October 14, 2022

Can AI Unlock the Unconscious?

Ian Cheng and Bettina Kames speak to Ann Marie Alanes about the power of immersive exhibitions in Web3
Credit: Installation view of Ian Cheng, Life After Bob at Halle am Berghain, 2022. Photography by Andrea Rosetti. Courtesy of the artist and LAS
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Can AI Unlock the Unconscious?

Ann Marie Alanes: Ian, you were producing digitally native works before the NFT. How has your experience of NFTs and specifically your recent project, 3FACE, changed your approach? Do you plan to continue the story of Life After BOB? If so, how do you foresee that emerging?

Ian Cheng: I had a great experience launching 3FACE with Outland. 3FACE was all about making an artwork that can adapt itself to each viewer/holder. It is the beginning of a longer exploration of adaptive art that I want eventually to apply to Life After BOB. This is firstly a narrative project, trying to tell origin stories of new kinds of archetypal humans who figure out how to live in a changing world. One dream is to let the viewer pause an episode and begin to improvise a conversation with a character or narrator. My daughter does this — we will be reading a bedtime story, and she will pause me to ask about some detail or to have me improvise what a character should be doing differently.

Can you imagine a future where every movie you watch could interoperate with a personalized AI-driven narrator that is adapted specifically to you?
Installation view of Ian Cheng, Life After Bob at Halle am Berghain, 2022. Photography by Andrea Rosetti. Courtesy of the artist and LAS

AMA: Why did you decide to tell this story as an anime?

IC: I love western animation — Disney, Pixar, etc. — but I relate to the energy and priorities found in anime more. Anime’s attention to the interior lives of its characters: the care in depicting nature; the wabi-sabi aspect-to-aspect way of setting a location as simultaneously a mood; the economy of certain shots where almost nothing moves but the story advances; and, of course, the nerve to explore adult subject matter in the medium of animation.

In western animation, it is presumed that the inner child of a person dies by adulthood and that cartoons are a simplified media for kids to inhabit, [which is] so lame.

Anime is the opposite — it presumes that the inner child in everyone is still alive, and that animation can activate it and help you get a grip on scary and difficult existential problems once the inner child in you is paying attention.

Life After BOB is about mental health, and about the existential pain of rewriting one’s life path. The strong tools and tropes of anime seem well suited.

Ian Cheng, Life After BOB: The Chalice Study, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

AMA: Amira Gad, Head of Programmes at LAS (Light Art Space), described the programmable version of Life After BOB as “Disneyfication.” This implies that the participants feel safe in an unsettling context. You seem to have mixed feelings about AI — you enjoy working with AI concepts and AI-based systems, but then the narrative of Life After BOB shows humans using it in the worst ways. How do you reconcile the two ends of this spectrum?

IC: There’s no need for reconciliation. The subject of AI is complex and existentially profound and there are AI breakthroughs happening at a weekly cadence. People who’ve made up their mind about AI aren’t really looking. It’s premature analysis. How can you make up your mind about something that is unfolding before you, except with blinders on and a fixed mental model? The subject of AI deserves exploration from multiple perspectives. And it deserves hands-on use to understand its impact on yourself in procedural, non-propositional, non-intellectualized ways.

The best thing to do is to try to make sense of what you’re seeing, argue all sides vigorously for yourself, use and even develop it yourself. Only then do I think your unconscious mind is primed and loaded enough to speculate on AI and its impact on humanity. Art is one good vehicle for such a sense-making exploration. 
Installation view of Ian Cheng, Life After Bob at Halle am Berghain, 2022. Photography by Andrea Rosetti. Courtesy of the artist and LAS

AMA: I know you are excited about where AI will take us and how AI and creative technologies might evolve in the future. Given how AI, programmed with big data, has come to characterize Web2, how might Web3 deploy AI differently, perhaps toward more progressive and less extractive operations?

IC: I’m not sure. If Web3 is to be less extractive and more progressive, such values will have to be fought for and built into Web3 applications at foundational levels happening now, regardless of AI-driven features.

AMA: Film is using AI in advertising, casting, and editing, but it seems to be moving at a slower pace as far as audience viewing is concerned. For the exhibit with LAS, you show the movie in its original form and the same movie in programmable form where participants can control certain objects’ behaviors. What has been the overall feedback from participants? Do you see this as one of the next steps in the future of filmmaking?

IC: For me, the important part of the LAS show is a large experiential room with lasers, haze, and sound that precedes the theater room. This experiential space programs the viewer into a hypnotic state.

I made it to talk directly to a viewer’s unconscious, to really prime the viewer into a bodily state.

Most people then seem to want to watch the whole 50-minute Life After BOB episode. Then, some fraction of those people engage in the “world watching” mode, where you can pause any scene in the film and click on any character, artifact, or entity and investigate its lore. I can see this sequence as one future of exhibition-making.

Ian Cheng, Life After BOB: The Chalice Study, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

AMA: You’ve mentioned that one of the goals you’ve always had is “to make the viewer fall in love with systems.” What prompted this ambition? What are your other ambitions?

IC: It came from the magic I felt as a child playing Will Wright’s games like SimCity and The Sims. As an adult, looking at our cultural and psychic landscape, it’s clear that the complexity of the world is terrorizing us and triggering our lizard brains to react because nothing else in us knows what to do.

Our lizard brains attempt to reduce the world’s complexity to known stories or apply ideological filters to simplify reality narcissistically into one we can recognize and label.

