PI LI: Hey, David. I think I know this work.
DAVID SMITH: Yeah. This is the offline version of RMB City.
DAVID SMITH: This is China Tracy. So we can fly around.
PI LI: Wow. Great. Don't jump . . . jump.
DAVID SMITH: Oh. I mean, you can fly. It's okay.
PI LI: Hi. My name is Pi Li. I'm Sigg Senior Curator and Head of Curatorial Affairs of M+.
DAVID SMITH: Hi. My name is David Smith. I'm the Conservator for Digital and Media Art here at M+.
PI LI: David, I feel very happy to see the RMB City again here. I haven't seen the work for many years. This is a work by Cao Fei, a Chinese artist, and she created this work in 2008, the year when Beijing hosted the Olympics. Basically, she invented the whole city. The work is talking about the city, urbanisation, and how people are dealing with this kind of massive, rapid urbanisation in the computer game called Second Life.
DAVID SMITH: Yeah. So, Second Life was a really interesting project. It's still going. It was popular into the kind of 2000s and was one of the first really kind of mass simulations where it was less about a game having a beginning, a middle, and an end, and action elements or narrative elements, but it was kind of open and free and you could do basically whatever you wanted.
PI LI: The whole point for the work is that people can really hang around in this cyber city, and people can meet the other people who play the game. I think Cao Fei spent like four or five years on the internet to build up every part of the city and also invited art people, creators, and artist friends to come to RMB City to play with, to dialogue over. It was quite popular since then. A few of the internet games have been updated so fast, so after 2011, it seems like the whole Second Life game became a little bit quiet.
DAVID SMITH: Yeah. Over time, the internet evolves very, very quickly, and although there are lots of efforts to try and archive parts of the internet and catalogue and log things, there is a huge amount of loss. Like a lot of our digital and time-based media works, it came on a series of hard disks and flash drives, so we’ve migrated those into our digital preservation infrastructure. And as computers get more advanced, what we'll actually have to do is look at emulating the entire computer operating system and then render this version of RMB City within that emulated operating system. It sounds quite complicated, but it's actually one of the digital preservation routes that's available to us.
PI LI: Yeah. For me, it's quite poetic. It's like you're hiding into an abandoned city, like you walk into the Pompei by yourself. So on that level, it's quite interesting. Whenever you use a very classic media or use such a higher . . . like an internet media, the art is always dealing [with] this kind of the time, the concept of time in a very unexpected way.
PI LI: You know, many people had a party here many years ago.
DAVID SMITH: Did you visit yourself?
PI LI: I visited once in a wild Friday night.
PI LI: Virtually dancing, drinking, chatting, hanging around with other people.
PI LI: After many years, I still think that this is a very crazy project. I mean, when Cao Fei decided to make this work on the Second Life and Dr Uli Sigg, a Swiss collector, supported her to make this project, and he also collected the work.
DAVID SMITH: Was he the first mayor of RMB City? Or . . .
PI LI: Yeah. He was the mayor of the RMB City.
DAVID SMITH: So, yeah. So it's really nice that he's the person who's donated a kind of virtual copy of it to us.
PI LI: They created something that does not exist. They collect something that does not really physically exist.
PI LI: And then they donate it to M+ and then we have to find a way to make that more tangible.
For a few years in the early 2000s, Cao Fei’s RMB City was the place to be in the online world of Second Life. Avatars of artists, collectors, and virtual passers-by visited Cao’s city to attend happenings, witness mayoral inaugurations, and tour her reconstructions of iconic Chinese buildings.
With the rapidly changing tastes of the internet, the project was discontinued in 2011, and Cao extracted an offline version for collection and preservation. Join us as David Smith (Conservator of Digital and Media Art) and Pi Li (Sigg Senior Curator and Head of Curatorial Affairs) explore this offline version with Cao’s original avatar, China Tracy, and discuss the challenges of collecting an artwork meant to be played live and online.
This video was originally published on M+ Stories.
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