lotu5 on Mon, 22 Dec 2008 12:31:51 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Online-world immersion probes 'possibilities of transformation'

Original post, with images at:

Read the blogging of Becoming Dragon, which concluded its current phase 
on December 17th, at http://secondloop.wordpress.com

I'm happy to say that this story was on the front page of the San Diego 
Union-Tribune today, the largest San Diego newspaper. I would make a few 
corrections, one being that my name in world is Azdel Slade, another 
being that I didn't say "gender, identity and trends" but "gender, 
identity and transition". Also, another important correction is that the 
author says "stereoscopic goggles", but I did nt use the goggles in 
stereoscopic mode. We were unable to get our stereo code working in the 
hmd. Still, a good article nevertheless, I think. Also, most offensive 
is that he starts the story off saying I'm a man taking hormones to 
become a woman, so apparently he missed the main point of thinking about 
subjects in permanent transition, being something else, not on a 
trajectory towards woman, but perhaps it is a concession to his audience.

Also, CalIT^2 posted a decent video on YouTube:


Online-world immersion probes 'possibilities of transformation'
Immersion conversion
By Scott LaFee, staff writer

2:00 a.m. December 21, 2008

Micha Cardenas is a 31-year-old man taking hormones to become a woman. 
So, it's not surprising perhaps that Cardenas views the boundaries of 
gender as being somewhat fluid and has questions about what it means to 
be male and/or female.

But what if the question isn't merely gender identity, but an issue of 
species? What if one felt wrongly trapped inside their human body, 
preferring instead to be a cat? Or a lizard? Or some sort of unknown 
alien life form?

"People are now undergoing all sorts of extreme body modifications," 
said Cardenas, a visual arts student at UC San Diego. "They're getting 
scales tattooed all over their bodies, horns implanted on their heads, 
tongues forked. It seems crazy right now, but I wonder how far we are 
from actually being able to change species. And if we could, what would 
that be like?"

To find out, Cardenas recently spent 365 consecutive hours in Second 
Life, an Internet-based, three-dimensional virtual world where human 
users assume digitized alter egos called avatars of any gender or 
species, real and unreal.

The experience would be part academic requirement (it's her final 
project for a master's degree in visual arts), part social experiment 
and part performance art. It would be an artful investigation of "the 
possibilities of transformation offered by contemporary technology," 
Cardenas explained. The principal investigator would be her avatar: a 
dragon named Azdel Slate.

Immersion conversion Cardenas sits in a chair in a darkened room: 
Visiting Artist Lab 1613 in Atkinson Hall at UCSD's Center for Research 
and Computing in the Arts, part of the California Institute for 
Telecommunications and Information Technology or Calit2. It took more 
than a year of hard work and planning to get here.

"I had very early contact with Micha, even before she was accepted in 
the visual arts department at UCSD," said Ricardo Dominguez, an 
assistant professor and Cardenas' lead adviser. "We had a great many 
discussions about how her history in computer science, activism and 
sexual re-orientation could become core themes in the development of 
(her) artwork."

Surrounding Cardenas, dressed comfortably in a black tank top, black 
shorts and black slippers, are mounds of expensive computers, processors 
and other high-tech equipment, including eight motion-capture cameras 
that will transfer her movements within the lab onto two giant screens, 
one depicting Second Life, the other a virtual re-creation of the lab 

Cardenas' plan is to physically remain within the lab (with restroom 
breaks down the hall) for slightly more than 15 days. Friends and 
supporters will bring in food. Cardenas will sleep on a hauled-in 
mattress. Every waking moment will be spent hooked into Second Life, via 
stereoscopic goggles that obscure almost all of Cardenas' view of the 
real world.

"Most Second Life users just sit at a computer for a few hours at a 
time," says Cardenas. "This is near-total immersion."

But there are risks. The goggles can cause nausea or dizziness if worn 
for too long. (She has been building up a tolerance for them.) 
Confinement might induce a kind of temporary claustrophobic psychosis. 
Cardenas is being advised by a UCSD-affiliated psychiatrist.

But the art is worth the risk, Cardenas says. As Azdel Slate (the name 
and the dragon-avatar, which is a deep magenta color with blue chest 
scales, spiky wings and glowing horns, were chosen because they're 
gender-neutral), Cardenas will be able to investigate what it means to 
be free of virtually all biological, technical and social constraints.

"The realm of the Post-Human may not reside in the realm of bodies and 
machines, but in the realm of autonomous, intelligent entities sustained 
in electronic media," said Stelarc, a 62-year-old Australian performance 
artist who is one of Cardenas' inspirations and collaborators.

"Perhaps we need not conceptualize RL (real life) and SL (Second Life) 
as separate and opposing realms. SL is a second skin. SL extends our 
bodily boundaries. Virtual experiences are RL experiences. Micha's 
extended period of immersion in SL enhances RL and actualizes SL as an 
alternate operational system, one that allows us to perform beyond the 
boundaries of our skin and beyond the local space that we inhabit."

