Back in 1970, Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori coined the term "Bukimi No Tani"––in English known as "The Uncanny Valley." He hypothesized that as we build robots that look and act more like humans, the subtle imperfections of our creations will cause a feeling of unease in their creators. (Basically, it's why Johnny 5 and Wall-E look cute but Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf looks eerie and bizarre.) While there are countless examples that fall into Mori's theory, New York-based artist Ian Cheng's work may display this strange dynamic as clearly as anything we've ever seen.
Cheng's pieces are created from motion capture renderings of real humans, transferred into a digital realm where bodies move according to glitchy physics and bounce through strangely psychedelic landscapes. Unlike CGI that aims for pseudo-realism, Cheng's pieces manipulate figures in odd, often purposefully disconcerting ways. Often it feels as if his figures are consciously aware of the constraints of their digital nature, and their mangled bodies are actively straining against them.
Over the past few years, Cheng has applied his talents to large-scale installation pieces, a music video for the NYC-based band Liars, and an upcoming iPhone app called ENTROPY WRANGLER (see the above video). "Realness in your pocket," he calls it.
We caught up with Cheng as he was furiously working to finish an upcoming MoMA PS1 exhibition called ProBio to talk about his work. Topics range from the unlikely inspiration of Conan O'Brien and Marcel Duchamp, to the inherantly boring nature of traditional installation art.
The Creators Project: When did you start making art? Was there a specific moment when you realized you wanted to be an arist?
Ian Cheng: I was studying cognitive science at UC Berkeley as an undergrad when someone gave me a copy of ARTNOW, one of those annual coffee table face books of contemporary artists and I thought, "What a waste of time and money. Why is no one keeping this zone in check? How can it be so mediocre and so freely mutant at the same time? Sign me up!"
Did you immediately gravitate toward using computers and digital tools to create imagery? How did your style of animation and motion capture emerge?
I worked at George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic for a year after college. Conan O'Brien was doing a Bay Area tour and dropped by ILM to bully all the digital workers for loving their job too much, and to clown around in a motion capture suit. His mock stupidity towards the technology stuck with me. Later, when I was looking for a cheap and dirty way to get animation without the tedium of becoming an animator I remembered this. My approach comes from acknowledging that every technology is as smart as a human is smart and is as stupid as a human is stupid.
What other artists have inspired you?
My GF for her emotional clarity. Kanye and almost every other top 40 rapper for their incessant mutating of pop culture. They all say they just want to fuck bitches but really they're fucking culture to birth a wider weirder cultural gene pool. Harmony Korine and Pierre Huyghe for their nasty romanticism and embodied intelligence. Paul Chan for modeling his life with his own moral code. Nate Silver and Venkatesh Rao for their next-level blogging. Music video directors like MegaForce, Romain Gavras, for their high-speed smuggling. Marcel Duchamp for being a sociopath with a smile, and for being skilled at something else.
Your art reminds me a lot of imagery traded on Tumblr, and in some way of computer imagery from the 90s. Is that something that has played into creating your art? Do you see yourself as part of a larger aesthetic?
I love Tumblr. It's kind of a cognitive anthropology. Looking at someone's tumblr is like seeing what patterns their mind is currently picking up on. I use Tumblr as a substitute for Google image searching sometimes, but the Tumblr culture doesn't have much to do with what I make or care about.
Your animation is often incorporated within larger installation pieces. How do you go about creating the spaces that houses both physical your objects and the movies you create, as with TOO HUMANS ALL TOO HUMANS?
To be honest, I hate thinking about sculpture and installation. They're a pain in the ass to make and mostly thankless in their inert bored existence. I have admiration for sculpture but really no one gets it, partly because we have less first-hand connection to the way things are fabricated and built these days, so the language of sculpture becomes less legible. I try to think more about events and event design. When I show my animations in an exhibition context, I think of their display as a trade show kiosk rather than some permanent museological physical thing. After all, the way we experience contemporary art exhibitions today is effectively as an event–either the event of the opening, or the quieter event of you coming to see something then leaving. Either way, there's a lot of boring time for the art to just be a dumb inert art thing. Better for the art to be an event with hopes of a life in an ongoing chain of events.
I've heard you are working on a new iPhone app. Can you tell me a little bit about ENTROPY WRANGLER, and its accompanying exhibition?
It's an endless, ever-changing simulation composed of a collection of bodies, objects, and signs, each with their own properties. They're unleashed on each other, and the ways in which the properties of each element corrupt or synergize with other elements is emergent and unpredictable and ongoing. I recently showed a version of this at Off Vendome, in Dusseldorf. I'm currently finalizing a version of it for iPhone. The idea is you can watch the processes of entropy and evolution unfold in real-time. Not in an abstract theoretical way, but in an embodied way. Like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton embodied.
A lot of your work seems to be about the interplay of humanity and technology, and what makes us human. What interests you about that dynamic?
For me technology is as natural a mutation to human beings as bird nests are to birds. We ourselves are the beneficiary of millions of years of mutation and selection, and the technology we create can further mutate us–our bodies, our sign systems, the reach and speed of our perception and judgement. But like any mutation in nature, it's not immediately clear which technological mutations are helpful or hurtful to our growth. They're just here, being selected, rejected, corrupted, and recombined. My work is about modeling the look and feel of these mutations. Composing with them is a practical, embodied way to decide if they're worth selecting for further mutation, often in spite of the default selection pressures imposed by a technology's marketing.
How did the idea for the animated faces you made for DISIMAGES come about?
For DISIMAGES, Dis Magazine's stock photo website, I scanned and motion captured the 3D form of up-and-coming fashion models. The idea was to go beyond stock images of models, and make full-on digital doubles of the models that you could download and use. They come with stock phrases too: "hey", "debit or credit", "I love seafood, "nature doesn't care about Russian people." I think in the near future, celebrities will have to copyright the contours and likeness of their face, or face having to have their face appear in whoever's virtual porn set.
How difficult is it to capture the imagery you want working with real people using motion capture techniques?
The beauty of motion capture is I don't have to think about the cinematography or the lighting of the shot. I can think purely about getting the physicality of the performance, the movements, the choreography. In this way, I can work with fewer people, less money, and greater focus. Any cosmetic issues with the imagery can be procrastinated for later.
How did your collaboration with Liars come about? How did you come up with the concept for the video?
They saw my video, "This Papaya Tastes Perfect," which incidentally I made while listening to Liars' "Sisterworld" on repeat. Energy's gonna travel where it's gonna travel... The idea for the video was to take the format of a short familiar narrative genre–a Looney Tunes episode–and find the inherent entropy in that genre's vocabulary. The final chaotic sequence of the video is actually a recombination of all the motion capture from the true-to-genre scene's that preceded it.
This Papaya Tastes Perfect
There's an interesting quality to your work, where on the one hand it looks very realistic, and on the other it looks very disconcerting–almost creepy.
It's all about the movement. We think consciously about surface, the cosmetic look of things, but what our brain is really subconsciously an expert at is the way things move. A lot of my past videos have been about composing with motion as a material–combining, corrupting, and mutating motion. Disciplines like choreography and dance have long dealt with this of course, but their limit is the limit of what the human body can physically perform. With technologies like motion capture, motions deriving from one body or body part can be frankensteined with motions from another. It's a language to deal with choreography in alien and un-human ways. And in a round-about way, it's a means to mutate your brain's subconscious expertise for movement. Yes, creepy.
Cheng's work will be featured in the group show "ProBio," curated by Josh Kline, part MoMA PS1's "Expo 1," on view May 12.