Masterpieces of the Universe
Financial Times (UK), October 11th , 2008
by Natasha Degen
This month Cao Fei, one of China’s most lauded young artists, will open a city in the online virtual world Second Life. Its 10 leased buildings may be constructed from zeros and ones rather than concrete and steel but their prices are very real: they range from $80,000 to $200,000.
A fast-paced, pulsating vision, “RMB City”, condenses contemporary urban China into an amalgam of symbols and icons, from shiny new skyscrapers to the much-loved panda.
“The project comments on the current hyperactive pace of Chinese real estate development and urbanism, so it is fitting that the spaces of the city follow the market system conceptually,” Cao says.
Buildings are being leased to collectors and institutions with the expectation that buyers will programme events and activities in them. “As ‘RMB City’ is a huge art project in Second Life, it takes much funding,” she continues. “We had to find a way to realise it, so we decided to sell to collectors and institutions.”
After opening a sales office at the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair last year, Cao – whose Second Life avatar is called China Tracy – transformed New York gallery Lombard-Freid Projects into a real-estate showroom. According to gallery partner Lea Freid, all the photographs exhibited were sold and all the promotional videos (in editions of 10) have been placed in major collections, among them New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center and the Louis Vuitton collection. The project is now on display at the Serpentine Gallery in London.
“RMB City” is an example of the new collectability of internet-based art. Whereas web artists once worked outside, and even in opposition to, the art establishment, artists today make their internet-based pieces into objects that can be sold in galleries and displayed in museums and homes. Cao, for example, has sold photographic and video documentation of “RMB City”, as well as opportunities to participate in the project.
“‘RMB City’ is a new model for communication between collectors and artists in the virtual world,” says Guo Xiaoyan, chief curator of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. The Ullens Foundation has bought access to a building in the virtual city, and will host events in the structure for the duration of the project, until 2010. City-wide, Freid says, activities will run the “gamut of arts and cultural disciplines, from poetry readings to lectures to visual art displays”, rendering the city a 24-hour culture centre.
Cao Fei isn’t alone; more than 1,000 galleries exist in Second Life and many artists are using the online community to create art. Eva and Franco Mattes make portraits (at $10,000 a piece) of the avatars, or digital surrogates, that people create to participate in Second Life. They’ve also reenacted, again in Second Life, a series of historical performance art pieces, including Vito Acconci’s “Seedbed” and Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s “Imponderabilia”. Another duo, eteam – artists Franziska Lamprecht and Hajoe Moderegger – have maintained a public rubbish skip in Second Life for the last year, documenting the project with still images and text.
This new kind of web-based art reflects the phenomenon commonly known as Web 2.0. The term refers to the increasing interactivity of internet-based technologies, epi-tomised by websites such as Google and Wikipedia, in which users drive content. Web 2.0-style projects contrast with the subversive, hacker-like interventions that characterised the net art of the 1990s. These early artworks took the internet, then a new and uncharted technology, as their primary subject; the results ranged from parodies of famous websites to web-based flash animation to conceptual art embedded in a site’s source code.
The ascendency of the internet not only inspired artists but precipitated the dotcom boom, with its heady energy and soaring stock prices. Arts institutions flocked to internet art to “tap into the money of surrounding dotcom businesses,” says Julian Stallabrass, a reader at the Courtauld Institute of Art and author of the 2003 book Internet Art: The Online Clash of Culture and Commerce (Tate Publishing). Museums founded new media departments, and exhibitions of net art were mounted.
However, “around the time of the dotcom bust [in 2001], everyone pulled up their socks and readdressed the medium,” says Barbara London, associate curator in the department of media at MoMA. “We’ve taken our eyes off it but we can always return to it,” she says. MoMA continues to show internet art: last year’s Automatic Update , for example, reassessed the art of the dot-com era, revisiting first-generation web art now that the new media frenzy has fizzled. Still, no internet-based work can be found in the museum’s permanent collection.
Initially, as Stallabrass points out, “no one knew the value of these things or how to conserve them”, but today’s internet art is nonetheless following an established model. Much like video or performance art, virtual pieces are now being transformed into limited-edition objects that can be collected and displayed, even though the works are often readily available online.
“Part of the way we’re marketing internet art is by taking it offline,” says Bryce Wolkowitz, director of Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in New York. “It becomes an art object by putting it on a data storage system like an external hard drive.” At Wolkowitz’s gallery, such works range in price from $10,000 to $20,000.
Vuk Cosic, a prominent first-generation web artist, explains: “What a collector buys from me is not really the piece of net art itself but a relationship with me. They get a contract with my signature, a copy of the piece and the right to list it in their annual reports and media.”
This saleable product suggests the importance of the object in collecting, even when the artwork is virtual.