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Suman Gupta 看画随笔

small notes on Chinese art

 
 
 

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曹斐的《人民城寨:中国·翠西的时尚 》与虚拟社会的美学精神 (Cao Fei's RMB City: The Fashions of China Tracy and the Virtual Aesthetic Ethos )  

2013-09-27 16:12:18|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Small notes on Chinese Art(10)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之十》 September 27, 2013

Cao Feis The Fashions of China Tracy 1 and the Virtual Aesthetic Ethos - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Cao Fei (曹斐) , RMB City: The Fashions of China Tracy Series, 2009.
Photo-1, chromogenic print, 58cm x 36cm.
Skirt: VIKTOR & ROLF    High Heels: ROGER VIVIER
Location: People's Slum, RMB City, Second Life
曹斐《人民城寨:中国·翠西的时尚》系列 (2009) 彩印之一 58cm x 36cm



Cao Fei's RMB City: The Fashions of China Tracy and the Virtual Aesthetic Ethos
曹斐的《人民城寨:中国·翠西的时尚》与虚拟社会的美学精神
Small notes on Chinese Art(10)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之十》   September 27, 2013


The new sensibility, which expresses the ascent of the life instincts over aggressiveness and guilt, would foster, on a social scale, the vital need for the abolition of injustice and misery and would shape the further evolution of the "standard of living." The life instincts would find rational expression (sublimation) in planning the distribution of the socially necessary labor time within and among the various branches of production, thus setting priorities of goals and choices: not only what to produce but also the "form" of the product. The liberated consciousness would promote the development of a science and technology free to discover and realize the possibilities of things and men in the protection and gratification of life, playing with the potentialities of form and matter for the attainment of this goal. Technique would then tend to become art, and art would tend to form reality: the opposition between imagination and reason, higher and lower faculties, poetic and scientific thought, would be invalidated. Emergence of a new Reality Principle: under which a new sensibility and a desublimated scientific intelligence would combine in the creation of an aesthetic ethos.

Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (1969)

To grasp the nuances of this image, and others in the series (see below), the passages of its production and circulation need to be considered.

Let me quickly run through those passages from the beginning, indeed from well before the artwork in question was conceived.  Linden Lab launched the virtual world Second Life, accessible through the internet, in 2003.  Many of my readers would be familiar with Second Life, but let me assume that some won't. Briefly, this virtual world consists in a given three-dimensional space (sea, sky, green islands); the ability of users online to assume “avatars” (given or self-fashioned forms and appearances) and enter this space; mechanisms for avatars to move (walk, run, fly, teleport) in that space and communicate with each other; a range of building blocks, called “prims”, with which to fashion anything (from hair and clothes to buildings and cities); and a virtual currency, Linden dollars, to carry out transactions (from large-scale property development to small trade and services).  The extent to which a user can occupy and inhabit this world freely through her/his avatar depends on the kind of membership s/he has, which depends on how much s/he is prepared to spend in the actual world.  Between 2003 and 2009 Second Life grew phenomenally and excited considerable media interest: numerous cities were built by users and inhabited by their avatars; the population grew to an estimated 5 million (or more); actual world firms and organizations (corporations, retailers, universities, embassies, etc.) founded Second Life establishments.

The potential of Second Life as both medium and interactive space for art naturally attracted considerable attention, and numerous artists and galleries work within it.  The construction of virtual installation artworks could assume almost any scale in Second Life; artistic performances are possible and an art market flourishes therein; and indeed creativity seems implicit at various levels – some degree of art is involved even in users' self-fashioning of and identities assumed through avatars (discussed in this paper  by Christine Liao, and indeed in all Second Life building projects undertaken by users.  Cao Fei's particularly ambitious artistic project in Second Life involved building a whole city, RMB City, in 2008-2009 with recognisably Chinese motifs and structures (see below for some images).  In Second Life Cao Fei assumed the avatar named China Tracy.  RMB City is itself an artwork, and its construction and virtual display have been exhibited in – made accessible through – various actual world galleries.  The virtual city is also a site for producing and showing virtual performance and virtual artworks of various genres, some of which then find their way in actual world forms as artworks (e.g. documentaries, prints, gallery/stage performances) for actual world art consumers.  One such is the chromogenic print (C-print) series The Fashions of China Tracy.  This essay by Xiaofei Mo gives useful information on the genesis, experience, productions and prospects of RMB City.

