Artist Ian Cheng has channeled concerns about AI and fatherhood into a high-tech yet deeply personal new film

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Last summer, an illustration generated by artificial intelligence won first prize at the annual Colorado State Fair art competition.

An internet outcry ensued, as social media users lamented a future in which artists would be supplanted by algorithms. “We watch the death of art unfold before our eyes,” read a Twitter post. He racked up six thousand likes.

All the fatalistic spins were more than a little funny — and not just because a meager $750 price tag prompted it. It was funny because a predictable cycle was at play: ever since humanity has made technological advancements, there have been those who perceive them as threats to their humanity.

“To me, it’s a bit like people complaining about the camera stealing your soul when you take a picture,” Ian Cheng said.

Cheng, too, is an AI artist, although his work bears no resemblance to fantasy. Space Opera Theater stage that won the ribbon in Colorado. Until recently, Cheng’s works often looked like failed video games that used AI to play themselves. He calls them simulations.

And he won’t be attending state fairs anytime soon, either. Over the past five years, he has participated in eight biennials and triennials, a feat that places him among the small group of globetrotting stars defining the spirit of the times on this circuit.

He is currently presenting one of his latest creations at the Halle Am Berghain in Berlin, a work that speaks of evolution and also signals an important development in his own practice. The study of the chalicewhich was co-commissioned by the Berlin association Light Art Space, is a 45-minute animated film that counts as the first part of the episodic animated series planned by the artist Life after Bob.

It’s not hard to see why curators are drawn to his work – it’s smart enough for tech intellectuals, but accessible to anyone who’s ever played Fortnite. He also follows this line in conversation, deploying references to rap stars, theorists and The Avengers with the zeal of someone who clearly enjoys learning.

“I’m still deeply impressed by the diversity of his spirit,” said curator Christopher Lew, a friend of Cheng’s. “On the one hand, he is trained in computers, he knows how to code, he knows how to speak fluently with programmers. But at the same time, he studied cognitive science and he works on deeply conceptually oriented works.

Set decades in the future, Cheng’s new film follows a 10-year-old girl named Chalice whose neural engineer father implanted an experimental AI of his own design in her. While Chalice is just id and imagination, a young child who makes her way through the world, the AI, named BOB, is a kind of superego, a subconscious voice that guides the child through cool logic and prescriptive.

“What does BOB do for you?” Chalice’s father, Dr. Wong, a paranoid workaholic, asks her out at the start of the film.

“Help me get to my destiny,” the child says, laying out both the logic and the stakes of the science fiction world Cheng has invited us into.

“What happens if something gets in the way? »

“BOB fix it.”

What plays out in the rest of the film is a standoff between Chalice and BOB. Both are children of Dr. Wong, in a sense; they happen to live in the same body. But as BOB begins to gain more and more of the upper hand, Dr. Wong discovers that it’s the AI ​​entity, not his daughter, that he prefers.

Ian Chen, Life After BOB: The Chalice Study (2021), detail. Courtesy of the artist.

A largely simple narrative, The study of the chalice marks a departure for Cheng. While the artist’s previous works have been constructed from AI, his new film is, ostensibly, on AI.

In his “Emissaries(2015-2017) trilogy of live-action episodic simulations, a character coded to play a story arc was pitted against the chaos of a randomly generated digital world around him. In BOB (bag of beliefs) (2018-2019), a chimerical serpent was the star. As the simulation evolved through various galleries and museums, the creature also evolved, “learning” through stimuli provided by viewers through an app. (The artist designed the old BOB as a beta version of the one implanted in Chalice.)

“Cheng’s Gesture,” wrote Artnet News reviewer Ben Davis about this latest work in 2019was to “tease the boundaries of the relationship, creating something that represents both the fascination and the repulsion of this particular technological moment”.

The artist is presumably after something similar in The study of the chalice. With the film, Cheng offers no conclusions about the murky ethics of AI (which is a minor feat in itself given the centrality of the technology in a number of fiery political debates – about art, medical diagnostics, state monitoring, astronomical observation, etc.) .

Ian Chen, BOB (bag of beliefs) (2018-2019), detail. Courtesy of the artist.

“I think if you can make a political statement through your art,” Cheng said, “well, you’re kind of a bad artist. Because being able to make that statement right off the bat means you already know the answer and this is the domain of black and white.

The study of the chalice is equivocal, and quite generously. The film’s sci-fi scaffolding facilitates metaphorical readings: you could say it’s about the experience of growing up, for example, or the overriding threat of technocracy; you could even claim it is the unknowability of God.

Undoubtedly, the film is also about parenthood. “It’s totally a father-daughter story,” said Cheng, who welcomed his second child with artist Rachel Rose in early 2021. He began writing the screenplay for The study of the chalice two days after the birth of his first, in 2019, and the story developed from a thought exercise he played in his head.

“I was fucking anxious as a father,” Cheng recalled of his daughter’s early days. In the artist’s mind was what he called a “selfish question:”

“How am I going to balance work and being a dad at the same time? It’s so stupid, isn’t it? But I was like, ‘Okay, that’s a dumb fear, but you’ve got it. Let’s use it.’

This resulted in a sort of thinking exercise: “’Who is the worst father I can be?’ “, did he declare. “The stupid answer I got was, ‘I’ll be the dad who confuses his daughter with her job. “”

Installation view of ‘Ian Cheng: Life After BOB’ in Halle am Berghain, Berlin.
© 2022 Ian Cheng. Photo: Andrea Rossetti.

“He found this amazing and elegant way of talking about both raising a child and programming at the same time,” said Lew, who is also a parent. “This idea of ​​what we imprint on our children is a very real thing. You can feel the anxieties of Chalice’s father there in the room.

Earlier this year, Lew, who is now the chief art director of the digital art platform Outland, instructed Cheng to create a new NFT project. What the artist came up with was “3SIDE,” a program that generates abstract portraits of users based on data extracted from their cryptocurrency wallets.

As with older works, Cheng is interested in the small moments lost in translation that occur when empirical data is extracted from subjective human experience. Behind every portrait that “3FACE” spits out three fundamental forces: posture, education and nature.

“We look at factors such as willingness to spend on gas [cryptocurrency transaction fees]balancing volatility, interaction with decentralized exchanges, hold/sell patterns, NFT diversity index and token holdings,” the artist previously told Artnet News.

Another NFT project accompanies Cheng’s new exhibition in Berlin. At the end of the fair, visitors receive a free digital artwork created from personal information they were asked to provide upon entry.

Animate these recent NFT projects and The study of the chalice is another question the artist has been pondering for quite some time now: “Can we make art now that adapts to the viewer?

“My hope,” Cheng said, “is that seeing Life after Bob and by going through a show like this, people become more aware of their own potential. If I have a moral-political message to my work, that’s it.

Ian Cheng: Life after BOBis on view until November 6, 2022 in Halle am Berghain, Berlin.

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