Residency in RMB City: Adrian Blackwell, Yam Lau and GestureCloud: Judith Doyle+Fei Jun

August 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Cao Fei,  RMB City, SecondLife  Video Still

Cao Fei, RMB City, SecondLife Video Still, Courtesy of RMB City © 2008

The first time I check out the online community of Second Life, where users interact via 3D avatars, I try something I would never do if I was a flesh and blood visitor to an unknown place: look for the X-rated entertainment. Plugging ‘xxx’ into the site’s search engine, I teleport to one of SL’s many sex clubs. Seeking out the curious spectacle of avatars having sex seemed to me the point of the exercise. What else was there to do? To the uninitiated, Second Life can be a rather lonely place. You can traipse about for ages and never meet another soul. Your avatar might be able to fly, traversing sparkly digital oceans, but this doesn’t help all that much.

A couple years later, I visit Second Life again, this time with a more ‘legitimate’ destination. I am going to RMB City, a project of the Beijing-based artist Cao Fei. Still my experience is much the same. Where is everybody? I am suffering from a disjunction between real the virtual, a dynamic Cao Fei had explicitly set out to explore. My experience helps to shed light on the problem, but it’s of the unintended sort. If my navigations through the world of Second Life are cumbersome and alienating, it’s because I have a sub par computer. It’s an issue of processing speed. Inadvertently perhaps, Cao Fei’s ambitions in Second Life provide a metaphor for the looming dilemma faced by the West. We are lagging behind but lack the drive needed to overcome this predicament.

Disjunctions between the real and virtual worlds, often unintended, also dominate the Residency in RMB City project. Because it is located in the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills, the Gendai Gallery is somewhat hard to get to. With this exhibition Gendai curator, Yan Wu, puts the venue’s peripheral status to good conceptual use, proposing a show that can be, in part, accessed by computer. Working with the artists, Adrian Blackwell, Yam Lau and the collaborative duo of Judith Doyle and Fei Jun (known as GestureCloud), Wu creates an exhibition that combines a gallery presentation with digital artworks created for Cao Fei’s Second Life property.

Made up of an amalgamation of references to Chinese architecture, RMB City features the Herzog and de Meuron Bird’s Nest along with shiny skyscrapers, motorways and sidewalks, warrens of small shops selling take out food and the like, all of it organized around the central structure of the Forbidden City, Beijing’s Imperial Palace, which dates from the Ming Dynasty. Although Cao Fei promotes her project as a platform for artist collaboration, miscommunications meant that Wu found her initial proposal to create an artist residency in RMB City rejected by the artist. Further communications remedied the situation; as of press time, the artists are soon to begin moving their projects to the Second Life location. In recognition of the changed status of the project, this second phase will now be termed Intervention into RMB City. A publication about the project, called From Residency to Intervention will be published in the spring.

In the Gendai gallery, Blackwell presents Lóng Sùshè (Dormitory) (2011) a plywood maquette of a workers’ dormitory proposed for RMB City. Trained as an architect, Blackwell has lived in China, teaching architecture there at an offsite campus of U of T. With Lóng Sùshè he provides infrastructural context for Cao Fei’s metropolitan fantasy. An interest in sculpture as a platform for public discourse has been the long term focus of Blackwell’s practice. Referring to an actual dormitory in the industrial region of Shenzen, one that is continually being built in an effort to meet the growing demand for worker’s housing, Lóng Sùshè, helps to clarify certain questions that will emerge along with China’s growing economic dominance. What kind of public will China’s new global order create? How easily do traditions of the West translate, and are they even relevant? The notion of a public sphere is amongst the highest ideals of a functioning Democracy, but it’s not clear how it will figure in a country that has little in the way of democratic traditions as they are known in the West.

