.
Charlotte Burns: That’s really interesting, because they’re active-passive—
Ian Cheng: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: —at the same time. There’s a kind of morality, which I guess is a weird jumping off point from the Housewives. But there is a kind of morality in what we’re talking about here.
I thought it was interesting, something you said about the artist Marcel Duchamp. I’m going to quote you here. You said: “The potential of living by a moral code is that it gives you permission to hold at arm’s length all the other intersecting and competing social realities around you. […] Duchamp lived it. He was obviously very intelligent but he wasn’t trapped by his own ideas. […] He was also social, or rather he was sociable, but likewise never trapped by his relationships, the emotional and social codes of others. He never became a permanent part of any group or scene or -ism, but floated in between as his interests led him. The moral code […] has a lot to do with his freedom to make artistic gestures that were at the time inconceivable leaps and illegible to most
What I wanted to ask you, was about the moral code that you program into your creations and that you think about in your own practice as an artist.
Ian Cheng: There’s an interesting personality test called “The Big Five”, and it measures different characteristics of a person. I think one of the predominant characteristics of an artist is this quality of openness: which is openness to chance, openness to change, openness to exploration, openness to the unknown. I think that’s a basic, fundamental characteristic of an artist.
But then there’s another interesting quality called conscientiousness, which is about how much you say you’re going to do what you’re going to do: how much you follow through, how much you finish things, how much you plan, how much you anticipate and actually follow through.
In the history of this particular personality test, left-leaning people are highly open, they say, but quite low on conscientiousness. They can protest, but they can’t follow through on a real plan of what to do after they storm the gates, so to speak. Conservative people are highly conscientious—they like order, they like structure, they follow through, they do things—but they become almost bureaucratic and rigid.
All to say, these two characteristics of openness and conscientiousness are almost at odds with each other within most people. I’ve really been trying to cultivate both in my work and myself, the merger of both.
I’m by nature a very open person, but more and more I’ve realized I need structure in my life in order to actually learn how to get through projects, learn how to finish things and in finishing things learn what it means to compromise on certain aspects, find the real thread of the project and over time, extracting the pattern of what it means just to make something and finish something. I actually go farther. So, I need both.
I think about this kind of dichotomy all the time because it’s a conflict in the brain. Like how can I be open and also finish doing all these boring emails? So, I’ve literally divided my day: morning, 7am to 12pm is a period of openness—which I think for most people is also when they have the most free thoughts—and then post-lunch to 5pm is pure conscientiousness.
Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting you see it as that split.
Ian Cheng: Yes, it’s that simple.
Charlotte Burns: It really appeals to me because I was very disorganized growing up and then I worked for Hauser & Wirth Gallery in my 20s and they pointed out to me that I was disorganized in a way that was not compatible with the functioning of the gallery and drilled into me different systems and switched something in my brain. I always think about this. I didn’t have that before, I don’t think. I was very last minute, didn’t really understand the point of making a deadline. Now, my entire life is deadlines. Something flipped. I think that was what it was, because I understood that through the systems you have more freedom, somehow—
Ian Cheng: In a way, yes.
Charlotte Burns: I had never really understood that before. I had seen them as oppositional, and then now I’m like a system maniac. I develop different systems every day, which is probably not the point but…
Ian Cheng: But I would surmise that by doing so, you’ve managed then to build on top of things, on top of things and things start to add up in a positive way.
Charlotte Burns: I think it’s just a way of thinking about the world where it seems like it’s sort of like a game. You’re constantly shaving time. Really, I think it comes down to time. Time is the most valuable resource and so wasting it seems sort of the opposite of what you should be doing. By that, I don’t mean that you should be not just sitting down and watching Housewives sometimes. I mean, wasting by repeating things that really aren’t helpful.
Ian Cheng: As an artist and I think in any domain of life, it’s a balance between order and chaos. I often think of the analogy of an athlete: where the best athletes when you watch them, the joy of watching them is seeing them try to get just a little bit better by doing something a little more risky or outside of their comfort zone.
I saw the movie Free Solo recently, where the guy freeclimbs this rock in Yosemite and he’s pushing himself a little bit further than anyone has ever done or he himself has done. There’s a pleasure and a joy and a risk and a scariness in seeing that. He’s mastered—he’s quite orderly and disciplined about practicing, climbing, everything. Then he’s completely chaotic in just taking these irrational, crazy leaps that no other person has tried before. It’s that balance between order and chaos that I think, for me as an artist, will make a life where I can keep growing as an artist and keep growing as a person.
