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Ian Cheng, Life After BOB: The Chalice Study (2021)
Ian Cheng, Life After BOB: The Chalice Study (2021), Real-time live animation, colour, sound, 48 mins.Commissioned by LAS (Light Art Space), The Shed and Luma Arles. Courtesy of the artist.

Ian Cheng imagines a world where the internet inhabits our nervous systems

Life After BOB at Halle am Berghain explores the perils and promise of allowing an AI to co-habit our consciousness

A sheet of blue light slices through the cavernous interior of Berlin’s Halle am Berghain. A handful of visitors move around spellbound, their faces illuminated in blue. Ducking beneath the pristine plane of light, disembodied legs appear to wander in the smoky dust of the world beneath. The ambient noise moves to a crescendo and you follow a series of thrilling, fast-moving spotlights to a cinema screen beyond…

Imagine a future in which the internet could be enmeshed with our nervous systems, allowing us symbiosis with technology capable of living our lives more flawlessly than we, as imperfect humans, ever could. Set in “a great anomic era”, Ian Cheng’s Life After BOB invites us to envision a time in which AI cohabits our consciousness, exploring the perils and potential of artificial intelligence, mental health and existential fitness in the future century. The immersive exhibition is built around the first episode of the artist’s latest real-time narrative animation, allowing visitors an experience the atmosphere of the film while also interacting with potential-enhancing NFT-generating technology. 

Episode one, The Chalice Study, tells the story of Chalice, a ten-year-old child who was implanted with an experimental AI named BOB (“Bag of Beliefs”) at birth by her neural engineer father, Dr Wong. “It’s a world where people get this implant like a neural link and, suddenly, you could experience a flow of data in and out of your brain and nervous system directly,” Cheng tells Dazed. “BOB can appear in Chalice’s head, like a dream or an inner voice. And Chalice can play these inner video games, while BOB is doing what we call ‘droning’ her physical body… doing tedious things for her in her life like dealing with conflict with her dad, walking up a flight of stairs that she’s too lazy to walk up. So she can just escape and check out.”

Cheng – who first studied cognitive science before becoming an artist – created this complex, beautiful film using the Unity game engine which is an unprecedented feat. “Nobody has produced a film of this kind before, using Unity to produce the building blocks for an entire cinematic universe,” explains Amira Gad, Head of Programmes at LAS  (co-commissioner of Life After BOB: The Chalice Study) and curator of the exhibition. Screened live in real-time in the exhibition, the film uses a specially conceived algorithm to generate and randomise details of the onscreen world, conflicted feelings about technology, and whether he anticipates a future dystopia or utopia. 

I wonder if you could maybe begin by just introducing with, in your own words, the world in which the story takes place? 

Ian Cheng: It started with the idea, ‘What if we were in a world where the internet goes to your nervous system?’ I could share my dreams with you, or maybe half a dream, a sensation of my finger, some fragment of a thing from my memory. I could share them with you and you could share them back, it could be this kind of telepathic dream language. So started from this crazy premise, in terms of the world, and then that became fertile enough for me to situate all the characters and imagine father-daughter scenes, but set in this new world in a much more tricky way. 

I love the way you allow the possibilities and perils of this technology to play out in the story. Could you tell us what you feel is the purpose and the value of storytelling? 

Ian Cheng: So much of what we experience in terms of ingesting information or news or just understanding the world is non-narrative, it’s just talking to the conscious part – the left side – of your brain. I think our attraction to storytelling is its ability to allow us to become unconscious. Watching Netflix or at the theatre, it’s so joyful to become unconscious for a moment, because it bypasses the conscious part of your brain and suddenly you’re able to accept and dream about really complex stuff and it’s easier to digest. 

You can tell a story about something complex and you can actually argue it out. When you have to write factually about something complex, you almost have to have made up your mind about it already, or feel like you understand it before you can start writing. The characters help get you there, the way a dream kind of helps get you somewhere. And so I think this is a very important form of technology that we’ve cognitively developed. Moviemaking and storytelling are more a kind of mediation of your dream world and trying to actually make it coherent. 

