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AI-Inspired Work At CMOA Has A Mind Of Its Own

At the Carnegie Museum of Art, a 17-foot LED screen displays what looks like a video game in progress, but there’s no one playing.

When Ian Cheng was first making animations, he found himself obsessing over miniscule details, milliseconds of animation action.

“And so I started to think about, or hallucinate, what it might be like to make art where you as an artist lose control,” said Cheng.

This train of thought led him to his current focus: digital simulations. His most recent piece, titled “Emissary Sunsets the Self," is the third in a trilogy of simulations, which had previously been exhibited at MoMA PS1 in New York City.

Cheng populated the simulation’s landscape with three kinds of characters, each coded with different levels of artificial intelligence. He said he's been interested in AI since he was an undergraduate studying cognitive science at the University of California Berkeley.

Credit Bryan Conley / Carnegie Museum of Art
Carnegie Museum of Art
Ian Cheng studied cognitive science at UC-Berkeley before earning an MFA at Columbia University.

A super-intelligent, orange blob of sorts called the Emissary wants to expand itself to feel the sensation of having a body. It’s constantly taking control of plant-like organisms called Wormleaves, making them move and arrange in larger structures.

This causes conflict with a group of easily startled humanoids called Oomen, who feed on the wormleaves and look and sound a bit like meerkats. The Oomen often run away from the Emissary-possessed wormleaves, or light them on fire. The exception is a single, curious Ooomen called "The Rancher," who reacts to the Emissary with curiosity, rather than fear.

Cheng’s goal is to make artwork that feels alive, with the ability to learn and grow.

“My dream as an artist now is to make an artwork that’s truly sentient, and really looks back at you and really takes on the influence of the viewer permanently, the way that your dog or a small child takes on its immediate influences when it's quite young," said Cheng.

His work will be exhibited at the Carnegie Museum of Art through Jan. 28.