Charlotte Burns: You just talked about this idea of order and chaos. One big difference between us and your simulations is that this idea of efficiency—this idea of figuring things out and getting better at things, learning through failures to land on a better ground, or an athlete that’s striving and improving—is that at some stage, there’s a peak in that and then things start deteriorating.
Whereas your creatures, presumably, are not going to do that. Your simulations will not deteriorate over time like the human mind and body does. You’ve sort of created these creatures that will outlive you.
Ian Cheng: In a sense, yes. The dream of making BOB was to make a creature that could outlive any one person and could just keep going. However, I would caution and say that the AI we developed for BOB is incredibly primitive compared to the most basic toddler. The complexity in a human mind is—don’t worry, anybody—it’s not eclipsed by AI, and won’t be for some time. Although, I think there’s a huge capacity for that to happen.
BOB is relatively stupid but interesting enough as a creature. BOB can infer a set of rules based on its sensory experiences and, roughly speaking, you can call that a belief. Simultaneously, next to the beliefs, it has these different demons which are essentially manifestations of desires. It’s the combination of desires and beliefs interacting with each other that sustain and create, what I think, you perceive from the outside as a sentient creature.
As an artist I’m incredibly proud of BOB. I’m incredibly proud of my team, incredibly proud of my producer Veronica for achieving that. In that way, BOB is for me infinitely interesting and can outlive—as an artwork—can outlive any particular person looking at it. I would say that about BOB’s infinite nature.
Charlotte Burns: I wanted to ask you about when your work shocks you. I read in an interview with at The Wall Street Journal when you described watching unscripted happenings during the Emissaries. For example, when a group of villagers ganged up on an outlier, killed him, dragged his body into the center of town and urinated on him. You said: “There was no algorithm for that. It was horrifying, but it felt like a revelation since they had not been told to do anything like that.” And in another simulation, you watched a pack of dogs encircle a man only to repeatedly lick him.
Ian Cheng: Yes, I feel like on one hand they look like the bugs of a video game, a poorly made video game. But on the other, there have been interesting realizations. For example, an interesting thing that happened in the third Emissaries, called Emissary Sunsets the Self (2016) was that I had programmed a group of pack-like creatures who were particularly acute to things that threatened their territory. They kind of looked like meerkats—like territorial mammals, basically.
The simulation was set up to put these meerkat-like creatures in opposition to this mutating plant. The more it mutated, the more they felt threatened. However, this one time I watched it was at the Carnegie Museum, where the mutation didn’t quite manifest itself: these meerkat creatures, their tolerance for what was a threat became lower. The bar for what counted as a threat became super low, and when it became super low, when they spotted one of their own sort of off in the distance doing something that wasn’t part of the group—that alone was enough to be perceived as a threat. So they ran after it and they beat this character up.
For me, it was interesting and surprising to see that simply by an absence of a real threat—
Charlotte Burns: They generated one, yes.
Ian Cheng: Exactly. A little threat could emerge and that was enough to trigger a disproportionate reaction to what the actual threat was.
Charlotte Burns: It’s interesting what your work teaches you. You’ve talked about BOB and memories and how the feelings associated with memories can be described as “n-dimensional” phenomenon: how you’ve come to believe that feelings that we have are never really about a particular present moment, but about at least one memory of how things were before. I wanted you to talk to me a little bit about that—how your work on artificial realities is impacting your understanding of your reality.
Ian Cheng: Sure. Making BOB’s AI, I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about how we think. One of the main things I found was that emotion—or what we call “emotion”, a feeling—is really an internal reward or signal for our expectations being met or our expectations being upset. When BOB is controlled by the Eater Demon—the Eater Demon is obsessed with food and it’s getting closer and closer to achieving its goal of finding food and eating that food. It will look at an object: an apple, it’s red, it’s got a little leaf on it. It suspects it’s an apple. It’s had past experiences of that being an apple. It believes that’s an apple and it believes also that that apple is edible, and not only edible: it’s sweet and it’s good.
Sometimes the apples are rotten or poisonous. When that happens, BOB is emotionally shocked or surprised; highly aroused, but not necessarily in a positive way. Just alert. That emotion is the signal that sends to the set of beliefs for them to update themselves. So in a way BOB, its AI, is a manifestation of trying to reduce surprise in BOB’s life.
I see BOB as a creature who’s constantly trying to colonize the objects in its environment as not surprising. It’s trying to make sure it knows everything in the room is what it thinks it is. And when it’s not, to quickly understand and re-assign, re-categorize or re-understand what that thing is.
In this room right now, we’re the beneficiary of it feeling incredibly stable and predictable and boring. We know the walls are not going to—
Charlotte Burns: Crumble.
