Safety Curtain 2022/2023

The New Angel

A face appears in the proscenium. This face belongs to “China Tracy” – artist Cao Fei’s avatar, the mirror image of her alter ego. China Tracy’s digital dermis gathers the visual stereotypes of a “female warrior”: her double topknot is inspired by Street Fighter’s Chun-Li, as she restores the armor on the female gynoid Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with pixels. Even so, China Tracy is not born to fight, nor is she an “honest” simulation of Cao Fei in real life. After all, she was created in Second Life, which is a virtual world without plots, choreographed actions nor missions, neither gravity (you can adjust it) nor (even virtual) death are certain. As a “resident” of such virtual realm, China Tracy wanders in the user-content-driven virtual world, drifting and teleporting between numerous virtual cities, embodying an experience outside conventional spatial dimensions through her (virtual) corporeal linkage with Cao Fei’s fingers on the computer keyboard. China Tracy’s embodied experience was transformed by Cao Fei into a (computer-graphics-engine-based) machinima video entitled iMirror, which premiered at the 52th Venice Biennale, where audiences interacted with China Tracy in a multi-domed, inflatable pavilion, gazing at each other at the relative cavity between the virtual and actual, like stars blinking at the edge of local bubbles in the universe.

The creation of China Tracy annunciated the birth of RMB City (2009–2011), a virtual city built by Cao Fei in Second Life that collages the fragments of Chinese urbanscapes onto a virtual platform, weaving the scraps of speedy urbanization in real life into a multi-point perspective scroll. “People’s Palace”, the core architecture in RMB City, resembles a hybrid of the Great Hall of the People and the watchtowers of Tiananmen in Beijing, with its lower half occupied by a waterpark. On the virtual city’s shore, a rusted “Bird’s Nest” (Beijing National Stadium by Herzog & de Meuron, built for the 2008 Olympics) rests half-sunken in a digital sea, China Central Television HQ designed by Rem Koolhaas floats in the Truman-show-ish digital blue sky… RMB City condenses China’s landmarks, urban spaces, and social realities that interweave exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, and contradictions. Even so, it is never a digital utopian/dystopian doppelgänger of the country’s real world built on teleological distance. Cao Fei points out that RMB City “doesn’t restore the full present, nor does it recall our reminiscence of the past. It’s a mirror that partially reflects; we see where we were coming from, discover some of the ‘connections’ that fill the pale zone between the real and the virtual.” RMB City’s liminality between actual and virtual is partly presented by its temporality: its time zone is set on Pacific Standard Time, sunrises and sunsets repeat regularly as if in actual life – but in every four hours instead of twenty-four, and the moon there is always full. It is all about the speculative realities that may not be consonant with our everyday life.

RMB City officially closed in 2011, since then it vanished on Second Life and became an invisible city haunting with images and texts on the Internet and exhibition copies in museums. China Tracy has not yet made her exit, existing as the Cheng Huang (the protective god of ancient Chinese cities, a deification of city walls and moats) of RMB City, holding a two-way mirror between the actual and virtual, denoting and connecting the two coexisting realms. While in our real life, the “pale zone” between the virtual and
the actual grows and concepts for a metaverse are being developed, an RMB City can be everywhere.

Walter Benjamin describes the angel in Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus as one that faces the past and whose back is turned to the future, where a heavenly storm propels towards
him. China Tracy is a new angel of our time, envisaging the eternal present where events appear, burgeon, and collapse simultaneously in real-time communications; while being pushed to the dark void where the speculative futures, embodied by the bygone RMB City, have not yet come to light. Michel Serres, in “La Légende des anges” (Angels,
a Modern Myth, 1993), connects angels with “message-bearing networks” in our present days, in which we are all messengers. Serres noted that the angels may veil themselves behind “elementary fluxes and movements that made up our world”. China Tracy is being concealed by an image – her own image, blanched in a pale monochrome gray – one of the major elements in our lives as cyborgs connected to electronic devices, with information being coded, uncoded, and recoded through us. China Tracy could be anyone of us, and RMB City can be any in-between space contouring between the virtual and actual.

In RMB City’s Manifesto, China Tracy greets the visitors with a conversation from Italo Calvino’s “Il castello dei destini incrociati” (The Castle of Crossed Destinies, 1973), in which narratives are facilitated with the images on Tarot cards. The quoted dialogue is between a youth who rose to the top of a staircase in a city and met a crowned angel: “Is this your city?” asked the youth, and the angel answered: “It’s yours.”