Ian Cheng on Technology’s Optimized Futures

In his newest hallucinatory animation, ‘Life After BOB’, the artist questions self-determination in an algorithmic age

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BY Travis Diehl in Film , Opinion , US Reviews | 19 NOV 21

The first time I went to see Ian Cheng’s Life After BOB (2021) at the Shed – the loaf-shaped culture hub in the Bloomberg building at Hudson Yards, New York – I stumbled into the second day of a convening called Unfinished Live (their motto: ‘The Future is Decentralized’). The fourth-floor theatre wouldn’t screen Life After BOB for another two hours and, in the meantime, was showing a livestream of the presentations happening on a stage two floors below that was flanked by huge banks of LEDs and hazed by smoke machines. I killed time hearing about the blockchain and what the internet can learn from trees. Cheng himself, it turned out, had spoken earlier in the day on ‘Worlding’, explaining to the audience of tech pros and journos his art of live-rendering simulations based on an ever-complexifying fictional future. When Life After BOB finally rolled, the scene had been well set.

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Ian Cheng, Life After BOB: The Chalice Study, film still, 2021. Courtesy: The Shed

Cheng’s project poses the question: what is self-determination in an algorithmic age? The story follows a ten-year-old girl named Chalice (note the name’s deep symbolism) who carries a piece of experimental software in her brain: Destiny BOB, an AI designed to help its ‘user’ achieve their full potential. BOB (for ‘Bag of Beliefs’) does this by offering its user previews of life’s forking paths and describing the consequences of each choice. Of course, only one option is optimal and BOB urges its host onto this ‘primary path’, at the expense of the ‘side quests’ that flavour existence. Previous trials of the technology have failed, but the so-called Chalice Study is different: the girl has carried a Destiny BOB since birth, and the entity’s inventor is her father. As Chalice puts it, in a tender Frankenstein’s monster moment: she needed a father, but she got a BOB. To which her father replies: ‘But parenting is programming.’ The work’s format is apt: Life After BOB isn’t prerecorded; it uses a video-game engine to animate its sci-fi world in real time. Some degree of freedom seems possible, as if the narrative might unfold another way on another run-through. Perhaps, on some level, it does. The Shed’s website claims that ‘Life After BOB incorporates changes unique to each viewing’, although these differences, whatever they may be – I didn’t notice any in three full viewings – are likely cosmetic, since the story itself seems firmly on rails.

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Ian Cheng, Life After BOB: The Chalice Study, film still, 2021. Courtesy: The Shed

Visually, Life After BOB is nearly and wonderfully incoherent – a jittery, lurching succession of 3D models, stylized polygonal figures and landscapes twitching and rotating, at times clattering together, their skins mingling in a uniquely immaterial way. The characters experience their various BOB plugins through a hallucinatory interface; their neural guides are represented by red worms with up to three heads, each tipped with eye-like shapes, as if they can see the future. The episode’s most jarring, disorienting moments occur when Chalice strays from her own primary path – for example, when her BOB insists that changing her name is too advanced, and that she should study math instead; or, especially, when she eats a token from Z, a neural engineer rivalling her father, and is suddenly shunted into a grotto-like demo of Z’s mind, dripping with lapis-lazuli pools representing the total of his possible lives – where ten years pass like a glitch. The viewer can’t rewind any more than Chalice can, and filmic and lived temporality align in this respect: the viewer seems to share her wrenching loss of time, and the impossibility of un-choosing Z’s shimmering path. We also experience a shade of her tail-eating frustration, since the goal of the Chalice Study, the path along which her prototype Destiny BOB and her father’s tech conglomerate urge her, is to demonstrate the viability of Destiny BOB. In other words, the BOB is there to realize itself, and Chalice is very much its medium.

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Ian Cheng, Life After BOB: The Chalice Study, film still, 2021. Courtesy: The Shed

The project is an extension of Cheng’s fellowship at the Berggruen Institute, a progressive-leaning think tank with Bloomberg-level resources, dedicated in part to using art and technology to imagine the future of ‘the human’. Good science fiction often serves as a BOB-like warning as much as a predictor or a fantasy: Is this the future we want? Should we continue in this direction, or change course while there’s still time? Yet, Cheng’s project has the aura of the inevitable – as do those of Berggruen, the Shed, Unfinished Live and even Bloomberg. Like Destiny BOB, they concede that we have choices, while insisting that one path is better than all others. It is, in short, the ethos of today’s tech companies who maintain that a world where task-optimizing, face-recognizing, target-tracking, choice-making AI and AR is coming, regardless of whether it should.

Ian Cheng’s Life After BOB is on view at the Shed until 19 December.

Main Image: Ian Cheng, Life After BOB: The Chalice Study, film still, 2021. Courtesy: The Shed

Travis Diehl is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and is a recipient of the Creative Capital / Warhol Foundation Art Writers Grant. 

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