What’s Next?

Hans Ulrich Obrist Interviews Cao Fei

Hans Ulrich Obrist = HUO Cao Fei = CF

HUO: To start from the beginning, this is not our first time recording an interview. However, here I want to start by talking about the development in your new work Second Life. First of all, the piece has to do with your investigation on “China Tracy”. Then there’s a new piece about the development of a city, “RMB City”, which is actually developed from - one can say - the idea of a parallel reality of the city. Could you talk a little bit about it? How did the idea of China Tracy start? When did you have the idea in the first time?

CF: I encountered Second Life at the end of last year (2006). Soon after, I was com- missioned for the Chinese Pavilion of Venice Biennial 2007 and started working on this. At that time, I wasn’t too familiar with Second Life, but felt that using it as a medium to create a work that coincides with the focus of the Biennale would be interesting. Thereafter, I started exploring it, and because I didn’t understand this world, I decided to use a documentary method to record my experiences and process in Second Life, as a most direct process initially.

HUO: So that was the beginning. How did you document it? How does one document the Second Life?

CF: First of all, there’s an in-built feature for recording and videoing in Second Life. I felt that using the documentary route could record my initial experiences. Dur- ing the process of recording, I did not plan in advance too much. That is to say, I did not arrange for compulsory theatrical aspects and content. Rather, it was akin to how you would wait or meet someone in ordinary life. I am very much for this sort of happenstance in life. I like organic theatricality as opposed to manufactured ones. As such, I feel that this work is closer to the sensibilities of real docu- mentary.

HUO: How did you come up with the name “China Tracy”? It’s a very generic name. How did this come about?

CF: “Tracy” can be a surname too, but at the time in my opinion, “China” is the sur- name. Then I chose the most generic name I could think of. I feel that I am enter- ing this game as a completely new role. Hence, I chose the name that is common amongst American girls, and entered this world in as generic an identity as pos- sible.
But in this game, many people who met me called me “China”, because they think that it’s my first name. So most people call me “China” there. Sometimes when I was in the sex bitch house, some guys would say: “Let’s fuck ‘China’!”

HUO: The first Chapter we saw in Venice (i.Mirror ) has something to do with the navi- gation through Second Life and the experience in it, while the new chapter (RMB City) is about virtual reality. Could you tell us about the two different chapters? How are they different?

CF: The concept of parallel universes is one which I’d brought up previously in my piece Cosplayers. It talks about the relationship between reality and imagination. So Cosplayers and Whose Utopia present the parallel universes that take place in reality, rather than the idea that scientists propound of parallel universes that deal with concepts of space and time.
The parallels in Second Life include time, space as well as psychology. Because it is in a binary world, the visuals in this city have a sense of reality to them. This includes the transportation network, which coincides in many places with real life. At the same time, it has a parallel relationship with time in the real world.
The avatar in Second Life has a similar experience with her meeting with Hugyue, the male protagonist in i.Mirror. This sorts of parallels can also create confusion. Our avatars are both not totally similar to reality. When I first entered this world, I could believe that this is how he looks like. Perhaps I have already developed a liking for this avatar. However, initially this is an attraction based on pixels and binary numbers. It is a fascinating relationship because you also know the differ-
ences you have with this person in real life. As such, there will be some degree of confusion and misunderstanding developing in terms of feelings.
In Second Life, you could develop an obsession or infatuation with a certain avatar.

HUO: Can you tell us about these avatars, or about your obsessions? You mentioned that you spent all your time last year on Second Life. It became an obsessive thing. What is your experience with these avatars?

CF: For instance, I would go to different places, such as an avatar store, commercial centre, IBM, that sort of large companies, as well as some that are operated by in- dividuals. I would also go to small discussions, bitch houses, private sex houses. I was willing to try out everything, be it entertainment or political groups, in order to understand the whole system.

HUO: like a flâneur? CF: Yes. At the part with the piano, I met that boy Hugyue, and then got to know him.
He was the character I got most fully closest in Second Life. HUO: What are you in Second Life? An artist?

CF: In Second Life, most people don’t have a profession. But many people belong to their own groups. I joined different groups too. When you check on the personal information of a particular avatars, you will discover a lot of different groups. For instance, I joined some political groups, sex groups, and so on.

HUO: So you belong to different groups. That is interesting because after so many dif- ferent interviews, I find there are not many groups any more in the real world. It’s more atomized. Maybe there are some small tribes, but no such idea of big groups or big movements. Yet in the Second Life there are groups. How do you see that in the real life? Are you part of any artists’ group or are you more atomized?

CF: In reality, while there’s a methodology for working with a team, I do not belong to any specific group, so to speak.

HUO: So you belong to groups only in Second Life, not in the First Life.

CF: I have a more transient and observant attitude towards groups in Second Life. HUO: What’s your most extraordinary experience in Second Life?

CF: I met “hugye”, and after a period of talking or dancing, this sort of environment could lead you to develop certain impressions of this avatar. Because he looked so handsome standing there - and add to that a romantic backdrop (which is a rath- er typical setting in Second Life), music and a romantic atmosphere – the design of the movement mechanism, as well as the content of our dialogues, one could develop a new sort of feeling. A few days later, when I was dreaming, I would even dream of this avatar. At that point, I was very surprised: how could a per- son’s dreamscape and memory register this computerised image, and how could one develop impressions of this image? I was curious as to why my inner feelings could have such changes.

HUO: So it entered your brain.

