RMB City: Spectatorship on the boundaries of the virtual and the real

by Ceren Erdem*

RMB City is a virtual city in the online world of Second Life, planned and developed by the artist Cao Fei, who was born and raised in Guangzhou, China and is currently based in Beijing. Launched in 2008, and open to the public since January 2009, RMB City is a platform for experimental creative activities, where boundaries between virtual and physical existence are put to test through different mediums.[1]

RMB City is a condensed incarnation of contemporary Chinese cities and accordingly displays most of their characteristics; that is to say, a series of new Chinese fantasy realms that are highly self-contradictory, full of irony and suspicion. Raised in the city of Guangzhou, Cao Fei experienced the great transformation of this city where, starting from the 1990s, artists have critically engaged with the rapid urbanization. Among these, the Big Tail Elephant Group, with their guerilla actions in the city focusing on social transformation as a consequence of this change, has been the most influential for the ensuing generation of artists. This impact together with Cao’s growing up in the world of electronic entertainment, pop culture and advertising has led her to develop a highly personal language demonstrating jouissance vis-à-vis the mutating reality that surrounds her. Incorporating the effects of “new subcultures shaped by Japanese manga, American rap, and Chinese TV drama” that she has been exposed to, “Cao is an astute and powerful commentator on the trends of the new millennium.”[2] Cosplayers (2004) is a series of photographs and a cinematic video in which Cao Fei used game and manga characters for the first time. A group of teenagers in Guangzhou act out an elaborate drama dressed as their favorite martial-arts warrior and assassin characters from animations and computer games for a ‘cosplay’ (short for costume play).  In all the settings, whether on a grassy meadow or top of a building, expanding and rising Guangzhou constitutes the background. Cao Fei assigns an imaginary ability to the characters in which they traverse the city at will with their magical powers so as to escape from worldly and mundane concerns. The visual contrasts, especially with the players’ own reckless parents and their circumscribed, lower-middle-class lives, reveal the stifling discontent behind the costumed players’ games.[3] Likewise, Cao Fei extends China’s current obsession with urban development in all its intensity to Second Life. Living in a Chinese city today, it is impossible to escape and become isolated from the forceful production of urban fiction. The best way to negotiate a space of personal freedom within it is perhaps to appropriate this as a given condition and exaggeratedly utilize it to an excessive degree, exposing its overabundance and even absurdity to the public gaze. RMB City exhausts and deconstructs the notion of this urbanization. Adopting the business model of the Second Life, Cao Fei creates and sells her own version of the urban fiction, built in an excessively condensed and amplified method that surpases the official fiction of urban development. The title is the abbreviated term “renminbi”, literally “people’s money” in Chinese. A rough hybrid of communism, socialism and capitalism, RMB City is realized in a globalized digital sphere that combines symbols of Chinese reality with imaginary futuristic scenes: A ferris wheel rotating on top of the Monument to the People’s Heroes; a bird’s eye view of water from the Three Gorges reservoir gushing out of the Tiananmen rostrum; a giant new totem symbolizing the Oriental Pearl TV Tower of Shanghai; the Feilai Temple; a vast, desolate state-owned factory area in Northeast China; the Grand National Theatre in Beijing, gigantic planes gliding over terraces in the crevices of the central business district; aerial super-malls; floating statues of Mao Zedong; the rusted steel structure of the Olympic Stadium; and finally an aerial band on a floating sheet of the national flag filled with five-pointed stars making a deafening noise that shakes Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV building, causing it to collapse. These imagined scenes occupy the boundaries between past and future, real and virtual and link China to the cosmopolitan contemporary world.[4]

