I’m sitting on a leather couch in the middle of a darkened black-walled, black-ceilinged room talking to a man who, at taxpayer expense, takes hormones to become more like a woman yet is in the middle of an experimental performance in which he seeks to become a dragon.
Micha Cárdenas, the 31-year-old man/woman/ dragon in question, sits in a chair three feet from the couch. He’s facing me, but I can’t see his eyes due to the stereoscopic headset he’s wearing as part of a performance art project called Becoming Dragon. The headset limits Cárdenas’s view — except for peripheral vision — to the online world of Second Life, where he’s spent every waking moment of the past 11 days living as a dragon named Azdel Slade.
The room is in the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology building on the campus of the University of California, San Diego, where Cárdenas is a third-year graduate student in the master of fine arts program with a personal emphasis on performance and media. Becoming Dragon is part of Cárdenas’s master of fine arts. For the performance, Cárdenas is spending more than 15 consecutive days living in Second Life. “My contract with myself was to be in Second Life for 365 hours [wearing the headset], except when I go to the bathroom.”
In addition to the headset, Cárdenas wears motion-capture hardware on his body. Eight cameras mounted high on the walls around the 15-by-30–foot room capture his motion and translate it to the brightly colored dragon on the movie screen at one end of the room. The cameras, from my seat on the couch, which sits dead center in the room, look like big red eyes peering down at me. On-screen, the dragon stands in the middle of a Second Life room that has been constructed to look like the room we’re in. What’s on-screen is what Cárdenas sees through the stereoscopic headset. In order to have some semblance of face-to-face interaction with me, Cárdenas has asked his 28-year-old assistant and fellow grad student, Elle Mehrmand, to set up a camera that transmits an image of me sitting on the couch into his headset. The result is disconcerting. I’m watching an image of myself sitting in a room imbedded in a computer version of the same room. To make things more disconcerting, the image has a three- or four-second time delay. And Cárdenas’s voice is being filtered through a modulator, which has a slight delay. So I hear everything twice, once in his soft, yet deep, speaking voice — the hormones don’t seem to have raised his voice yet — and a split second later in a guttural, higher-pitched computerized garble that sounds (to me) more like a sinister gnome than a dragon.
Coming in, I had expected to see someone more, well, drag queenish. Cárdenas doesn’t give off that vibe at all. He’s dressed in a black and gray leopard-print jacket over a black T-shirt and gray pants. Four-inch black piercings dangle from his ears. His arms are covered with tattoos that wouldn’t look out of place on a biker or professional athlete. He wears his hair in an androgynous style and length. His posture, mannerisms, and speech are neither overtly feminine nor masculine. And that’s the way Cárdenas sees himself, somewhere in between. Asked whether his dragon “avatar,” as Second Life characters are known, is male or female, Cárdenas answers, “Neither. Both. Neither and both, just like in real life.”
Asked if he identifies himself as gay, he says, “No, I identify as queer, which is a nice label outside of labels, which means that I don’t identify as gay because that would mean I’m a man who likes men, or as a lesbian, which would mean that I’m a woman who likes women, but as queer: I am just attracted to who I’m attracted to. But generally, I do like femme people, usually genetic girls.”
Cárdenas has a hard time saying exactly when he got the idea to perform Becoming Dragon. “For the last three years,” he says, “I’ve been doing work that deals with the body and technology, specifically putting the body online. I’ve been thinking about online public spaces such as YouTube, MySpace, or Second Life. I think of it as an online ‘public space’ since there are 15 million users. Also,” Cárdenas chuckles, which through the voice modulator sounds like the laugh of an evil overlord in a Japanese cartoon, “I read this one-page short story in the back of a comic book called T-Gina about a transsexual woman named Gina. The story was about this couple sitting at home wondering why their neighbors were so uptight about their recent species-change surgery. And then, when I started to take hormones and think about myself, I started to think about the question of species identity.”
Though the idea of species change sounds absolutely loco to just about everybody, Cárdenas in his travels in Second Life has found a community of people who long to change their species from human to some kind of animal, real or imagined. “I’ve discovered as part of this performance that there are a lot of people who have sex and have relationships and get married as dragons and bunnies and other species. The most common thing is hybrid species. Right now, I’m a dragon. But there’s also another avatar I use which is this thing called a Neko, which is a half-cat, half-human kind of person. Nekos that are half-human, half-animal are really common in Second Life. Something that’s happened in the last few days [during the performance] is I’ve met a bunch of people who call themselves Otherkin, and they have this whole community who feel really deeply, painfully, truly that they are some other species. This couple that talked to me was a dragon-man and a fox-woman. They both said, very seriously, that if they could get species-change surgery, they would do it in a second.”
Does that strike you as insanity of any kind?