January 16, 2009
Alice Ming Wai Jim (Art History, Concordia University), “Running Interference in Second Life”
Event report: Alice Ming Wai Jim’s talk considered the implications of the growing art industry in the virtual world platform of Second Life for the real-world political economy of art production. According to Jim, artworks that are “nowhere” (SLart), as well as a growing number of SLart exhibitions, are stimulating the art world’s interest in staking out virtual art markets and real-estate developments. This art movement speaks directly to contemporary art’s changing relation to screen culture and digital media. The Second Life art world is becoming increasingly institutionalized, with up to one thousand virtual art galleries, and a real-world critical review publication, SLART Magazine. The latter is a particularly interesting development since Second Live art exhibits are rarely curated and generally do not invite critical engagement; they function, rather, as alternative points of sale for real-world artists.

Jim’s talk explored online Second Life projects by Beijing-based artist Cao Fei, known by her iconic avatar China Tracy (which itself raises interesting questions about “cybertyping” and the representation of gender and race in virtual environments). Cao Fei has been developing an elaborate Creative Commons art community in Second Life called “RMB City.” Despite the project’s commitment to liberalized intellectual property rules, it has a number of ties to conventional art world economies, as evidenced by its status as a commission by London’s Serpentine Gallery, and its real-world presence in exhibits in New York City and Miami. Perhaps the name of the project, referencing China’s currency, the renminbi, acknowledges the project’s complicity in the international art market, though, as Jim notes, the degree of self-reflexivity and subversive critique in Cao Fei’s work continues to puzzle art critics.