Chartering Utopia

Beijing-based artist Cao Fei uses her activities in Second Life (SL) to draw fantastical parallels to socio-political scenarios in real life. As it turns out, SL is a perfect place to consider city planning and the cultural drives behind development patterns. It is, afterall, one big experiment in participatory design, with users constructing their world and everything in it, even carrying out social relations in a highly-systematized manner. Fei's avatar, China Tracy, made a three-part documentary of life in this society, called i.Mirror, which was included in the Rhizome-curated exhibition Montage: Unmonumental Online. For Fei's current show at New York's Lombard-Freid Projects, she once again displays the fruits of Tracy's labor, with RMB City. The gallery has become a retail space for the promotion of this "experimental utopian world," in which institutions and investors have been invited to participate as organizers. Fei's exhibition includes "pure white" sculptural models of the city, builder's tools and materials, laptops for connecting to Second Life, and stills from Tracy's newest documentary, RMB CITY-A Secondlife City Planning, which is also projected onto what looks like a pool of water. The sailing city constructed in Tracy's film has all the trappings of a grown-up society, complete with transportation infrastructure, industrial pollutants, and diplomatic pandas, but it feels almost like a child's imaginary assemblage, constructed of toys, junk, and futuristic roadways, some of which end abruptly, depositing travelers into the vast ocean around it. The film's soundtrack further pushes the trope of "play" with its softly soothing electronic beats. (One imagines this score could gently drown-out any voices of resistance.) According to Fei, the city reflects "the condensed incarnation of contemporary Chinese cities with most of their characteristics; a series of new Chinese fantasy realms that are highly self-contradictory, inter-permeative, laden with irony and suspicion, and extremely entertaining and pan-political." The development of both these contemporary cities and SL utopias springs from "a rough hybrid of communism, socialism, and capitalism," which gets invested into an overabundance of Chinese symbols and cute facades that ring like good luck charms. Fei's show closes this weekend, but her films can be viewed from the comfort of your own utopia, on China Tracy's YouTube Channel. - Marisa Olson

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