Ian Cheng: Crumble, or I was going to say pulsate. We know this table’s not melty. When you’re on psychedelic drugs like LSD, or mushrooms, or ayahuasca, or anything that has these sorts of neurological cognitive effects that psychedelics do, you’re essentially throwing away your beliefs.: turning them off for a few hours and seeing the world the way a baby sees the world, where everything is new and interesting and terrifying at the same time. That’s what psychedelics feel like and thank god we’ve been evolved enough where every moment does not feel that way because if it did, you couldn’t get through the day. You’d just die from overstimulation and not knowing what anything is, and not counting on anything being stable for any given amount of time.
BOB is essentially trying not to live a psychedelic life. But every little surprise feels moderately psychedelic and then it quickly wants to update its beliefs to somehow rationalize what that thing is. “Oh, so that poisonous apple: it’s poisonous because the leaf was brown and not green.”
Charlotte Burns: Right, there’s an explanation.
Ian Cheng: That might not be true; that’s just a new belief to sort it all out. But at least it can feel relieved in that moment.
Charlotte Burns: In having imparted meaning.
Ian Cheng: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting.
Ian Cheng: That’s how BOB essentially works. It’s trying to minimize the surprise. I think that’s not unlike how we function.
Charlotte Burns: There was this essay written at the turn of the 20th century by a guy called Georg Simmel, called “The Metropolis and the Mental Life”. It was about modernity and this panic around modernity and change in the industrial revolution. Which isn’t dissimilar to the technological revolution that we’re living in: it impacted migration, people’s jobs, people’s way of sustaining the family unit, the typical roles of men and women or the perceived understanding of gender. All of those things were up in the air and changing. This writer felt that it came down to too much stimulation. That the problems with living in a metropolis was that it resulted in perversions because peoples’ brains had essentially experienced too much. If you’re crossing a road in a countryside, you had one decision to make which was whether to look left or right first. There wouldn’t really be much danger, because maybe there’s a cow in the field but you might perceive that cow and then you can choose a different path.
His perception of country living was that it was less dangerous than urban living, where if you cross a road you have to deal with all the people around you, the noises, the sights, the sounds and everything acting on your senses. He came from a conservative position where he felt that there was degeneracy in the city and that degeneracy was a factor of brains being overstimulated, that we as humans couldn’t cope with modern life. Which comes down to what you’re talking about which is newness and habituating that.
Ian Cheng: But I think it’s a balance between order and chaos. When you look at, like, a teenager now, the amount of different kinds of stimuli they can juggle and still be a functional person is pretty profound. Or I think the Dalai Lama once said a truly enlightened person or a truly enlightened monk can fully meditate just fine in Times Square. You don’t need to be up on a mountain by yourself and meditate. That’s kind of like level one easy, because what is there to distract you? The monk that can mediate effectively in Times Square is actually walking with god, is actually on the edge of order and chaos and is winning at it.
My hope is that evolutionarily—there’s some deliberately addictive aspects to apps and the way we use our smart phone—but on the other hand the hope is that a human being in some way in our culture can adapt to that.
Charlotte Burns: Yes. This kind of brings me on to the question of what the goals for AI are, as you see them. You talked a little bit about finite and infinite games. Maybe you can explain that.
Ian Cheng: Oh, well finite and infinite games—that comes from a very beautiful book by James Carse. I think it was written in the ‘80s. He says there’s two kinds of games: there’s finite games, which are games that have defined rules, and winners and losers. And then, there’s infinite games: the infinite games are games where when it looks like the game is coming to an end, you have to change the rules. You have to keep it going.
James Carse says the ultimate infinite game is nature itself. Whatever means necessary, it tries to perpetuate itself. Our life is filled with finite games like getting good grades in school, getting a promotion, going on a date, getting married. All these kind of checkpoints in life scope life down to finite games and our life is constructed as a series of finite games.
I think in making AI, we often think of AI in terms of a finite game goal. I think the fear of AI comes from this insecurity of like, if you tell an AI it has to make the most money on the stock market—say it’s like an algo-trader kind of AI—it has to make the most money, that’s the game. That’s how it knows it’s making progress: if it has the most profit. And then it goes out of control and by any means necessary tries to win at that one narrowly defined game within the rules that it’s allowed to legally, that are set from the beginning.
I just think the AI… That if you define the motivations of an AI, the ones that will be, I think, the most creative and also the most fruitful in relationship to a human being are the ones that are defined within an infinite game paradigm.
For example, if you gave the AI the goal of… I think said this: “What if an AI’s fitness function was simply to maximize optionality?” Meaning in any situation it helps maximize the options a human being has to act in that moment. It gives a human the most avenues for freedom. That’s quite good and it’s open-ended. It’s not defined as “you must rescue the women and the children” and, you know, whatever.