In 2009 the actual world fashion magazine Modern Weekly commissioned Cao Fei to do a virtual world fashion photo-shoot in Second Life, with her avatar China Tracy modelling clothes designed by actual world fashion brands.  A professional designer in Second World was appointed to replicate the actual world clothes for virtual world photo-shoot purposes – the match of actual and virtual world designs can be judged from images here.  These virtual world fashion “photographs” were then published in March 2009 in the (actual world) Modern Weekly as The Fashions of China Tracy.  In October-January 2010 the (actual world) International Centre of Photography (ICP), New York, organised its Third Triennial of Photographs with the theme Dress Codes, featuring “the proliferation of photo- and video-based work exploring the uses of style, image, and personal presentation” as a culmination to its 2009 Year of Fashion.  In this (actual world) exhibition C-prints of The Fashions of China Tracy featured prominently, along with a computer running Second Life at RMB City.  At the same time China Tracy (aka Cao Fei) had a kind of virtual exhibition of The Fashions of China Tracy in Second Life, by having posters of the images put up on billboards around RMB City.  C-Prints on photo-paper of the series have since been available for sale in the actual world — in, for instance, the online auction of Asia Art Archives (a non-profit organization which documents the recent history of Asian art) with an estimated price-range between US dollars 2,600-3,200 for the set of five (see here).

The firsth of the five prints is the one above, The Fashions of China Tracy 1, and apparently has the standard features of an outdoor fashion photograph. The point of a fashion photograph is to draw the viewer's attention to the clothes and accoutrement in relation to the model's body.  The body is posed to accentuate the design of the clothes.  The surrounding environment in the photograph is disposed (by selection and modification) to the same end, to draw the eye towards the model and accentuate the clothes and their design.  In the above image, China Tracy is at the centre, and is further centred by the upward perspective which makes the upper and lower lines of the two buildings in the background converge towards her.  The consanguinity of the design of her outfit with the colours and lines in the background (the colour and tiles and posters on the buildings, the electric wires, the crane, etc.) serves to accentuate the clothes.  But as the eye dwells on it, and especially as it moves towards other prints in the series, it becomes evident that the purpose of focalizing the clothes doesn't quite come off.  These images seem to emulate actual world fashion photographs in structure and technique, but do not seem to have equivalent results.  In fact, instead of accentuating the model's body and its apparels, the surroundings tend to overwhelm those – the environment of RMB City seems to compete for attention rather than direct attention to the clothes.  Indeed, in The Fashions of China Tracy  2, 3, 4 and 5 the model is not quite centred but a bit, or entirely, on one side; and the balance and weighting of the images shift the gaze to the fantastical surroundings of RMB City. Even in The Fashions of China Tracy 5, where the model and her garments are explicitly centred, she appears diminutive within and captured by the visual busyness of the scene around her, overshadowed by the virtually built structures. Evidently, in this series of prints the model avatar China Tracy doesn't quite succeed in highlighting the design of the clothes and accoutrement; rather both the model's pose and her apparel succeed mainly in highlighting RMB City. Every element in these images – each object including the model and her clothes as well as the whole – are so distinctively and obviously designed, so deliberately poised in their artifice, that no one element can wholly absorb sustained attention. We may say that this virtual world environment of Second Life, of RMB City, is so comprehensively and opaquely designed that it presents an aesthetic ethos wherein what are ostentatiously presented as art objects or as artefacts do not quite stand out but appear in a kind of continuum with the surroundings. The mechanics and impetus of RMB City is designed and aesthetically underpinned as a whole, and there isn't sufficient relief to make the artiness of the artwork or the designedness of fashion accessories to stand out as exceptionally such. RMB City specifically, and really to some degree every nook and cranny of Second World, constitutes a designed world in-itself. RMB City stands out as particularly arty only because it claims its artiness strongly, because it is presented as an artwork. But every bit of construction in Second Life represents the aesthetic tastes and choices of some social stratum in the actual world: at one level, Second Life's fascination lies in the fact that it seems to enable a virtual aesthetic ethos, wherein everything (object, being and performance) is art of some sort, and nothing that claims to be particularly arty does so because there is a not-art (natural, real, purely instrumental, aesthetically-neutered) backdrop to be contrasted against. To say “this is my Second Life art as opposed to that not-art thing in Second Life” is to say no more than “I have some limited normative notions of art conditional on my actual world social circumstances which makes some Second World things seem like art and others not-art”.

