The dog looks through my looking at him; butternut-coloured, an electric yellow strand clasped around its neck. The dog—a shiba inu, for which Cheng has a special concern—drifts through other bodies, dry grasses, a torrent of grey snow.
Some have called these environments, these ‘games without a player,’ tedious and repetitive; Cheng shrugged at this idea, half-smiling. Like a dream-state revision-repeat of an ancient history which is not our history, Cheng’s Emissaries—a three-part digital trilogy—has been on view at MoMA PS1 across a room of flat bright screens. One depicts the entire scenography, while individual components are highlighted in liquid-crystal displays ten feet tall. A camp fire, human figures sitting around it; whittling, speaking, jolting? Other detritus surrounds them, clustered; laptops, phones, furniture. The camera pans and zooms, revealing and hiding.
The artist calls these works ‘live simulations’ or ‘games that play themselves.’ And then—in their cartoon but blocky and oblique visualisation—how do they become ‘like’ writing, and like text? I think because they gesture toward the writing that may grasp toward them; Emissaries is a sped-up retelling of ‘a’ human civilization developing from early sludge and chalk-smelling cave walls into supercharged hyper-modernism. This is durational, and like any duration it speaks to the texts from which mythologies and histories are—often roughly—dragged. In alternative versions designed for social media, the viewer can participate by watching on the gaming platform Twitch. Twitch encourages constant revision and conversation in its visual stories—the ‘chat room’ which abuts the screen invites discourse, commentary. At the current time there are 2013 subscribers. I am watching a night scene; the same shiba—the yellow band is the brightest, hottest element—strides through black palm trees, blank rocks, passing clouds. Clicks and crunches (wind? Collision?) punctuate the space. Suddenly I am zoomed-in closely on three black shapes, pulled away—red rocks shimmer and gyrate, excavated organs. What’s this poetry like?
As much as they are real, self-regulating simulations, we are reminded of the coding that lies behind them (generative art as stemming from a poetics of code); built in Unity3D, these programs are delivered and unfolded through reams of code which Cheng, with a background equal parts fine art and computation, has rendered. The ‘text’ in this mythology is not visible, but is gestured at; the simulation has rules and routines, but the interaction of individual parts is not pre-known. It is evolutionary. During one diurnal scene I watched a figure—bulky, his hands stuffed with matter—shrug his way back and forth through bodies, cutting through rock formations and objects which littered and constructed his path. Jolting, spinning trees (moved in alien jumps unlike the rhythmic and lucid swaying of ‘real’ foliage) gesture wildly at the nature of the unpredictable machine-language behind the work. The connection and recombination of these ‘characters’ in Cheng’s world gives seeming new breadth to the concept of computer-generated simulation as art-visage-platform. Scenarios divergent as climate change and electioneering sump and drag narratives in new, exquisite angles. I watch as a patch of trees, rocks, metal girders, and flowers pound and scratch into the earth; flowers churn from the earth; glitchy shadows veer and stitch across this sun-rise scape. The world is built, changed, progressed and regressed before our very eyes. The results: a collateral damage which pulverizes and eats itself. The glitch is given precedent over naturalising scene-making; history is a shuddering-into-being and not seamless formation. A rock shocks into two, turns, and clatters into a pocket of sand. What’s this poetry like?
The iterative, unfolding witness to which we are given perspective (and perhaps not insight: not yet) echoes with Trevolr Paglan, whose concern is with ‘invisible images’ or the structure of machine-to-machine conversation—a conversation we are pasted-to daily, yet see little of; facial recognition technologies which communicate with thudding databases hidden under cities and within Stockholm rock-masses. It reveals Paglan’s argument that visual culture ‘has become detached from human eyes and has largely become invisible.’ The fact that we cannot see either the code or, for the most part, the full unfolding and total iteration of Cheng’s Emissaries speaks to the way in which text—also—has slipped beyond the pale realm of ordinary visual recognition, the art gallery, the smart phone. Less of the Daily asserts its place in our day; yet the soil is rocked and moved by its entrance. What’s this poetry like?
In writing this—I have been running the Twitch stream of Cheng’s Emissaries alongside, in a folded-down window—I hear a deep noise, a metallic shout. I have no idea what ’caused’ this event within his animation; when I cycle to the right tab, I see trees shrouded in slow mist, something like the occlusion found in a Helena Almeida photograph, as her body disappears behind a veil of sharp-blue paint. The poesis of Cheng’s Emissaries is an invisible entity to which are are given only vague clues toward, a light shining through a billowing curtain.