The Real Housewives, Ponyo, and The Sims—all pop culture staples, all inspirations for Ian Cheng’s epic Emissaries, this month’s New to MoMA feature, which highlights recent additions to MoMA’s collection. In 2017, MoMA PS1 featured the artist’s complete Emissary trilogy of live simulation works in which people interact in an immersive computer-designed world. Cheng creates these videos—Emissary in the Squat of Gods (2015), Emissary Forks at Perfection (2015–16), and Emissary Sunsets the Self (2017)—with software that engineers typically use to design video games. The simulation uses technologies like data-mining and artificial intelligence to predict likely behaviors and to inspire interactions among a cast of characters and wildlife, revealing the ways both storytelling and technological systems develop over time. Stuart Comer, MoMA’s chief curator of Media and Performance, spoke with Cheng recently about Emissaries and the artist’s abiding interest in the logic of all types of systems.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Stuart Comer: One of the things I find really compelling is how artists sometimes deny narrative in their work. In your case, a more conventional notion of storyline takes a particularly complex turn or evolution. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you arrived at your thinking around this in the Emissaries trilogy, and why it was important for you to release control, to some extent, of how the narratives unfold.
Ian Cheng: When I first started making simulations, I was mostly concerned with creating a kind of autogenerative system—with creating a set of conditions that could together create more and more complex behaviors from very simple base behaviors. That resulted in a foundation for me as an artist to make these simulations that have the capacity to continuously change on their own, potentially infinitely.
But around the time I made Emissaries I was really struggling with this idea that, while the simulation alone felt formally very exciting for me, for the viewer the simulation is sort of meaningless. I’m not against meaninglessness, but I felt there was something missing from the simulations, something to offset its meaningless chaos. I realized that maybe the single most powerful source of meaning that we have is stories. I thought if I had one character within these virtual ecosystems who embodied a story, that that would be a sufficient enough ingredient of meaning within this larger plate of a chaotic simulation.
I was very inspired at the time by The Real Housewives. I’ve been watching a lot of it because my wife, Rachel, loves it and then I became totally in love with it. It struck me that there’s a story in The Real Housewives, but that’s not really the center of gravity. You don’t watch The Real Housewives for gripping story. You watch it first for this immediate observation of behavior and the kind of moment-to-moment situational melodrama where relationships are threatened and repaired. If you blur your eyes across 10 seasons, of course, you see that each character has lived her own history and story. So you get both. The enjoyment and the pleasure of watching Real Housewives feels very much akin to the feeling that I wanted in the Emissary simulations.
I wanted this kind of quality where you could flicker between appreciating the moment-to-moment changes that are occurring, and then knowing that the emissary character had determined at the start of the episode a certain desire or goal they’re heading toward. It’s like 40 percent orderly story and 60 percent just chaos. I really wanted that feeling.
Could you talk a little bit about the relationship to video game narratives?
Video game narratives are very interesting to me and I definitely watch what’s going on. It’s a tricky thing because what we see in video game narratives now are closer and closer to cinema, where they’re trying to construct a story and there are little checkpoints through the game that are very fixed. The video games that really inspired me were the open-ended simulators by Will Wright, who did SimCity, The Sims, and Spore. He always talked about how it was a challenge and important to be able to fall in love with a system and to be able to look at a system with as much love as you might look at something more relatable, like an avatar or a character.
In SimCity, you’re kind of an abstract mayor of a city but you don’t have an avatar. And yet you still completely fall in love with your city. In The Sims, you’re also an abstract god effectively governing a dollhouse and you’re not exactly the characters in the dollhouse though you have control over them. You influence their lives, but you don’t live their lives. I really love this idea of falling in love with a system and I would say The Sims and SimCity are classic video games that did that exceptionally well and are completely metabolized within the DNA of Emissaries.
In your work, we talk about infinite duration, and I wonder if you could explain what that actually means.
