IT’S HARD TO THINK OF A SINGLE WORK—let alone a work in progress—that got more play in 2008 than RMB City, Cao Fei’s community-building project in the online world of Second Life. Surely boosted by its double-edged benefit of introducing the art-world mainstream to the dark continents of China and the Internet simultaneously, RMB City took turns on display in (physical) exhibition spaces around the world. Meanwhile, an animated tour of Cao’s twinkling confection of a digital city was available on her YouTube channel, and anyone who had a computer with a free gigabyte of memory could download Second Life and visit. But users could only get as far as RMB City’s outer limits until last Friday, when Cao, along with a few dozen friends and fans, celebrated the grand opening. I decided to drop by, too, a few hours after registering a Second Life identity, scrolling through menus to select a name (Petrolhead) and an avatar (a strapping brunet).
Traffic and train delays are unheard-of in Second Life, where you can fly or teleport to your destination. That doesn’t help, though, when you’re still learning to read the map. I figured out how to zap myself to the People’s Palace just as China Tracy, Cao’s avatar, was finishing her address: “[W]e are looking forward to your visit and your continuous attention and intervention to RMB City.” China Tracy’s pixelated mouth didn’t move, but her fingers tapped at an invisible keyboard as her prepared lines passed across the bottom of my screen. “Please make yourself home at RMB City, and let us ignite the wisdom and dazzle of it.”
The project’s CEO, who has the unappetizing handle Freeway Mayo, announced that the next speaker would be the city’s first mayor, UliSigg Cisse, avatar of Swiss collector Uli Sigg. Even here, vernissages are marked with the pedestrian ritual of opening remarks by sponsors and dignitaries. But there is no way to silence avatars in the same room or otherwise set a VIP’s words apart from the general feed, and so the speechifying mingled with stale chat-room icebreakers (“so where’s everybody from”) and non sequiturs like “Mayer Mayer Mayer many Mayers.” Guyullens Skytower—the Second Life representative of Guy Ullens, who opened Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in 2007—blurted: “couldnt find my trousers this morning.” Loftier discourse didn’t seem forthcoming, since the avatars of the curators who included RMB City in the Yokohama Triennale—Danielbirnbaum Quan, Beatrixruf Shinn, and Hansulrichobrist Magic—didn’t show. [read more…]