“What if we were in a world where the internet goes to your nervous system?” – Ian Cheng

I found the experience of the exhibition was so much like a dream. In your introduction to the film, you invoked the idea of Disney World as an inspiration when you were thinking about how to present the screening in an exhibition context. Could you tell us more about that? 

Ian Cheng: So many of the movies I loved growing up – things like Spirited Away, you watch it and it’s a coming of age story but the world it’s set in also seems like a great place you’d just like to hang out in. I wish someone would create a theme park of it. 

I was so struck by that movie because I wanted to revisit it for all those details that are non-dramatic. I saw it again recently with my daughter and there’s a gang of little fat ducks having a bath you only notice maybe the fifth time watching it, but you can track them across the film and they are doing something coherent. It’s so beautiful to discover this detail. 

I think there’s so much potential now for a story to really unfold the world and not just use it as a background or scaffolding. There are probably people in the audience who want to explore that, like me. And it’s a different temporality, it’s not so dramatic. It's not so adrenaline filled, you don’t feel the stakes are very high. And I think that activates a different part of you that’s happy to watch ducks having a bath but find it really thrilling.

Without wishing to sound too essentialist, to what extent do you feel the world you have created is dystopian or utopian?

Ian Cheng: Writing a story about the future of AI, naturally, my mind when it’s in storytelling mode wants to argue both sides. So you create a character that is overly interested in AI, like Dr Wong. He wants an instrumental reason for AI – it’s going to help you with your future, it’s going to parent you. Then you have Zee who’s into it for all these tangential possibilities. 

So I had to argue these different positions about AI and create dramatic tension. And so, naturally, you’re forced to argue all sides of a very complex topic. I don’t know how articulately I did it or how persuasively by a new in writing, I had to touch on every single point of view that I could imagine about AI. Who wins? I’m curious to know your response. 

I went in with more of a dystopian outlook but now, after having been to the exhibition, the whole issue of AI feels more complicated than before. To what extent do you think your work might be prophetic?

Ian Cheng: I think it might be too arrogant to say that it’s prophetic. Maybe the most hopeful outcome as an artist I would have is the reaction you had, where it becomes greyer. I haven’t necessarily changed your mind with this film, but maybe I’ve shifted you and you’re less certain in your original belief. As an artist, I couldn’t hope for more. 

“I think there’s so much potential now for a story to really unfold the world and not just use it as a background or scaffolding” – Ian Cheng

For people like myself who are slightly unfamiliar with the technology you use, I wonder if you could explain why it’s pioneering to use Unity?

Ian Cheng: Unity is used for building mobile app games or video games. Angry Birds is a super popular game built in Unity. It’s unusual to use Unity to try to make narrative films. Before this, I think the longest Unity film has been like 10 minutes. And so it was a huge challenge for us to try to do something like this. 

Despite being a pioneer in this field and doing something relatively new, I wondered if there are any particular artists you look to for inspiration? 

Ian Cheng: I used to work for a French artist called Pierre Huyghe, I loved his work. Like, he’ll create an aquarium with species that really don't belong with each other in the same ecosystem, yet somehow he’ll make it work. Or an entire ecosystem for a huge park. I was so struck by this ethic of allowing things to be entropic and chaotic. His sculptures get overrun with grass or weeds. He had a sense of aliveness in his work and I wanted so much to achieve a sense of that too, but through visual means. 

So much art is very static… painting and sculpture. As an artist, it tends to make you become a perfectionist because you’re moving toward a very fixed thing. I’d prefer to approach it more like a gardener, tending to something and maybe it's not perfect. For me, this is a very liberating way to work, it stopped the perfectionist in me and activated a kind of parenting instinct. And I suppose that’s why Unity really lends itself to that process and being able to dive in there and change things. It’s like movie-making becomes a form of software with new updates released all the time. I love the idea that software is an evolving object. It can become kind of endless for me, yes. But the trade-off is that you can make really alive work.

Ian Cheng’s Life After BOB (presented by LASis running at Berlin’s Halle am Berghain until November 6 2022