The sense of time is sort of earned in a way. It’s sort of emergent. There are no clocks inside Emissaries in any formal sense. What you see is a narrative agent—the emissary—try to enact its story and fail or succeed to achieve that desire before other desires take over, or before other characters interrupt the emissary. If the emissary agent dies, it will be reborn and start again. It’s infinite in the sense that the story the emissary tries to enact can be very protracted. In Emissary in the Squat of Gods, the emissary is trying to get her entire community to leave an active volcano. Sometimes she can get lost in the landscape or get stuck somewhere or give up trying to convince the other characters or get subsumed into the activities of the other characters, and any of this can really protract the way the emissary’s story plays out. I say the simulations are infinite in the sense that that protraction could be days. Sometimes it could be hours. Often it’s maybe 20 or 30 minutes, but that variability is hard to describe with any numeric value. So I say the simulations are infinite in duration in that there’s not only an infinite number of ways that the emissary agent can go about enacting the story, but that this occurs and reoccurs, like Groundhog Day, an infinite number of times. If you left it on, it would try the story an infinite number of times forever and with varying results every time.
A lot of artists of your generation who are using digital technologies, particularly for video or moving images, tend to gravitate toward a photorealistic aesthetic. Your works feel much more like abstract sketches of these lifeforms, less rooted in a photographic idea of reality or realism. I’m wondering if you could talk about how you think about the image in terms of your work vis-à-vis other artists of your generation.
I can only speculate what other artists are thinking when they’re using a more photorealistic technique for 3-D animation. My first thought is that maybe they’re more concerned with some sort of critique of the way the CG image looks in broader media, and I’m really not interested in that. The look of Emissaries is influenced by the fact that the Emissaries simulations generate images in real time: 30 times a second it is adjusting to changes and rendering for us to see. On a technical level, the quality or the detail of it has to be a little bit more impoverished in exchange for having more and more complex behavior. The hope for the viewer is that there’s enough visual recognition so you understand what you’re seeing but you’re also less concerned with its realism and more concerned with the behavioral languages that emerge and evolve within these more simplified bodies.
One of my favorite movies of all time is this Hayao Miyazaki movie called Ponyo. Ponyo is very different from all the other Miyazaki films in that he deliberately wanted an even simpler style than his previous way of animating, which were already quite simple. When I look at Ponyo, it’s teeming with life. Sometimes the frame is filled with hundreds of fish, with astonishing amounts of variety and personality. I feel so alive looking at these images, but the only way to have achieved the feeling of such a plentitude of life was to keep any individual character or creature in the frame quite simple in its depiction. I really took that as an inspiration for how to create a sense of teeming life in a way that’s actually possible to render in real time, and possible to accomplish in the two and half years that it took to make Emissaries.
I’m wondering if you could speak to how your work functions between an idea of the natural world and a world rooted in codes and algorithms.
I see nature as chaos and complexity that is yet to be revealed as systems. This goes back to what we were talking about earlier. It’s about, How can I fall in love with systems? Because we are surrounded by systems, whether natural or cultural or technical. If you can fall in love with a system then you can begin to have greater appreciation for all the legible surface phenomena that a system produces. You can start to narratively connect surface phenomena with the underlying complexity that generated it. If I can come to love a system, then understanding all its complexity is not a burden but a journey or a story through the drama of its workings. It’s a tall order to tell someone, You better understand how this system works. You better understand how the electoral college works. You better understand how climate change works. It’s really hard to ask that of someone, but I think it is here that art has a role to play. Art can be the portal to let you fall in love with systems and complexity. We have that muscle for narrativize complexity inside our brains, but it is a weak one compared to the muscles of immediate identification, status, threat, belonging. Art can help train it up. Art can be a portal to that which is atrophied or underdeveloped inside us. For me, this is the best magic trick art can perform.
Is falling in love with a system a capitulation to the powers that created that system, or is it potentially a way to undermine that authority?
Oh, I think it’s both. I’m really into this exposure therapy idea, where the best way to overcome something is to actually look at it directly and try to fall in love with it. By “fall in love” I don’t mean you actually love it unconditionally. I mean that you face it and be fully in it and endure feeling destabilized or scared by being in it until that feeling is subsumed by a feeling of interest or even enchantment. Because once you’re in it, and interested, then you can adjust it. As they say in exposure therapy, once you confront the thing that really scares you and look at it directly, you can actually begin to change it.
Emissaries will be on view in New Order: Art and Technology in the Twenty-First Century through June 15, 2019. Buy tickets here.