On the second floor of the Red Brick Warehouse, I made my first trip into Second Life. It almost didn’t happen; I was doubling back around looking for the Cao Fei exhibit when I spotted the entryway. Being familiar with some of the Chinese artist’s other work, particularly her photographs and videos that chronicle China’s youthful diversions (their adoption of cosplay and hip hop dance for example), I did not immediately recognize the computer terminal as her piece. To be honest, I thought it was one of those information portals that are commonplace in museums, train stations, and tourist areas these days.
Cao Fei’s piece is titled Play with your Triennale and it takes place in a Second Life space created by the artist known as RMB City. This virtual city (RMB is the Chinese national currency) is a project — over a year in the making — that endeavors to facilitate a public space for creation, construction, and discourse on the current and future state of the real and the imagined. Yet one with a noticeably Chinese slant: areas are given names such as “People’s Neo Village,” “People’s Slum”, and “People’s Love Center” and visitors will recognize distinct sights like the Three Gorges reservoir, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, and the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” stadium, though patched together as per the artist and her team’s surreal vision.
For the Triennale, the artist created a designated area in the “People’s Worksite” designed for audience participation and play. Here visitors can explore a space resembling a Chinese construction zone, detailed down to the makeshift bunks, and chat with the artist herself and the curators for the event in avatar form. As it looked at the opening preview the work site wasn’t much more than a field of dirt, a nice wide open space where one could practice trying out the controls, although there is a briefly amusing video embedded of the animated curators doing YMCA karaoke. But it is just that, a work site, in development. RMB City doesn’t officially open to the public until later in October, so what early visitors to the Yokohama exhibition have been treated to is essentially a preview, as well as the chance to become involved themselves. As the event progresses Cao Fei plans to fill in the rough space with select audience generated “Yokohama Dream Proposals.”
Any visitor from the general public is free to muse on this idea of having a hand in shaping a world where technically anything is possible. Technically, but not actually, and here in lies the catch: RMB City offers the freedom to imagine but it is not anarchy, the artist ultimately selects which projects are realized. Likewise, citizenship in the city is not to be taken lightly, as the “City Hall” requires a commitment in the form of a pledge of allegiance from avatars to RMB City. A dictatorship of sorts yes, but fair enough, she did make it and as the project advances and grows it will be interesting to see just what kind of ruler an artist overseeing a virtual community turns out to be.
Over time, Cao Fei intends to collaborate with real world art institutions and individuals around the globe, bringing in like-minded entities to develop in the city as per their own vision. Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art already has a building and another is in the works for the influential Swiss collector of contemporary Chinese art Uli Sigg. Buildings, however, are reported to cost around $100,000.
This is not RMB City’s first appearance at a large-scale art exhibition. The project made its debut at the 10th Istanbul Biennale in September of last year and held a “virtual real estate sale” at Art Basel Miami Beach that December. Nor is access limited to the art world, if you have a high-speed Internet connection, a sophisticated enough computer, and a Second Life login (free), you can visit RMB City anytime from any part of the world. Videos of the project’s development have even been posted on YouTube.
Considering the Triennale’s theme of “Time Crevasse,” which seeks among other things to examine the simultaneity and multiplicity of time and space and, through an emphasis on live performance, the singularity of the artistic moment, Play with your Triennale makes a striking contribution by bringing in the virtual world, along with universal themes like urbanization and identity, to the discussion table. Never mind that the majority of the art establishment may not know what to make of it: navigating Second Life requires a set of skills not found in an art history textbook.
RMB City also takes a rare, enthusiastic stand on the influence/invasion of technology in contemporary society, showing just what potential it holds. If the title Play with your Triennale is being at all facetious then it is more than likely poking fun at the solid, staid institution of the triennale itself. Although in many ways the goals of Yokohama and RMB City are similar: to brand a space as a global art capital and attract the requisite international collection of artists, curators, critics, and fans to demonstrate its relevance. Play with your Triennale however, by not only imploring audience participation but also by hanging its very outcome on that contribution, makes itself measurably vulnerable to viewer caprices, and that, despite the slick digital veneer, wields a certain fragile beauty of its own.