Rebecca Travis speaks with Ben Vickers - Curator of Digital at Serpentine Galleries, and New York-based artist Ian Cheng about ‘Bad Corgi’, Cheng’s newly released app artwork and the second Serpentine Digital Commission.
RT: Ben, what drew you Ian’s work for the commission?
BV: One really fundamental thing was Ian’s work shown in Turin, ‘Emissary in the Squat of Gods’ (2015). It was the first time that I’d seen an artwork that went beyond representation. You really got a sense that something was unfolding and you weren’t hung up on thinking ‘this is a lot like a video game’, rather you were concerned with what was happening in the space and in that environment. I think that represents a kind of turning point as to where we are at this moment.
RT: Following from that, how do you see gaming as located within the context of visual art? And what it can offer beyond that of other mediums?
IC: In a very basic way video games allow you to be an influence within a larger system - there’s very few artistic, aesthetic and cultural mediums that allow you to perceive that. As gaming’s already a very codified world, I felt the perspective that myself and Ben could bring to the medium wasn’t so much to go into the gaming world itself but to cannibalize and take from it all the qualities that are so effective - the ability to focus your attention, to be ‘portaled’ into another set of another set of laws, and to discover, inhabit and play those laws as a brief suspension from normal habits and routines.
The commission turned into something more in the realm of a ‘mindfulness app’. When you think of those kind of apps they’re always to do with eliminating stress in order to reach a happier state. I find that a very narrow definition of ‘mindfulness’. To me, mindfulness is about holding the really ugly, nasty things that are part of life on an equal plane with the happy, pleasurable things. ‘Bad Corgi’ was a great opportunity to use game stressors and chaos like role play therapy. So you’re this little corgi who has a bit of obedience but when let off the leash - like a real dog – it will misbehave. There’s a lot of opportunity for misbehavior! There’s also a time limit. My hope is that in the fixed time you can journey through your state of stress, fully exercise it and exorcise it. At the end of the session there’s a gong sound that cleanses the palette and from that moment you can no longer touch the corgi or interact with it, you observe it petering out the rest of its bad behavior, and hopefully that’s all you need to play for that day.
RT: Apps tend to feed online distraction culture - with ‘Bad Corgi’ are you tapping into that as a tool? Or critiquing it?
IC: It’s a bit of both; I can’t deny that the attraction to making an app was the fact that it would be so widely available. In an exhibition you’d be lucky if a few thousand people see it, but with an app, like all forms of commercial software, it’s kind of an endless work in progress. The apps I’m attracted to are the ones that really slot themselves into the larger, ongoing narrative of someone’s life rather than taking them away from it. The notion that apps are a distracting or addictive medium perhaps points more to the restlessness and anxiety that people already feel.
RT: To what extent do you think gaming and simulated environments can offer solutions to dealing with ‘real world’ emotions?
IC: I think a great deal…
BV: It’s actually already been proven at this stage in terms of the PTSD work that’s been done with Virtual Reality - so we’re already in that space.
IC: I really feel that narratives, movies, literature can teach us how to live in a much more convincing way than psychology documents, academic papers, or a doctor telling you how you should live your life. You can use a story as emotional scaffolding to pipe in different perspectives and hang different ideas. Anxiety is like fear x time - your left brain anticipating a bad scenario transpiring in the future; but what if you could inhibit that anxious left brain anticipation? I think that video games can really help deal with that, help you exercise the feeling of being present in the moment and not stuck projecting into the future or into the past. Worrying is its own form of comforting addiction…
RT: I enjoyed your description of the work as being like a ‘neurological gym’. Can you speak about the development of the ‘Bad Corgi’ gaming modes and what mental ‘workouts’ you see them as providing?
IC: The idea - and I’m setting myself up for failure here - is that I saw myself not as an app designer but as a coach. The app is structured so that there’s scope to continuously add more modes that play upon the underlying ecosystem and materials within it - the corgi, the characters, the landscape - all those things can be re-combined to suit different ‘exercises’. Currently there are three exercise modes. The first is a ‘herding’ exercise where you have no chance in hell of doing a good job, it’s more setup to allow you to revel in creating this snowballing havoc. In the second exercise, ‘Patch Pusher’, the corgi has to move shrubs outside of their rational, rectilinear arrangement. The third mode doesn’t involve any interaction, it simply allows the player to observe the dynamics of the corgi automatically herding a flock of sheep and to take natural pleasure in observing natural movement patterns. Going forward I have a long list of other exercises to apply to this little corgi world.
RT: Did your background in cognitive science lead you to want to work with mental health and well-being in your art making?
