The third edition of BERLIN, BERLIN has arrived. From in-person pop-ups and parties, to exclusive content and products, we're delving into Berlin's creative culture. Explore the content here and browse the drops here. BERLIN, BERLIN is made possible thanks to support by the Berlin Senate Department for Economics, Energy and Public Enterprises.
Upon first glance, it could be difficult to see any similarities between the California coastline’s swirling tide pools and a hectic Whole Foods salad bar in Manhattan; the two locales seem separated by more than just thousands of miles. But Ian Cheng would like you to look a little closer. Both the tide pools of his youth and the salad bar that would inspire his early artistic works are micro-ecosystems. It’s these self-contained worlds nestled into every crack and corner of the Earth that have provided a steady fuel for the artist’s curiosity. It’s a fascination that has increasingly played out within the complex digital worlds that encompass his art, but lately, it’s also brought him into a dark, cavernous locale tucked away within the complex of the German capital’s most famous nightclub.
At the exhibition space Halle am Berghain, Cheng and his production team have decamped to envision the project with the aid of LAS (Light Art Space), the commissioning and presenting foundation behind this exhibition. Separated by thick concrete walls from the micro-ecosystem that blooms there every weekend during Klubnacht, the massive, 1435-square meter space has been transformed. For the next eight weeks, it is the home base for Cheng’s traveling exhibition, Life After BOB. Anchored by a 50-minute anime film called The Chalice Study that Cheng crafted within a video game engine called Unity, the film is the first in a planned eight-part miniseries. Set in the year 2074, it follows a neural engineer, Dr James Moonweed Wong, who implants an AI called “Bag of Beliefs,” or BOB, into his daughter. As the technology borne out of a desire to ease the mental stress of existence chips away at Chalice, the narrative dives deeper into chaos.
For the past year, visitors at LUMA Arles in France, The Shed in New York, and the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul have had the opportunity to see Life After BOB, but the Halle am Berghain may be the most ambitious iteration yet. With such a massive space available, he and his team set to work on creating an experiential environment that mirrors a pivotal scene in the film. It’s an ambitious exhibition made even more impressive thanks to the AI technology that Cheng and his team have created. With each screening, an algorithmic feed twists and shapes details in the background — ensuring that no two viewings are the same. In addition to the film, the exhibition has incorporated an interactive, “Worldwatching” version that allows viewers to pause and explore every scene, as well as a customized NFT experience known as “TRUE NAME,” which the artist is especially proud of as he dials in for our sprawling discussion.
“I'm really obsessed with the idea that maybe art in the future can adapt to you as an individual viewer. You come to this show and somehow some aspect of the artwork is adapting specifically to you,” he explains. “Everyone's [NFT] is going to be different and, hopefully, we'll speak to viewers very personally based on this data. But, of course, it's like astrology; some people read into it and some people don't. I hope it has some resonance with them.” As just the first episode in a planned set of eight, it's reflective of the lofty ambitions that Cheng has set for himself. Yet even more than that, it acts as a key to understanding what led him from a childhood spent in California’s San Fernando Valley to installing a sprawling exhibition in the bowels of Berghain.
As the child of two graphic designers who had immigrated from Hong Kong in the 1970s, Cheng’s childhood was spent immersed in art. With art books sprawled around their home, it didn’t take long until he began to draw and explore his creativity, but it was the cool darkness of the cinema that proved to be the most potent playground for his imagination. On regular trips to the movies with his mom on Saturdays, the pair would hop from one screening to the next; sometimes watching as many as a half-dozen movies by day’s end. It was an education in art by way of cinematic overload that Cheng still remains fond of years later. “ I think it was 1999 and I was at just the right age to really appreciate more adult movies. I [watched] The Insider, Three Kings, The Matrix, [and] Being John Malkovich. All those movies came out that year,” he recalls. “I remember seeing strings of three or four of them in a day and just having my mind blown. I was in ninth grade at the time so I was very impressionable.”
With the new millennium came an academic drive that would lead him to UC Berkeley. As he balanced his time between studying cognitive science and art practice, a course in his sophomore year taught by data artist Greg Niemeyer proved monumental in shaping Cheng’s path towards creating art. The class focused on the 3D modeling and animation program Maya, which in the early 2000s provided crude tools for creating the kinds of digital worlds that have become commonplace today. “No one knew what Maya was. No one knew what 3D animation was,” he explains. “It existed in the world but to do it yourself felt very strange and radical. You could begin to make anime movies on your own without millions of dollars.”
If the course on Maya was a peek at what was possible, it was his post-university job at Industrial Light & Magic in 2006 that fully opened his eyes to the possibilities of digital art. Working in the visual effects studio founded by George Lucas, Cheng recalls having his mind blown by learning to mix Hollywood-level 3D animation with real life footage for films, as well as seeing the company build bespoke software customized for the team.
Eventually, as his passion for digital storytelling and technology outgrew his work at ILM, Cheng uprooted his life to pursue an MFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University. In the aftermath of a grueling Masters program that left him feeling lost, it was the aforementioned Whole Foods that would give him the spark he was looking for. “I was in this balcony area where you could eat your lunch and you looked down upon a salad bar,” he explains. As he sat staring down at the swarm of salad-hungry New Yorkers, he found himself moved by the feeling of distance he’d once felt at the tide pools of his youth. “To be able to look at a living ecosystem where, if you focus on any given person or creature, it's a little job going on, but you can just as easily zoom out. You're not involved in the drama of that little person or creature but you can see the holistic landscape which they occupy.”
