Friday, October 23, 2009

Wherein I finally love Cao Fei's RMB City: Part I

China Tracy is the Second Life® avatar of Cao Fei, a Beijing-based woman born in Guangzhou, China in 1978, and the most acclaimed virtual worlds’ artist in Real Life. It is therefore illogical that this blog, which has logged 745 posts to date and the majority of them about virtual art, has never featured China Tracy, Cao Fei or her creations.

I do so today, not because Cao was selected by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation as one of the six finalists for the 2010 Hugo Boss award. The $100,000 are presented every other year to “the artist (or group of artists) working in any medium, anywhere in the world” for making the most important contribution to contemporary art. Certainly the most appropriate museum in the world for observing, fostering and archiving virtual art is the Guggenheim. We've been waiting for it to "arrive" with acute and, I suppose, guarded anticipation. How will things change when they take their rightful place?

Furthermore, Cao's virtual work was just featured on PBS’ Art:21 Fantasy and Contemporary Art episode last week. Here is the preview:

There are multiple ironies running through this story, for China Tracy's much celebrated virtual oeuvre, the four sims/islands work known collectively as RMB City, is thoroughly unvisited and unloved in Second Life - except when a bevy of hired content creators are constructing some new area or exhibit, the occasional “party,” and RMB City's illustrious first home-away-from-home, YouTube, is often blocked and inaccessible to most of her countrymen, and even to her. For all I know, it's possible that she may not even be able to read this blogpost.

The sorry truth is that even though I recognized that her work was important, brilliant even, and a credit to virtual worlds, I didn’t have much to say about it. The computer generated version of RMB City depicted in the video was charming and oddly alluring...

...but the realized construction of it in Second Life - though impeccably recreated by hired metaverse developers - left me cold. The plug and the socket were both present but the work failed to solicit any connections. Speaking for myself alone and as a frequent user of virtual worlds, RMB City felt lonely and somehow broken. It's biggest failing in my view: It's not immersive. It's like looking at a painting within a painting. The best way I can describe it is that I'm not there even when I am there.

China Tracy/Cao Fei is the only virtual artist I can think of that contracts out the work of constructing her visions in Second Life. While many artists do collaborate with others, the implementation of their ideas with SL's building tools and actual prims is a source of pride and critique, as well. This isn't to say that Cao Fei wouldn't know how to do it herself. Consider that she created the original RMB City on her computer with 3ds Max, a modeling program that more advanced creators use to fabricate sculpties in Second Life.

Looking for further insights, I asked Chenin Anabuki who heads up Avatrain, the company that recreated Phase I of RMB City in Second Life for Cao Fei, what he had learned from the experience. "I learned that we have this huge part of ourselves that is very creative. Prior to RMB, I mainly saw us as engineers, but SL almost forces you to be creative, no matter what your function is. Development in SL is not as linear as in RL. So, over time, we got to learn the different ways to implement content for our clients. These projects are difficult. Many people (who are new to SL) are not aware of what is possible in SL," he explained.

Okay, I get it

Something clicked with me back in early September, though, when I read the opening paragraph of a recent press release issued by Vitamin Creative Space, promoting the unveiling of a new video of RMB by Lainy Voom and a party, as well as fashion/photo contests, jointly held with metaverse chronicler Hamlet Au of New World Notes, and presided over by virtual fashion maven Iris Ophelia:

"Many of us are born into shelter, nurtured in the arms of people who guide us before allowing us to encounter our physical realities on our own. But imagine that you are born not into the arms of your mother, but into the arms of a city; and that you are grasped, embraced and cultivated by the towers and vessels, sounds and sights of a fantastical empire. For China Sun, the baby of China Tracy, this is reality from first breath. When China Sun asks “What is life?” it is RMB City who answers."

China Sun is the Second Life name for Cao's real baby son - Cowboy Lim - born in March of this year.

Welcome to the world(s), China Sun and Cowboy Lim!

And that's when I got it.

RMB City isn't intended as a space for us to inhabit. It is a 3D poem that we are witness to. We turn the page by visiting one sim or location at a time. It's a virtual postmodern allegory about all the yearnings and angst of our era.