This is not unreasonable behavior. But I believe art can play a role in upgrading the unconscious response we have to complexity. Games that let you probe open-ended sandbox systems, movies that contain paradoxical or grey characters, and art that is alive and dynamic can be starting points for a future culture that can metabolize and surf change better.

Installation view of Ian Cheng, Life After Bob at Halle am Berghain, 2022. Photography by Andrea Rosetti. Courtesy of the artist and LAS

AMA: What is it about emergent behavior that you find beautiful and surprising?

IC: Emergence is where known parts produce surprising, unexpected behavior. For me it is a way to touch the transcendent.

AMA: Life After BOB seems very personal for you, born at a moment just before your daughter came into the world. What feelings do you have knowing that your children or grandchildren will be experiencing a future with AI, which one might describe as “posthuman”?

IC: If I can put my reactive lizard brain away, and put myself in the eyes of my children and childlike eyes, I am genuinely excited for the future — the weekly rate of technological change is approaching sci-fi. As a parent, I feel a responsibility to equip my kids with durable tools with which to navigate a changing, volatile world.

Installation view of Ian Cheng, Life After Bob at Halle am Berghain, 2022. Photography by Andrea Rosetti. Courtesy of the artist and LAS

AMA: Max Tegmark at MIT believes that AI needs steering: “With more powerful technology like nuclear weapons and AGI (artificial general intelligence), learning from mistakes is a lousy strategy [...] It’s much better to be proactive rather than reactive, plan ahead, and get things right the first time [...] It’s what we at MIT call ‘safety engineering’.” One of the issues with the highest stakes in Web3 is immutability — of not having an edit button or the ability to recoup lost funds. Do you feel that AI artists and art foundations like LAS have a role or even a responsibility in steering us toward a less precarious future?

Bettina Kames: LAS wants to create a certain awareness, a platform and reservoir of diverse thoughts and ideas — a glimpse into a possible future. We don’t want to give specific answers or steer you in a certain direction.

IC: I don’t think safety engineering is a requirement we should make of artists. This is for technologists and regulators to work on.

There’s the basic reason that artists should be given cultural permission to explore the things that a culture is too scared or myopic to explore in its current formats and conventions.

But there’s also the other basic reason that the consequential dangers of AI or immutable Web3 applications are beyond the capability of 99.9% of artists to enact. If an artist could be a formidable hacker they would be a hacker! So my feeling is, it’s best not to slow down artists with yet another thing to worry about that might impede their imagination and nerve.

AMA: Bettina, we’re seeing a lot of immersive and interactive exhibits at the moment. What is the relation between large-scale physical (or even digital) environments and the personal experience afforded by the NFT? Where do you see digital curation heading?

BK: LAS is an art foundation for the broad public. We want to be accessible and democratic. Our exhibitions need to work on various levels for a wide range of people. It is important to us that viewers can experience AI without knowing much about it. And in our exhibitions, analog and digital worlds are merged. Our shows engage themes that are relevant to the general public, while providing evocative and sometimes very personal access points for individual guests.

Installation view of Ian Cheng, Life After Bob at Halle am Berghain, 2022. Photography by Andrea Rosetti. Courtesy of the artist and LAS

AMA: Ian, what have you learned from the process of creating a film with programmability? And Bettina, How has Ian’s exhibition been different from your other shows? How do you foresee this experience shaping future programming?

IC: I learned that it is now possible to treat filmmaking like software-making. Instead of thinking of narrative media as a perfected, expensive, laborious super-artwork, it can now be about iterating quickly and inexpensively, and developing new para-narrative features that expand the viewer’s experience if they become fans and seek it.

BK: Ian’s exhibition reassured us of the importance of showing artists in new and unexpected ways. Until now, Ian’s work has been displayed predominantly on screen. With Life After BOB we used an exhibition-enhancing architecture to create an entire world around his anime film. This is a world you can experience with all of your senses, with your cognitive brain as well as your unconscious. Both are equally important.

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Ian Cheng is an artist who lives and works in New York. Since 2012, he has produced a series of simulations exploring an agent’s capacity to deal with an ever-changing environment. These works culminated in the “Emissaries” trilogy, which introduced a narrative agent whose motivation to enact a story was set into conflict with the open-ended chaos of the simulation. Most recently, he has developed BOB (Bag of Beliefs), an AI creature whose personality, body, and life story evolve across exhibitions as part of what the artist calls, “art with a nervous system.” In 2015, Cheng founded Metis Suns, a production company dedicated to worlding and worlding literacy. He has exhibited globally, including solo presentations at MoMA PS1, New York; Serpentine Galleries, London; and Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; as well as group presentations at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art; New York; the 2019 Venice Biennale; Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.; Tate Modern, London; Louisiana Museum, Copenhagen; and Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris.

Bettina Kames is the director and co-founder of Berlin-based art foundation LAS that brings together art, technology, and science. She is an art historian who studied in Munich, Paris, New York, and Berlin, where she did her PhD on “Radical Painting / End of Painting” at Freie Universität, Berlin. Between 2007 and 2013 Kames worked in New York and curated several exhibitions including those of Mel Bochner, Charlotte Posenenske, Medardo Rosso, Richard Serra, Alberto Giacometti, and Ragnar Kjartansson. After returning to Munich, she conceived various private collections and developed strategies as well as educational programs for museums.

Ann Marie Alanes is Community Manager at Right Click Save.