A veteran documentarian at only 29, artist Cao Fei continuously blends the line between fantasy and the real. iMirror, her recent video series exploring this idea, shown at icommons and the Venice Biennial records her experience as the avatar China Tracy in Second Life, (a virtual world built and maintained by its users) and reveals the effect of the immersive environment on the artist herself, as Tracy explains that she often can not distinguish between what happens there and in real life.
These nuanced relationships develop throughout the series against the backdrop of the Second Life environment, which mirrors the successes and failures of those in the waking world. Interestingly, the film also indirectly shows Modernist ideology as a dominant force in world; even the landscape seems to espouse the belief in power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of technology.
I spoke to Cao Fei in Croatia last month at the iCommons Summit, and we continued our conversation about her work and Creative Commons licensing over email. The following are the fruits of that conversation.
Paddy Johnson: I thought that we would talk a little bit about imirror, the Second Life documentary you showed at the iCommons Summit — and the panels you were on, because one of the points that came up in the discussion is that the people in Second Life have experiences with great emotional resonance, and the point of your movie — the second part in particular are the connections you make, the blurring of real life experience and virtual experience. Could you talk a little bit more about how that distinction gets blurred?
Cao Fei: From the beginning I had the idea to make a documentary film in Second Life. I didn't want to make a story”¦use a script or make the second film like Hollywood. People often write script and use building, use their avators for actors – I wanted to do more. I want to mix documentary, and drama — so docu-drama.
PJ: And these concerns also encompass more than just your work in Second Life do they not?
CF: I am always thinking what's real and what's fantasy. So if you saw, “Cosplayers”, a game in which fans of anime characters put on skits, my video follows them as they traverse the city landscape of China today, combat within their imaginary world and return to their parent's houses or to empty, desolated cityscapes. It is about how fantasy exists in the real life.
PJ: Going back to Second Life for a bit, which is a medium all about the co-existence of real and fantasy life, can you describe that experience a little bit for me?
CF: I think when I was inside this Second Life world, after one or two month, what excited me about the virtual world is that it replicates reality to a certain degree yet challenges the limitations of material forms. I see a lot of creative things, new products, new friendship”¦I mean the whole world feeling is like that — very new, very lively. Also there are a lot of people from different countries in Second Life, which makes sense, because people use the Internet to connect, to see each other, different cultures, for a dialogue together. I think this part is amazing. Also, I am thinking about the whole system. It's like microcosmic-society, where people can chose to be different avatars. But ultimately, I think you can't change a lot, because you are really real there, and it's a real person behind the avatar. It's little bit sad – human hopes are so similar in both places. However, Second Life provides an experimental and applicable virtual form for human utopia. It is an exchange platform under the framework of globalization. A “new” self and a “new” world, the merge of multi-culture and prosperity of virtual economy attract ordinary people. We just do not fully understand its potential.
PJ: Sadly, as you were saying, Second Life reveals the limitations of what we can do as much as it does the possibilities, which I think is captured in the movie. A lot of these ideas are communicated visually, but in imirror-2 there's a much more visible narrative. Can you talk a little bit about the characters we see?
CF: Well, imirror-2 – the first shot – Hug Yue plays the piano, and when I shot him, he didn't know I was doing it. He know I am from China, and he love China so much. Then, I know he is a communist.
PJ: He's not Chinese in real life though right?
CF: No, and actually, he is a former political prisoner in the United States.
CF: He's been a political prisoner for 18 years. From 1975 on. At the end of the 60's and 70's there was a lot of student action in political movements, a special the Vietnam War, so I think he was influenced by that. So”¦he was the leader of a underground communist organization: (The George Jackson Brigade), they had a few members and weapon, and tried to topple U.S regime. One day he was leading his group and hijacked a bank, because they wanted more money to support their movement”¦ It's an amazing story! So this is why I am interested in him, and why we have good conversation. I think this is an interesting guy. Also, I'm curious about his background and he has a good outlook. But in Second Life you can't believe what an avatar look like because you never know what's behind them. So at the time, I thought, “whoa, this guy is so crazy and he has a great outlook”, so we had some dates together, every night we would talk between the differ time zone. And I say why do you look Asian, and he say just say, he like avatar and bought the skin called Rockstar. [editors note: while there are free skins you can give your avatar, the more real life skin must be bought] Anyway, I do some Google about him because he give me his website (prisonart.org) and I find out that his organization gives the profits of sold artworks go to the prisoners who made them, and every month he writes a newsletter about how to save the persons rights.
Finally, I found out his age was 65. It's very strange, because you spend so much time with a person, and it's this romantic story”¦but we're very good friends”¦
To read more click here.
Related: China Tracy’s blog.