Susan Acret: Please tell us about your avatar China Tracy and the RMB City work and how the online world of Second Life became a platform for these works.
Cao Fei: During the creation of i.Mirror and the China Tracy Pavilion (A machinima-documentary about China Tracy’s first explorations of Second Life, and the large-scale installation where it premiered at the 2007 Venice Biennale), I started to think about creating a place that belonged to China Tracy within Second Life... her own ‘city utopia’. China Tracy felt that since most cities within Second Life were Western in style, she wanted to represent some of her concepts about Chinese urban development in a space that incorporated Chinese aesthetics and identity, albeit in a surreal hybrid style.
S.A: You’ve said that your generation, brought up in a digital world, ‘will always compare virtual and real’ and that sometimes the boundaries between the two can be blurred. Your art reflects this movement between these two spheres. What opportunities do virtual worlds offer artists that are not available in the ‘real’ world?
C.F: Second Life is a world where the conventional free-market economy still applies. Although we call it a virtual world, its economic structure and the virtual currency is tied with the ‘real’ economy. From a visual perspective, Second Life appears to be hyper-real and excessively imagined. Combined with its uncertain identity, it can be mysterious and enigmatic to people. On arriving in this virtual world, China Tracy was attracted by the hyper-real prison, but also felt an unavoidable sense of oppression.
Although the boundary between virtual and real is becoming more and more blurred, the way the virtual world contradicts and coincides with reality offers something ambiguous and complex. This, to a certain extent, enhances our lives as a whole, providing a reference for the exploration of individuality and the nature of life.
Another reason that the virtual world appeals to me is that it transcends obstacles in reality, despite being hyper-real. It offers a virtual platform for human beings to experiment with a possible utopia, such as building an individualistic heaven, drafting laws and systems, generating new discussions and thoughts, etc.
S.A: Perhaps the main difference between virtual and real worlds is one of control. Though taking up an avatar offers a certain extent of autonomy and control to your visitors, you are still the mastermind behind the RMB city. Has any avatar’s behaviour been completely beyond your expectations or control?
C.F: Not yet, because the official public launching of RMB City is 10 January 2009. We look forward to having extraordinary people visit and miracles occur. Regarding the control issue, we just have some basic rules that are appropriate to the Chinese style; otherwise, there is no strict restrictions on avatars.
S.A: How many collaborators have you worked with for your RMB City project? How do you find your collaborations with these ‘real’ people?
C.F: Collaborators involved in RMB City include collectors, galleries, scholars, researchers, artists, schools, various exhibition projects, commissioned projects, biennials and triennials, etc.
We invite collectors to actively participate in the actual development of the city. For example, we invited Mr Uli Sigg to be the first governor of the city (for 3 months), in order for him to oversee and propose a blueprint for the utopia of RMB City in terms of its systems, construction and direction.
2. Public organizations
We are now working closely with Serpentine Gallery. They are one of the real information centres for RMB City. Also, UCCA which will collect RMB City, will have a virtual art gallery and other independent projects. Some art organizations are willing to rent spaces to be involved in this project and also develop their own projects.
3. Exhibition/ Project
I have realized personal projects for biennials and triennials via RMB City, for example, for the 2008 Yokohama Triennial and New Orleans Biennial, as well as on some consigned projects, such as H Box's video project. I would like to some overseas artist residency programs to take place the RMB City's platform.
We invite different parties (not just limited to the art field) in the real world to participate in the virtual world. We also invite Second Life avatars who are interested in our project.
Therefore, RMB City insists on 'the cooperation of virtual and real': collaborators should come from both worlds. Through this process, we hope to improve conventions and develop a new path.
S.A: Your use of internet platforms such as You Tube and Second Life is a democratic, open way of creating work, insofar as it is available freely to large numbers of people all over the world. Do you often get feedback from ‘non-art’ audiences on the internet?
C.F: Yes. I have received emails and messages to China Tracy in Second life, and comments on my YouTube videos, and friend-offers via My Space and Facebook.
I quite like these different forms of feedback from different channels, and meeting different people in different worlds.
S.A: What will happen to real estate prices in RMB City? Will there be a crash like that in the real world!?
C.F: There's no significant change so far. A crash seems unlikely. We may consider launching some land-sale preferential policies, and increasing various land renting strategies.
S.A: Born in the late 1970s and brought up in the ’80s, can terminologies such as Generation X (the consumerist generation) or Generation Y (the Net-generation or Generation Why) describe who you are? From COSplayers to the RMB City project, are your art projects the result of generational influence or your personality?
C.F: Since 1978, China has undergone an inevitable reorganization. Before we were ready to respond, we were already receiving all kinds of influences from a new time. Everyone is the product of a generation; 'I' am an individual as well as a transcendental object. Perhaps a young person who attempts to influence the world or China Tracy who surfs around the virtual world, are indeed coming from the same route. And as for me, I remain extremely close to yet with an appropriate distance from any of these worlds. This gives me a macro view of the ‘world’. And then I decide how I should deal with it and derive my system to process all the complex messages of life. In Chinese terms, it involves entering (reality) and renouncing (the virtual) the world simultaneously. This journey is to experience both worlds while constituting the two.
S.A: Works like Whose Utopia? focus on China’s industrialization and the cities and factories that feed production. Does your work have a social/moral message?
C.F: You could say Whose Utopia? is related to themes such as political economics, globalization, the world factory, and social and moral, and so on … What I hope for my work is for it to remain in an open context where it can stand objectively, without being cynical or ambiguous. It does not require a ’correct’ perspective, or hypocrisy. It just needs an honest presentation and expression, leaving an open space for discussion. It is with this notion that I began RMB City.
- Mon, 1 Dec 2008