RMB City

Second Life is an online platform where participants create a parallel reality and build up a dream world in which they live through personalized avatars. It is an extensive community with more than 20 million registered as of 2011.[5] Residents of this world can purchase land, build their own environments and set up their lives according to their own will. Second Life is different from other online games in that there are no goals to achieve — no targets to shoot, no race to win, no civilization to be established. Unlike the popular game Sim City, which uses a computer algorithm to simulate how a city will evolve, Second Life is designed and governed by real people, either through the tools that developers provide or through the activities in Second Life that individuals pursue. Linden Lab also embraced an open source platform, allowing residents to create their own applications for anything from games to education to business projects.[6] Its relation to the “real world” is so evident that even its currency, the Linden Dollar, can be converted to US Dollars as well as some other international currencies. It has also been in use as a platform for education, scientific research, business, art, and entertainment. Ten countries have set up embassies.[7] In this respect, referring to Second Life as a parallel world is not a reference to the blurred boundaries of the online and real worlds, but a definition of the perceived proximity of the platform to real life and how it differs from traditional role-playing games and is in effect closer to social networking platforms. Alexander Galloway defines gamic action as those occurring in a separate, semiautonomous space that is removed from normal life. Referring to the French sociologist and anthropologist Roger Caillois he adds that games are inherently “make-believe,” that they are “accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or of a free unreality as against real life.”[8] The Second Life experience, on the other hand, is promoted as quite the opposite.

Cyberspace is different from other forms of space that can be conceived of or perceived in tangible physical terms. Existing as bytes and bits on computer circuits and telephone lines, this largely uncharted space is a type of alternative digital world, made by real people and experienced through manifestations on computer screens. The inhabitants of cyberspace have shed their bodies. The exploration of virtual spaces is achieved through a natural propensity for movement; users wander anonymously within the boundaries of virtual space, developing a virtual identity while connected. These explorations are limitless, without boundaries in space or time. All journeys in cyberspace lead deeper into the labyrinthine web of links and further away from the exit point. A virtual geography is constituted as the result of new experiences with a different kind of perception, one that is at a distance. However, it is important to demarcate this distance as it is not the same as the critical distance that one needs to competently judge and fully comprehend a work of art according to modern aesthetic theory. Cyberspace is immersive and yet highly-constructed. Second Life enforces this effect: “The very term ‘immersion’ implies that one is drawn into an intimate and embodied relationship with a virtual and physical architecture, whether this immersive affect is generated by a VR [Virtual Reality] system, the cinema, a panorama or another medium. It suggests that one is enclosed and embraced by the audio-visual space of the work, and transported into another realm or state of perception. One cannot be immersed without being affected by the environment on perceptual, sensory, psychological and emotional levels.”[9] This being said, immersive art and technology are not new phenomena. Artificial environments designed to dominate the viewers’/participants’ senses, emotions and psychology have long been created in the service of creating an experience of total immersion. Panoramas, cabinets of curiosities, Baroque ceiling paintings, ancient frescos and even cave paintings are examples of immersive art of their time.[10] Gesamtkunstwerk is an important turn in this quest. The idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” has played a controversial role within art practice and criticism of the last 160 years. At various points the term has been used to describe a goal to be attained, as a derisive description meant to imply that the artist of the work is quixotic or even fascistic, and as a descriptor identifying the work as having certain characteristics associated with this category in the traditional sense. The Gesamtkunstwerk, as a concept, describes the combination of different media and takes into consideration the audience’s sensory experience of the work, while maintaining an attentiveness to the social implications of the work. In the second half of the twentieth century the term “Gesamtkunstwerk” gained further relevance in describing projected image practices. Subsequently, at the turn of the twenty-first century, artists such as Olafur Eliasson and Thomas Hirschhorn are often cited as creating contemporary incarnations of the Gesamtkunstwerk in physical space. Accordingly, virtual reality works can well be considered their successors. “So rather than being completely new, immersion seems to keep reappearing as an ideal, and often transcendental, form of human-representation and human-technology relationship. This fascination with immersion seems to indicate a human desire to fuse with the immersive image-space or technology—a desire to become posthuman or transhuman.”[11] Cyberspace’s virtual reality acts to remove the conceptual distance between the physical and virtual boundaries. Yet, distinct from other forms of immersive artworks, the viewer is no longer passive as he/she needs to continuously engage with both the hardware and the software.

