“I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.” ~ HAL 9000 (from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey)
New York-based Ian Cheng believes in stretching boundaries within the world of art and technology – very much in unison yet possibly separate from each other. His 2017 exhibit at New York’s MoMA PS1, EMISSARIES, was featured as an array of visual images, directing its attention not of the complexities of narratives but of interrelationships, taking place in a world of utter confusion.
This time, the artist pushes further by creating what he calls “art with a nervous system” – a simulated AI creature which goes by the name of BOB (for “Bag of Beliefs”), a being that evolves as it goes from one exhibit to another. Its place has presently taken full swing in Ian Cheng’s latest opus – a 48-minute anime called Life After BOB – currently on view at The Shed, an innovative arts center in New York City’s West Chelsea district.
Based on a manga first shown at the 2019 Venice Biennale, Ian Cheng’s goal is to present simulations in his work as a way “to have the viewer fall in love with systems.” These simulations, which are basically “videos games that play themselves,” eventually manage to take a life of their own, with behaviors and characteristics that would continuously evolve over time. Over a period, the artist begins to add more depth and personality to these creations by adding a storyline and narrative that presents both a personal and emotional narrative to the characters featured in this unique piece of work.
The first episode in what will become a miniseries, The Chalice Study, presents the story of a 10-year-old girl whose father, a neural engineer named Dr. Wong, installs an experimental AI (BOB) into her nervous system. The intent of this AI is to basically serve as the little girl’s surrogate parent and guide her in her stages of growing up, and effectively confront the volatile things that takes place in her presence. Once the AI starts taking on those conflicts, it becomes, definitely, like a Chalice itself – making the real Chalice nonexistent and irresponsible.
The exhibition is presented in a cinema-type of setting – a space with two screens: the first presents the 48-minute Life After BOB episode and the second giving the viewer opportunity to control the same feature being watched with the use of one’s own phone as a remote control (in what the artist would kindly call “World Watching”). In this way, one could study more deeply each scene taking place at their own pace and tempo. Also, by clicking any character, artifact or prop, the camera will zoom into that image and bring up information from its Life After BOB wiki, allowing one to creatively edit and change, influencing any visual and behavioral changes made to those images. These changes will then go live for viewers to watch, becoming a kind of programmable movie.
Inspired by a new journey into fatherhood, having a daughter to care for, his life as an artist and his personal experiences living in New York City, Cheng bundles together in Life After BOB a world which all is quite up for grabs: things that come and go at a fast pace, somewhat too jumbled and very tough for one to grasp. The protagonist (Chalice) understands her stake in this life and breaks away to order to be her unique, individual self yet realizing that she doesn’t have to work as hard in being human if this AI thing is doing all the work for her – a preverbal Catch-22.
Using a video game engine called Unity, normally used amongst independent developers and video artists, Cheng creates elements that constantly change from moment to moment: various characters spontaneously popping in and out; the meticulous, finite details of futurist buildings and cities, a wedding scene enveloped in an array of bright cherry blossom leaves and trees and so forth. The visual characters are actively taking it all in, interchanging from one scenario to another, as the future shrills through, movements gathering pace and the speed of time moves ahead with every different form of energy.
The narrative animation incorporates a captivating storyline with much visual, intellectual and scientific excitement, revolving into different scenarios which the protagonist, Chalice, faces with much trepidation as with fearlessness. Blazing with characters such as Chairman Ava, Orlando de Blair, Princess Wendy and the forever humorous Zoroaster (fondly known as “Z”), the narrative creates is a stronger sense of individualism and certain optimism amongst themselves – a different take from the characters presented in EMISSARIES, which are seen as frightened, clustered beings, roaming about in a kind of dark, dystopic void.
Life After BOB is a beginning to many things to come: more episodes and each original character given time to shine as protagonists – making it more exciting to look forward to. Based on the reactions of the audience in attendance with me during my visit, this exhibition is certainly more than just another casual view of the latest in manga or anime, it is an experience that is both as interactive as interacting, one that drives the viewer far beyond the norm of common art exhibitions. This is certainly one exceptional show you cannot afford to miss.
The exhibition will be on view at The Shed (545 West 30th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, in New York City) till December 19th.