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?
“Well, it struck me as surprising,” Cárdenas lets out a long, rolling dragon chuckle that echoes off the walls of the room, “but good. I was worried that maybe people go to Second Life to be dragons and whatnot because it’s safe and easy, and you’re just playing. But after a week of doing this, I’ve had many people come to me and say, ‘No, this is very serious to me.’ ”
Cárdenas adds, “It doesn’t really strike me as crazy. I know people who think about gender as an open kind of expression. That’s what I’m trying to explore and develop in this project, is gender not just limited to male/female and not just in between male and female — femmy boy or butch lesbian or something — but gender as a texture of identity or a layer of identity, so each person could have their own gender. So I know people who feel like their gender is bunny or they feel like their gender is monster.”
My head is spinning, and it’s not just the delayed voice and video making it spin. I haven’t gotten used to the idea of species change; now we’re talking about species as gender. “That’s how they feel about their gender expression,” Cárdenas explains. “They’d say that bunny, for example, is the idea that best expresses or sums up what they think about their gender. And talking to the people who want species-change surgery, gender and species are very closely related to them.”
Cárdenas was seven years old, the fourth of four siblings, living in Miami, Florida, when his parents divorced. He lived with his mom and sister for eight more years, until his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After that, he lived with his dad and stepmom for a couple of years, then with his sister for two years. Given that background, it would be easy to label him the product of an unstable upbringing. But that would be too easy. He was stable enough to acquire a degree in computer science from Florida International University. And as I talk with him, he rattles off quotes from a half dozen or so philosophers and authors, despite 11 days of poor sleep and the mind-numbing effects of wearing the stereoscopic goggles. And there’s a cool-headed albeit radical quality to the goals he’s trying to achieve with this project. “Yeah, sure,” he says, “I’m trying to explore in terms of living in Second Life the potential for species-change surgery, and I’ve been researching the limits of biotech and how far we are away from species-change surgery. I’m also definitely doing it as a political gesture,” he says, “to make more space for transgendered people. It seems like if it were more accepted that people want to get species-change surgery, maybe I wouldn’t get such funny looks for wanting to change genders.”
Cárdenas adds, “I felt a little guilty for talking to the transspecies people because I don’t really identify as a dragon. I picked dragons because, for one, they’re not so easy to gender male and female. And most dragon literature, Western and Eastern, features dragons having shape-changing ability. So that’s something I really want to think about with this performance; how do we think and talk about people who are changing, people we don’t have names or labels for, somebody in transition who is not male or female. And how does that change our ideas of politics. We have had years and years of movements, writing, and struggle based on particular identities. How do we update our thinking so that we’re not talking about the women’s movement or the black power movement but something else? And that’s not to discredit those movements at all or to say that those movements are unimportant, invalid, or anything. But ideas about identity are different now than they were 30 years ago. Feminism nowadays has to do with expanding this notion of who gets to be a woman. And it’s not so much about biological women per se as it is about gender freedom.”
Cárdenas’s thoughts about his own identity and his transgendering efforts seem more nuanced than the stereotypical I’m-a-woman-in-a-man’s-body thinking. Since August 2008, he’s taken “estradiol, a form of estrogen, and spironolactone, a testosterone blocker.” But, he says, “I definitely don’t think I could take hormones, then get surgery, and become a real woman. I just don’t think man and woman really exist.”
The cost of Cárdenas’s hormone therapy is “covered by the University of California health insurance. All gender services up to $25,000 are covered. Which is funny, because if I did want surgery, now would be a good time to do it.”
The University of California Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Association website confirms that “As of 2007–2008, UC San Diego…programs cover trans health benefits up to $25,000 per year.”
The cost of the Becoming Dragon project Cárdenas estimates to be “around $40,000 to $50,000.” On top of that money are the hours spent on the project by volunteers such as Mehrmand and four other support staff who bring Cárdenas food and help with the equipment. Then there’s space usage and equipment usage. The motion-capture system he’s borrowing from the university “is a half-million-dollar system. So there’s a cost associated with using that. The beginning first few months of this project was me writing grants.” He got a $2500 grant from the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts and a $5000 grant from the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. “The money I raised went to other equipment, videotapes, and things like that.”