In this environment, Cao Fei, or China Tracy as she is known in Second Life, has cultivated different spectators and participants of RMB City. She organizes events in this city, such as interviews, mayor’s speeches, and Naked Idol – a nude avatar contest. Within this context, she invites other artists to produce and show their work. As a result, avatars both participate in the events in RMB City, and visit as an audience, while other avatars become spectators by coincidence. Apart from the requirement of membership, Second Life presents a common, public space. In this respect, can we consider the experience of these online spectators the same as that of any exhibition audience or of spectators encountering architecture, public art projects and community projects in real life? Donna Haraway’s definition of cyborg and later Katherine Hayles’s work on posthuman discourse both accept the body as a shell or vehicle for the mind.[12] Pramod Nayar similarly argues that

A cyborg works in two directions at the same time. The cyborg expands outwards, beyond the immediate physical limits of skin and bones. A cyborg can also bring the world into the mind directly. In VR environments, neural simulation or sensorial stimulation which we would otherwise absorb through our body’s eyes, skin, ears, and nose is provided by technologies that can enhance and alter sensations to suit the individual, thereby creating a whole new ‘reality’ (for the duration that one is in cyberspace or VR, it is real). Thus, sensations experienced in the recess of the mind are not connected to the immediate location of the body.[13]

According to Nayar in both external and internal movements, disembodiment occurs as the spatial situation of the body when it is shifted into another one where it is re-embodied.

RMB City

Digital cultures provide unlimited leeway for individuals to choose new identities, whether fictitious or not, and to change all the personal qualities and facts about their actual self, such as gender, age, physical appearance or any personal preferences. In Second Life no one can ascertain with any degree of certainty whether you are what your computer/digital profile says you are. “Online interaction might temporarily transcend ‘real’ identities and bodies but, as studies of computer-mediated communications (CMCs) and Usenet have shown, people in cyber-space use their real-life experience to make sense of, evaluate, and respond to online ones.[14]

New media art foregrounds the recursivity of the artwork in its intimate connection to the real world via the audience members’ bodies, perceptions, senses, and actions. Nayar argues that contemporary new media art refuses to separate the artwork from the audience viewing it. In fact, what new media art does is to shift it from being simply a spectacle or a view to being an environment.[15] Each resident of the Second Life experiences the RMB City in a different way during each session as a result of the life going on in this city – one that is subject to perpetual change due to its residents’ and visitors’ instantaneous acts.

As a laboratory for investigations in art, design, architecture, literature, cinema, politics, economy and society, RMB City is constantly nourished by new projects and supported by leading international art institutions and networks. In June of 2005, as a part of the Chinese Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennial, Cao Fei debuted her first Second Life project entitled China Tracy Pavilion. This inflatable structure was host to videos and live screenings of China Tracy’s encounters in the Virgin Garden in Second Life. In September of that same year, a Second Life City Planning was first released in conjunction with the 10th Istanbul Biennial. Visitors to the Biennial were able to view the RMB City video or to go online via in situ laptops to the Second Life RMB City site for the duration of the exhibition. After being shown in different exhibitions and launched online in January 2009, RMB City was reinstalled in March 2009 at the Serpentine Gallery in London. The opening was celebrated with an interview in Second Life between JuliaPeytonJones Popstar (the avatar of Julia Peyton-Jones, the Director of the Serpentine Gallery), HansUlrichObrist Magic (the avatar of Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Co-Director of the Serpentine Gallery) and China Tracy.[16] China Tracy temporarily switched her designation to ‘the People’s Avatar’ through which she could orchestrate innumerable unknown voices and visions. The interview questions the theatricality of RMB City and how notions of identity and performativity are shaped, but also how they are shaping this city. As in the previous installations, viewers were able to log on to Second Life to be part of the live event, which took place in RMB City’s ‘People’s Park’ and was broadcast in the Serpentine Gallery’s lobby, and explore the intersection between virtual and real space. For an exhibition audience, such installations of RMB City may seem to be merely a site for the visualization of the project unless they assume an active role and log on to Second Life. The online users at the exhibition venue and elsewhere underscore the intrinsically participatory characteristic of the work. However, unlike in the real world, in Second Life, there can be participants who are unaware of being involved in an art project. Similar to Les Levine’s Canadian-Kosher Restaurant (1969) in New York and Bonnie Ora Sherk’s Crossroads Community (the farm) (1974-80) in San Francisco, works occur in unconventional ways through direct participation of the audience, which is sometimes a conscious audience, but is generally not.

