Are Ian Cheng’s AI Artworks Obsolete?

Two videos at Gladstone Gallery, Seoul displace their viewers into the role of aides to the algorithm

BY Jaeyong Park in Exhibition Reviews | 11 APR 24

As advancements in artificial intelligence dominate headlines, Ian Chengs art seems both timely and anachronistic. For decades, Cheng has created works that run their own course as part of a genre of digital artmaking that has proven to be an unintentional precursor to the AI-driven automation now disrupting everything from manufacturing to the knowledge economy. Included in this is an industry of interest to Cheng, video-game development, where generative models can now achieve an appearance of sentience and autonomy that must surely impress even the artist long-known for his work on ‘worlding’, or the creation of emergent synthetic realities.

At Gladstone Gallery Seoul, ‘Thousand Lives’ presents two of Cheng’s most advanced AI works. In the titular video (2023–24), which fills a wall of the ground floor, a turtle awaits the viewer to approach the screen; their movements, captured by a nearby iPhone, are transformed into motion commands. The viewer becomes an active agent in the work just as the animal – resembling a videogame nonplayer character – takes on human sentience within the virtual environment.

Ian Cheng, Thousand Lives, 2023. Courtesy: © Ian Cheng and Gladstone Gallery

Controlling the turtle is, however, clunky at best: its movement is sluggish and, despite a monitor showing the character’s stats (hunger, emotional state, etc.), the player’s role is unclear. Objects clutter a messy apartment, which the turtle can interact with to learn more about its environment, gradually developing its artificial ‘conscious’ over the course of the exhibition. Thousand Lives is part of Cheng’s suite of ‘BOB (Bag of Beliefs)’ works (2018–ongoing) featuring seemingly sentient digital flora and fauna and chimeric animal figures; in this instance, the users emulate the process of machine learning itself, which basically comprises endless trial and error until the algorithm can distinguish patterns and make inferences. The parallel is revealing, yet it’s a tedious process for humans to ‘play’; actual machine learning is contingent upon server farms conducting millions of such operations per second. Ultimately, the overarching sense is one of futility: we, as observers, are asked to inhabit a mere millisecond’s worth of the category of computational systems that increasingly govern our lives.

Ian Cheng, Life After BOB: The Chalice Study Experience, 2021. Courtesy: © Ian Cheng and Gladstone Gallery

Downstairs, Life after BOB: The Chalice Study Experience (LABX) (2021–22) – which tells the story of a girl named Chalice and her AI companion, BOB, who guides her through life – appears to be a typical anime. The viewer, however, can pause the story to enter worldwatching’ mode, wherein they can direct the narrative at will and interact with explanatory panels prepared by the artist and his production team. Yet ultimately, despite the illusion of free will, this story is predetermined; no matter which path the viewer chooses, the artwork follows a plot imposed by the artist, the true creator of this fictional world. While it might appear as though Chalice is being guided toward her destiny, or ‘Prime Path’, ultimately she breaks away. The viewer again plays the part of AI, watching Chalice’s life unfold, reacting to whatever semblance of agency she possesses and occasionally offering a simulacrum of insight.

Ian Cheng, Thousand Lives, 2023. Courtesy: © Ian Cheng and Gladstone Gallery

The work is resonant and timely, if unfortunately so, in that it recalls the promises of AI overhyped by salespeople and technologists. Are Chengs AI-driven, algorithmic and generative works a cautionary tale of a dystopian technofuture? The pet turtle in Thousand Lives doesn’t need human intervention: it would benefit from a more advanced machine-learning algorithm; and, however fetishized, BOB is basically a fantasy of an improved digital assistant. A sense of lethargy – of falling behind the times – permeates. While once we might have looked to Cheng’s work to break the scripts determined by algorithms, here his characters have succumbed to them.

Ian Cheng’s ‘Thousand Livesis on view at Gladstone Gallery, Seoul until 13 April

Main image: Ian Cheng, Life After BOB: The Chalice Study Experience, 2021. Courtesy: © Ian Cheng and Gladstone Gallery

Jaeyong Park is a Seoul-based curator, writer, translator and interpreter.