The University of California Institute for Research in the Arts is a grant-giving office that provides up to $5000 to artists within the university system. The institute, says its website, “is committed to supporting risk-taking research that might not otherwise find funding from other University or extramural sources.”
The California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology has buildings at the San Diego and Irvine campuses of the University of California. The buildings were erected with $100 million of state money. The group’s website is full of nebulous writing about shifting research paradigms and bridging the gaps between disciplines and between academia and industry. It amounts to a telecommunications and information technology research institute funded by a combination of state, federal, and industry money.
Cárdenas says “the bulk” of the funding for Becoming Dragon came from the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts, which, its website says, is “an Organized Research Unit of the University of California, San Diego whose mission is to facilitate the invention of new art forms that arise out of the developments of digital technologies.”
Cárdenas adds, “CRCA estimates that they provided over $20,000 worth of support including the space, the equipment including the motion capture system, and months of staff support time from numerous people. And that number was before an additional $2500 they contributed toward buying computers.”
Ars Virtua, a media and art center within Second Life, provided Cárdenas “a grant of usage of their virtual land. They granted me a parcel that is 4096 square meters.”
Becoming Dragon is Cárdenas’s final performance for his master of fine arts. He plans to push on for a Ph.D. in fine arts. For his Ph.D., he says he’s thinking about doing some kind of performance art involving “body hacking.”
“Body hacking,” I ask, “as in hacking with a hatchet?”
Cárdenas roars with computer-modulated dragon laughter — a terrifying sound. “No, no, no, no, no, hacking as in hacking a computer.”
More dragon laughter.
“I think about hacking with computers as another kind of exploration — finding novel ways of doing things with computers and technology. If you look at the Hacker’s Dictionary definition of ‘hack,’ it’s not breaking into computers, which is more ‘cracking.’ But when people say, ‘That’s a good hack,’ it means, that’s a clever, novel way of doing that thing. The journalist Quinn Norton has written a lot about body hacking, which is people doing DIY [do it yourself] body modification. Usually, it’s DIY body modification that is functional. Quinn Norton got an implant of a magnet in her finger, which basically gave her a sixth sense to detect if something was magnetic. That’s one classic body-hacking example because it’s functional and it’s a modification.”
Cárdenas isn’t sure what form of body hacking he may perform on himself or what the end of his transsexuality will be. “I’m still a work in progress,” he says. “Part of the idea of body hacking is that your body is the platform, which is also totally related to performance art. When I think of body hacks for myself, I think about how could I experiment on myself safely, or relatively safely,” Dragon chuckles, “to move toward some of these things like fur or color changes or something like that. That’s something that I’m thinking about for my Ph.D., or for future projects, at least: how does body hacking and widespread access to medical knowledge transform our potential for being something else? Because, right now, the potential is totally limited by the medical institution and the psychiatric institution. For instance, if you just want to become a woman, you have to go through a year trial, you have to convince them that you’re passing [as a woman] for the whole year.” (Cárdenas chose 365 hours for Becoming Dragon to call into question this one-year requirement.) “But body hacking is interesting to me because medical knowledge and medical hardware are getting cheaper, the way the video cameras are getting cheaper. So it seems like soon we’ll be in a much easier position to change ourselves. Ten years ago, the performance artist Orlan, who is my biggest inspiration, was doing performance by getting plastic surgery live onstage. She was getting body modifications to look more like famous pieces of art. Eventually, she got horns implanted in her forehead. Well, nowadays you can just go to a piercing place to get horns put on your forehead. It’s not the most crazy thing.”
Before I leave Cárdenas to live out his final four days as a dragon in Second Life, I ask, “Do you believe that there’s a God who created you as you are?”
“Oh, no,” the dragon answers, “that’s as far from what I believe as possible.”
Author’s note: Micha Cárdenas asked that feminine pronouns be used in this story. With respect, the author declined.