Currently on view at Gladstone Gallery’s New York City gallery, artist Ian Cheng is giving the world premiere of his new work BOB (Bag of Beliefs), the first of a series of artificial lifeforms created by the artist. BOB is presented as an evolving, chimeric serpent, twisting and moving on-screen in a manner that sees him both learning from, and failing in, his new digital environment. Long a devotee of simulations and learning environments, BOB advances Cheng’s use of these modes to focus on one’s capacity to deal with surprise: the subjective difference between expectations and perception.
Cheng’s creation BOB is a twisting, fluid being, a composite of sources referred to as “motivating demons” which interact with the creature’s own inductive logic system, which is capable of learning rules and systems of thought as it moves throughout space and encounters various sensory inputs. These “demons” could perhaps best be described as miniature personality fragments, attempting to complete stories within their limited functional capacities. An eater demon forages for the food, a flight demon evades the threat, an explorer demon seeks that which lacks beliefs, among many others. Together the demons compete with one another for control of BOB’s body. The controlling demon operates under the premise that progress means minimal surprise: the smallest difference between the beliefs required by its micro-story and its current sensory perceptions. Great surprises upset BOB, causing emotional upheaval, but in turn signal BOB to update its beliefs.
The result is a creature that evaluates its environment and updates its body, mind, and personality to better confront the continuous stream of life’s surprises, metabolizing them into familiar routines. Simultaneously, the viewer is able to contribute to the system, publishing patterns of stimuli to BOB’s world through an app, as well as captioning their stimuli with a parental directive. BOB Shrine then automates the production of stimuli for BOB to choose without any further necessary engagement from the viewer. In return, BOB deposits special rewards to shrines it judges to be trustworthy parental forces. Bad parenting, by contrast, may cause BOB to die one of many deaths. As the system evolves and continues to accumulate situations, the show implies that the artist’s creation may take on characteristics of a god, capable of stepping outside the limits of the world through his mastery of its perceived rules.
Cheng seems as much interested in possible models for the human psyche rather than a concrete and “real” construction of one. Relying both on tech and metaphor to render BOB’s experience of the world, one has to wonder if perhaps the artist’s work is far closer to a human than the rigid machine learning of his less aesthetically-invested compatriots in Silicon Valley.
The show closes March 23rd.
— D. Creahan
Ian Cheng: BOB [Exhibition Site]