Writing about the legion of workers that power the engine of China’s economic expansion has become a journalistic trope in Western reports about the country. China’s nineteenth century industrial conditions are a subject of some fascination in the West. Such reportage helps provide a salve for the conscience of those enjoying the products of cheap Chinese labour. Judith Doyle and Fei Jun’s GestureCloud (2011) uses the space of Second Life to rewrite this narrative, to great critical effect. In place of the whole, but nameless, Chinese worker, the artists create a virtual inventory of the gestures factory employees are forced to repeat, ad infinitum, when doing their job. Based on video documentation of the duties performed in a printing factory in Beijing, GestureCloud represents these workers in terms of their real world effects. This distillation by the artists’ creates clarity: like everybody, really, in global economy, the factory workers are mere nodal points within a vast system — or to borrow a 19th century metaphor, cogs in the machine. As with other multi-user online environments, Second Life has a real world economy, money changing hands in the form of Linden Dollars (San Francisco’s Linden Labs is the company behind the site). For the RMB City stage of the project, these gestures will be available for purchase via a vending machine in Second Life, the animations being useful presumably for avatar-related Second Life labours. Gesture Cloud’s ultimate ambition is to return the money they make back to the factory workers in Beijing.

Residency in RMBCity installation at the Gendai Gallery

Residency in RMBCity installation: Yam Lau, Princess Iron fan (l), Adrian Blackwell, Long Sushe (r)

One translation of RMB City is Money Town; a mordant commentary on the breakneck pace of economic development in China, Cao Fei’s project also creates a narrative for the transition China is currently undergoing — and the implications it has for the rest of the world. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can use Second Life; the language of software is more or less universal. With Princess Iron Fan (2011), Yam Lau gives expression to the heterogeneity of elements from which this new Global culture is being constructed. Princess Iron Fan is character from a Chinese folk tale, adapted for a film of the same name, which was the first animated feature film made in China, in 1941. Lau adopts the figure of Iron Fan as it appeared in the 1941 animation for his Second Life avatar, but with important alterations. Presented in pleasingly anachronistic black and white, the avatar is given certain ghostly characteristics. It is visible from the front but not the sides or back; the artist slyly attributes vaporous qualities to a thing that already has no substance. In the gallery, the projected animation appears from time to time, mimicking the avatar’s movement through the virtual world; in Second Life, Princess Iron Fan is programmed to similarly ambulate around. However, she never appears in both places at once: Princess Iron Fan is perpetually destined to exist on the threshold between the virtual and the actual. In metaphorical terms, the virtual animation of a Chinese folk hero points to the changed cultural landscape that will characterize the 21st century – an expanded world no longer necessarily bound by Western ideas or traditions.

By Rosemary Heather

Residency in RMB City is a project of Gendai Gallery, Toronto.
This text originally appeared in Bordercrossings, Issue 118.

Ryan Trecartin Makes Art Cool Again

July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

The third time I visited Ryan Trecartin’s show of video installations, Any Ever in Toronto, it was near the end of the exhibition. A small army of people moved from room to room, notebooks in hand, recording their thoughts. Like few other art events I can think of, the show contained within it the seeds of a conversation. See Ryan Trecartin’s work and you want to talk about it.

Hito Steyerl talks to Rosemary Heather

July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Hito Steyerl Interview

Your work is very complex, combining an art practice with theoretical writing. And you’ve produced a lot. In my mind, it exists as an entity – a very dense one. You could even say it has exceptional spatial characteristics. There is a particular conceptual reason for this: the web. When deciding how to approach a discussion with you, I realized the answer is obvious. We are doing this interview on the occasion of a number of exhibitions you are having in the UK and Germany; however, our immediate context is the site where this interview appears. So let’s talk about that – or at least focus our discussion in a way that will allow us to incorporate links, images and videos on this website.