The shops at RMB City don't actually sell anything

The courtesans - all bots - entice you with exciting promises, but there is no way for them, or you, to touch

chinesebeauty Shim: Darling, how I miss you! Why are you here so late?
chinesebeauty Shim: Let me treat you nice today.
chinesebeauty Shim: Follow me please, darling. (Please click the link to teleport)
chinesebeauty Shim: Wanna have close contact with me? Please IM: BeautyChina Aries, I will show up as soon as possible.

Games of chance and penalty are offered there, but they aren't interactive or don't work.

Upon arrival at RMB City, you are greeted by SuperConcierge Cristole, a bot, sitting behind an impressive desk:

SuperConcierge Cristole: Hi! Welcome to RMB City! Can I help you?
SuperConcierge Cristole: My name is Superconcierge Cristole, I'm the third mayor of RMB City, and also your concierge.
SuperConcierge Cristole: Please leave a message with your request, Superconcierge Cristole. I will reply as soon as possible.
SuperConcierge Cristole: Thank you. I don't ask for much in return, only that you give me something to love! Say "love", I will give you a gift :).
Bettina Tizzy: love
SuperConcierge Cristole: I have sent you a note card and a gift. Cheers. :)

He provides you with a notecard, but there is no gift.

Beyond that, RMB City is a bridge between immersive virtual worlds and Real Life that anyone can appreciate, whether they have experienced virtual worlds or not. It is unreal and abstract, free of Barbie and Ken avatars, yet chock full of symbols and imagery that anyone can recognize. China Tracy is "guid(ing) us before allowing us to encounter" virtual realities on our own.

Photo of the 3D-printed model of RMB City at the Serpentine Gallery in London by Vint Falken

RMB City's success is not the tail that wags the dog where Cao Fei is concerned. This is just one of many projects she is working on or has completed, including her analyses of the Chinese cosplayer culture.

Soon after logging in to Second Life in late 2006, Cao began to make "hidden camera" machinima. "I was directly recording myself as I moved through Second Life, but as I’m watching myself, I’m also controlling myself. I’m simultaneously director and actor. But I enjoy exploring everything and not knowing what will happen in the next step. A lot of the process is waiting for something to happen, and I didn’t try to make something fake. In the end, I had some 300 GB of saved chat dialogues and “real” captured footage," she explained.

This 3-part video, iMirror, is currently being screened in Second Life at the National Portrait Gallery of Australia's doppelgänger show, curated by Gillian Raymond, that explores contemporary notions of portraiture in the online realm (teleport directly from here). This is part 2:

Thinking back to RMB City, I have finally learned to love this virtual work and all that it has accomplished. Cao Fei has introduced millions to the idea of using a virtual world as a canvas for their creativity, and this is no mean feat. RMB City does, finally, speak to me and, for the first time I can hear it.

Part II of this series: "An interview in Chinese and English with virtual superstar Cao Fei - Will you be the next artist showing at RMB City?" is available here.

Teleport to RMB City directly from here or, if you are new to Second Life, begin here.


Lalo Telling said...

I went to RMB City last month to photograph it for the contest announced in New World Notes. At first -- having not done sufficient homework -- I was unclear as to its origin and purpose... In fact (laughs @ self), I briefly thought it was intended to be an official PRC tourism promotion! It didn't take me long, however, to comprehend that I was touring (and recording) an art installation.

Perhaps, because I am a Boomer/"Cold War kid", I tend to see art of this kind as social and political commentary... That, at least, was the inference I made from RMB City's intentional -- and somewhat heavy-handed -- hodgepodge of garish color, self-parodying uplifting sloganeering, stereotype reduced to ridicule by over-inflating its size (the floating panda, for one), and seamy industrial underside.

I came away with many more images than the limit of 5 contest entries, from among which it was difficult to choose). RMB City is not an easy place to photograph! The vignettes/scenes/visual statements are jammed together to defy the viewer's ability to focus -- which is, of course, also intentional, and part of the installation's power to affect.

I also came away with a sense of relief that I do not live in modern China... and the impression that Ms Cao could easily compose a similar visual commentary about contemporary life anywhere on the planet.