Case Study 3: Ian Cheng


Ian Cheng, born 1984, is a contemporary artist practicing in New York.

Known for his interest in artificial intelligence and simulations borrowed from the world of computer science and translated into fine art, Ian Cheng creates simulations that wrestle with complex understandings of consciousness and the chaos of nature.

Cheng’s practice is linked to cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and pop culture animation and video games. 

Ian Cheng’s Emissary Trilogy (2015-17) is a series of computer-generated simulations that evolves endlessly in a self-contained virtual environment. Given Cheng’s definition of a simulation as “a video game that plays itself”, how then does a simulation model human consciousness (“IAN CHENG”). 

The Emissary Trilogy is a series of simulations acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and exhibited at MoMA PS1 from April 9 to September 24, 2017. The simulations were projected to be a height of ten feet tall, and each installment of the trilogy was presented in a separate room. Additionally, the exhibition reached into a digital space by means of live-streaming on Twitch, a video platform and community for gamers (“Ian Cheng: Emissaries”).


The first of the three simulations, The Squat of Gods, features humanoid beings wandering at the foot of an active volcano. The emissary of this simulation is a little girl who gets hit on the head and develops a more expansive consciousness. While the rest of the village is ignorant to the signs of the volcano’s imminent eruption, the emissary is tasked with warning them as her consciousness is capable of grasping the danger.

Forks at Perfection is the second simulation which features a group of mutated Shiba Inu dogs with elongated necks. The emissary is a Shiba tasked by an Artificial Intelligence with acquiring the memories of a human. This human is found alone in the wild. The emissary is in conflict with their human-loving dog nature in their attempts to complete their task. It is important to note that the Artificial Intelligence is a character within the simulation, not simply the artificial intelligence that powers the simulation.  

The final simulation, Sunsets the Self, establishes a mutated Artificial Intelligence in the form of a goo as the “Puddle Emissary”. This emissary lives their new bodily experience while fleeing from hoards of humanoids whose goal it is to exterminated the goo.

These three simulations will reset themselves once triggered to do so. They are not technically looping, as the simulation is different every time. By design, these simulations will function without programmatic intervention by the artist. Cheng has set up all the pieces and then steps back to allow the artwork to evolve on its own. 

In the conception of this work, Cheng references Julian Jaynes’s notion of bicameralism as established in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Cheng explains that Emissaries follows the development of human consciousness, beginning with the model of bicameral consciousness wherein an individual consciousness is divided in such a way that the individual does not experience metacognition. According to Jaynes, the individual would operate via command hallucinations interpreted as the voice of an ancestor or god. In The Squat of Gods, the simulation grants the emissary an evolved consciousness, separating her from the village of bicameral minds.

It was not Cheng’s intention to develop a robust and exhaustive artificial intelligence (AI) for the entities in his simulations. Directly referencing the consciousness models of The Sims, a simulation video game, Cheng programmed a needs-based and threat-based consciousness for his entities. The simulation will direct an entity to meet their needs, such as hunger, before the entity will pursue any narrative goals. The same is true if an entity perceives  a threat—the entity will take steps to mitigate before pursuing other goals. The third consciousness model drives the varied narrative goals of the entities. For instance, one character in The Squat of Gods has a narrative drive to convince the emissary of the importance of the nearby snakes. 

The Emissary Trilogy is not a tidy model of human consciousness; rather, it embraces and propagates a chaotic progression of versions of consciousness in a speculative environment.

The simulations are a complicated system without a predictable conclusion. The individual entities within the simulations have specific parameters (needs, threat-response, and narrative goals), but the interactions between individual entities is not scripted or planned. This emergent behavior is akin to the functioning of an ant colony. The queen does not direct each ant individually. It is the sum of all individual actions without a centralized directive that allows a colony to achieve feats inconceivable to an individual ant (Johnson). This is an example of biology-inspired artificial intelligence called swarm intelligence. Mariusz Flasiński explains that swarm intelligence is a, “self-organized population of autonomous individuals which interact with one another and with their environment”. Furthermore, an individual in this swarm can act as an agent, making observations of the environment or other entities and taking actions in reaction to these observations.

The notion that the result is greater than the sum of its parts is an over-simplified understanding of emergence, but it begins to adequately describe how Cheng’s simulations function. In Michael J. Pearce’s, Art in the Age of Emergence, the concept of emergence is elevated to the status of a new multi-disciplinary idealism capable of filling “the void left by the collapse of postmodernism”. In the Emissary Trilogy, emergence is important to establishing both the artificial intelligence underpinning the simulation as well as reflecting the chaos that Cheng finds in nature.

The environment of the simulations is not static scenery or simple background information to situate the audience. The environment is a fundamental player in the simulation. The environment motivates the characters by presenting hostile situations or allows space for the character to make an escape. The environment is inspired by the representation of nature as sourced from the films of Hayao Miyazaki (Bech Dyg). These animated children’s films are known for their particular aesthetic. Cheng observes that the medium of animation lends itself to replication. It is simple to replicate an element of nature to fill in space, but Miyazaki films acknowledge that nature is more nuanced. That is to say, a group of pigs are not simply replications of an original, but each pig is animated with distinct features. Cheng takes this to the extreme by having an ever-changing environment that creates itself according to the rules of the simulation. Like the characters, the environment does not follow the directions of a centralized intelligence—a single blade of grass does not sway back and forth endlessly because it has been instructed to do so—the environment morphs and changes unpredictably. 

Ian Cheng provides the opportunity for an audience to be immersed in an uncanny speculative world that mirrors our own. Emissaries is described in Wired as having “a relentless, chaotic monotony to the constant stream of gameplay”. This seems like a sufficient parallel to what could be considered the relentless, chaotic, constant stream of the evolution of human consciousness.    


Works Cited

Armstrong, Stephen. “Ian Cheng’s Art Is Inspired by The Sims and Created with AI.WIRED, WIRED UK, 4 May 2018, www.wired.co.uk/article/ai-art-ian-cheng-serpentine-emissaries-bob.

Bech Dyg, Kasper. Ian Cheng Interview: A Portal to Infinity. YouTube, Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2017, 19 Oct. 2017, youtu.be/TO6Luilc4Bo.

Flasiński, Mariusz. Introduction to Artificial Intelligence. Springer International Publishing, 2016.

“Ian Cheng: Emissaries.”  MoMA, 2017, www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3656.

IAN CHENG.IAN CHENG, iancheng.com/.

Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Johnson, Steven. Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. Scribner, 2004.

Pearce, Michael J. Art in the Age of Emergence. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015.


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