Speaking years later about this particular phenomenon and that particularly fateful salad bar, the scientific side of Cheng slips out as his language slides towards the technical; the discussion is soon inundated with talk of parallaxes (the effect where the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions) and temporalities (existing within or having some relationship with time). For Cheng, this fascination with the malleability of reality and time is rooted in both his scientific background and (perhaps more importantly) his days spent experimenting with LSD and psilocybin at Berkeley. Beyond being a formative era psychologically, it was also the reason he chose to become an artist rather than an engineer.
“There’s this very basic quality with any psychedelic, where your normal lens on reality, which you've established your entire life around, can so easily be shifted within the same body or nervous system that you think you already know. You can shift your entire lens on how you perceive reality instantly. It makes the lens that you normally have feel suddenly so fragile and arbitrary and mutable. It's so cliché, but as soon as that happened, I just thought, ‘I have to live a life where I feel like I'm exploring other ways of perceiving the world,’” he recalls. It’s this heightened state of consciousness that he experienced in his university days that has provided a grounding for his artistic practice. “By becoming an artist, I want to bring transcendent experiences to people who otherwise wouldn't go so far as to seek them — whether through psychedelics or other means,” he explains, before noting with a hint of seriousness that by transcendent, he doesn’t mean anything religious. “I just mean an experience that takes you out of yourself and that is more complex than your purview of reality, but somehow gives you a rope or lifeline to touch it using means that you really recognize.
In Cheng’s work, this lifeline usually takes the form of a screen acting as a bridge to guide viewers into his complicated digital simulations, but it’s also the stories he has crafted that prove vital to understanding his work. Alongside the rich narrative he is weaving with Life After BOB, Cheng had previously created a series of simulations from 2015 through 2017 called the Emissaries trilogy, which bloomed out of a particularly distressing creative rut. In the early 2010s, as he tinkered with the Unity video game engine that forms the foundation for his work, a question mark hung over his work. For three years, he made about 10 simulations that, while technically interesting, fell flat without a narrative. “I always found myself just making shit up that didn't really stick,” he recalls. “It didn’t really resonate with me over the course of making it, so I often lost my mojo and had all these self-doubts.”
It was in 2015 that he decided to do things differently. This time, he settled on a trilogy of simulations anchored by three emissaries — a child, a Shiba Inu, and a puddle — who each had a script and story arc. With their script, the emissaries enter the digital worlds and encounter other characters who are purely reactive. “It's like having an actor who has a script for a show and sticking them in a reality show just to see what happens,” he explains. “They're trying to perform their lines and the reality shifts overwhelm them.” For Cheng, it was the lightbulb-above-the-head moment he needed. At the heart of what the Emissaries trilogy was trying to explore was the clash of a narrative story versus a simulation, and seeing what would happen if you threw them together.
If Emissaries were a means for Cheng to wade into narrative world-building, it has been Life After BOB that has proved the artist is ready to dive deep. Seeing the increasingly expansive worlds that he has built should come as no surprise given the strong cinematic roots he established in his childhood, but when pressed on his early influences, he’s quick to point towards one artist in particular: Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. Now a father to two kids, Cheng proudly admits that he’s seen Miyazaki films like My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo hundreds of times, drawing inspiration from the animator’s embrace of life’s many moral complications. “I love that he has the nerve to produce people with contradictions in them. That rings true to real life, but to present that in a way where a child could engage in it and feel like they're sucked into it and want to understand this complexity, I think that's a real magic trick that I artistically aspire to.”
As Cheng opens the doors to his immersive, expansive Life After BOB exhibition at Halle am Berghain, he’s already set his sights on the future — both within his own work and within the rapidly evolving digital world. His Life After BOB cinematic universe will (if all goes according to plan) consist of eight episodes that explore the many archetypes of the 21st century. “What kind of people and what kind of patterns of human behavior do we hope to see modeled,” he wonders. “Not just good behavior, but also very degenerate behavior that turns into an advantage — or vice versa, with surprisingly virtuous behavior that turns out to be a disadvantage.” With the first episode, he’s focused on jealousy, producing a “Cain and Abel story for a post-AI, 21st century world.” Like any good cinematic universe, the plan for the final episode is to stage “a sort of Avengers-style episode where they all come together,” though the battle will be over “which way of being is the most adaptive for the 21st century” rather than a chaotic, confusing fight over universe-destroying hand gems.
With the plan in place, the only question is what form the rest of the series will take. As talk turns to things like the metaverse and AI-assisted art programs like DALL-E 2, Cheng can’t help but wonder where he will fit into the rapidly accelerating pace of technology. What he does know is that, wherever technology takes us, he’s ready for the ride. “I fucking love it. I'm so glad to be alive at this time,” he says. “The more people use it, the more creative the uses will be. Better art gets made when more people have the opportunity to make it.” Like any emergent technology, things like NFTs, the metaverse, and AI art are in the early days, but show no sign of disappearing like a bad fad. Just like the “old man yells at cloud” meme from The Simpsons, the grumpy artists who try to fight against the current will only be swept away.
For Cheng, the key to staying above the current isn’t just embracing new forms of technology; it’s about never losing sight of the passion he has to create art. While so much of the art world languishes in what he refers to as “neutered period,” Cheng will labor away at making art that surprises and challenges his audiences. “I think art, in a most basic way, [should] grip a person and change some part of them. Good art does that. Good art grips you for some time.” As our conversation draws to a close and he prepares to head back to Halle am Berghain to tinker away on the final touches of his digital world, Cheng’s focus remains fixed on the future. “The only thing I could do as an artist is to keep trying to make work that tries to activate some aliveness in the viewer and make them alive to their own potential.”