Charlotte Burns: Make money on the side.
Ian Cheng: Make money on the side and save the cats and dogs because we value that. That’s too defined. That’s too finite game. Maximizing optionality at any given moment: that’s much more creative, much more open-ended and I think much more optimistic. I think designing AIs toward finite, game-like goals is the way to go and I think we’ll see more and more of that.
Charlotte Burns: Optimistic post-humanism, I think someone called it. Although it’s not post, because it’s in tandem with.
Ian Cheng: I don’t know how to say it besides seeing an AI’s goal as an infinite game goal rather than a finite game goal. How to define AI to keep things going, rather than to win.
Charlotte Burns: But I guess it comes down to who is programming.
Ian Cheng: It does, yes. I think the more a programmer appreciates this distinction, I think the better for us.
Charlotte Burns: Yes, I think that’s really interesting. For you, when you program these characters they behave with encoded behaviors and then you let them go so they act on their own terms. It’s sort of god-like versus randomness. How does it feel to create new life and then relinquish the responsibility?
Ian Cheng: As an artist it’s both terrifying and the only reason to keep doing it. For me, when I look at art right now, when I look at my own work, the only quality I’m really looking for is a sense of aliveness. And in my case, to make something in the form of a simulation with characters that are simulated that can kind of keep going on their own, surprise you and change their behavior: that for me is a reason to re-watch it. That for me is a reason to keep making it. I’m really obsessed with this quality of aliveness and I think it’s very rare outside of maybe things like performance.
I think the opposite of that is maybe a very perfectly polished sculpture where it can’t even tolerate a single child scratching it, otherwise its value is ruined. The value in a simulation is it plucking out all its own eyebrows, creating a threat out of nowhere. I needed to think of a medium that could sustain aliveness as a quality in order to have value in all these flaws. Again, it’s the opposite of maybe a more static artwork that has to be perfectly preserved and perfectly maintained all the time.
Charlotte Burns: What’s next for you and your practice? What are you working on now BOB is in the world? What’s in your mind that’s yet to come out?
Ian Cheng: I’m looking to make a cartoon called Life After BOB.
Charlotte Burns: Great.
Ian Cheng: I really love this show called Vanderpump Rules. It’s a spin-off of the Real Housewives. Vanderpump Rules, it’s a reality show. It’s the set of characters who are actually real people, who are the waiters and waitresses of Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurant, Sur. What’s so crazy about it is you can watch the show, of course. Get the narratives, get the canonical history of these people. And of course, you can go to LA and you can go and eat at Sur. And they’re just there, because they do that. That’s their job. It has this -like effect where you’re seeing the Mickey Mouse cartoons, the steamboat Donald Duck cartoons on the TV and then you go to Disneyland and you’re actually interacting with Mickey Mouse when you’re a kid.
For me, BOB is sort of like I made Sur already. I made the restaurant. It’s interactive, it’s a real basic sentient AI that is constantly learning. And it exists. But I feel now that I want to develop the cartoon of BOB or the show of BOB that sort of lays down the history and the mythology and the canonical story of BOB. And to have that in relation to this active, living, alive artwork I think would be as beautiful as Vanderpump Rules is.
Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting. I recently wrote a fair report on Frieze LA and I was thinking about Disneyland, because the Frieze LA event takes place on a movie set—
Ian Cheng: At Paramount.
Charlotte Burns: Yes at Paramount Studios. You walk through streets that look like New York if New York had clean, wide streets. It was raining, the kind of rain that you’re used to in London. And then you go to an art fair in a tent in a movie lot and you think, “Where am I again?”
I was thinking about art fairs and their roles and the reality and the hyperreality of it, and what the French philosopher Baudrillard said: that if you can accept that Disneyland exists in order that we believe in the reality of the rest of America, then you can accept, maybe, that art fairs exist to make us believe in a global art world.
So, if Disneyland is there for us to believe in America and art fairs are there to believe in a global art world—and you just spoke about kind of creating that Disneyland yourself—then what’s that to make us believe in? In the existence of, beyond that world?
Ian Cheng: I think it’s to make you believe that something artificial can be both as fictional and fantastical as Mickey Mouse but as alive as a waiter in a restaurant and that an artificial thing deserves both status. That would be very beautiful, I think.
Charlotte Burns: That was great. Well Ian, this has been so much fun. I really enjoyed it. Thank you very much for coming in today. I recommend anybody who hasn’t seen it to go to Gladstone and see the show or interact with BOB through the shrine app.
Ian Cheng: It was a pleasure.
Charlotte Burns: Thank you very much.
Ian Cheng: Thank you.