One of the forms of your practice is the representation of data; or more specifically, its characteristic of being in motion, and so to a certain extent being beyond representation. I love that you take this on; it is so very defining of our contemporary existence and yet rather an elusive idea to conceptualize. It occurs to me that your work also represents this idea as it is manifest in the contemporary condition of the dispersal of attention, which is something I know I struggle with. As if to prove my point, while writing this question, I checked my Twitter feed and clicked on this link, a rather tongue in cheek screed about the Evils of Saving. So with this web-induced diversion of my attention, I find an analogy for the subject at hand: Capital too wants to be in motion. So that’s my question. In so far as your work engages with form in its most contemporary manifestation, is that your true subject: Capital?


HS: Lets step back a little and consider the relation of Capital and movement. Whilst Capital, for sure, is moving, this doesn’t necessarily mean that every movement is fully captured by Capital. There is an asymmetrical relation between both. Movement – as for example in the case of diverted attention online – can also constitute a flight from labour or other capital-based relations (of course these evasions are immediately recaptured, but again not fully). Capital is not able to fully come to terms with evasion, resistance, distraction, irritation, sleepiness.


I am fascinated, though, with the ways Capital registers digitally, how it becomes visible, how it matters, so to speak. One might like to think that it is purely abstract and invisible, but it leaves stains and traces as it moves.


One example: In one of my most recent works, I subtracted the copyright marks from WWII photographs sold on eBay. The pictures were made by German soldiers on the Eastern front and show all sorts of war scenes.  The more violent, the more expensive the photos are. eBay vendors add copyright signs to affirm their property rights, and also to cover representations of war crimes, swastikas and other illegal content. In my work, I’ve subtracted the photographic images and left the copyright marks as they were. They represent the original photographic picture seen from the angle of their existence as digital commodities. This is their contemporary form of circulation and movement. Yet, in a negative and subtractive way they retain the traces of the resistance of the persons originally shown in the pictures, mostly captured female Soviet soldiers, who were fighting against the Nazi invasion. Those women constituted one of the groups who were to be immediately killed after their capture; they had no chance of survival. So in some cases, a very abstract form of their negative imprint is preserved.

web art criticism

Hito Steyerl, Bilder, News, Infos aus dem Web


These are their portraits in 2010, under the condition of digital capitalism, and I’d argue that these are documentary images, because they show the reality of the contemporary movement and dispersion of the original photographs.


RH Aside from being documents of our contemporary digital reality, the compositions of your EBay works are unmistakably reminiscent of abstract paintings. This brings up all kinds of issues. For one, I am tempted to say the works have the effect of re-contextualizing abstract painting, as seen in its 1950s heyday, as being a kind of blunt instrument of forgetting – something I hadn’t thought about before. This idea makes sense, I suppose, if you consider the postwar ascendency of American culture as being somehow amnesic in intent. Your EBay works also evoke ideas about the dematerialization of the artwork. Conceptual art prefigures the regime of the virtual we now live in. Abstract painting also fits within this narrative: abstraction prefiguring abstraction. In your essay In Defense of the Poor Image (2009) you note that “dematerialized images…[are] a legacy of conceptual art.” You write very persuasively about the importance of the degraded image; and of its capacity to enact a form of “resistance against the fetish value of visibility”. Given that relevant precedents for these works are abstract painting and conceptualism, I am curious to know, what form do they take when presented in an art gallery?


HS I hope that, in a gallery, this work might inspire people to think about the form what is considered sublime takes: purely formal and self-referential art. Because this installation may look every bit as fetishist as if it were Art with a capital A; but it is not – it is found material from the junkyards of the web, powered by a dubious digital scopophilia. It is actually copyrighted military porn; if not worse. So what is the relation of this type of mobile image to abstract art?


