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Jessica Nicoll, Director and Chief Curator, Smith College Museum of Art

Ann Musser, Smith College Museum of Art

Excavating the Image is an annual collaboration between the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute and the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA). Each year, an artwork in the Smith collection will become the centerpiece for a cross-disciplinary discussion involving faculty from a range of departments and experts across various fields. In January 2013, this two-day colloquium will focus on an important recent acquisition by the SCMA—contemporary Chinese artist Cao Fei’s video The Birth of RMB City (2009). For more information about this new acquisition, visit

The Birth of RMB City is part of a larger project by Cao Fei, which uses new digital technologies to challenge conventional ideas about urban space. RMB City is a virtual city that exists within the online world of Second Life. It was planned and developed by the artist in association with Vitamin Creative Space and officially opened to the public in January 2009. The city, which anyone can virtually visit by creating a Second Life avatar, is an amalgamation of old and new landmarks and cultural references. Fantasy structures, including a giant spoked bike wheel that rotates above the city and a floating panda (the city’s “love center”), exist alongside recognizable buildings like the People’s Palace in Beijing and the “Birds Nest” stadium from the 2008 summer Olympics. This video visualizes the construction of the city, as buildings are layered on top of one another to create an imagined urban center.

The video and the artist’s larger Second Life project raise many potential lines of inquiry that cut across a variety of disciplines-- including art, architecture, urban studies, geography, computer science, film studies, anthropology, and East Asian studies. What does this online virtual city reflect about contemporary China?  What does it mean to create an online, publicly accessible art project in a country where internet usage is tightly monitored?  What is unique about the platform of Second Life and how does that virtual community’s culture impact this project? What is the aesthetic merit of the work?

The project will combine open-ended, interdisciplinary discussions based on close observation of the video and its imagery with presentations about trends in contemporary Chinese art and the context of the country’s rapid urban expansion. Colloquium participants will have the opportunity to explore the online world of RMB City together, using an avatar created for our project, as well as other contemporary Chinese art in SCMA’s collection. No specific knowledge of China or Asian art is necessary for participating in this broad, cross-disciplinary discussion.

Interested faculty should email Rosetta Cohen (, Director of the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, on or before December 7, 2012. In your email, please include the title of the project and explain why you are interested in it, what you would bring to it, and what you would hope to gain from it.


Project Schedule:

Thursday, January 10, 2013:

  • 9:00 am-4:00 pm     Includes lunch

Friday, January 11, 2013:

  • 9:00 am-4:00 pm    Colloquium meetings with panelists; includes lunch

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