CF: I’ll keep talking about my story. After a few days, we had more intimate conver- sations. I found out that his true identity was that was a 65-year old American communist activist. We talked at length about the concepts of communism in today’s China and that which was ingrained in America’s consciousness from the past. Moreover, he had committed political offences – he was part of an under- ground movement, had robbed a bank, got funding, and then was caught and put in prison. His extraordinary history was a great attraction to me. In reality, I may not have imagined meeting such a person in Second Life, nor do I often meet someone with such a political background – but I did.To a certain degree, his background and history attracted me even more. Because I was curious, we had more conversations and interactions.
Later on, I had another dream, where I saw a lot of people from real life walking towards me in a place like a train station or some kind of public space. I started looking for the real person behind “hugyue”. Finally, an old man walked over. He was ugly, like a really grotesque man in that film Song from the Second Floor. So actually, this also reflects the gap between hope and reality, and it’s amazing.
Sometimes when I was shooting in Second Life, I would forget that I was mak- ing a documentary. I think I’d put all my real emotions in the whole game.What’s
fascinating is that while the protagonist is me, it’s not me at the same time, since I’m on the outside and the person in control. When I looked at “China Tracy” and “hugyue” together, I felt like I was watching a movie. Yet the person engaging in dialogues is me. I think this is an extraordinary situation. Sometimes I think the two of them are very compatible and could be together. Yet in terms of emotions, I’m the one controlling this avatar, while on a mental level, this is something I cannot enter. The boundaries are very blur.

HUO: After making a documentary, you started to produce the reality, which was basi- cally the beginning of the RMB City. Can you talk a little bit about the vision of the city? What does RMB City mean?

CF: The first phase of Second Life is my discovery of this platform that Second Life provides for me, one that allows for experiences as well as creation. I feel that the second phase should focus more on creation, and hence, I came up with the idea of building this city.

HUO: In your view, Olympic Stadium and CCTV building somehow mirror the reality. Is it only mirroring the reality or is it also inventing a Utopian new city?

CF: I feel that it’s both. The environment is not a direct mirroring. For instance, the CCTV Building is suspended in the air. Perhaps it’s more to do with a kind of gaming concept within the city space.
For example, Tian’anmen Square is turned into a public swimming pool, hence taking its significance and turning it into something else.

HUO: Any other feature of the city you could describe? Is there something apocalyptic about it? Or is it between apotheosis and apocalypse? Is it optimistic or pessimis- tic? It seems to me very much both.

CF: You can follow the development strand - from Cosplayers, where I was an outside observer of the city; to investigating the knowledge that an artist has of the world; and finally, to what I was saying earlier, about the articulation of an internal par- allel world.

Second Life was a really good medium. He provided a new world in which you can interact with others. This world could be built, used, entered by people, interacted with. This is why I like this medium. I could create anew a kind of fairytale- like world, but at the same time, the appearance of this world would have a cer- tain relationship with China’s reality.

HUO: Your Step One is a Utopian flaneur in Second Life; Step Two is you being the pro- ducer of the reality of your own city. What’s next?

CF: The next step is how to allow this city to operate normally, and how to organise daily life in the city and its systems.
This time at Art Basel in Miami (December 2007), Vitamin will collaborate with me to form a “real estate development agency”, to “sell off” various special units of this city, and then raise the fund to start the construction of the RMB City in Second Life, Actually, to a degree, it plays on the concept developed in Second Life, and at the same time, bears the concept of real estate development and sales in today’s China.

HUO: Marketing is a question of readymade and appropriation. You use buildings that are recognizable like Rem’s building. At the same time there is the massive Du- champian wheel. So I’m wondering: is it a readymade city? Speaking of the ap- propriation, is it a readymade city?

CF: I think this can be traced back to my work for the Guangzhou Triennial (PRD Anti-Heroes). My treatment of readymade entities is more of a kind of appropria- tion, just like how Rem Koolhas’ research is based on various collages, through which he finds a new kind of logic. This city could allow for a new order or a more chaotic reality.

HUO: These projects that happened on Second Life can obviously become videos, but they are not objects in the sense of objects in the real world. In your work, there have been objects before, such as installations and photographs. Is this venturing into Second Life with the city also a goodbye to objects? What is the role of ob- jects: quasi-objects or non-objects in your practice now?

CF: Like RMB City, the project is planning to last for two years, and the city’s con- struction and utilisation will end in two year’s time. So what collectors will own is more about the experience within this two-year span. Hence, in a way, this is also an “anti-object” manner of collecting.
In the IT industry, there’re things like Creative Commons, open-source move- ments and other media concepts which have influenced my work.

HUO: Last question, do you have any unrealised projects? What are your unrealised projects?

CF: Why do you ask the same question every time?

HUO: Because each time you change. Repetition and difference. Last time you said you wanted to make a city. I think the RMB City used to be in your brain and now it has been realized. That’s why the question is not redundant, because your unrea- lised project then has already been realised.

CF: What I said the last time was: I don’t have any projects which I would like to rea- lise but which have yet to be realised, because I feel that a lot of projects can be realised. The projects themselves are not important.

HUO: It must have something to do with your ongoing project like the Second Life. Last time, you had completed Step One in Venice and Step Two was starting the mak- ing. So it’s really the question of what’s next.

CF: The RMB City Project is quite difficult. For me, it’s totally new, like how to or- ganise the whole city and various communities, as well as the new concept of collection. So for me, it’s a new subject, but I really enjoy these sorts of constant discoveries and remapping of new rules and paradigms.

HUO: Thank you so much.

CF: Thank you.

Note from the editor: The above interview was recorded on 3rd November 2007 in Beijing. The interview is transcribed by Philip Tinari. The English version of the interview is translated by Melissa Lim based on the transcription. In order to convey the vivacity of the original interview, a “Live Version”( the original transcription) is attached in the Chinese section.