Artist Ian Cheng calls his computer-generated simulations “video games that play themselves.” Projected onto a 13-foot LED screen in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Forum Gallery, Mr. Cheng’s “Emissary Sunsets The Self” catches the eye and pulls the mind into a rich, ever-morphing and unpredictable virtual world that’s like a living work of art.

Usually a video artist or filmmaker creates a world and guides or controls what happens in it. Mr. Cheng does that, to an extent, by designing a set of rules and behaviors for the humanoids in his computer-coded world. Then, they take over and evolve their own narrative. Their actions aren’t chosen by the artist or by a game player: they’re driven through artificial intelligence technology that enables them to act autonomously and generate an endless series of outcomes. Mr. Cheng calls this innovative approach to the creative process “terrifying but worth it.”

“Emissary Sunsets The Self” is the final section of Mr. Cheng’s “Emissaries” trilogy (2015-2017), which was shown at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. Each section is a stand-alone, self-contained story/world. They all take place in the same landscape, but at different points in time: “Emissary In the Squat of Gods” on an ancient volcanic island, “Emissary Forks At Perfection” on the now-dormant volcano and “Emissary Sunsets The Self” on an atoll formed from the sunken volcano.

“Emissary Sunsets The Self” is set in a far distant future world populated by a pack of meerkat-like creatures — the Oomen. A disembodied godlike organism called Mother AI sends down a yolk-like puddle to disrupt things and causes plant life to mutate wildly. The Oomen struggle to protect their environment as they mill about, setting fires and confronting the changing mutations.

“The underlying theme, if any, is the tension between the prejudice of the Oomen, who want to eradicate mutations in order to maintain their habitat, and the desire of the puddle to keep trying new things at the risk of causing chaos for the Oomen,” Mr. Cheng said. “Learning to distinguish when a surprising change is productive or harmful, and to whom, and at what cost, is a subject of fascination and interest to me, and I hope other people.”

Some unexpected developments in the simulation have surprised even its creator. In one scenario, the Oomen collectively pray after destroying the mutation. In another, they let it live long enough to grow into a monster that assimilates them. In another, they collectively urinate on a mutant.

Public reaction ranges from “boredom, watching for five seconds and watching for five hours,” the 33-year-old artist said. Observing the different ways gallery visitors watch the action as they move through the museum produces a striking parallel between Oomen nature and our own.

Mr. Cheng brings a background in cognitive sciences and artificial intelligence to his art: he earned a dual undergraduate degree in cognitive science and art practice from University of California, Berkeley and a master of fine arts from Columbia University.

“My favorite artworks are the ones that let me reach a bit beyond myself, or touch something outside of mere everyday human experience,” he said. “AI is one way to think beyond our own cognition.”

He built the “Emissary” worlds using the game design platform Unity. The images and the action look like a video game, but there are no players.

“It’s really important as an artist to choose a container to work within. Unity is a platform for publishing video games, so it’s a very technical container, but within that I feel a lot of freedom.”

When he designed animated videos in the past, the process was like architecture, Mr. Cheng said: in these live simulations, he feels that it’s more like being a gardener watching what grows.

But “Emissary” is much more than a game. For those who invest some time in watching it, Mr. Cheng’s narrative world becomes a complex, deep and mythological microcosm and a vehicle for exploring concepts like human consciousness, mutation and society.

Mr. Cheng calls these simulations a “neurological gym.”

“The human mind is designed to try to create unity or coherence, but often at the expense of stripping reality of its complexity and assigning a simpler controlling narrative,” he said. “The neurological gym is not about renouncing narratives; it’s about having a portfolio of narratives available to you for navigating a complex external world, and hopefully, feeling a sense of agency within that indeterminacy. … how to increase one’s tolerance for indeterminacy, and maybe find a way to love being surprised more than being scared of it.”

                                                        Scene from Ian Cheng’s “Emissary Sunsets The Self” ( Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art )

These simulations challenge the mind in new ways.

“An artwork could force your mind into the feeling of confusion,” Mr. Cheng said. “A feeling of confusion is a productive emotion because it signals your brain is receiving conflicting information or information that is changing too quickly to be certain about. If you can learn to sit with confusion, you can learn to love that state, and begin to see that confusion often marks the beginning of a process of confronting change or the unknown, rather than retreating from it.”

The Carnegie has acquired the final part of the trilogy for its permanent collection. MOMA has the complete trilogy. The purchase is a major — and unique — acquisition in terms of computer-based artwork for the museum, said Eric Crosby, the Richard Armstrong Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Carnegie. Like any software, it requires maintenance and updates.

Unlike most video installations, which are housed in an enclosed space with seating, “Emissary” is in the airy Forum Gallery near the museum entrance. It draws eyeballs like moths to light.

The artist designed a lighting display for the space that shifts in intensity as time in the virtual landscape shifts from day to night and back to day. The floor is covered with a rubber mat — echoing the artist’s concept of the neurological gym.

“It’s the opposite of a darkened room that you have to decide whether or not to enter and engage with. The lighting changes, the sound, the rubber floors, are all designed to invite a viewer, not repel or challenge them,” Mr. Cheng said.

“The piece has this impressive effect of feeling like a portal or another window,” Mr. Crosby said. “He’s an artist who’s really developing his own language and medium, rather than inheriting that from any sort of historical tradition.”

Source: Pittsburgh Post Gazette