Login: 112 hours It's been 4½ days since Cardenas began the project, 
which debuted with her reading original poetry to audiences in the lab 
and online. Cardenas enjoys lots of support, collaborating with 
artist-friends like Christopher Head, Ben Lotan, Kael Greco, Anna 
Storelli and Elle Mehrmand. She has technical assistance almost 24/7. 
Still, problems soon emerge and persist: Computer systems have crashed, 
equipment isn't working quite right. The motion-capture cameras refuse 
to remain calibrated to sensors on Cardenas' headgear. The headgear 
itself presses hard on Cardenas' nose and forehead, making them sore.

"I'm getting used to it. The bigger hassle are these wires," she says, 
tugging at a waistband box into which numerous wires feed -- a twisting, 
knotted umbilical cord that connects Cardenas to her computers and 
virtual worlds.

But if the real world is being problematic, the online version is a 
glorious, albeit surreal, revelation. Cardenas says she's meeting dozens 
of new avatars every day, many with common interests.

"I knew that there was a big transgender community in Second Life 
because you can be anybody you want here. I'm surprised, though, by how 
people don't want to be human."

This from Cardenas' blog (secondloop.wordpress.com): "So while I've been 
thinking and talking about species-change surgery and my own feeling 
that I'm 'something else,' I finally met a whole community of people who 
feel that they are truly, earnestly, painfully other than human. They're 
foxes, dragons, cats.

"One of them told me that they identify as transgender IRL (in real 
life) and that they were on hormones, but that they can no longer afford 
them as they're just looking for work now. But, they said, why bother, 
(the hormones) still aren't fulfilling. What they really want is to be a 

Login: 208 hours The project is taking a toll. Cardenas isn't getting 
much sleep or eating very well. On Day 6, she forgot to eat or drink for 
12 hours. It's hard to concentrate. The goggles are trashing her vision. 
When she takes them off to sleep at night, it's hard to focus on distant 
objects. The condition, she's told, should be temporary.

The hardware is taking a beating, too. Her video cable has been replaced 
twice, though Cardenas says she's adjusted to the trailing wires: "I 
think of them as my tail."

The more time she spends in Second Life, the more she becomes convinced 
that the virtual world is not merely a fantasy land for its millions of 
"residents," an estimated 65,000 of whom are online at any moment.

"I was worried in the beginning that avatars were just pretend-playing, 
but now I think Second Life speaks directly to issues of gender, 
identity and trends."

Cardenas says she's chatted with myriad fellow creatures -- "robots and 
furries," she calls them -- in a reality where identity is what you make 
it and no one passes judgment except to say, "That's cool."

"I talked for a while to a furry little fox with a wrist computer who 
told me that she lives in the South in the U.S. and that she doesn't 
have access to hormones or know any other trans-people in real life. She 
says Second Life and the Internet are the only places she can talk to 
other trans-people," Cardenas posted to her blog.

"One had an avatar of a little girl. I asked her later, while we were 
walking through the Chakryn forest, if she really is a little girl. She 
told me no. She's an adult woman, but people treat her better in SL as a 
child, that she likes that people take her less seriously with this avatar.

"She told me that she has another avatar that looks just like her real 
self and sometimes she interacts with the same people with different 
avatars. People treat her much better as a little girl. It struck me as 
one of the most profound moments of avatar exploration that I had heard 
of yet."

Login 329 hours There are roughly 36 hours left in the experiment. 
Equipment malfunctions are still plentiful. "I suppose one of the things 
I've learned is that motion-capture cameras only work for a couple of 
hours at a time," Cardenas says, laughing.

But the bigger surprise is how well Cardenas says she's adapted to 
living almost entirely in a virtual world. Reality and unreality 
occasionally blur. Online interactions feel as immediate as those in the 

This is a revelation since one of Cardenas' project goals is answering 
the question of whether the requirement that transgender people spend 
one year living as the opposite sex before gender reassignment surgery 
could be supplanted with living for a year in a virtual world.

(Cardenas also wondered if, at some point in the future, living as a 
virtual dragon might meet requirements to become an actual dragon.)

The answer, though, isn't quite so clear-cut. "The real life requirement 
is about dealing with the hardships, rejections and bias that 
transgender people experience." In Second Life, Cardenas says social 
mores tend to be more tolerant: Everybody can be anybody.

Such discussions, though, are grist for future projects. In the wee 
hours of a Tuesday morning, after hosting a virtual celebration in a 
virtual party room floating above virtual clouds, Cardenas quietly ends 
his Second Life as a dragon and goes home to take a real shower.


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blog: http://bang.calit2.net/tts

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