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Ian Cheng: Live Simulation

Ian Cheng
Photograph of Ian Cheng from Natt & Dag.

This post was written by Tim Cannon, intern in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Library.

Suspended Animation, which opened on February 10 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, features work by six contemporary artists working with digitally generated images. Among these artists is Ian Cheng, a New York-based artist who worked for George Lucas’ visual effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, before earning an MFA at Columbia University. His work is typically based on computer simulations, often lacking a fixed duration or narrative, so that the action unfolds more or less spontaneously, according to an algorithm rather than a plan. Cheng’s live simulation (his term for the programs he makes) Emissary in the Squat of the Gods, will appear in the exhibition.

If you’re curious about the work in the exhibition, you may want to check out Ian Cheng: Live Simulation, a monograph of Cheng’s work available in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Library. As a printed-matter representation of artwork that would normally be shown on computer screens, the book is thoughtfully conceived. It’s a fat, nicely printed volume containing, along with stills from Cheng’s work, a variety of provisional, allusive texts written by Ian Cheng and others, including a science blogger, an artist, a curator, and an art writer.


Ian Cheng Live Simulation
Ian Cheng, Live Simulation. Leipzig: Spector, 2015.


Nearly two-thirds of the book are devoted to frames from Entropy Wrangler Atik, one of Cheng’s simulations, which the reader can animate by flipping through at high speed. In the animation, an array of swords, cinderblocks, potted plants and colorful human body parts restlessly hover in front of — or perhaps explode from — a greyish orb of light. The frames are printed on both sides of the page. Flipping from front to back, the action proceeds one way; flipping backwards, the explosion unfolds a little differently. Objects might spin slower and faster, mutate slightly, or come to the fore and disappear unexpectedly. It’s a smart way of keeping the simulation’s feeling of open-ended potentiality.

In one of his interviews, Cheng says that a live simulation  is dynamic, but it’s not that dynamic. In the book he states, it’s a “private game we devise for when the aliveness of a situation is too complex to really know.” Rather than trying to represent a scene, a simulation reduces it to a set of rules, which can be used to predict outcomes.

Ian Cheng is represented by Pilar Corrias in London, and Standard (Oslo) in Oslo. You can see quite a few video recordings of his simulations at his website,

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