Installation view. Chinese Pavilion, 52nd Venice Biennale, 2007.

RMB City Interview Marathon Serpentine Gallery, 2009.

All new media is interactive in the sense that the artwork is sensitive to the audience’s presence. Here the audience or the viewer is no longer passive: he or she is a user who creates the artwork through use, hence he/she is more an active producer than a passive consumer. However, Manovich and Galloway prefer not to use the terms “interactivity” or the “active audience” where gamic action is concerned. In opposition to media theorists, Galloway claims that “an active medium is one whose very materiality moves and restructures itself— pixels turning on and off, bits shifting in hardware registers, disks spinning up and spinning down.” Thus he prefers to define video games as an “action-based medium”. If the premise that Second Life is solely a game is accepted, then the notion of the active audience can be considered as the right approach. However, considering its nature, its instantaneous alterations due to participation cannot be neglected. Therefore it is necessary to consider Second Life as separate from other games for the sake of the argument.

However, in Second Life, similar to many role-playing or first person shooter games, events unfold in real time, in a single take, and from a single point of view. Cameras provide views closer to that of the human eye and the subjective camera doesn’t just look at a scene — it moves actively through space, it starts, stops, pans, tilts, moves back and forward, following the rhythm of the body. The subjective shot is generally preferred in cinema as well as games in order to provide a higher level of identification with the avatar, increase the immersion as it is placed in the skull, stimulating the feeling of embodiment in this environment tends to erase the distance between the image and the spectator. Alexander Galloway explains this as “a presubjective, affective and not cognitive, regime of vision”.[17] Furthermore, in games like Second Life where the viewer/player/participant has the control over this view so that he/she can decide where/when and how to look reinforces the affect.

Coming back to the notion of distance, “interpassivity” functions as a productive term to help define how, if at all, distance can be experienced within this immersive environment. Interpassivity can be defined as the projection of one’s own self onto people or objects that consequently acts in one’s place. In this transfer of activity or emotion, the sensation is delegated to the acting subject, in other words the surrogate self.[18] In Second Life, this surrogate self is the avatar, that is transposed from the verity of the real space self and that functions as the mutable site for the extended viewer/player/participant. It turns into a dynamic agency by proxy. This plural and disembodied self with its identity based on the actual self’s fantasies and ideals is usually sought in a commodified, fetishized virtual reality where the desires can find its counterpart. However, according to Slavoj Žižek, “in cyberspace everything is possible, but for the price of assuming a fundamental impossibility: you cannot circumvent the mediation of the interface, its ‘bypass’, which separates you (as the subject of enunciation) forever from your symbolic stand-in.”[19] Laetitia Wilson argues that this separation takes place “relative to quantitative and qualitative factor of engagement; measurable in terms of the impact that is has on one’s ‘real’ life, on a sense of agency heightened, weakened or merely different. The selfsplit —between the material body and the interpassive object, between the corporeal and the immanent — thus faces either a loss of agency through a lack of integration of the multiplicity of selves, an embellishment of agency through the integration of these selves and/or a re-definition of agency through alternative presence, perception and mobility.”[20]

The artwork is the environment through which the audience moves, and the movement of the audience shapes it. The work becomes personal as each user turns into producer/artist or, in Jacques Rancière’s definition, a society of emancipated individuals that would be a society of artists.[21] RMB City falls outside of the typical categories of Internet art that are of the network and of software. It exists within a predefined world with codes developed externally. On the other hand, it doesn’t try to test the limits of Internet, on the contrary focus on the experiences on the boundary between the virtual and the real with user generated content.

