IAN CHENGEmissary Forks at Perfection, 2015-16, Live simulation and story, infinite duration. Courtesy MoMA PS1, New York. 


Ian Cheng

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

With the incredible popularity of eSports and the prevalence of mobile gaming apps, video games are now squarely part of mainstream entertainment. Even in art, the format has been tapped as a medium. Ian Cheng utilizes a video-game engine to create live simulations of imagined societies in his “Emissary” trilogy (2015–17). Running on three screens at MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, each installment is also being livestreamed for six months on the museum’s website in conjunction with Twitch, a video platform developed specifically for gamers.

Whether playing with motion-capture techniques as he did for Entropy Wrangler (2013), or deploying glitchy animations in the music video Brats (2012), commissioned by the band Liars, Cheng’s older work tends to be frenetic and unsettling. For his latest simulations, however, the artist, who holds a degree in cognitive science, aimed for managed chaos. He likened constructing a “virtual ecosystem,” where the video game plays itself, to experimenting with a chemistry set: “You put all the ingredients together, and then just watch. It goes boom.”

Indeed it does. A volcanic eruption threatens the “pre-conscious” community in Emissary in the Squat of Gods (2015). As the inhabitants feel the volcano’s tremors for the very first time, the outcome of the episode hinges on the ability of a girl, dubbed the Young Ancient, to convince her fellow villagers to flee the mountainside in time. Since the artwork is a self directed simulation, its story unfolds differently in each iteration. Watching the close-up “story cam,” I tried to gauge the girl’s progress, or lack thereof, as she would easily become distracted, perhaps by a piece of ash or the Echoing Owl hopping about. Checking back with the wide-angle “ant farm view,” I glimpsed other figures attending to their needs—food, sleep, relief. I only realized the volcano had erupted when the game reset, reseeding a new community.

Cheng cited the 1989 computer game SimCity and its later spinoffs as sources of immense influence. Because the original games had no protagonist, the primary relationship was one between player and system. The city was “like a little pet,” as Cheng described it. After leaving the show, I found something comforting in being able to load the live feed on my laptop at home and watch the ongoing simulation at any time, as if its denizens were actually alive, sharing intricate relationships that change over time. This is perhaps Cheng’s intention: that we not feel attached to a particular narrative agent within the trilogy, but instead become invested in the simulation itself.

To accompany the exhibit, Cheng designed a foldout guide for his spectators, not unlike ones found in a natural history museum, diagramming the different characters and wildlife in his simulations. Yet, even as I appreciated the complexity of the universe that Cheng created, gazing up at the screens, I found myself drawn to the incidental moments. In the second installment Emissary Forks at Perfection (2015–16), my curiosity had less to do with the Shiba Inu’s mission, which was to extract information from a reanimated 21st-century human, and more with the way it playfully interacts with other dogs in the simulation.

The third installment Emissary Sunsets the Self (2017) transports us to the far-off future, where artificial intelligence has replaced people altogether and deploys a “Puddle” to possess nearby plants, much to the alarm of the “Oomen,” which look like a cross between humans and meerkats. Again, I enjoyed observing the details in the Oomen’s different reactions to the Puddle, some tiptoeing up then running away, others barreling straight through it.

Just as in SimCity, where the player maintains plumbing and electricity grids to keep a city thriving, the decision-making process in Cheng’s simulations often appears mundane. But as situations become more urgent, whether due to some kind of disturbance or natural disaster, priorities of the imagined communities shift, thereby changing the relationships between individuals. It is in these junctures where “Emissaries” most successfully mirrors the richness of human behavior, which lies not in the epic story, but in the minutiae.

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