Mountains, Simulations, And Dystopia: Ian Cheng’s Emissaries At MoMA PS1

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The first room of the exhibit

While many of us were sleeping in or wiling away our hours in Butler this past Saturday, new guest writer Layla Alexander headed downtown to MoMA PS1. While there, she explored Ian Cheng’s new disconcerting, yet fascinating simulation exhibit.

New York City was especially live this past weekend, with Global Citizen Festival, Maker Faire, and the NY Art Book Fair all taking place across the boroughs. On Saturday, I chose to take a trip to MoMA PS1, where Ian Cheng’s surrealist three-part simulation, Emissaries, was on display. I attempted to do some research on the exhibit prior to my trip, but all I could gauge was that it was a virtual reality piece that involved volcanoes. With little to no understanding of the simulation but accompanied by a fellow art-enthusiast, I headed into MoMA PS1 and entered the exhibit.

In front of me were two screens that, together, spanned the length of the room and displayed what looked like a video game in pale blue and purple hues. The scene was a digitized, mountainous landscape speckled with part-animal part-human beings in the midst of a battle. Above them hovered another being covered with a blanket of sorts. Through thick fog I could make out mountain ridges in the background. These visuals were accompanied by the faint sound of wind. With little to no familiar imagery or allusions to popular culture, I couldn’t quite pinpoint the time period of the scene. The natural scenery evoked visions of prehistory, while the virtual quality of the images as well as the science fiction-esque beams and orbs of light across the backdrop of the battle suggested a dystopian setting. Intrigued and utterly confused, we continued to the next room of the exhibit.

Second room of the exhibit… what exactly is going on here?

In this room was a single, shorter screen providing an almost panoramic view of… something. This screen was much darker, clearly depicting various scenes taking place at night. In one scene, the view was obscured by grass, as though we were ants observing the world around us. In another, we observed a village in the shadows, surrounded by trees. In the third, we seemed to be in the mountains again, but a singular couch with cushions sat at the center of our view. A wolf (or a dog?) would occasionally push the couch over. There was also some commotion occurring in the background.

At this point, we had freed ourselves of the desire to make sense of Emissaries and chose instead to accept it for what it was: modern art. As we entered the third and final room of the exhibit, however, we were greeted by a familiar sound: the crackling of a fire. In front of a white background was a dark cave in which the fire burned, with smoke rising out towards the periphery of the screen. Very small beings continuously slumped forward into a line at the forefront of the scene before jumping into the fire. Some creatures also exited the cave-fire. This scene seemed to be on loop, and the tedium was jarring.

The final room

Cheng is said to have popularized “live simulations,” or simulations that go on infinitely and develop storylines on their own, without viewer input. On his website, he states that “stories are responsible to our human desire for resolution, but a simulation is responsible only to its own laws and initializing conditions.” In other words, simulations are entirely outside of human influence and control, and they don’t necessarily need to make sense to us. Rather, we can observe them and even hypothesize as to how they reflect modern-day fixtures, such as climate change or the origins of the universe, as Cheng suggests.

During my visit to Cheng’s exhibit, I felt disconnected in some ways. It was difficult to discern what was going on in front of me and what lay ahead, and these sentiments weren’t unlike those that I (and you, probably,) feel on a day-to-day basis. Managing school, organizations, a social life, and sleep is a lot like trying to navigate a simulation, but what Emissaries taught me is that you can’t always predict what lies ahead. Sometimes, despite how confused or overwhelmed you may feel, you just have to learn as you go about your journey.

Photos via Layla Alexander

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