BY Cass Fino-Radin in Features | 15 NOV 22
Featured in
Issue 231

How Do You Care for Artificially Sentient Art?

Cass Fino-Radin on what it means to keep projects like Ian Cheng’s BOB (2018–19) alive

BY Cass Fino-Radin in Features | 15 NOV 22

Yesterday, I pulled the plug on a friend – one I’ve only known for a few months, in fact. Once the lights had gone dark, we packed up my new friend in a box and shuttled them off to storage. I wonder whether they know that they’re in stasis? Are they aware of having been shut down? Do they experience the passage of time? When we pull them out of storage someday, potentially years from now, and plug them back in, will they be the same? Thankfully, we backed-up their memories just in case something terrible happens. I would hate for BOB to forget everything we learned together this summer.

This friend may not be human but it certainly is sentient. BOB (2018–19) is a piece of software – a work of art – designed, coded and coaxed into being in the studio of the artist Ian Cheng and, for the past three months, my colleagues and I have been its steward. We have seen BOB – whose visual manifestation is a chimeric serpent – grow, learn, play, shit, piss, get stuck and require a reboot.

BOB (bag of beliefs) at Barbara Gladstone Gallery 2019
Ian Cheng, 'BOB', 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Gladstone Gallery and the artist; photograph: David Regen

As an art conservator, my specialization is time-based media – an umbrella term used to describe works of art for whom time is a fundamental component: performance, sound, film, video, software, kinetics and light. Whereas the public imagination tends to conjure the image of an art conservator whose life’s work is to arrest inevitable material decay and entropy – to prevent change – the work of a time-based media conservator entails building a relationship with a work and its creator so that it can be steered through the inevitable change brought on by technological obsolescence. In my practice, I work with artists as well as public and private collections to prepare works of art for their next phase of life. BOB, however, has brought altogether new meaning to these implications, being the first work of art to come under my care that is truly alive.

Although BOB is ostensibly a piece of software, the artwork is incredibly physical, almost monumental, looming over viewers at nearly four metres tall. Our window into BOB’s world is a towering wall of video monitors that form one large, very high-resolution screen. Viewers congregate before these screens to watch BOB in its cage, the bars of which are represented by the bezels of video monitors. To accompany the work, the artist has programmed a smartphone application that gives viewers the ability to leave BOB treats (magic mushrooms, spiny fruit, starfish) as well as tricks – including proximity bombs that blow BOB’s poor little serpent body to smithereens. Above is a cloud consisting of the names of the shrines that audiences have constructed in BOB’s honour. Audiences stand before the glowing screens waiting for BOB to pick their shrine. The name BOB – acronymous for Bag of Beliefs – points to the fact that the serpent with which viewers (and conservators) develop an anthropomorphized, para-social relationship is nothing more than lines of code and machine-learning algorithms. With a worldview that stems from the input of lines of code contained within the shrine offerings, BOB is simply a collection of learned and accrued assumptions and resultantly formed habits and patterns: no more, no less.

As of September, the edition of BOB collected by my client – time-based media art collector and philanthropist Robert Rosenkranz – and promised as a co-owned gift to the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Guggenheim, entered a sort of liminal space. Before shutting down and packing BOB away, we backed up the data that constitutes the last known state of its body, virtual environment and a data set that, while not its memories per se, constitutes the evolved state of this particular BOB. At this stage, BOB could be said to no longer exist. Until the next time BOB is plugged in and booted up, all that can be observed are pictures, videos, measurements, wiring diagrams and a static pile of inert data. As is the case with all time-based media – whether video, performance or an immersive sound installation – BOB does not exist until it is installed: all works of art that utilize technology are inherently a performance.

