Artist Ian Cheng Channeled Anxieties About A.I. and Fatherhood Into a High-Tech Yet Deeply Personal New Film

Last summer, an illustration generated by artificial intelligence took home the grand prize at the annual Colorado State Fair art competition.

An internet uproar ensued as social media users lamented a future in which artists would be replaced by algorithms. “We watch the death of art unfold right before our eyes,” it says a twitter post. It has collected six thousand likes.

All that fatalistic hand-wringing was more than a little funny — and not just because a meager $750 asking price prompted it. It was amusing because there was a predictable cycle at play: as long as humanity has made technological advances, there have been those who have found them a threat to their humanity.

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

Cheng is also an AI artist, although his work is nothing fantastic Space Opera Theater Scene the band took home in Colorado. Until recently, Cheng’s work often looked like botched video games that used AI to play themselves. He calls them simulations.

And he won’t be taking part in state fairs anytime soon either. In the last five years he has appeared at eight biennials and triennials, an achievement that places him among the very best small group of global, zeitgeist-shaping stars on this race track.

He is currently showing one of his latest creations in the hall at Berghain in Berlin, an artwork that is about evolution and also signals an important development in his own practice. The Chalice StudyCo-commissioned by the Berlin non-profit organization Light Art Space, is a 45-minute animated film that is believed to be the first in the artist’s planned episodic anime series Life after Bob.

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

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“I’m always struck by the breadth of his thinking,” said curator Christopher Lew, a friend of Cheng’s. “On the one hand, he is computer educated, he can program, he knows how to fluently talk to programmers. But at the same time he used to study cognitive sciences and is working on a strongly conceptually oriented work.”

Put decades into 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 all it and imagination, a little kid groping his way through the world, the AI ​​named BOB is a kind of super-ego – a subliminal voice that guides the kid through cool, prescribed logic.

“What does BOB do for you?” Chalice’s father, the paranoid workaholic Dr. Wong, she asks early in the film.

“Help me reach my destiny,” says the child, explaining both the logic and the challenges of the sci-fi world that Cheng has invited us into.

“What happens if something comes up?”

“BOB fixes it.”

What transpires in the rest of the film is a tug of war between Chalice and BOB. Both are in a way Dr. Wong’s children; They just happen to live in the same body. But as BOB begins to take on more and more, Dr. Wong states that he prefers the AI ​​entity, not his daughter.

Iancheng, Life After BOB: The Chalice Study (2021), excerpt. Courtesy of the artist.

A largely straightforward narrative, The Chalice Study marks a departure to Cheng. While the artist’s previous artworks were created using AI, his new film is said to be around AI

In his “Emissary(2015-2017) trilogy of live episodic simulations, a character coded to play a story arc was pitted against the chaos of a randomly generated digital world around them. in the BOB (Bag of Faith) (2018-2019) was a chimeric serpent the star. As the simulation evolved in various galleries and museums, the creature also “learned” through stimuli provided by viewers via an app. (The artist conceived of the earlier BOB as a beta version of the one implanted in Chalice.)

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“Cheng’s Gesture” wrote Artnet News critic Ben Davis of the latter work in 2019it was “about pushing the boundaries of the relationship, creating something that represents both the fascination and dislike of this particular technological moment.”

The artist is undoubtedly concerned with something similar The Chalice Study. With the film, Cheng offers no conclusions about the somber ethics of AI (which, given the technology’s centrality to a range of fiery political debates – about art, medical diagnostics, government surveillance, astronomical observation, etc.

Iancheng, BOB (Bag of Faith) (2018-2019), excerpt. 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 say that in advance means you already know the answer, and that’s the domain of black and white.”

The Chalice Study is ambiguous, and quite generously so. The film’s sci-fi framework allows for easy metaphorical readings: one could argue that it’s about the coming-of-age experience, say, or the imperious threat of technocracy; one could even claim that it is about the unknowability of God.

There is no question that the film is also about parenthood. “It’s a pure father-daughter story,” said Cheng, who gave birth to his second child with artist Rachel Rose in early 2021. He began writing the screenplay for The Chalice Study two days after his first birth in 2019, and the story evolved from a mind exercise he played in his head.

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

“How can I combine work and be a father at the same time? It’s so stupid, isn’t it? But I was like, ‘Okay, that’s a stupid fear, but you have it. Let’s use it.’”

It kind of became a thought exercise: “‘What’s the worst dad I can be?'” he said. “The stupid answer that came to mind was, ‘I’m going to be the father that brings his daughter and his work together.'”

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

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

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

As with older work, Cheng is interested in the small moments of translation loss that occur when empirical data is squeezed out of subjective human experience. Behind every portrait that “3FACE‘ spits out are three core forces: posture, care and nature.

“We look at factors like willingness to spend on gas [cryptocurrency transaction fees]Balancing volatility, interaction with decentralized exchanges, holding/selling 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 show, visitors will receive a complimentary digital artwork created from personal information requested upon entry.

Animating these recent NFT projects and The Chalice Study is another question that has occupied the artist for a long time: “Can we now make art that adapts to the viewer?”

“My hope,” Cheng said, “is to see Life after BOB and a show like this makes people more alive to their own potential. If I have a moral-political message for my work, then this is it.”

Ian Cheng: Life After BOB is available now through November 6, 2022 in Halle am Berghain, Berlin.

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