In his book The Century (2005) Alain Badiou writes about the “passion for the real”, which according to him, dominates the 20th century. This passion is characterised by a desire to tear away the veils of mere appearance and deception and to uncover the real essence of the thing under investigation. Politically, this unleashes a huge amount of paranoia against people who are not deemed pure enough or traitors of a cause. The passion for the real is not only a motor behind many of the massive purges and maybe also ethnic cleansings of the 20th century (there are other motors as well), but as Badiou argues further, it can also be detected in abstract art works (his example is Malevich). These works evacuate the frame of everything deemed superfluous, they literally purge color and form. It is quite interesting to think about this link between the genocides of the 20th century and abstract art, both aiming for an essence, a purity to be achieved on the one hand by elimination on the other by subtraction (obviously, and Badiou insists on this: by completely different means).


In the case of the eBay work, both somehow collide: what looks like a sublime and completely self-referential minimal artwork is actually a coincidental trace of war crimes, its price tag, if you will.



RH Could you speak a bit more about the relationship of your practice to the concept of the poor image and the image in motion?


HS I have been interested for a long time in traveling images, in the ways in which their meaning and appearance changes. These, for example, are samples of pirated Chinese DVD covers on which a new peculiar language emerges.  This language is called Spamsoc, as you can see.

art web criticism

Hito Steyerl, Spamsoc


Spamsoc is generated by online translators, automatic scanner recognition tools, and travels on the back of pirated DVD’s. It exists in many countries and knows many local dialects.


Probably it emerges late at night on the desktops of digital shockworkers, who compress, rip, and transfer audiovisual data and create covers and blurbs on the side. It is a language that is created within multiple conflicts, most of all conflicts over copyright. This is also why it is a broken language. I see it mainly as a great improvement on the English language and proof of how backwards we are, because we are not able to fully decipher this language from the future. Spamsoc’s multiple neologisms express disagreement over the ownership of audiovisual content, the domestication of translation and other aspects of digital shockwork. I love the automated “Freudian” slips (which are no longer Freudian of course), which lay bare the digital unconscious of the period. Take for example this genius term “the pubic performance”, in the jpeg below.


art web criticism

Hito Steyerl, Pubic Performance

In one decisive blow, it expresses the decline of the public sphere; the demise of traditional cinema and its replacement by private home cinema; the transformation of an always illusionary public defined by rational deliberation into a pubic sphere that thrives on spectacle, shock and scandal; as well as the performative character of these elements of the private running amok in public…

The pubic performance is the production of self on countless webcams, endless chatter on social media, confessions about trauma on Youtube, post-oedipal drama on morning TV.



RH I love the precision with which you have been able to pinpoint these one details, Spamsoc, the pubic sphere, which are fantastically emblematic of Globalism. I have read your explanation, understand it, and yet I still do not know what Spamsoc is. As you say, we don’t understand it because we are not from the future. It’s also like a spot on the far horizon, the arc of the future, the jet plane of Globalism flying over our heads to a place we will never visit. I am interested to know how Spamsoc figures in your work? It’s a file you made from a scan of a pirated DVD that you sent to me by email. As such, it embodies your interest in what you call “travelling images”. This brings up a question for me: if images travel do they ever come to rest, and if so in what form? In turn, this opens up onto the bigger issue of how a digital file relates to what we traditionally think of as an artwork? I realize this may not be the right question to ask, because I can see your work exists as a kind of matrix of text-plus-image-plus-gallery shows. Still I would like to focus on this problem because it touches on much bigger questions. It is hard to credit a digital file as a “real thing,” which points to what I see as the epoch-defining cultural confusion about what is “real”; or maybe more specifically: what is truth and what is fiction? The examples of this are legion but can perhaps best be summed up by the fact that “reality” itself has become a genre, one that “everybody knows isn’t real (sort of).” Can you talk about this problem in relation to your work?
HS Very concretely. I’ve written a text and made and interview with Jon Solomon, a translation theorist, who is based in Taiwan. Both deal with the production and circulation of Spamsoc. I also made a file, which documented those DVD covers visually, though I do not consider it art. Generally, I think this question about whether something is art or not is a bit overrated – because essentially the question is mostly about gatekeeping and declaring that certain types of art shall be excluded. Paradoxically the non-art thus becomes essential for defining and sustaining the art with a capital A. But obviously, there are works with more or less formal concerns, or even different formal concerns, which may or may not be challenging enough to create a productive uncertainty (which might be my provisional definition of art: emphasis on productive). It’s about the question of form in information, the relation between both. For me, pure form is just as uninteresting as pure information.


