The Second Life of Cao Fei
RMB City Catalogue, December, 2007
by Wagner James Au
In the summer of 2007, I met a renowned artist from the other side of the globe, and soon became fast friends. This was only made possible through a world that does not exist, through a person who does not exist. The place is called Second Life, the user-created 3D simulated world online; the person is an “avatar”, a word derived from the Sanskrit term for “godly incarnation”, but now the common reference for the alter ego you control, in an online game or an Internet-based world like Second Life. For the last five years, my job as a writer has been to cover SL as emerging society, with its own culture and conflicts, which often mirror our own in a more fantastic way. Because it exists on the Internet, the avatars of Second Life are owned by people from nearly all our physical nations. And because it’s depicted as a 3D space, the sensation you have inside it is being in a single world, shared by all these people, with a connection more tangible than e-mail or even phone. In Second Life, I’ve met and interviewed European scientists and American ministers, Japanese sex workers and Brazilian entrepreneurs, soldiers, peace activists, chefs, housewives, truck drivers, business executives, severely handicapped people, TV personalities.
And in May, I met China Tracy, a young woman with platinum hair dressed in a suit of armor.
Meeting Fei… through China
I first glimpsed China Tracy on a YouTube stream, a startlingly vivid avatar introducing herself in a machinima with Chinese subtitles. A new medium which converts 3D graphics from a video game into animation, machinima is still mostly the province of gamers creating in-joke videos for each other. But something about this Second Life avatar named China Tracy struck me. At the time, I had no idea who she was, but in subsequent months, learned she was an accomplished multimedia artist, creator of i.Mirror, a beautiful, three-part machinima of the Second Life experience– and as such, perhaps the most world-renowned artist thus far to use SL as a medium. (Then again, it would have hit me earlier, had I looked more closely at the latest issue of the July 2007 Atlantic Monthly sitting on my coffee table, which described her as “one of several innovative young artists to come out of the Pearl River Delta… her photographs, videos, installations, and theater productions reflect the region’s manic development and its youth culture, heavily influenced by Japanese manga and ‘cosplay’, dressing up as anime and manga characters.” ) China Tracy was in California to visit the Lindens, meet another SL Resident with a fascinating history, and luckily enough, chat with me over drinks at the Hotel Utah, a storied San Francisco bar. It was what Second Life members call a “mixed reality event”, avatars coming together as the real people behind them.
And so I learned: China Tracy is Cao Fei, a Guangzhou artist who’s “a key member of the vibrant new generation of Chinese artists emerging in the early twenty-first century” (by Art Forum’s lights), and has been featured by the New York MOMA, among an intimidating roster of showings at galleries, museums, and biennials across the globe. Highlights in her portfolio include the insanely delightful Hip Hop (everyday Chinese get down with African-American freshness) and the virally acclaimed Cosplayers (playing videogame superheroes in a post-industrial cityscape where the demand for grand gestures no longer exists.)
Earlier this year, Cao discovered Second Life, and embarked on a six month tour of Second Life, where all the usual activities accrued: “Fly, chat, build, teleport, buy, sex, add friends, snapshot…” (Yes, she even tried virtual sex, though a prospective lover misplaced his equipment at the worst possible moment.) All the while, she captured video of her experiences, which went into i.Mirror, a sad, dreamy, but ultimately optimistic thirty minute epic in three parts which first aired at the Venice Biennial. (It was later acquired for the collection of a renowned Italian fashion designer.)
Through the i .Mirror
As a movie, you may see the influence of Wong Kar-Wai and Wim Wenders in i.Mirror, among other world class directors. Nearly a half hour in total length, it plays out in three separate but thematically-related parts. Part I is an introductory montage to Second Life, and it lingers on both the beauty and the excesses of virtual capitalism that also make the metaverse a consumerist sprawl.
Part II is largely a love story with a plot twist that won’t surprise longtime Second Life users (or for that matter, anyone else who’s developed a crush online), though it’s lovely for it all the same. Part III is my personal favorite– it features a distanced but humane montage of avatars, diverse in all their characteristics and interests. It reminds me of a closing section of Godfrey Reggio’s classic Koyaanisqatsi, but with less irony, and more warmth. Overall, i. Mirror complements Douglas Gayeton’s My Second Life, a short SL machinima recently acquired by HBO, and it’s fascinating to see established filmmakers approach Second Life as a medium and a subject– both excited by its transformative potential, while just as wary that it’ll change us in fundamental ways, not all of them positive. (Or in China Tracy’s case, that it won’t transform us enough.)
Where I assumed that Part II’s romantic encounter with a handsome young man was scripted, Cao told me it was all shot quasi-documentary style, like the entirety of i.Mirror. In-world, she simply captured video as she interacted. (“Part real, part role playing”, as I remember her describing the aesthetic approach.) So she really did meet her future SL swain playing the piano, and went on to form a virtual relationship with genuine feelings.
As it turned out, in real life he’s a man in his 60s (as Cao’s movie reveals), a member of the American far left in the 60s (which the movie doesn’t mention.) He it was who Cao met in person on her trip to Northern California, bringing together two of the unlikelier people to form a friendship, but for the metaverse, typical: an elderly Marxist living in the capitalist US, and a young woman from formerly Communist, now hyper-capitalist China.
“I don’t know more about SL’s promise,” Cao writes, just prior to her San Francisco visit. ” For me, SL is a new world, but it’s still surrounded by a old world system, it parallels and mirrors our RL. They’re not what they originally are, and yet they remain unchanged. I’m not criticizing the Second Life world, because this world is created by us (international citizens). Whether RL or SL, everywhere is full of consumerism/expansionism. SL is artificial/digital landscape, but totally human nature is behind that, you can see so real we are. But on the reality’s end of this combined ultra-space, there is still love for simplicity and the pursuit of freedom, creativity and imagination, and only these possibilities me me treasure this SL world.”
You say you want a revolution? “Not at all. SL should be what it should be,” Cao tells me. “SL is a lab, a world lab, but it consists in a huge global economic systems. It bring us business and democracy, at the same time with feelings and culture. We can’t avoid capitalism’s wave; at the same time, we can’t avoid Communist aspirations in our heart. This world is not only dualistic, we’re inconsistent. Communism is our Utopia, Second Life is our E-topia… SL is our mirror, it tells us the truth.”
Building RMB City
True to her word, China Tracy has remained an active Resident of SL, and is planning a new Second Life-based art project, launched on Creative Commons’ Kula island: RMB City, named after China’s money, a fantastic, funhouse rendition of modern Beijing, with Tiananmen Square turned into a swimming pool and a giant panda dangling from a crane.
In China, RMB is the abbreviation of “renminbi”, literally, “people’s money”, and the name of the currency you use in that country. She’s built an early, “under construction” version of RMB City in Second Life’s island of Kula and showed a version of it at the more recent Istanbul Biennale. It will be reworking of Beijing into a fantastic, dreamlike version of the city as it is, churning with new and old icons. Given its subversive imagery (a Mao statue bobs half submerged under water), the irony is it could probably never be shown in China-and so, it will have to remain in the virtual realm, a 3D figment of our imagination.
Wagner James Au
The author of the Second Life blog New World Notes (nwn.blogs.com) and The Making of Second Life from HarperCollins.