Ian Cheng: An Emissaries Guide to Worlding (2018)

A Systems Library, Vol. 24

Philippe Vandenbroeck
5 min readDec 28, 2021
Installation view of Emissary Sunsets The Self (2017) in the exhibition Ian Cheng, Carnegie Museum of Art, 2017. Photo: Bryan Conley.

In previous Medium posts I have explored how, from a developmental perspective, our innate systemic sensibilities (or our way of systems being) provide a basis for growing our systems literacy. And how, recursively speaking, systems being provides meaning to our systems thinking and tinkering. This book foregrounds an artistic project that articulates in an idiosyncratic but precise way what systems being is about. Hence, it deserves a place in my Systems Library.

Ian Cheng is an artist who writes code. Code that blooms into virtual worlds. Worlds that harbour the intelligence to go on and on, constantly reinventing themselves. Cheng’s code simulates worlds that are rife with emergence. Bringing these worlds to life and serving them in their unpredictable ongoingness equals the practice of Worlding. Worlding is a metaphor for life authentically and humbly lived at the service of a particular kind of vitality. It is shorthand for the capacity to create complexity, and the courage to live with the indeterminacy inherent in complexity. Engaging in the practice of Worlding has a moral, civilising import.

Cheng: In Worlding the human mind can expressively extend itself to be at home nowhere, everywhere and anywhere. (…) Imagine a culture in which Worlding makes Worlds as prolific and mundane as publishing a book is today. And imagine the fluency for Worlds this ease and proliferation would create (…) Imagine how the art of creating infinite games might open a way to an even greater art: the art of choosing better futures, thus expressively steering the medium of spacetime and sculpting our agency in it. (…) To create infinite games as an act of agency. To live to World, and World to live.

The notion of infinite game, introduced by religion scholar James Carse in his book Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, has been instrumental in shaping Cheng’s artistic project.

Years ago in my short review of Carse’s book, I wrote: “The distinction between finite games and an infinite game is heuristically so powerful that once one has grasped it, it is almost impossible to put it out of one’s mind. I feel that the tension between these two basic dispositions traverses my whole personal biography. My deepest desire has always been to participate in an infinite game: not playing to win but to keep the game going and draw ever more people in. I believe that in some areas of life I have been able to create a space and develop skills to do so. But the nature of the game dictates that one is never at ease, always has to question oneself.”

In this book Cheng reveals his logic of worlding, the meta-algorithm that provides a foil for his coded simulation algorithms. That meta-algorithm includes four functional modules. Cheng labels them as artist ‘masks’. They stand for four different roles, and associated sets of activities, that interact in the practice of Worlding. The first three roles are:

The Director creates a structuring container for the World in the form of an overall guiding narrative. The Director wants to make meaning from the complexity that seeps in from base reality.

The Cartoonist magnifies emotions and reduces complexity by externalising belief orientations and defining tribal boundaries. The Cartoonist’s language is visual and its logic is psychological; it turns ideas into distinctive characters.

The Hacker strips down existing worlds to their underlying systems and rules and activates their potential to spawn novelty. Meaning is not important for the Hacker; the mask revels in the fleeting feeling of delight and in the shock of the new.

The combined efforts of these three masks are able to bring a new world to life, but they cannot sustain it. Because each of these role leads to different forms of closure: the world is oversaturated with meaning or stifled through the Director’s control; or it spins out of orbit through the colliding emotions unleashed by the Cartoonist; or it runs aground in the Hacker’s meaningless search for novelty and disruption.

Cheng: To create a World from nothing, we’ve assembled the unique talents of each of the artist’s masks. The Director has created structure, a team, and back stories. The Cartoonist has created characters who are simple but truthful with a look and feel we love. The Hacker has created artificial agents, systems and rules to power a simulation engine. Now we must betray the finite goals of each mask, for we are about to birth a World, and a World asks for more. (…) A World wants to emerge as an infinite game: one that keeps on going, invites to new agents to keep it in play, is fertile with surprises, and continues to generate unexpected meanings.

The role of the fourth mask, the Emissary, is to imaginatively serve the world that has been brought to life. The Emissary cannot contain the World. The World must contain the Emissary.

Cheng: “For the Emissary, the act of Worlding is about wilfully heading towards an unending frontier and being open to perceiving new meaning at every turn. Most of all, Worlding asks the Emissary to protect these open-ended qualities of the World when a resolution is near. (…) The Emissary must stay with the trouble of Worlding.

And when the Emissary feels it is unable to maintain this openness and exercise the unnatural feeling of worlding “it must wilfully exit itself, not risk the World, and let other emissaries carry it on. In this way, the Emissary is always and mundanely ‘caught between unravelling old realities and emerging weird ones’ in service of the ongoing health of the World. This is the texture of Emissary life.”

The Emissary is the heart of Cheng’s vision. It occupies what Michel Serres (in The Troubadour of Knowledge) metaphorically brought into relief as the position blanche of the goalkeeper, the position from which the body is able to move in any direction, open to any eventuality. It is the position of the true learner who is respectfully in resonance with the contingencies — miracles and tragedies — that the eddies of life throw at his/her feet.



Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?