View Einstein on the Beach — Chasing the Moon / 沙滩上的爱因斯坦-追月 in the K21 gallery here →
China Tracy made her first appearance in 2006 on Second Life. Svelte and stylish, she embodied in name exactly where she was from — a virtual utopia called China, where the best of Communism and capitalism intermingled in a futurist landscape carved from free expression and electric dreams of abundance. She was adventurous, courageous, engaging, and ultimately beguiling. The star of her own three-part documentary film, i.Mirror (2007), China Tracy shared her personal journeys through the Second Life metaverse — teleporting, exploring, socializing, dating, falling in love, and eventually dissolving her digital romance. On the emotional level, China Tracy was all too human; she personified the aspirations of most intrepid travelers through life. She was an avatar with feelings, who was not too proud to reveal her vulnerabilities.
China Tracy’s creator, contemporary Chinese artist Cao Fei, built a bustling metropolis on Second Life called RMB City (2007–11), where her avatar played guardian spirit and hostess supreme. In this sparkling, fantastical urban environment on the edge of the sea, there was culture: they staged an opera inspired by propaganda performances from the Chinese Cultural Revolution. There was real-estate speculation, meatspace collectors purchased property, and institutions like the Guggenheim Museum licensed the use of their buildings. There was also governance: they elected a mayor, UlliSigg Cisse, the avatar for real-life art collector Ulli Sigg, in a festive ceremony emceed by China Tracy herself.
Cao Fei’s mesmerizing avatar must have taken root in the artist’s imagination even before she discovered Second Life, given the video projects she was pursuing prior to 2006. In Cosplayers (2004), she explored the importation of Japanese cosplaying into Chinese culture, capturing the transformation of her youthful subjects into their anime characters and their interaction with one another as well as with their decisively non-roleplaying families. Here was a real-world adoption of fictional identities, a LARPing of teenage social engagement in which everyone has superpowers and a clear sense of purpose. When Cao Fei received a commission in 2006 from the Siemens Arts Program for a residency at the OSRAM lighting factory in Foshan, in the vastly expanding Pearl River Delta, she made the video Whose Utopia? by forging relationships with several employees who responded to her queries about their relationship to work and their aspirations for the future. She filmed these factory laborers at their mechanized jobs producing light bulbs but also included dream sequences that revealed their innermost fantasies of self: a ballerina on pointe, a flamenco dancer, a martial arts expert all perform amid the conveyor belts and miles of stocked storage shelves.
What is an avatar but an imaginary projection of one’s subconscious yearnings? It is not a mirror that reflects an outward persona — the superego that shows up every day at work or at school, usually on time. An avatar is more than a disguise or simply an alter ego or double who can interact online. Like the cosplayers or factory workers in Cao Fei’s videos, an avatar is a manifestation of one’s deepest id — who you would be if not constrained by convention or class or gender or even by being human.
In response to our invitation to create an NFT for the K21 collection, Cao Fei resuscitated her avatar, China Tracy, who, in typical form, expertly authored the artwork. As sharp and insightful as ever, China Tracy surveyed the terrain of 2021 culture and found it wanting. Technology may be advancing at breakneck speed but the world itself is in crisis — climate emergency, the Covid pandemic, failures of democracy, and unprecedented economic inequity. In her always elegant way, China Tracy decides to explore new, faraway realms since her once dynamic RMB City is now only an electronic archive of itself. She attempts to fly to the moon, but never quite escapes the pull of gravity. There is a melancholic beauty to Einstein on the Beach — Chasing the Moon that speaks to the cyclical nature of time. While things may die and be reborn over and over again, there is always the journey that contributes to transformation. No two cycles are ever the same. Welcome back, China Tracy.
In the interview below, China Tracy speaks about her reappearance in Cao Fei’s work, providing insight into the artist’s ongoing practice and the creation of her first NFT.
As a young artist (whose father is a well-known “traditional” sculptor in China), why did you turn to Second Life as a medium for your art?
When I was creating my Second Life avatar, I felt that digitization was also a form of “sculpting.” I see it as another way of inheriting my father’s practice of traditional sculpture.
Was Second Life popular in China at the time, around 2006? Did you feel at home there? Or was the possible absence of Chinese culture a reason behind the creation of RMB City on the platform?
At that time, Second Life was purely an English-language interface. It is a self-created form of virtual community, and not the usual, competitive game. Its creative technology presents many challenges, and even though it is well known in the media, most Chinese users struggled to get into it. Indeed, as big as Second Life’s world was, with many real-world, famous countries and cities represented, it nevertheless lacked any recognizably Chinese community. That was my main driving force in creating RMB City.
Did your project on Second Life attract an audience outside of the art world? Did you reach a younger constituency?
RMB City was mainly for citizens of the virtual world. They could teleport at any time and from any place to arrive there. [My avatar] China Tracy would converse and meet up with strangers, but we rarely discussed real-world information like age, gender, identity, etc. When people appear in the virtual world with their avatar, it represents a certain need to maintain the anonymity of their new identity and image.
Tell us about your avatar, China Tracy, and what she did on Second Life. She seemed to have numerous different styles, if not personalities. Can you describe them? She had at least one romance and even a baby, China Sun, in 2009.
