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.
I moved in to get the obligatory snapshot of China Tracy handing the “Certificate of Mayorship” to UliSigg. A screen-capture function is built into the Second Life interface, but it takes skilled maneuvering and zooming to get a decent angle. Navigation was complicated by hiccups in the program; the convergence of a few dozen users and their bandwidths slowed Second Life’s animation to a series of stiff jerks. I kept impatiently tapping my arrow key, only to find myself nearly standing on China Tracy’s feet. “May we request some avatars to move back from the duo, thanks!” shouted a member of the development team. I retreated to the bar and clicked on a Champagne glass.
After the remarks, festivities began in the People’s Waterpark outside. As giant goldfish somersaulted and an elaborate fireworks display animated the sky, I took an exterior look at the ceremony’s venue. The People’s Palace of RMB City is modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing, but a picture of a panda hangs on its red gates instead of a portrait of Mao, and it is unguarded and empty, save for a few consoles broadcasting local news—a friendly site for distributing information rather than an awe-inspiring monument. The layout of RMB City shifts the horizontal order of urban center and periphery to a vertical axis; while the Forbidden City is in the middle of Beijing, the People’s Palace sits at RMB City’s highest point, overshadowed only by the Bicycle Wheel—a conflation of the world’s biggest Ferris wheel, set to open in Beijing later this year, and Duchamp’s readymade.
Beneath the wheel, the party raged. There was no music but lots of dancing—by touching a “pose ball,” guests could launch their avatars into a sequence of acrobatic moves. To chat about the construction of RMB City with fewer distractions, I let myself be teleported away by Rodion Resistance, a programmer from Avatrian, the Philippines- and San Francisco–based company specializing in Second Life content design that Cao contracted to build most of RMB City. Rodion took me to the People’s Park. The green field there is ringed by a jagged nest of rusty, broken pylons—a dystopian shadow of the National Stadium designed by Herzog & de Meuron for the Beijing Olympics.
Other avatars ambled over shortly after; as the only flat, open space in RMB City, the People’s Park seems destined to become its default site for congregating. There were a few minor “SLebrities” present, including members of Second Front, the artists’ collective that stages performances around Second Life. I talked to member Eshi Otawara, who first captured my attention at the Waterpark when she announced: “omg i am sticking out like a turd in a punchbowl.” She was referring to her ostentatious violet gown, one of a limited edition of ten that she intends to sell on Second Life’s bustling marketplace for forty thousand lindens apiece—approximately $150.
Suddenly, a giant birthday cake appeared in the middle of the park, in honor of a member of the development team. Unfortunately, she was already offline, celebrating with her colleagues in Beijing. But the party went on. A panda arrived to hand out giant birthday candles. For most of the other users it was lunchtime, but it was after midnight in New York, so I excused myself to take a final flight around the island. Gliding between sloping high-rises with birthday candle still in hand, I glimpsed an object that looked like an upturned Chinese detergent bottle erupting in a cascade; beyond it was a billboard advertising the Yokohama Triennale, splashed with the visage of Hans Ulrich Obrist. I steered toward it for a closer look but got stuck between a bridge span and the corner of an apartment building. Trying to escape, I fiddled with the arrow keys, perhaps overzealously, then a pop-up message suggested I drop the candle, and Second Life stuttered, stopped, and crashed.