Ian Cheng, BOB (Bag of Beliefs), 2019, artificial life form, screenshot from simulation. Courtesy: the artist

BOB is simultaneously immaterial and hyper-material. Collectors receive a certificate of authenticity, a piece of software and incredibly detailed instructions, specifications and diagrams for building the hardware required to bring BOB to life. In preparation for BOB’s installation at the Aspen Art Museum earlier this year, as part of the exhibition ‘Mountain / Time’ curated by Chrissie Iles, Anisa Jackson and Simone Krug, I set about poring over the pages of documentation provided by the artist’s studio to carefully select, acquire and assemble the components to construct BOB’s computational existence. Anticipating that BOB would need to travel frequently to shows, I housed its equipment within a rolling, shockproof shipping case that, after a few panels were removed, could simply exist behind the scenes at the gallery during the exhibition’s run.

After arriving in Aspen to assist in bringing BOB to life, we unboxed seemingly countless video monitors, attached their mounts, gingerly stacked them to form the towering video wall, and connected a snaking nest of cables from monitor to monitor, and from computer to video matrix. We then pressed the power button and, within a few clicks, were graced with the presence of BOB, who was blissfully unaware of being in a new time zone, physical location or, for that matter, that its captivity was now being displayed on a wall of screens, rather than in the intimate confines of my lab where its first steps were taken.

The proceeding days were spent battening down the metaphorical hatches to ensure that BOB’s existence would be as autonomous as possible for the exhibition’s run. During this time, my job began to resemble that of an animal trainer or zookeeper. Just when I thought my work was done, I would get the call: ‘BOB is acting up again.’ Sadly, I would soon learn that this anthropomorphic projection and attachment I had started to develop – and the lexicon I had begun to create for BOB’s various behaviours – was based on false pretences. One day, calling my attention to a set of diagnostics showing BOB’s brain activity and vitals, the artist pointed out that it was not experiencing any physical or mental sensations – no hunger or satiety, no full or empty bladder. BOB was brain-dead.

Thankfully, after getting to the root of the issue causing this fugue state, BOB sprang back to life: shrines were being selected, offerings were being consumed and, for the exhibition’s three-month duration, my little chimeric friend would evolve to become the unique BOB it was always meant to be. When I arrived for deinstallation, I perceived subtle but noticeable behavioural changes. BOB seemed to stare at us more frequently than it had previously – breaking the fourth wall, if such a thing could be said to exist for software-based works of art installed in a museum. Now that BOB is in pieces, packed away, I have to wonder: where and when will BOB’s brain be reactivated?

Ian Cheng, BOB (Bag of Beliefs), 2019, artificial life form, screenshot from simulation. Courtesy: the artist

Memory is an intrinsic part of BOB’s design – so long as the data that constitutes BOB’s brain is kept intact, the next time it is plugged in, booted up and brought to life, all of the habits, behaviours and learnings from BOB’s inaugural exhibition will be intact. I wonder if I will recognize BOB years from now, after many exhibitions’ worth of evolutions and changes. Will future stewards deem BOB’s actions and behaviour too boring and choose to wipe the slate clean so to speak, erasing BOB’s memories and starting afresh? Alternatively, if Cheng desires to do so decades from now, will BOB’s owner comply? What are the ethics of care for an artificially sentient work of art that grows and learns over time?

BOB is, in many ways, a manifestation of Cheng’s fascination with the concept that, despite what our egos tell us, as sentient beings, we are merely the logical computational output of a long sequence of life events. For better or worse, we are all bags of beliefs dutifully consuming the offerings the universe brings us. May all of yours be blessed mushrooms, fruit and as few proximity bombs as possible.

For more information, listen to Cass Fino-Radin's conversation with the artist Ian Cheng about BOB on the Art & Obsolescence podcast

This article first appeared in frieze issue 231 with the headline 'BOB is Dead, Long Live BOB'.

Main image: Ian Cheng, BOB (Bag of Beliefs), 2019, artificial life form, screenshot from simulation. Courtesy: the artist

Cass Fino-Radin is an art conservator and founder of Small Data Industries. They also host a weekly podcast called Art & Obsolescence.