China Tracy approximates the appearance of a person with mixed Chinese heritage, with long hair and a smile that’s quite warm to the point of being a bit sweet and shy. At times, her outfit is very punk, at others it’s a young girl’s student uniform, and sometimes it’s a mature evening gown — it depends on the occasion. When she first came on Second Life, she spent half a year traveling nearly the entire world, even having a virtual affair with another avatar living in San Francisco. This was all documented in the work i.Mirror (2007). After the real-world me gave birth to my first child in 2009, I also gave China Tracy a little avatar baby.
Is China Tracy you?
She is an extension of me in the virtual world, completing my construction within the digital universe. She and I have a relation of mutual interaction and coexistence. Together, we make up a complete, “new me.”
Can you describe the China Tracy of 2021, reincarnated for your K21 NFT?
For me, the China Tracy of 2021 is at once a stranger and familiar. China Tracy is immortal: if she is inactive, then she can remain forever dormant, suspended in the static, digital world. She only needs to be awakened to be unfrozen and revived, starting out on a new journey. Just like questions that we cannot yet resolve, she can be safeguarded, sent to the future to be answered.
She is on a journey, an argonaut seeking to reach the moon to no avail. Why the failed journey? What is she trying to find?
China Tracy has, at the very least, cast off her past burden of founding a city so that she can take off again. But then, wrapped up in a kind of persistent melancholy, she plans to pursue questions (chase the moon) to the very brink, the outer limits, and at sites of rupture — and yet no place offers an escape, nowhere is reliable. If we say that the Anthropocene is the influence of humans on Earth, then perhaps Second Life is the double shadow that humans cast upon the digital world.
There is a melancholy in this work that also pervades the earlier China Tracy video trilogy i.Mirror. Is that a deliberate sentiment? Is it a commentary on the real world or the gap between the here and now and the metaverse?
The China Tracy of i.Mirror was searching for a new order, a future, a new kind of human gathering and love amid the digital new world. Her melancholy was typical of a teenage girl in that it was a melancholic sentiment imbued with romanticism. But now in Second Life there are desolate, digital ruins everywhere. This withered, broken-down “in-vironment” also reflects the post-pandemic world external to computer screens — what we call “the great inside,” involuted, fragmented, isolated, apocalyptic, with an all-pervasive, intense collusion between the real and virtual. China Tracy’s teenage melancholy has become disquiet about the future.
Is there time in the metaverse? China Tracy speaks about the imprints of time in her NFT.
We have already witnessed Second Life turn from flourishing to declining, such that calendrical time is unavoidably imprinted on my awareness. And yet the accelerations, splits, dispersals, and crises ongoing within the real world on the one hand and the inactivity, stasis, gridlock, and necrosis of the virtual world on the other are all different states amid parallel spatio-temporalities, obscuring boundaries or frames of time and space. This becomes a world (or worlds) of countless, entangled temporalities and spatialities, all constituting a polytemporal understanding of the now.
The music in the NFT is reminiscent of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. Is this opera important to the work or to you?
The modernist minimalism of Philip Glass conveys a bygone epoch’s anticipation of the coming future. Under Robert Wilson’s direction, the [opera’s] slow entrance of a steam locomotive emits a whistle of radical futurism, filling listeners with fervor, courage, and idealism. Perhaps today we need to revive this musical style, dispelling the haze that envelops us, igniting our instincts and impulses, and generating an urgent capacity to inspire action.
Would you link the longing invoked by China Tracy in her new iteration to the aspirational thinking/desiring in Whose Utopia? (2006)? Or the nostalgia (for a Communist past combined with the fantasy of cinema) in Nova (2019)? Or the loneliness expressed (and assuaged) in Asia One (2018)?
The digital avatar China Tracy and the son stranded within a computer in Nova are both of the same type: “electronic” ghosts (having died, in a certain sense of the word). The working class driven by global capital and the artificial intelligence of our accelerated age both indicate a “New Death” formed out of productivism and a necrotic character. While the stories, characters, and wandering souls of these works hail from different periods, they nevertheless reveal shared origins of “aspiration” and “loss.” In them, life and death are intertwined as autolysis, a form of self-digestion.
The fractionalized ownership of RMB City anticipates many crypto projects, including K21. Do you feel like the world has finally caught up to your early vision?
In 2007, we hoped to get funding for municipal operations and development from the rental and sale of RMB City’s buildings, but perhaps my ideas came a little too early, before most people had an awareness of such things, nor was the necessary technological development in place. If we had had today’s forms of encryption at that time, it would have resolved a lot of
proprietary issues. A crypto art project like the current K21 seems to have afforded me a new path of exploration. As I said earlier, the questions we cannot, at present, resolve can be temporarily suspended, safeguarded, and sent to the future to be answered (for instance, we have saved RMB City to a database and will release it only in the future, when conditions are appropriate). For this reason, China Tracy, a cyber-woman who had been suspended for many years, has now been awakened by K21. Under the compulsion of a music with the urgency of Philip Glass, she circles through space, ready to embark.
Translated from the Chinese by Harlan Chambers.