[-empyre-] Missive 7: Cao Fei, Virtual Flaneur

Fed from spittingimage.net, taken from rhizome.org...
"For the Venice Biennale, Fei has developed a new project, an Igloo-like
inflated nine-chamber house in which several video projections take
place featuring a work protagonized by her Second Life avatar, 'China
Tracy.' After discovering Second Life, Fei embarked on a six-month
journey through the wonders of the digital realm, as China Tracy, and
many came across her through a YouTube stream in which she introduced
herself in machinima footage with Chinese subtitles. According to Fei's
declaration to Second Life's sponsored New World Notes, all sorts of
typical activities occurred during that period: 'Fly, chat, build,
teleport, buy, sex, add friends, snapshot...' These experiences were
documented and generated the three-part, thirty-minute epic, 'i.Mirror'
that Fei is now exhibiting at Venice?s Arsenale back garden as well as
on YouTube. A melancholic allegory of consumerism, love, and humanity as
seen through the eyes of a late-twenties female Chinese anime


The Intersection between high art and Second Life has been quite
interesting, and the i.Mirror work of Cao Fei is a prime example of the
complex dialogue between vitual worlds and the contemporary artist.  In
many ways, many contemporary artists have taken on the role of object,
flaneur, tourist, and reporter.  For example, the i.Mirrot China
Pavilion at the Venice Biennale represents the travels of avatar China
Tracy as anime character prosthesis of Cao Fei as she travels the
expanses of Second Life.  During her travels, she reflects upon the
complex interactions between her identity as Chinese woman, in a milieu
that is grappling with the recent adoption of capitalism under a
communist system in contrast with the Western technocapitalist oligarchy
that is Second Life.

I wish that I was able to see a bit more than just the documentation, as
I could have gotten a fuller understanding of the 7-screen "igloo" at
the Biennale.  Regardless, it appears that Cao Fei explored SL-native
activities/spaces, and took part in the usual activities, 'Fly, chat,
build, teleport, buy, sex, add friends, snapshot...'  However, what is
more interesting is her explorations of Virtual Kowloon and the Chinese
subtitles of her machinima on YouTube.

Following from Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto", as well as Turkle's
"Life on the Screen", Cao Fei's China Tracy represents the fractured
pastiche culture/identity of the 21st Century art scene.  China Tracy,
and Anime character (which actually does not resemble one as much as a
modified SL avatar), references contemporary Asian art memes such as
Mariko Mori's seminal work in CosPlay (Costume Roleplay, a part of anime
otaku culture), and Murakami's NeoPop/Superflat references to anime and
Western dominance.

However, Cao Fei also injects a wonderfully ironic narrative through
China Tracy in that China Tracy embodies NeoPop and current artworld
obsessions with young artists, the influence of _Japanese_ memes such as
anime and "Cosupurayu" on the West, as well as the equally complex
relationship between Asian and Western economies.  

Cao Fei is a Japanese anime character operated by a Chinese woman that
is a tourist in a faux China constructed in an American simulator,
showing in an Italian Bienniale.  She deftly accesses dominant modes of
desire; virtual utopia in a world in panic, the hope of eternal
childhood for an aging hegemony (on demographic and geopolitical
scales), and the complexities of identity in an era of radical change.

Another work that comes to mind is that of Huyghe et al's "No Ghost,
Just a Shell" in which a purchased anime character, Anli, is explored by
several artists and then given autonomy through the creation of a legal
entity and then a proper burial.  However Mori differs in that she seems
to BE the cartoon character, and Cao Fei is a fractured cyborged amalgam
of flesh and avatar working in mixed realities.  Mori remains abstracted
as image-fetish, Annli is set free, but never realized in flesh, but Cao
Fei is more problematic.  She graffitis walls in Dubrovnik with China
Tracy's tag, plays in concurrent worlds with her corpus well in sight,
and makes no pretensions about the multivalent nature of cybrid
identity, subtitling in Chinese in a largely Anglophone network as well
as adopting claims to Japanese aesthetics while using an American avatar

One aspect of a number of artist's works that emerges in recent projects
Is that of the artist project as scrapbook of their travels. Outside of
Second Life, one can reference Mori again as the artist-object as
provocateur-observer in her public situations.  In "Tea Ceremony III",
she is the alien attendant offering salarymen complimentary refreshments
in front of a corporate building.  She is alien, but nevertheless, a
mirror of the contradicting tensions between her heritage, her practice,
and contemporary culture.  However, in each of Mori's "Cosplay" pieces,
she takes us on a journey, much like a tourist showing off her photo
album after a long vacation.  Also, needless to say, Cao Fei may also be
referencing the scopophilic stereotype of the Asian tourist, wandering
through the foreign land, snapping endless pictures.

On the other hand, Cao Fei is not alone in her role as virtual flaneur.
Eva and Franco Mattes' "13 Most Beautiful Avatars" (After Warhol) is
also a travelogue of sorts in which they describe a year in SL, from
which they collected the images of the exhibit's subject.  What is most
striking in contrast are the subjects and references that the Mattes
engage.  For example, their engagement of Warhol instead of Mori, the
centrality of the Other in terms of resident avatars rather than the
artist-object itself.  Perhaps there is another aspect to this narrative
regarding Western consumerism in that through the Mattes' engagement
with Warhol's tropes, they also reference Warhol's critique of mass
production and the consumer society, as well as mirroring the
"Collector" in acquiring these identities as fetishes in order to
hopefully reiterate the gesture in the gallery as commodities.

One thing that I am not quite sure of is the role of flaneur in terms of
remediated work.  For example, "13 Most Beautiful Avatars" has a fairly
straightforward narrative, but placed in context with Kildall's
"Paradise Ahead" series, The Mattes' remediations, and others, is the
artist also a cultural tourist as well, putting their face in the
tourist spot's painted scene with face-holes, and put themselves in the
place of the subject.  But in exploring one concept or another, aren't
most artists often in the role of the tourist?

What I think is most interesting about works like Cao Fei and the Mattes
is their location within contemporary art and their gesture as cultural
"visitor", much like numerous artists mentioned here coopting popular
culture as media for their work.  This is an accepted strategy for a
number of years, but it calls into question the effect that the artist
has on the milieu itself from which they draw material.  For example,
what "image" does Cao Fei create vis-à-vis Second Life?  This is a
backgrounded narrative, but in regards to the artist having high profile
works, the derivative effects are also important.   

Therefore, much like the MoMA's Automatic Update show offers a view of
New Meda through a specific lens of contemporary art practice, similarly
does Cao Fei create a mise en scene that reflects a similar sensitibly.
Her Gift from China Tracy draws heavily from the constructed/abstracted
image of the artist as object, from identity as defined by media
culture, but also the difficulties of global culture through the
engagement via virtual worlds.

Patrick Lichty
- Interactive Arts & Media
  Columbia College, Chicago
- Editor-In-Chief
  Intelligent Agent Magazine
225 288 5813

FAX 312 344-8021

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