So, can a digital file be art? Why not? Depends. It’s more important though, that there is something challenging, motivating and unpredictable about its relation it poses between form and information.


Is a digital file a “real thing”? That’s another question. It certainly has a reality on the material level – the level of electricity and material support. It is certainly also very much connected to reality through its coding and format. A VOB file on a DVD is pretty real, as it is tied to different networks and markets of raw materials, in this case, for example, metals and plastic, both of which are often recycled; not to mention hard disks, burning devices or other storage media. All these have the same level of reality as the material support of a photograph, or film stock. Thus there is often a history of the object, or objects involved in the storage, production and processing of a file. I made a work recently about recycling of aluminium from former military planes, and how this becomes the material support for DVD’s.

art, web, theory, Hito

Hito Steyerl, In Free Fall

I also have extensive notes for a history of glass in media, of the use of glass fiber cables, glass as a metaphor for transparency and communication. Glass is also one of the sensories of the social. Broken glass refers to destitution or insurrection. On all these levels – and surely, the art gallery with all its institutional codings can be included with these other material supports –  we could perform a material reading of the carrier medium, but also of the social histories of encoding and transmission. Obviously these are also tied to issues of copyright, audiovisual property and the social struggles around it.  This is real enough for me; or perhaps if it isn’t, it’s still interesting enough. The question whether the content of the file relates to reality or not is another question, which is ultimately undecidable.


But yet again, there is always a perspective, which looks at the reality of the fiction, if you like, its infrastructure, so to speak.  That is, in order to get confused about fiction and reality there needs to be a huge apparatus already existing in reality, which consists of hardware, software, institutional frameworks. Like in the movie Inception – in order to create the confusion about dream and reality you need a huge infrastructure in the first place. Cables, medication, game architecture; take this away, and the fiction (or in this case, dream) collapses. Same goes for the cultural industries, or perhaps more precisely the military-entertainment complex. It is the material base for all our confusions about reality, its matrix and it is very real.


So there is always – I think – a substantial degree of material reality to all digital things. But it may not even be so interesting to figure it out – perhaps it’s more interesting to explore the new realities created by fiction, digital or not. There is a constant transfer between reality and fiction, but as I see it, it mainly consists of misunderstanding, faulty imitation and mistranslation. People (like the urban guerilla in my video November (2004)) try to imitate fiction films; they fail, but produce new realities. It was Hannah Arendt, who said, that that ultimate creative force in politics were lies. Who could deny that the lie about the existence of WMD´s in Iraq created massive new realities?

Originally published by Animate Projects July 7, 2011 






Candice Breitz talks to Rosemary Heather

July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Berlin-based South African artist, Candice Breitz

Candice Breitz has been Professor of Fine Art at the Braunschweig University of Art since 2007

When forgotten, pop stars become like wallpaper. Once they become icons, they take on an ulterior function in our daily lives. By recording a popular song as sung by its multitude of fans, or taking the overly familiar images of media stars and breaking them down into their constituent parts, Breitz makes evident the unconscious roles these icons play in our lives. If the idea of ‘Clint Eastwood’ has become as natural to us as a tree, Breitz works to make sure he comes to seem unnatural to us again, helping us to decode our world and understand it a little better. In Factum (2009), commissioned for her solo exhibition at the Power Plant in Toronto, she worked with sets of twins to literally construct a composite portrait of their public selves. Splitting the one into two–two people on two screens who look all but identical–serves as a nice metaphor for her practice as a whole, which reconfigures the mediated world into a self-reflective entity. I spoke with Candice in September 2009 when she was in Toronto for the opening of the Factum exhibition.

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