IC: Yeah absolutely. Evolution is much slower than the rate at which the world is changing, so whatever hacks or tricks you can use to play with your mind and use its strengths and weaknesses together to forge a new set of habits is very vital and rich territory to explore.
BV: In many ways with ‘Bad Corgi’ we’re rekindling or finding new access into something that was already present, and that’s important. There’s a lineage of this kind of ‘consciousness hacking’ from John Lilly to Timothy Leary to Paul Stamets - people that use psychedelics in order to harness their perception or relationship to reality, but I think it’s particularly interesting now. In the last few months of working on this, ‘consciousness hacking’ as a concept has really started to take off. There’s a lot of people who are very much engaged at this moment in building new habitual abilities within mind function. They’re taking it from an engineering perspective, which is terrifying in some ways, but it opens up a lot of future playing space.
RT: How long is the period of development for the simulations and for the app?
IC: The simulations that have been seen in an art context are heavily researched but actually made quite fast - in about two-and-a-half months. With the app it was the contrary, we started working on this in earnest about a year ago and it’s gone through so many changes. I think it’s fair to say that the timeline and expectation for app development is a lot longer than for art.
RT: There’s a recurrence of dogs as ‘protagonists’, ‘emissaries’ in your works, why canines in particular?
IC: That’s a good question! On one hand it’s just a vehicle. The corgi for me is a way of talking about A.I. It’s this other intelligent agent that you can interface with and has some shared reality with you but is its own being with its own mental world. In the history of fairytales and children’s media animals become natural analogues for dealing with more impulsive emotions. They’re containers for human archetypes. Perhaps today animals can be adapted as archetypes for relating to non-human agencies like artificial intelligence in a way that encompasses its potential for unexpected behaviour or developmental handicaps.
RT: As an extension of that, how do you see the ecology of the ‘real world’ and the ‘ecology’ of your simulated worlds as mirroring each other?
IC: The environments I make within the simulations are much cruder than the real world, but in making them I’ve learned that as a human being I don’t actually sense that much at any given time. Reality is much richer than I can perceive or even believe. There’s a Philip K. Dick quote that I really like: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I think there’s a natural suspension of disbelief that happens in our daily reality that is hard to fully acknowledge, it’s a kind of curation of what we choose to be connected to at any given moment - real or not - and what we disconnect from. Making the simulations is a real exercise in choosing very specifically what I want to connect to at the huge exclusion of everything I want to filter out.
RT: The term ‘forking’ has come up in recent work titles and contextual texts about your work, what do you mean by that?
IC: In software development ‘forking’ is a process where you experiment with a new off-shoot feature that not everyone on the team agrees or understands is of value. If the fork proves to be a success to the overall software it is merged back and you have stronger, richer product - not unlike Darwinian evolution. For me ‘forking’ became an analogy or metaphor to be used both within exhibition making and the narratives within the works.
RT: Did your time working at Industrial Light & Magic have an effect on the aesthetic of your simulations?
IC: I worked there for thirteen months and learned a great deal about that industry and the methodologies of making Hollywood-feature-quality visual effects. But in my work I’m after a much more impoverished aesthetic. It’s an intuition, but I think it’s true, that the dumber the simulation looks the more you can focus on the behavior and interactions of the beings within it, rather than cosmetic photo-realism.
RT: ‘Bad Corgi’ has an interesting soundtrack - did you work with someone specific?
IC: I worked with a sound designer called Greg Heffernan. I also augmented that with some of my own sounds, especially that evoke dog habit training - clickers, whistles.
RT: Are there certain outcomes you’re expecting from ‘Bad Corgi’?
BV: This is new territory for the Serpentine and I’m certainly curious to understand how it will be received. I liked something that Ian said earlier - that the gallery space has more of a ‘virtual reality’ than most other contexts and places because it’s so constructed and simulated - the rules are so well defined and if they’re broken, they’re really only being reinforced. The exciting thing about releasing this commission via the Internet is that within that context it’s not strange. There’s much more confusing things going on - take 4chan as an example of a space that generates material with its own logic. The idea that this could sit in amongst those things and be quite comfortable there is personally exciting.
IC: I’m definitely interested to know how people use the app. There’ll be updates and a feedback loop for things that could be improved. Inviting myself into that process is quite scary, often in exhibitions you produce something and people just receive it, the exhibition timeline is short enough that there’s no feedback process. For me, Bad Corgi is a much more relevant space for that, it’s like this metaphor for me being a kind of therapist through the app interface.
Bad Corgi is now available for iOS from the app store.