In Liu Cixin’s award-winning sci-fi novel The Three Body Problem, humans come into contact with an alien civilization on the brink of environmental destruction. In order to visualize and understand a species with an entirely foreign biological, sociological, and ethical organization, scientists built a simulated game in which players could interact with this landscape from a humanistic perspective: dress up as Einstein, climb atop pyramids, or roam the Warring States. After all, what are we but blinded by the hallmarks of human achievement? With his ambitious Emissaries Trilogy, artist Ian Cheng comes close to tackling that conundrum from the opposite standpoint, that is a non-anthropocentric one. He asks the question, can a simulation operating on its own rules and logic, take on a life of its own, and offer insights on the nature of our own chaotic consciousness?
TEXT: Banyi Huang
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist, Pilar Corrias, Standard(Oslo)
Installed in MoMA PS1’s cavernous space, the work is remarkable in its large and absorbing format. At 10 foot tall, the projections immediately immerse the viewer in the abstract and anarchic movements on screen. The first episode in the series, Emissary in the Squat of Gods, taking the form of a two-channel installation, portrays an ancient community grappling with an geological crisis, while a smaller screen tracks an individual “emissary” from this civilization on a mission to gain consciousness and lead her people away from annihilation. Figures drift and tumble aimlessly around a volcano, as though in a ritualistic trance, while geometric forms morph, crumble, and are reconstituted in the misty grey landscape.
In the next installment entitled Emissary Forks At Perfection, what was once a harsh terrain has become a fertile crater lake, mirroring the next phase in evolution, where powerful AI has replaced the primordial belief in shamans and gods. The Shiba dog, the civilization’s proud emissary, supposedly interfaces with the last surviving human to capture the last remnant of humanity. As the densely grown shrubbery sways violently under the ruthless nocturnal wind, shiba dogs with luminous leashes are led by an invisible force, suggesting a kind of external or out-of-control consciousness.
Set up in a smaller viewing space, the third episode Emissary Sunsets the Self, zooms in on an AI-integrated landscape called Sentient Atoll, whose stage of evolution has become so sophisticated that it has taken on the microscopic dimension of a bodily immune system. The Oomen, warrior-like figures, acts in defense against mutational beings named Wormleaf, globular creatures constantly tumbling over and engulfing one another, while curious about the latter’s capacity for mystical thinking and divine revelation.
As viewers, the urge to impose a linear or deterministic narrative onto the works is almost universal. In fact, as we sit engrossed in these episodes set thousands of years apart, it is easy to forget that the series is a live-simulation, as opposed to a finite video or prewritten program. There are two sides to the significance of simulation worth elaborating here.
First, the method that Cheng deploys is none other than procedural generation/animation, a technology widely explored by the gaming industry, appearing in popular games such as “Minecraft” and “No Man’s Land”. Rather than creating everything manually, this method generates content based on algorithmic parameters, ranging from graphic forms to background music, camera angles to the textures of leaves. Although sets of initial data are fed into the program, there is no guarantee as to the form and direction it would take, or whether it would eventually create its own rules of governance. Hence simulation serves to profoundly prolong, disrupt, and even undermine the story that Cheng had originally crafted for his characters, or even the neat evolutionary narrative that we like to imagine the human mind to operate on.
Second, as Cheng has formulated in Mousse Magazine, simulation reaches a conceptual tipping point for human identity and historical understanding. Used in forecasting the weather, election results, and other predictions models, it is an “imitation of a reality”, a “model of a system”, a tool for understanding a world with too many intertwining forces, networks, and dimensions to be essentialized into simple categories. To grasp the role it plays in past, present, and future, a lot of prioritizations rooted in Western thought—reality over imitation, human over the non-human, culture over nature, the earthly over the cosmological—need to be overturned and reconfigured. As Bruno Latour speculates in We have Never Been Modern, rather than maintain the illusion that modernity and progress are somehow stable reference points, “we are going to have to slow down, reorient and regulate the proliferation of monsters by representing their existence officially”. Perhaps these monsters are manifest in the surprising points of convergence and divergence between the emissaries’ quests and our own existential questions.
In my view, it’s not necessary to adhere to the abstract, if not sometimes obscure storyline given by the museum’s wall text to be able to respond to the work. In engaging with it, one might be confronted with deep-seated anxiety about how simulation and cognitive evolution relate to our current ecological crises, or touch upon larger implications of artificial intelligence. There is no denying that the age of the Anthropocene has long arrived, effecting a radical change in scale where human activity on the environment acquires a geological force. Just as the simulated emissaries are in constant conflict with elements in their ecosystem to reach higher levels of understanding, we need to acknowledge and actively mold our entangled webs with other species, climate change, and wider social-political inequalities. While human existence and consciousness are undeniably timeless philosophical questions, they also take on political and activist dimensions that cannot be ignored today. Fundamentally, the emissaries are somewhere between the human and non-human: human in the sense that their consciousness evolution closely mirror ours, yet non-human because their chaotic mode of being challenges the basis upon which our identity is built.
 Latour, Bruno. 2002. We have never been modern. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Ian Cheng: Emissaries
About the artist
Ian Cheng (b. 1984) was born in Los Angeles and lives and works in New York. He graduated from Berkeley University in 2006 having studied Cognitive Science and then developed his artistic practice at Columbia University, where he graduated in 2009 with a MFA in Visual Arts. Cheng’s professional artistic presence began in 2011 and has mainly been focused in North America. He has also recently been exhibited in a variety of solo shows in Europe.
Banyi Huang is born in Beijing. She is now a free-lance writer, curator, and translator based in New York. She also sometimes dabbles in 3D printing, interactive design, and other technologies that produce new forms, functions, and modes of being. She is currently pursuing an MA in art history and curatorial studies at Columbia University. She is interested in looking at the human body and the formation of identity/performativity within our mediatized and technological landscape.