Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Gender Dragon

Written 4 December, 2008

The Gender Dragon

I came across the following this morning. Interesting.

San Diego CityBEAT - CA,USA

The Gender Dragon

Artist/activist goes from he to she and creates an experimental art
project in between

By Katherine Sweetman

"What if you go insane and become a dragon forever?" I ask Micha
Cárdenas as she leads me through UCSD's Calit2 building toward her

It's quite possible that the performance Cárdenas is preparing to do
in Second Life, the Internet-based virtual world that's been sucking
people in by the millions, will push her to some sort of psychotic
state. It's been suggested that she could suffer permanent vision
impairment, psychosis or even brain damage.

"Well, it is a risk I'm taking, but it's a calculated risk," Cárdenas
says as we walk through a maze of white hallways in the strange
high-tech building. We reach a set of double doors, and beyond those
doors is a large dark room flanked by pulsating red lights. On the
back wall is a huge, beautiful projected image of a dragon. It's a
still image of Cárdenas' avatar, the dragon she'll live as for 365
hours in Second Life.

The motivations behind Cárdenas' latest performance piece are simple.
The waiting period for sex-reassignment surgery is generally one year
(365 days), during which time an individual must live as a member of
their chosen gender before being deemed "prepared" for the surgery.
This waiting period inspired Cárdenas' 365-hour performance in Second
Life, which she's titled "Becoming Dragon."

I've known Cárdenas for a couple years now, and I'd heard of her
activist work and performance pieces before we met. When we were first
introduced, she was not a she. She was a he: a community-radio deejay,
rebel clown, border-arts activist, Indymedia news contributor and
general disruptor of right-wing politics. But this new
performance-based work is more personal than anything she's done
before—and more intense. "Becoming Dragon" is both an intimate
disclosure project and public questioning of the binary gender
assignments our society holds sacred. Male or female? Neither, says
Cárdenas—I am Dragon.

"It's hard to gender a dragon," she says, opening her backpack and
taking out two prescription bottles of pills. "The project is about
creating a new gender in a space that allows for this." She swallows
down two milligrams of estrogen and 100 milligrams of spironolactone,
a testosterone blocker, with some water. Cárdenas' real-word
transitioning process leaves her in a place where neither the male nor
female gender label is quite correct.

In Second Life, people can communicate through both text chat and
voice chat. When Cárdenas, as Dragon, communicates through voice chat,
she'll use a voice modulator that will give her a synthesized voice
that sounds as if three different pitched voices are speaking all at
once. Once the performance begins, Cárdenas will remain in Second Life
(and the Calit2 building) for the entire 365-hour performance (over
two weeks). She will sleep and eat in the lab, leaving only to use the
bathroom. Cárdenas won't just be staring at a computer screen during
this time—she'll be immersed in Second Life with a head-mounted
display that shows her the computer-rendered environment in
stereoscopic vision. This constitutes part of the danger associated
with the performance, since nobody has ever "lived" in virtual reality
continuously for so long. Being inside an alternative reality for such
an extended time and just being in a dark room for more than two weeks
are extreme and risky.

"There is a long history of risk involved in performance art,"
Cárdenas says. "Artists have been suspended from hooks, been shot,
gotten live surgery. Trying something new usually involves some kind
of peril." And, indeed, this artwork is both new and potentially
hazardous. A Calit2 medical researcher warned Cárdenas that extended
time in a single location can cause a person to exhibit signs of
what's known as intensive care psychosis.

The pulsating red lights around Cárdenas' lab are cameras for the
Vicon motion-capture system. On her clothing, Cárdenas wears shiny,
gray sensors that reflect light to the eight motion-capture cameras.
These cameras record the movements of Cárdenas' real-world body and
map it to the limbs of her Second Life avatar. As Cárdenas walks
around the room in the Calit2 building, the dragon moves in Second
Life. The system also tracks Cárdenas' head movements so that she'll
be able to look around in Second Life just as she would in the real

This extraordinary collision between the high-tech sciences and the
arts is happening with support from organizations such as CRCA (Center
for Research in Computing and the Arts), UCIRA (the University of
California's Institute for Research in the Arts), Calit2 (California
Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology), and Ars
Virtua (a new media center and gallery located in Second Life).

Cárdenas also worked with a team of developers and programmers. A
programmer herself, Cárdenas has a computer-science degree from
Florida International University and a master's degree in media and
communication from the European Graduate School in Switzerland. She
has exhibited and performed her work widely and was included in the
2008 Whitney Biennale. "Becoming Dragon" will be Cárdenas' thesis
project for her master's in visual arts at UCSD.

Cárdenas entered the virtual world Monday, Dec. 1, and is living as
Dragon until Dec. 17. You can visit the lab in person at Atkinson Hall
on the UCSD campus, or you can join Second Life (
and find Cárdenas' dragon at She's eager for
questions and conversations.

"Please feel free to find me in Second Life and in real life to chat, she says. "I have plenty of time to talk."

Micha Cárdenas will be blogging from Second Life daily at Read more about the
project at

Published: 12/02/2008

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