However, in some ways a fashion photo-shoot in the virtual world of RMB City resonates with the rationale of a similar undertaking in the actual world. A fashion photo-shoot is structured by the imperatives of commerce, of the marketing and consumption of fashion commodities, of the mediation of advertising. Within actual world advertising, a virtually actualizable world is constantly shown around specific commodities: a kind of magic world is envisioned, in which consumption gives satisfaction in a way that compensates for actual world limitations. The rationale was explained thus by Raymond Williams in his essay “Advertising: The Magic System”;

If the consumption of individual goods leaves [a] whole area of human need unsatisfied, the attempt is made [through advertising], by magic, to associate this consumption with human desires to which it has no real reference. You do not buy an object: you buy social respect, discrimination, health, beauty, success, power to control your environment. The magic obscures the real sources of general satisfaction, because their discovery would involve radical change in the whole common way of life. (Culture and Materialism, Verso, pp.188-9)

Producing and displaying design artefacts in the comprehensively designed virtual world – in RMB City – is like publicising designer clothes in a world where consumption is comprehensively satisfying and guarantees satisfaction for all aspects of life (the world depicted in advertisements). The aesthetics of the virtual world and the aesthetics of advertising (in commodity designs and in performing happy consumer worlds) have a similar nudge towards magical satisfactions and a similar lure of sensory pleasures and lifestyles. Insofar as imaged and visualised, the virtual world is magical in a similar way as the worlds depicted in advertisements are magical. That magic is effective only on those who are outside those worlds, on commodity consumers and online Second Life users in the actual world. RMB City is an artwork that flaunts an awareness of this aesthetic relationship: tropes that gesture towards commodity aesthetics and consuming performances are self-consciously scattered around RMB City (beginning with the name itself).

Some ideology no doubt structures the virtual aesthetic ethos of RMB City and underpins the social relations concretized in productions like The Fashions of China Tracy – within the virtual world and in the actual world. In the actual world such virtual fashion photographs seem intricately connected to contemporary capitalism (which is what William’s article gets to via advertising), but that is complicated here by the apparently self-contained quality of the virtual world wherein the series is produced and circulated too and emerges from. In Second Life, in RMB City, The Fashions of China Tracy are, of course, only virtually about fashion and not really photographs at all. It is difficult to say what commodity is being offered for consumption in there, from any avatar's point of view. Anthropologist Tom Boellstorff’s book Coming of Age in Second Life (Princeton UP, 2008) makes a systematic attempt to understand social relations and identity formation within Second Life in its own terms, as a self-contained virtual world rather than as simply echoing and managed from the actual world. From this perspective, Boellstorff is able to discern a self-contained Second Life ideology which he calls “creationist capitalism” (with the implicit Christian theological inspiration acknowledged), and associates with Silicon Valley’s values:

Creationist capitalism draws structuring principles from the individualist ethos of contemporary capitalism […]. This ideology, by no means limited to California, is an economic model of “prosumption” where capitalist subjects produce what they consume, turning production into a form of consumption. (p.208)

Blurring the boundaries of production and consumption could be, in effect, a readjustment of actual world social relations which could gel with blurring the boundaries of art and not-art. That could naturalize a structured totalization of production and consumption and aesthetics (e.g. within a hierarchy of code writers, manipulators and users) as a continuous and variable-but-uniform matrix. However, this account of Second World ideology seems to me simplistic for our purposes. After all, the creationist capitalism of Second Life is riddled through with the logic of contemporary capitalism in the actual world, and vice versa. Perhaps understanding how that interpenetration plays is one of the pressing projects of our time.

