Sign up for our newsletter

Stay informed on our latest news!

The Worldmaker and His Killjoy


VERONICA SO — For as long as I’ve been working with you, the video game development engine Unity has been a core technology for your work. What about this tech interests you?


IAN CHENG — As an artist, a software like Unity is an opportunity because it is a technology that is already established in its own right—in the industry of video game production—but underexplored in the domain of art. In that gap there is a good kind of freedom. I hallucinated that Unity could be used for something else: to make a video game that plays itself. To make simulations. T o make artificial life.

VS — Is identifying the tech a starting point for an artwork?

IC — Sometimes, but leveraging tech is not enough. I’ve learned that I need two other elements: a container and a producer. The container is the container of a “simulation.” It’s an artificial limit and form that I decided on. As an artist, I need to start from within this limit because without it, my energy has nowhere to grow. It’s half-starts in all directions. The container also sets up expectations for a viewer to know how to relate to it. I believe art must begin as an agreement  between the viewer and the artist to even have a chance. I want to make art that lets us reach outside of ourselves, but I’m convinced we need to trick or hack ourselves with familiar things at familiar scales as a starting point. After all, I’m only human, and the viewer is only human. We both only have human attention spans. A container is the seductive lure, the interface, the premise, the vessel, to portal myself as the creator and to portal a viewer as the receiver to really go somewhere unfamiliar. It’s a vital consideration to begin making artwork.

VS — It’s very uncommon for an artist to work with a producer, what made you want to work with one?

IC — For the specific container called Emissaries to really find its potential, it needs a producer. The idea of a simulation is, in the context of art, a living, growing thing. Its definition is being shaped right now. It can stretch to encompass AI, synthetic biology, programming habits, the incorporation of influence from stories in the minds of its virtual creatures. It can shrink and become rigid, defined by a simplified narrative or a technical conceit. It can die before it sees the light of day. It’s fragile. So a producer is for me like the coach who really cares about the container’s lifecycle, especially the formative stages. As the producer you have seen other containers live and die before, so you can now better anticipate when to stretch Emissaries, when to shrink it, when to harden it, who gets to influence it, what ingredients to feed it to make it healthy. As the artist, I can of course try to take this role on, but it is overwhelming at any scale beyond a single simplified definition of the container. It’s overwhelming because it’s a very different kind of mindset to sustain than the generative and playful mindset needed to make art that contains more complexity than a single gesture.

VS — Okay, so if the project is a new kind of food... IC — I’m the chef. You’ re the restaurateur.


IC — I’m the chef. Y ou’ re the restaurateur .

VS — So I provide all the inputs and outputs: line chefs, vendors, ingredients. And then you get to play.

IC — Yes, I say I have an idea for a new self-freezing ice cream. I have a sense of the chemical and tech to really do it. I decide to do a chocolate flavor first so I have confidence people have a gateway to appreciate it. You say Okay, clear enough idea. But to really do it right is complicated. You find the gastro-engineer . You source the ingredients. W e agree it should be organic. You adjust the budget. I throw out half the ingredients. I tell you the engineer isn’ t doing it with enough organic processes. The engineer tells us it’ s too expensive. You convince them it’ s a priority for the bigger picture. You tell me we’ re running out of budget. We drop half the launch flavors. I panic and nerd out on the melting point for two days. You steer me back to consider the ice cream shop decor. Eventually, at the last ten percent of the project, when everything is in place and self-freezing ice cream is a reality that we can demo, I actually start putting everything together. This is the one moment where I really get to play.

VS — There’s a kind of rigor towards the end of every project that feels like showtime at a restaurant. You’ re making toppings last minute, timing the level of finish on a garnish, plating it.

IC — I couldn’t manage this crazy process without you as my producer. Because if I was just an artist working by myself, which I once was, getting to that last ten percent would be so psychologically difficult, so increasingly hopeless and foggy. It takes so long just to get all those ingredients right to finally cook together. Narrative premise. Concept design. Lifecycle design. Sound design. Modeling . Animation. Programming persistent systems. Programming AI. Graphics programming . Version control. Graphic design. Exhibition design. Negotiating with contractors. Team morale. Energy . It would be so hard to keep the bigger picture in mind while tending to all these dimensions without you. I would abandon the project long before it finished.



VS — Tell me about life before me being your producer. What was different about making your earlier simulations, like Thousand Islands Thousand Laws or Something Thinking of  You?

IC — The idea of the simulation was already in play. It was a container with potential. I conceived each of those earlier simulations as small experiments— Something Thinking of  You was an experiment to create an ambiguous morphic organism that you could mistake as a plant and sometimes as an animal. A clear goal that I could keep in mind and psychologically endure. I made Something Thinking of You in three weeks. I made Thousand Islands Thousand Laws in less than two months. But after making ten or so of there experimental simulations, I found this lacking in meaning. I love them but I wanted them to give more back to the viewer. They successfully gave a feeling, intensified a feeling, that you were looking at something morphic, something dynamic and evolving. But they came with zero perspective on what it means to evolve.

VS — Art that actually makes you feel something is already a challenge, isn’t it?

IC — To amplify a feeling is a fair endeavor for art. But I wanted more. I wanted to make art that lets you get outside yourself, outside your known constellation of feelings. I want to feel pleasurably confused. I want to have compound feelings, feelings that fight each other, new invented feelings, feelings that seduce me into wanting to experience something more complicated and inhuman. I decided I needed to embed a story inside the simulation. A story would be a deterministic force that would help shape all the wild activity in the simulation. And the activity in the simulation would shape the story in return. I could embed a narrative about how something evolves, and also populate the simulation with characters that didn’t want to change, that resisted change. With these two forces in conflict with each other, perspective inevitably began to emerge. I could explore in one artwork how it feels on both sides simultaneously, even if that is a contradiction. It would be a ride that lets you experience more than what you allow yourself to experience in normal life. Your left brain shields you from contradiction in life, so you can carry on. But the radical potential of art is that it can seduce you into turning off that shield and letting contradiction flow.

