At this moment, Emissary Sunsets the Self, by Ian Cheng, can be seen at the Forum Gallery of the Carnegie Museum of Art. In the next moment, and in all moments of museum operation through Jan. 28, it can still be seen, but what exactly it is that you’ll see then is different than it would have been a moment ago. This work, the final installment of Cheng’s digital-simulation trilogy Emissaries, is constantly changing. And what it will become next remains to be seen not only for the viewers, but for the artist as well.
Cheng’s chosen medium is not paint, film or metal, but coding. The internationally known artist’s background in cognitive science and artificial intelligence propels his artistic investigation into humanity’s evolution, our creation of technology, our use of it to try to better understand ourselves, and its evolution away from us. In the Emissary series’ three episodes, characters have been equipped with specific goals, features, styles of movement, and idiosyncracies, and they act out their technologically induced impulses on a giant, floor-to-ceiling screen.
Placed in the ecosystem of a volcanic site, with thousands of years elapsing between installments, these humanoid beings work to accomplish their missions. Because nothing is ever easy even if you’re a goddamned computer character, this world is overseen by a character named Mother AI (a fact one learns by reading about the work, though not by viewing it). To the low rumble of the soundtrack, Mother AI perpetually alters the details of the landscape, forcing all to adapt and to modify how they approach their undertakings inside the relentlessly fluid environment. The work is, technically, of “infinite duration.”
During two separate viewings, each of less than an hour, a gallery visitor can determine that the beings of this world seem somewhat primitive, and that when confronted with the introduction of a foreign entity — Mother AI — they respond with guarded curiosity.
What all of this translates to visually is something itself almost primitive, and endearingly simplistic; in terms of video games, it’s closer in appearance to Oregon Trail than Call of Duty. It’s captivating to watch, briefly, when viewed cold. If you should come to the work with no context, it’s likely that you could discern only that there is an ever-changing, minimal landscape with a central object around which the characters move. Observe for long enough, and you’ll understand that this isn’t a looped work with beginning and end that keeps replaying, but one proceeding in real time.
What amendment to their surroundings will next take place, and how they will refashion themselves in response, is unwritten. They, and we, have to wait and see. The characters slip, slide, shuffle and stutter; they engage and disengage, they make decisions; and react and respond to stimuli; and they do all of this for the first time, every time.
However, while it’s possible to be entertained by what you’re looking at for a little while, this is a work of art that, as contrary as it may sound, is not really about what you’re looking at. It’s as least as much about what’s behind the imagery as it is about the imagery itself. And most of what is being described in this review is based not on actually experiencing Emissary, but rather on knowledge sought out by the writer in attempt to comprehend this work better. The building blocks of Emissary’s inception; the disconnection between the artist and the ongoing and unstoppable transformation of his work; the artist’s intentions within the narrative he’s shaped; what precisely that narrative is — awareness of all of this is essential for a complete interaction with this work. But while you might have to do some legwork, that effort will be thoroughly rewarded.
This an incredibly polarizing work of art. Some will argue that the limited response that’s possible if a viewer takes it at face value is detrimental to the piece as a whole. Some will give it props as a technological achievement while refusing to acknowledge it as fine art. This is a piece with “Rite of Spring”-like capacity to enrage purists to the point of apoplexy. At the same time, it’s a piece that can draw the attention of people who don’t believe themselves to be interested in visual art at all, but who know themselves to be fascinated by the latest utilization of binary digits.
As Emissary Sunsets the Self straddles a line between art and technology, it will challenge perceptions and preconceptions of what exactly a work of art is. This raises a million questions and engenders endless opportunity for debate. And however else you define art, that’s one of the most desired results a work can produce.