Gamescapes: Cao Fei recalls ‘RMB City’, the virtual world, and its future

In the eighth and final part of the series, STIR investigates RMB City that was ahead of its time in 2009, but today professes a distinct possibility of a multiplayer video game.

by Shraddha Nair Published on : Aug 25, 2020

If I told you that down the line, you would be going to office and attending meetings through a digital avatar in a videogame-esque environment, would you believe me? If I told you that music, films and performance will soon be experienced via virtual reality, would you buy that ticket? To the untrained eye, the effect of the video game industry is confined to the basement where the kids play Call of Duty on their Playstation 4. We quickly dismiss it as a mindless way to pass the time and deem it unworthy of our attention because “Isn’t it just child’s play?”. However, if you observe carefully, the signs embedded in our developing habits all point toward a future reality, which lies at the intersection of digital interfacing, video games and individual prerogative. Along the periphery of this slowly developing space are people and organisations who are imagining this world, far ahead of its actualisation.

In an iconic moment in the timeline of this evolution, artist Cao Fei created RMB City, a fictional city built within Second Life. The project was opened to the public in 2009 and served as host to several events and projects until its closing in 2011. RMB City drew visitors from across the world - art aficionados, gamers who stumbled across it within the Second Life world as well as creators who initiated visual and performative artworks within the realm of the virtual city. All were welcome citizens of this digital world. The conceptually radical undertaking took nearly two years to fully realise before being inaugurated. The complex collaborative effort explored unchartered territory into avant-garde urban planning, negotiating the lines which separate our material and virtual realities.

RMB City opened to the public in 2009 | RMB City | Cao Fei | STIRworld
RMB City opened to the public in 2009 Image: Courtesy of Cao Fei, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers

In an interview with STIR, Cao Fei discusses her ambitions, challenges and the developing world of virtuality against the backdrop of RMB City. She says, “As a matter of fact, the motivation was very idealistic. At that time, it was an idea that virtual reality will be the future. Therefore, we urgently needed to establish a digital utopia to move all the possible and impossible in our current reality to the internet, especially art galleries and institutions to establish new contemporary cultural and artistic systems in the virtual world, transcending geographical and material boundaries, and encouraging institutions and artists to realise projects that cannot be realised in our physical reality. But now when I look back at that idea, and see what the city nowadays actually lacks, is a sense of cohesion and intimacy, which all may have been snatched by these online platforms. For example, the nightclub culture and cinema and theatre culture, and the joy and collective feeling during festivals and celebrations, are all fading away. At the end of the day, these are dramatic changes caused by development of digital media and accelerationism. This is not a problem of a certain city, but an issue embedded in the entire contemporary society. As a ‘Chinatown’ in virtual reality, RMB City also has a certain nationality declaration in the digital world”.

China Tracy, Fei’s Second Life avatar, performing in RMB City | RMB City | Cao Fei | STIRworld
China Tracy, Fei’s Second Life avatar, performing in RMB City Image: Courtesy of Cao Fei, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers

RMB City was a running economy, with a governance system which appointed a new mayor every three months in a virtual ceremony, with real estate opportunities and even a manifesto. The complex system involved multiple teams, collaboratively working toward developing various aspects of the digital community. Fei explains the elaborate and demanding processes behind this endeavor: “The first challenge is technology. In 2007, there were not many teams that know how to build in Second Life, it was even more rare in China. Facing a high technical barrier, it was impossible to build a virtual city by an artist, as there were so many codes and programmes to write. Eventually we found a Filipino production team who were put in charge of urban construction. All the conversations between the two parties were conducted through online avatar, and we still haven’t met in real life since then. The second challenge is funding. At that time, Second Life was a global craze. We persuaded several individual collectors, museums and institutions to ‘invest’ in the project instead of collecting it. They didn’t know what they would get in the future when they provide us the money, purely depending on the development of the city. We required these ‘investors’ to intervene in the city's projects to a certain extent. Finally, we purchased four sims, and merged them into a gigantic and interconnected island. In addition to purchasing land, we also rented a server for the ‘digital land’ for five years. It was expensive. The third challenge is the operation. For the operation of this project, I rented a studio in Beijing and formed a small offline team of about six people. Led by me and my business partner, the team operated, publicised and coordinated the project. The whole planning of the project was about one year, then six months for construction, and the virtual city went on till we have to close it in the end of 2012”.

China Tracy and her baby in RMB City in 2009 | RMB City | Cao Fei | STIRworld
China Tracy and her baby in RMB City in 2009 Image: Courtesy of Cao Fei, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers

Fei concludes by saying, “Five years is such a marathon for non-profit art project. As I turned a creative interest into a long-term project, subsequently became a boss, and developed a ‘city’ like a commissioner, engaged in activities and attracted people, I frequently felt tired and treated the project as a burden, but on the other hand, the groundbreaking experiment of creating a virtual city was truly invaluable experience. RMB City is both for myself and also for public, for everyone. It was both an artwork and a collective memory. Though it had only existed for five years, I do feel nostalgic when I think about it every now and then”.

The virtual world of RMB City tested and pushed the boundaries of existence by transcending material limitations | RMB City | Cao Fei | STIRworld
The virtual world of RMB City tested and pushed the boundaries of existence by transcending material limitations Image: Courtesy of Cao Fei, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers

The experimental venture was a peek into a future world, as we increasingly find ourselves melding our earthly reality with our digital, internet-based spaces. With the onset of the global pandemic, this dynamic has become considerably more visible. In a similar vein, Fei expresses her sentiments about the developing relationship we share with virtuality, “It seems today that the enthusiasm for online world has become a backup model of the real world. Once the reality is defeated, the backup channel immediately starts functioning. As the epidemic is raging around the world, the virtual realm has received unprecedented attention. The more the world is reversing its course of globalisation and heading into the era of travel restrictions caused by frequent emergencies, then online entertainment, education, consumption will be indisputably developing into a part of our necessity, becoming the main way of our future life. Second Life just presets a model for 10 years of our future in advance”.

The current scenario sets precedent for a world, as Fei says, in which significant experiences shift from one plane of existence to another. We are currently learning the ways of a world, which will soon be a standard, rather than an emergency solution. We are slowly assimilating new habits which are growing into cultural practices, in the form of Zoom meetings, online art exhibitions, video game-based music and entertainment performances and video call dinners and parties with friends and family. As we cultivate this new culture, are we consciously aware of the implications and effects it may have on our tangible truths?

A portrait of the artist, Cao Fei | RMB City | Cao Fei | STIRworld
Artist Cao Fei Image: Courtesy of Myrzik and Jarisch

Click here to know more about video games as an artform and read the other articles in the Gamescapes series presented by STIR.

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