dj lotu5 on Fri, 27 Mar 2009 05:42:51 -0400 (EDT)

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<nettime> My Gender is Bunny

I’m very happy, and not so happy about this article on the cover of this 
week's San Diego Reader. I’m happy that the project is getting so much 
exposure. I’m very unhappy that the author chose to ignore my choice of 
pronouns, present the whole project as some mad scientist project “at 
tax payer’s expense” and put a ridiculous picture on the cover instead 
of one of the many photos and second life screenshots from the 
performance. At least the author had the courage to admit at the end of 
the article that I told him what pronouns to use and that he chose not 
to. Overall, I think that he quoted me at length, and accurately, on the 
core issues on the performance, which I really appreciate.

Also, if you’d like to see documentation of Becoming Dragon, life size, 
up close and personal, come to Open Studios at UCSD 
[] next Saturday, April 4th!

      My Gender Is Bunny

By Ernie Grimm <> | 
Published Wednesday, March 25, 2009

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 

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 

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 

Author’s note: Micha Cárdenas asked that feminine pronouns be used in 
this story. With respect, the author declined.

my blog:

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