M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation, © Cao Fei. Photo: M+, Hong Kong
My name is Cao Fei. I was born in Guangzhou. Most of my work combines documentary with fiction; it has a consistent focus on the development of our generation, particularly how the process of city modernisation transforms human beings and our society.
In 2007, with the global economy booming before the Beijing Olympics, people were extremely hopeful for the future. It was around then that I discovered ‘Second Life’—an online virtual world in which I created my own avatar ‘China Tracy’. Through Tracy, I explored half the virtual world: Time Square in NYC, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, and many other places. However, I realised none of them were in ‘China’. So, I wanted to create a modern Chinese city that was dynamic and full of energy in this digital world.
‘RMB City’ is almost like the digital version of a Chinese landscape long-scroll painting, and it’s a space that is filled with the most iconic symbols from contemporary cities in China: the upside down CCTV, the Oriental Pearl Radio & Television Tower in Shanghai, the massive bicycle wheel spinning on the Monument to the People's Heroes, the Bank of China Tower, the reservoir and dam, abandoned buildings, construction sites, urban villages, high-rise apartment buildings built on newly filled-in water bodies, shipping containers in the harbour, and the floating shopping city.
To help fund the project, Cao Fei actually sold virtual spaces in ‘RMB City’ to art institutions to use as virtual galleries. She also invited a wide range of people—including collectors, artists, and poets, as well as schools and artistic biennales—to take part in the development of ‘RMB City’. She even set up a Mayoral office for ‘RMB City’; M+ donor Uli Sigg was the first Mayor and gave his inaugural speech in the RMB City Hall.
As Cao Fei told us, it was a world totally different to our own:
‘RMB City’ is a city in the virtual world, there’s no air or dust, it comes without the conflicts and contradictions we see in real life—even if it’s parallel to the reality, it’s a world without risks.
RMB City is a virtual metropolis created by Cao Fei between 2007 and 2012 on an online multiplayer platform ‘Second Life’. The full archive of the RMB City project is displayed in the exhibition Things, Spaces, Interactions, which opened in 2021. The archive is on view in a gallery space enclosed by four walls. The walls are painted dark grey, and the floor is carpeted red. The display includes a multimedia installation with a software programme that visitors can use to explore RMB City in the ‘Second Life’ world, as well as fifteen single-channel videos, inkjet prints on paper, plastic helmets, shovels, a table, a stainless-steel logo, a fabric flag, and print publications.
As one enters the space, one can see the ‘RMB City’ logo projected on the floor in the centre of the left half of the gallery. Behind the projection is a stainless-steel table in silvery grey. The table is shaped like the three-dimensional capital letters ‘R’, ‘M’, and ‘B’. At the top of the table, there's a computer monitor showing an interactive display of RMB City. On the wall opposite the entrance is an enormous video projection. To the left of the projection is the side wall of the gallery space. On this wall, a white fabric flag printed with the ‘RMB City’ logo in red is mounted on a flagpole. Next to the flag is a shelf displaying white plastic helmets and stainless-steel shovels with white handles that are commonly seen in ground-breaking ceremonies.
Most of the right half of the gallery space is occupied by a black steel frame structure in the centre. The frame structure has a shape like a revolving door, with three wings extending from the central shaft. A flat-screen television is hung on both sides of each wing. In between each wing, in front of the televisions, is a black triangular bench. A row of tables sits against the wall at the back on the right end, where four tablets are placed on the tabletop while several publications are displayed in the glass cases underneath the tablets. On the right side of the tables is the other side wall of the gallery space, on which are displayed two document binders holding colour prints related to the work, as well as two aluminium composite panels printed with screen captures of RMB City’s virtual environment. To the right of the entrance, texts printed on the same wall outline the chronology of events that took place in RMB City between June 2007 and 2011.
In this space, the projection, television screens, and tablets play different single-channel videos, which mostly constitute computer graphics of RMB City. RMB City is an island in the middle of a boundless ocean. The island is packed with depictions of iconic buildings, such as a version of the Bank of China Building in Hong Kong built with gold bricks, a slanted Shanghai Oriental Pearl TV Tower, a green-lit copy of the Hotel Lisboa Macau, and a copy of Tiananmen Square, also known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace, in Beijing that features a portrait of a panda. The Gate of Heavenly Peace is raised above the ground by huge pillars, and water is constantly pouring out from its back, reminiscent of how the Three Gorges Dam discharges floodwater. The water flows from the Gate until it goes into the giant toilet bowl at a distance. Next to the toilet bowl is a container terminal. In front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace is a big open-air public bath, which has two escalators that lead up to the Monument to the People's Heroes. A gigantic bicycle wheel rotates on the tip of the monument.
In addition to these gigantic structures, there are also factory chimneys that shoot out fire, a construction site that hangs slogan banners, dense residential units, and a slum that can be accessed through an archway in an alley. In the slum, different stalls, foot massage parlours, and rock columns with the calligraphy of Tsang Tsou-choi, who is famously known as the King of Kowloon in Hong Kong, can be seen. In another area on the island, the Beijing National Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest, appears partly immersed in the sea. Its rusty frame structure encloses running tracks and a life-sized Monopoly board. Above the stadium, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York floats in the air. Nearby is a huge banner that faces the sea, on which is a white slogan on a red background written in Simplified Chinese that reads ‘harmonious society’.
