Cao Fei’s Duotopia is a trippy look into the future of technology

The Chinese artist’s show at Sprüth Magers is a ‘journey into the depths of our connections’

The title of Cao Fei’s latest show DUOTOPIA comes from the Mandarin word duō meaning ‘many’. Representing the layering of many possible futures, environments and aesthetics, the show, which features video works both old and new, takes COVID-19 as its starting point – coincidentally, Fei’s Serpentine retrospective was the last show I saw before the pandemic – to question the effects of technology on reality. 

The Chinese artist has spent the last two decades interrogating rapidly changing social upheaval and urban environments, using virtual, augmented, and mixed realities to explore themes of human and machine, virtual and physical, past and future. An early pioneer of digital worlds, her first avatar China Tracy debuted in “RMB City” 15 years ago in the online virtual world of Second Life. With DUOTOPIA, Fei takes various emerging technologies and concepts, from the metaverse to post-humanism and the technocene – “it’s a journey into the depths of our connections,” she explains. 

Building on her explorations into temporality – her 2020 exhibition Blueprints used Soviet sci-fi to upturn notions of time and space – video installation “Duotopia” opens with a quote from the Futurist manifesto: “Time and space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute.” Built on a Chinese metaverse platform, it depicts a futuristic city atop a bionic octopus. We’re told the urban environment is “fused with speed”, hinting at the onrush of accelerationist thought post-pandemic, while robotic jellyfish float through the pixelated environment: a utopian rendering of technology’s impact on non-human intelligence.

These post-human themes are expanded on with the introduction of her new avatar Oz, an androgynous figure literally entangled with protruding tentacles that reveal its exposed mechanics as it moves through the clouds. Or, as Fei puts it: “It gazes at the world, scarred but resilient, embodying a turning point in the ever-expanding realm of technology.”

Your show at The Serpentine was coincidentally the last show I saw before the pandemic! How would you say your artistic practice has developed since then?

Cao Fei: My artistic practice has evolved and grown in response to the transformative events of the past three years. The COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid rise of the metaverse have profoundly impacted our lives. My latest works have been a kaleidoscope of emotions, a collision of personal narratives and universal themes. I have a few new works involving family and friends. It’s a journey into the depths of our connections.

My new works delved into the intersection of virtual reality, technology and contemporary culture. I have been fascinated by the ways in which digital realms influence our understanding of reality and the transformation of human experiences.

What were some of the main inspirations behind Duotopia?

Cao Fei: DUOTOPIA draws inspiration from the rapid advancements in virtual reality technology, which is built on a Chinese metaverse platform. I question the very fabric of our reality and I explore how the metaverse can engage with audiences in innovative ways. The distinction between the physical and the virtual becomes blurred. I want to explore how virtual environments shape our experiences, identities, and social interactions, the nature of reality, and technology’s role in our lives.

DUOTOPIA also incorporates healing spaces. I wanted to create an immersive experience that offers a sense of healing and restoration.

I’m interested to hear the ideas behind your new avatar Oz? For me, its tentacles and non-human features highlight the role of humans within the technocene, and suggest a world where humans are no longer the sole intelligence on Earth.

Cao Fei: Oz represents a blend of machine and human elements and the convergence of technology and humanity. Its sea creature-like qualities, reminiscent of an octopus, evoke a sense of suspension and mystery. Unlike China Tracy, Oz takes on a more serene and introspective stance.

As we encounter this turning point in technological development, it becomes imperative for humans to navigate the complexities of a technologically driven world. Humans must find a renewed sense of purpose and forge new paths.

The relationship between humans and their surrounding environment is a recurring theme in your work. What attracts you to this topic and how do we see this manifest across your artworks?

Cao Fei: I am fascinated by the interplay between individuals and the spaces they inhabit. My work has always revolved around the exploration of human emotions and experiences. As an artist, I embark on a journey of self-exploration, questioning my own position within the world through my own experiences and perspectives.

Over time, I have embraced different angles in my work, using various mediums to capture the essence of the human-environment relationship. From documentary films to virtual reality and the metaverse, I adapt and experiment with different artistic forms to convey various emotions and perspectives.

What role do you see the metaverse playing in our lives? How do you think we can use the metaverse for good?

Cao Fei: As an artist, I cannot offer a conclusion on the role of the metaverse. I believe it is an experience that we must personally engage with. The metaverse has the potential to permeate various aspects of our lives, continuously evolving and shaping our experiences.

I hope that the metaverse allows individuals to exercise their agency and retain the right to choose to enter or exit this virtual realm. The impact and significance of the metaverse will vary for each individual.

How do you see the role of emerging technologies in navigating life beyond the Anthropocene?

Cao Fei: As we gradually transition into a post-human era, it becomes imperative to reevaluate the role of humans as central actors in the world. Emerging technologies play a significant role in this process, offering us new tools and perspectives to navigate the challenges and possibilities of life beyond the Anthropocene.

It is crucial for humans to find new meanings and purpose. We need to reflect on our relationship with the world, as well as the impact of our actions on the planet.

What are your thoughts on the recent advancements in AI? Do you see this being integrated into your own work, and how do you feel about AI within art circles more generally?

Cao Fei: As an artist who has been working with digital media for a long time, I have always engaged in learning and utilising new technologies and mediums in my work. When it comes to recent advancements in AI, I approach them with a sense of curiosity and a willingness to explore their potential. I am in a phase of observation and research. I am interested in understanding how AI can be utilised as a creative tool and how it can be engaged within the creative process. 

The question of whether AI can be considered as art itself is a topic of ongoing debate within artistic circles. Some view AI-generated artworks as a form of creative expression in their own right, while others raise concerns about issues such as authorship, intellectual property, and the role of human creativity in the artistic process.

There’s been some comparisons with AI, a non-human intelligence, with God, or a higher consciousness. How do you see the relationship between AI and spirituality? 

Cao Fei: The relationship between AI and spirituality is a complex and multifaceted topic. It is important to note that the development of AI and related technologies is often driven by capital interests, and this can have implications for how they are perceived and utilised in society. There is a human inclination to seek higher consciousness or guidance in life. It is natural for people to explore various avenues, including spirituality, philosophy, and now, potentially, AI. 

Spirituality is a deeply personal and diverse aspect of human life, encompassing a wide range of beliefs and practices. It can take many forms and is shaped by cultural, social, and individual factors. AI may contribute to certain aspects of human life and decision-making.

Duotopia is on show at Sprüth Magers until August 19, 2023.

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