VS — What was the moment when the idea of Emissaries clicked for you?

IC — In 2014 I had the idea that I wanted to make an animated children’ s movie about cognitive evolution, about how the brain evolved and what environmental conditions forced it to evolve. I knew it had to involve simulation, to mirror the evolving narrative content. At the time I called it a “smart story”— like a “smart house,” which is a house that reacts to changes in and around itself. I wanted to make a smart story that tries to enact itself while adapting to a changing environment. This premise became the container to hold all of my interests. Emissaries soon became a smart story about cognitive evolution, set in a volcano in Indonesia. It would draw from one of my favorite books, Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I could evolve talking dogs in there. I could invent lifecycles of imagined organisms and see how they fared. I could develop AI for the characters that mirrored the evolution of the brain—from reptilian fight or flight, to mammalian limbic desires, to human narrative planning. This project became a container to put everything into.

VS — It was only supposed to be one thing at first, I signed on for a three month gig . T wo years later , we’ ve done three episodes together, plus side quests like the augmented reality project Emissary Forks for You, and exhibitions at Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Migros Museum, Frieze, Pilar Corrias, Liverpool Biennial, Espace Louis Vuitton in Munich, and MoM A PS1.

IC — It was conceived to be one work initially. But the art world is like the fashion world, shows happen on a seasonal basis. There are fall shows, spring shows, summer group shows, art fairs. There’s a whole ecology of art holidays to make art keep happening and mark the year. I decided to break Emissaries up into episodes so that parts of the project could make appearances seasonally while we chipped away at it. I told Rachel [Rose, artist and Cheng’s fiancée] that I wanted to make a self-evolving children’s story about cognitive evolution over a couple years. She said “Great, you’re going to need help.”

I want to make art that lets us reach outside of ourselves, but I’m convinced we need to trick or hack ourselves with familiar things at familiar scales as a starting point.

VS — It just so happened at the same time I’d left my job in fashion as a director of social media and started working with teams of Unity programmers making commercial games. When I told Rachel what I was up to, she made this instant connection.

IC — I remember the day when you came to my apartment. I described the premise of Emissaries to you and you responded, “So are you asking me to work on this?”

VS — It just felt like you knew what you needed and I was already doing the exact thing you were looking for. Six months before, I had left a super corporate fashion shoe brand in Midtown and suddenly became immersed in the New York indie gaming scene, working as a producer for a games developer based in LES. I fell in love with their laid-back, quick approach to making and pitching otherwise pretty serious projects for banks and television networks. I enjoyed assembling a motley crew of programmers, designers, modelers and musicians to work together for the first time.

IC — But working on commercial games must be very different from working with an artist. Is it a pain in the ass to work with an artist like me?

VS — The most difficult moments with you are when there are too many ideas and too little time. Like, let’s try to recreate the terraforming features from Minecraft in a new simulation, or make three Emissaries comic books to supplement the simulations, and develop a machine learning framework for auto-animating walkcycles! Things we literally could not finish in whatever artificial time frame we’ d set up. It’ s hard because I see myself as an enabler, and a producer is supposed to be the killjoy—a budget keeper and a culler of fun ideas. I recognize that you need to be enabled and encouraged to tinker, because that’s where the real joy of the work is. Greenlighting a mini project like the printed Emissary Guides based on the National Park brochures for the MoMA PS1 exhibition meant we had to cut our schedule down by two weeks on the simulation itself. Those are painful moments as a producer. Time is always against us.

IC — Were there moments you thought the whole ship was going down? Because I felt that many times, but I’m the artist, and I often experience that kind of doubt.

VS — I rarely let myself think we’re going to fail. It’s a part of my job to be a cheerleader and to do everything I can without being too emotionally involved. Even when it’s impossible for me to help, like on the coding—I trust you’ll salvage something brilliant. It’s what you’ve started calling your “Crash and...” improv habit, where you pick a shard from a failed part that you still love and attempt to make something better out of it.

IC — I really depend on you in this process because I have a front row seat to all the possibilities. And they are being killed one by one. It’s painful. As a producer, you’re also the emotional support that threads through the entire project. Because a project is not really a checklist of to-do’s. It’s a journey into the eye of Sauron.

VS — I’m totally happy playing Samwise to your Frodo. I make sure that you have a best friend, that you don’t forget to eat, and that you keep moving towards Mordor. “Share the load!”

IC — There are so many technologies out there now that let you self-publish, self-program, self-run a business. But strangely, the idea of creating something entirely by yourself seems like the worst possible idea right now. And I’m really grateful to you, to the project we’ve journeyed through. It’s changed me. I can’t go back. That person is dead inside me and this other person has emerged.

VS — My dream is to be the Kathleen Kennedy to a Steven Spielberg. Their relationship seems so light and harmonious. All that trust that’s built between them and the things she learned from working together, I see now in her work commanding the Star Wars universe. I see her assembling younger teams and doing for them what she did with Spielberg.

IC — Kennedy is doing more than filmmaking, it’s worldmaking. I think the archetypical model of an artist’s studio doesn’t require a producer, because artists really value their freedom, and somehow freedom is connected with independence, self-reliance, and total control. A free artist is often also a self-dictator, working within the creative limits of one ego. But to make a world, or an ecology, or any complex engineered object, the creator needs to become complex too. I needed to become a superorganism. And that starts with the artist mind-melding with a producer. I want to get outside of being just me. And maybe you want to get beyond being just you too. Making worlds could really be a pretext or game to transcend one’s self.

Prev Next