In 2009, RMB City was a lab for both filmmaking and live theater. Cao Fei’s first documentary film after building RMB CityThe Birth of RMB City, took a dreamy and epic look at the city, showing how it was constructed, but also highlighting it’s fragility by depicting an inevitable demise. After this film was completed, she invited different artists to use various mediums to create live artworks, which also became a part of the life of RMB City. Based on those creative actions, Cao Fei made two films related to human experience in this new constructed life: People’s Limbo in which the main characters Mao, Lehman, Marx and Lao Tsu reflect on the social aftermath of the global recession and Live in RMB City, a tale about the mysteries of virtual and real life told by China Tracy to her newly born baby avatar China Sun while they wonder through the city and its new buildings.

Video still from Live in RMB City, 2009.

RMB City Opera is yet another strategy through which Cao Fei negotiated the boundaries and brings together the live audience, avatars and online audience. For this live performance, she visited the traditional model dramas – Yang Ban Xi – of Cultural Revolution period.[22]

Yang Ban Xi were the only politically-approved performance form at the time, as traditional opera was banned by Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing. They were series of propaganda productions (movie musicals, ballets, operas) that got later adapted to cinematic form, therefore getting more entrenched into the visual and symbolic imagination of a certain era of Chinese history. Their integration of elements of the then-banned Chinese traditional opera, ballet, propaganda songs, and popular music, featuring ballerinas pirouetting with rifles and male proletariat dancers executing landlords rendered in boldly-colored costumes against kitsch-inflected sets is what has continuously fascinated Cao Fei, who has been exploring the potential of the operatic medium every since.[23]

RMB City Opera

Based on the aesthetics of “Yang Ban Xi”, RMB City Opera is a non-linear story or, in other words, a series of encounters of a young woman and a man in RMB City. While on stage the audience sees these two characters logging on to Second Life in their dull, lonely rooms and later finding each other in RMB City. They both switch avatars frequently, often turning into superheroes, and dancing and singing in various settings, while the projection of these avatars’ performance is juxtaposed with the performers’ on the stage. In the same way as with her exhibition strategy, the audience can explore the online setting of the opera and interact with performers through customized avatars.

Cao Fei uses the cyber world skillfully in order to embody the dreams and the reality of China’s younger generation. RMB City, with its immersive environment and wide ranging possibilities deriving from Second Life reconfigures the distanced and passive spectatorship in favor of an active, performative participation. The viewer/participant becomes a part of the setting and yet they (apart from the random passer-bys in Second Life) are aware of both their presence in the artwork and how they perceive this environment while interacting with the work, as they are allowed and invited to perpetually reshape it. On the other hand, considering the Chinese context of RMB City and similar political situations where the government interferes oppressively in the social lives of the citizens and actively restricts their personal freedom, being an interpassive subject may be more than a choice; it may turn to be a social necessity for seeking joy and freedom through surrogate selves as much as cyberspace allows them to do so.


10th International Istanbul Biennial. Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary: Optimism In The Age of Global War. Istanbul, 2007.

Albertini, Claudia. Avatars and Antiheroes, A Guide to Contemporary Chinese Artist. Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International, 2008.

Ayas, Defne and Davide Quadrio. “Utopia of Utopias: The Pleasure of Rewriting Realities.” http://arthubasia.org/archives/blinding-the-ears-and-cao-fei-in-turin-artissima-2009.

Bartlem, Edwina. “Reshaping Spectatorship: Immersive and Distributed Aesthetics.” The Fibreculture Journal 7 (2005). http://seven.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-045-reshaping-spectatorship-immersive-and-distributed-aesthetics/.

Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on algorithmic culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Hansen, Mark B. N. New Philosophy for New Media. Cambridge, Ma: MIT Press, 2004. Accessed April 25, 2011. http://site.ebrary.com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/lib/columbia/docDetail.action?docID=10225308

Hayles, N. Katherine. How we became posthuman : virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Holmes, Brian. “Hieroglyphs of the Future: Jacques Rancière and the Aesthetics of Quality.” 2006. http://www.16beavergroup.org/mtarchive/archives/001880.php.

Keegan, Vic. “Watch out Second Life: China launches virtual universe with seven million souls.” The Guardian. June 2, 2007. Accessed April 14, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/jun/02/china.web20.

Manovich, Lev. “On Totalitarian Interactivity (notes from the enemy of the people).” http://www.manovich.net/TEXT/totalitarian.html

_____. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

Nayar, Pramod K. An Introduction To New Media And Cybercultures. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Wilson, Laetitia. “Interactivity or Interpassivity: A Question of Agency in Digital Play.” Paper presented at MelbourneDAC, the 5th International Digital Arts and Culture Conference, RMIT, Melbourne, Australia, May 19-23, 2003. http://hypertext.rmit.edu.au/dac/papers/Wilson.pdf.

Žižek, Slavoj. “The Interpassive Subject.” Traverses (1998). http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/the-interpassive-subject.

[1] “RMB City is an online art community in the virtual world of Second Life. This project is an experiment exploring the creative relationship between real and virtual space, and is a reflection of China’s urban and cultural explosion.” http://www.rmbcity.com

[2] Claudia Albertini, Avatars and Antiheroes, A Guide to Contemporary Chinese Artist (Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International, 2008), 20.

[3] “Cosplayers / 2004,” http://www.caofei.com/works/video/.

[4] 10th International Istanbul Biennial, Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary: Optimism In The Age of Global War (Istanbul, 2007).

[5] “Second Life,” last modified May 5, 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Life.

[6] Vic Keegan, “Watch out Second Life: China launches virtual universe with seven million souls,” The Guardian, June 2, 2007, accessed April 14, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/jun/02/china.web20.

[7] “Second Life,” Wikipedia.

[8] Alexander R. Galloway, Gaming: Essays on algorithmic culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 6.

[9] Edwina Bartlem, “Reshaping Spectatorship: Immersive and Distributed Aesthetics,” The Fibreculture Journal 7 (2005), http://seven.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-045-reshaping-spectatorship-immersive-and-distributed-aesthetics/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Pramod K. Nayar, An Introduction to New Media and Cybercultures (Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 66-68.

[13] Ibid., 67.

[14] Ibid., 81. Italic part is as it is in the original and the author referred Boler, New Media Society, 2007 and Burkhalter, Reading Race Online in Communities in Cyberspace, 1999.

[15] Ibid., 50-52.

[17] Galloway, Gaming, 40-42.

[18] Laetitia Wilson, “Interactivity or Interpassivity: A Question of Agency in Digital Play” (paper presented at MelbourneDAC, the 5th International Digital Arts and Culture Conference, RMIT, Melbourne, Australia, May 19-23, 2003), http://hypertext.rmit.edu.au/dac/papers/Wilson.pdf.

[19] Slavoj Žižek, “The Cyberspace Real: Between Perversion and Trauma,” quoted by Wilson.

[20] Wilson.

[21] Brian Holmes, “Hieroglyphs of the Future: Jacques Rancière and the Aesthetics of Quality” (2006), http://www.16beavergroup.org/mtarchive/archives/001880.php.

[22] Artissima 16 in Turin, Italy commissioned RMB City Opera in 2009.

[23] Defne Ayas and Davide Quadrio, “Utopia of Utopias: The Pleasure of Rewriting Realities,” http://arthubasia.org/archives/blinding-the-ears-and-cao-fei-in-turin-artissima-2009.

*Ceren Erdem is a second year student in the MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program at Columbia University.