On the sea, there are a green camouflaged tank, a sinking cargo ship, a floating statue of Mao Zedong, a statue of a Chinese Red Guard, and a gigantic supermarket trolley that contains a few high-rise buildings and a statue of Guan Yin.
Different objects also float in the air of RMB City, such as a giant panda and the Beijing CCTV Headquarters, which is suspended by a mechanical crane. There are also four yellow stars suspended from the four corners of a red flag, which is flying flat and holding another yellow star at its centre.
Players can interact in RMB City as avatars. The avatar of the artist Cao Fei is named China Tracy. China Tracy is a young lady whose hair is styled in double buns and long pigtails. She is tall and slender and wears full-body armour.
Other avatars have a great variety of looks and outfits. In addition to humans, there are also animals, robots, and a mixture of both. Recurring characters include: Lao Tze, who has a vulva between his eyebrows; Mao Zedong, whose chin mole is olive green in colour; Karl Marx, who has a full beard; and a Lehman Brothers executive who wears a suit. One of the videos also features a baby called China Sun, who sucks a pacifier, wears a diaper, and calls China Tracy ‘mother’.
(The following textual descriptions are for supplementary reading.)
There are fifteen single-channel videos in the RMB City archive. Some of the videos are dubbed into English or Japanese, while some videos come with no sound and only show the dialogues in running text. In the exhibition Things, Spaces, Interactions, seven of the videos are projected or played on the televisions, and the remaining eight videos are played on the tablets.
The following are brief descriptions for the seven videos shown by projection or on TV.
RMB City: A Second Life City Planning, a Second Life machinima, is an approximately 6-minute video of 3D computer graphics from the online platform. The shots lead viewers surf in the air and weave between structures, showing the day and night scenery of different areas in the ‘RMB City’.
RMB City: People's Limbo in RMB City, a Second Life machinima, is a 3D computer graphics video from the online platform that is approximately 18 minutes long. The video is divided into 11 parts. Its different scenes primarily depict the conversations and activities conducted by Mao, Marx, Lao Tze, and a Lehman Brothers executive. Some of the scenes include Marx visiting and paying respect to the grave of the Lehman Brothers, an automated barbeque machine that step by step turns living chickens into roasted ones, and the four of them playing Monopoly in Bird’s Nest with chance and penalty cards.
Live in RMB City, a Second Life machinima, is a 3D computer graphics video from the online platform that is 24 minutes and 50 seconds long. In the exhibition Things, Spaces, Interactions, an excerpt of 22 minutes and 56 seconds long is shown. The movie captures China Tracy and her son China Sun in different scenes, and the conversations between them and with other people. One of the scenes shows the Guggenheim Museum transformed into the shape of an ox horn, while another scene features the new mayor giving a speech at the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
Intellectual Marathon in RMB City, a Second Life machinima, is a 3D computer graphics video from the online platform that is 14 minutes and 47 seconds long. The movie mainly shows the conversations and activities conducted by China Tracy, curator Han Ulrich Obrist, Mao, Marx, and Lao Tze in different scenes. Some of the scenes depict the five characters standing on a huge paper airplane flying in the air; dancing with pompoms and figure skating on the rooftop of the Beijing CCTV Headquarters; and playing tug of war in front of the Monument to the People's Heroes, where China Tracy and curator Han Ulrich Obrist play against Mao and Marx, with Lao Tze as the judge.
The Birth of RMB City, a Second Life machinima, is a 3D computer graphics video from the online platform that is 10 minutes and 32 seconds long. The movie shows the construction process of RMB City. While an engineer floats in the air, the building blocks appear one by one. Sometimes, the structures first appear in white and then become coloured. It looks as if the floating engineer is designing and putting structures together. When the construction is completed, the shot leads viewers surf in the air and weave between structures, which gradually zooms out as the building blocks of the ‘RMB City’ disappear one by one, until that there is only a green island left in the middle of the ocean.
RMB City Opera is a video of a live theatre performance that is approximately 46 minutes long. In the exhibition Things, Spaces, Interactions, an excerpt of 4 minutes and 49 seconds long is displayed. At the rear of the stage is a huge video projection that shows two avatars interacting in RMB City. The avatars wear different outfits in various scenarios, while one male and one female actor perform in front of the projection in response to the video projection. In one of the scenes, the avatars are dancing in Superman’s outfit, and the two actors who wear everyday clothes also dance, paralleling the motions of the avatars.
Apocalypse Tomorrow—Surf in RMB City is a video of a computer game that is approximately 11 minutes long. On the sea, a monk standing on a surfboard has his back facing us. Objects such as landmark architectures and brand logos drift towards him or fall from the sky. The monk moves left and right or jumps up, sometimes dodging successfully and sometimes bumping into the objects. Sometimes points are awarded, sometimes they are not. At the end, the monk is taken to the RMB City by a mythical crane.