At any rate, when it comes to analysing artworks like The Fashions of China Tracy, which are produced and circulated and engaged and consumed in a constant flicking back and forth between virtual and actual worlds, the inter-penetrating ideological underpinnings need to be unpacked. For this, the contemplation of an aesthetic ethos in the actual world, such as Herbert Marcuse's (quoted in the epigraph), and comparison thereof with the practice of the virtual aesthetic ethos, which engenders The Fashions of China Tracy, is likely to be useful. Marcuse's notion of the aesthetic ethos was mooted as the product of a liberated consciousness, which encounters profound social changes both by automated production and consequent relief from labour and by a refusal of capitalist relations sustained by exploitation of labour. It is therefore futuristic and aspirational, an imagined horizon which engages with the actual political economy of the present by imagining the potential for a liberated consciousness. The practice of the virtual aesthetic ethos and its productions seem, by comparison, predicated on disengagement from (or at the least a misdirection from) the actual political economy of the present, and designed for instant consumer gratification rather than to prick the aspirations of political subjects. But to say that is to state the blatantly obvious. The ideological inter-penetrations of virtual and actual world, and their undergirding of artistic productions which flicker across and between both, have a more complex dynamics.


courtesy of Vitamin Creative Space

Cao Feis The Fashions of China Tracy 1 and the Virtual Aesthetic Ethos - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Cao Fei (曹斐),  RMB City: The Fashions of China Tracy Series, 2009
Photo-2, C-print,  58cm x 36cm.
Skirt: HUSSEIN CHALAYAN     High Heels: CALVIN KLEIN
Location: People's Sky, RMB City, Second Life
曹斐《人民城寨:中国·翠西的时尚》系列 (2009) 彩印之二 58cm x 36cm

Cao Feis The Fashions of China Tracy 1 and the Virtual Aesthetic Ethos - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Cao Fei (曹斐), RMB City: The Fashions of China Tracy Series, 2009.
Photo-3, C-print, 58cm x 36cm.
Coat & Jumpsuit: ALEXANDER MCQUEEN    High Heels: ROGER VIVIER
Location: People's Factory, RMB City, Second Life
曹斐《人民城寨:中国·翠西的时尚》系列 (2009) 彩印之三 58cm x 36cm

Cao Feis The Fashions of China Tracy 1 and the Virtual Aesthetic Ethos - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Cao Fei (曹斐),  RMB City: The Fashions of China Tracy Series, 2009
Photo-4, C-print, 58cm x 36cm.
Clothes and Accessories: MAISON MARTIN MARGIELA    Bracelet: Hermès
Location: City Hall, RMB City, Second Life
曹斐《人民城寨:中国·翠西的时尚》系列 (2009) 彩印之四 58cm x 36cm

Cao Feis The Fashions of China Tracy 1 and the Virtual Aesthetic Ethos - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Cao Fei (曹斐), RMB City: The Fashions of China Tracy Series, 2009.
Photo - 5, C-print, 58cm x 36cm.
Clothes and Accessories: MAISON MARTIN MARGIELA   Bracelet: Hermès
Location: City Hall, RMB City, Second Life
曹斐《人民城寨:中国·翠西的时尚》系列 (2009) 彩印之五 58cm x 36cm

Cao Feis The Fashions of China Tracy 1 and the Virtual Aesthetic Ethos - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Cao Fei / China Tracy, RMB City: a Second Life City Planning (2007) 120cm x 160cm photo
曹斐/中国翠西《人民城寨:第二人生网络城市规划》(2007) 120cm x 160cm 照片
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