May 9, 2019 Emissary Forks at Perfection; a True New Order of Being To begin, Emissary Forks at Perfection is a simulation piece. What it simulates is unknown, but then again, not what matters. What matters is that it simulates in real time, actively forking and pathing out new routes to follow and alter. The piece is viewed upon a large, 20 foot wide screen, which is impressive alone in comparison to its usual projected viewings. The screen itself is a marvel in not only its size but its presence, the thing is a monolith to Cheng’s masterpiece. But again— just what is this piece? How can I even begin to talk about it, besides to say that its a generative, infinite, and evolutionary piece. Cheng has subverted the notion which art it captured and then re-presented each time to a viewer, instead presenting a constantly and infinitely different landscape. Digital/generative art has existed for decades at this point, and even longer if you count predetermined/random generation works. But what Cheng has done in this piece is unlike any predecessor— the piece uses a Darwinian tactics built into an AI to make decisions on what’s displayed and what’s interacting with them and how that will make changes, be it to the landscape or the entities. This piece has been questioned often on what it’s simulating, but the answer is simply that its simulating life. Not one’s average life, but what a computer can cook up with an understanding of mammal forms and Darwinian adaptation. This simulation presents a breath of fresh air not only when talking about art, but also about artificial intelligence and the ‘soul’ of a computer. At first glance, one might think this piece is against the idea of owning art. Obviously its a constantly adapting piece which can not be frozen in place and still carry the same weight, as well as the nature of video being difficult to keep to one’s self. I think that this is an incorrect interpretation, however. The piece is displayed in museums at massive scales, but the actual work is just a simulation program running within a computer environment. Because this is, at its core, software, the only thing prohibiting anybody and everybody to have it is Cheng himself, which is understandable I suppose. But to consider ownership, anybody with a powerful enough computer could own this, and perhaps benefit the community by showing off how their simulation is running. To own this piece is more akin of having a pet, or taking care of children. Sure, there’s no shock value of having the only Cheng in the world, but instead the opposite. There’s the potential for community around an evolving common ground, in which peers can share, brag, or just geek out over. The possibilities, much like the piece itself, are endless. It is more or less fair to look at this piece as less of a work of art and more as a living, breathing thing— like a child. This isn’t to say it’s not an example of exceptional creativity and artistic vision [just ask, I love this piece more than anything I’ve seen at a gallery in awhile], , but more that it takes humanity and feeling to get anything out of it. Art is often evocative, and this isn’t to say it evokes more out of its viewers than anything else, but its in the way it does it. The way the piece works is so natural to people it feels familiar (besides the skeletons and shibas, of course). Watching the figures interact and negotiate terrain shifts and landscapes feels eerily similar to watching children play in a sandbox, or dogs play in the underbrush. It feels… Naive. And not in a way that art critics love to call pieces that have little technical skill, more in the way that it feels as if you’re watching an immature body comprehend its surroundings for the first time, and learn how to cope with/make agency of it. This familiarity leaves you standing there wishing the AI well, hoping the figure makes it over that next ridge, shocked when a shiba disappears into nothingness, perplexed when a dozen llama-like creatures appear from behind a set of trees from seemingly nowhere. And that just goes into the work. The experience of the piece is entirely worth noting as well. Stretched out in front of the viewer stands an enormous horizontal monolith, what must be 20 feet wide by about 8 feet tall and a foot and a half deep. If you get closer to it you can see the individual LED lights hidden behind a white material stretched over them, subtly diffusing the lights so it looks more naturally like a television. It’s almost sterile, besides the whirring of computers from within the monolith. It feels not only like a monument to artificial power and programming excellence, but evolutionary being as well. The subjects are all held within, so that they can expound their agency indefinitely onto the specialized screen. But even by having seen it once, just known the piece is running, and that the simulation is live, simply seeing the large monolith which houses all of the electronics would be enough. Inside of there is a whole world— no, a whole universe, constantly in flux. Despite having glowed on this piece for the last few pages, thinking about it is a little melancholy. If you fully allow yourself to agree that yes, this piece is a constant simulation, running fluidly, then you understand that the entities are, and often end up disappearing to presumable death. What I mean to say is that these things that you see are in fact evolving, which means they’re making choices, which ultimately means they have intelligence of some nature. By watching it, you’re bearing witness to the births and deaths of countless, infinite individuals, even though they are simply a computer software. But why does that qualify? How can we witness software minds extinction without blinking an eye? I suppose computers have been seen as a static medium for as long as they’ve existed, but that wall is crumbling down with the rapid acceleration of artificial intelligence design. What I find most fascinating about this piece is actually that these beings exist in this time/space void, which has no influence from the outside world. It acts as a sort of bubble universe, containing all of the life in a centralized place. Do they understand life? Do they understand death? These are obviously moot questions to pose, but it changes the way one may think about the work. I found myself asking not just are they alive, but also… So what? It would be more cruel than anything to create life and let them know of their permanent orphaned existence within the wired universe, and to share concepts understood on the outside because to them those laws do not stand. The only understanding within is what promotes stimulus, and our ways of thinking would do no good against the valley of skeletons and shibas. But enough rambling. This piece is important not only for its technical prowess, artistic ingenuity, use of color, or any of the dozens of platitudes we could share onto it. What I think it maintains its greatest strength is that is reminds us life around us, which is constantly adapting and changing, is beautiful. Cheng didn’t necessarily do anything new, he actually just reminded us that life is a beautiful thing, and that the most simple and innately human experiences of growing, evolving, and adapting are some of the more important and wonderful ones.