“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 lair.
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 world.
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 (www.secondlife.com) and find Cárdenas' dragon at http://slurl.com/secondlife/Seventh%20Eye/186/12/35). 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.”