Two years ago I did a TEDx talk at TEDx Del Mar, and for unknown reasons, the event organizer refuses to publicly release the video of the talk, despite the fact that I have contacted them every month and repeatedly contacted the TED organization. I’ve probably sent over a hundred emails at this point just putting in time and energy to get this video made public, not because I think the talk is so great, but out of the injustice of doing months of work to perfect a TED talk and having it never shown publicly. I don’t know if its because this is one of the few, I think the first in the US, TEDx talk to feature a trans woman. I’m really not sure. As this was two years ago and I was just beginning to learn about disability justice, I regret that I used the problematic phrasing “differently abled people” instead of disabled people. I also concluded by saying that we should “learn from” trans and disabled people instead of saying “take leadership from”. I would change those things today. If you think that people should see this video, you can contact TEDx here to ask that they release my video: email@example.com . Here is the email address of the event organizer: firstname.lastname@example.org Michael Eddy, a patent lawyer who is holding the video of the talk that I put months of work into. The text of my talk is below. Thank you.
The Transreal: Our Networked Bodies
4 parts, 4 minutes each
I’m Micha Cárdenas and I’m an artist/theorist. I create technologies as art and then write about their social and philosophical implications. This is a photo of my mom and me. My mom is getting older. She has schizophrenia, and that’s how I started as an artist, writing my first play to deal with what was happening to her. She’s in her seventies now, and I found out this week that she’ll have to switch from a walker to a wheelchair. Something her and I have in common is that we both take prescription drugs everyday, because I’ve chosen to take prescribed hormones. We’ve also both been diagnosed with mental illness, because in the US wanting to be another gender is still considered a mental disorder. I recently visited her for the first time in a long time. We could say “after” my transition. I was so worried what she would say, this conservative woman who grew up in the fifties wearing poodle skirts. She is so ill after her breast cancer treatment that I wondered whether or not she would even recognize me. But I’ll come back to that story later.
My question for you today is: when we think about the future of technology, about transhumanism, posthumanism or augmented bodies, why do we think about contact lenses with computer displays, and not think of wheelchairs, lipstick and prescribed hormones? Why is one the image of the future, and the other the image of marginalization?
Philosophers from the beginning of western thought have speculated on the meaning of the body. More recently, the essay by feminist philosopher Donna Haraway “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” argues that the barrier between humans and machines has thoroughly broken down. She claims that by the late twentieth century, we are all cyborgs. But this essay was first published in 1985, long before pocket sized cell phones became a widely accessible technology. In The Telephone Book, Avital Ronell details the history of the telephone. People were terrified of it because they thought the invention was a haunted device that could bring the voices of spirits from far away. Today we take for granted that we can know when our loved ones want to contact us by feeling a slight vibration against our legs.
As a transgender woman, I am deeply invested in learning about the ways in which technology is changing our bodies and therefore our minds, identities, genders and sexualities, and our possibilities for happiness. I use performance art to explore the political, ethical, aesthetic meaning of networked bodies.
2. Becoming Dragon
In Becoming Dragon, I lived in virtual space and physical space continuously for 365 hours. For this project, I used a motion capture system with custom software that I developed with the artists Chris Head and Kael Greco to control a dragon avatar in Second Life with my physical motion. I also wore a head mounted display so that all I could see was the virtual environment. According to my research, the performance was the longest known immersion in a mixed reality environment.
I did the performance to question the legal/medical/psychiatric limits that transgender people face when attempting to modify their bodies, and to consider how emerging technologies are transforming our conceptions of identity.
I chose a dragon avatar because I wanted to think about how we can go beyond the way that language restricts us to male or female by using virtual worlds and motion capture to create new forms of embodiment. Also because in the mythology, dragons are shapeshifters and as I was starting hormones at the time, I identify as a shapeshifter, and because I wanted to find, and often encountered, the limits of what people considered acceptable in virtual worlds, beyond human forms. The project began by thinking of gender as an expressive texture that could be used in art, in which each person can create his or her own unique gender.
Risk, in many forms, has historically been central to performance art.In my research for this project, many people told me it was impossible. An expert in the field of HMD usage for augmented reality said in an email to me: “Using an HMD for more than a couple of hours… can result in brain damage.” Still, I continued my research and I could not find a study of HMD usage longer than a few hours. Sandy Stone, a new media artist and philosopher, told me in an email that the concerns about brain damage are just rumors, unsubstantiated by any real evidence. So, I proceeded. I also consulted with a doctor and a psychologist. Medical doctors who advise Calit2 also warned me of the danger of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Psychosis, which is a temporary sense of disorientation that patients in ICUs suffer as a result of being in unfamiliar, stressful circumstances for extended periods.
The support network for the performance was critical to its success. My collaborators came to the performance space 3 times a day to help calibrate the motion capture system, bring me food and check on my status.
A significant outcome of the performance, is that yes, extended living inside of a mixed reality environment is possible. My performance was 365 hours, 15.2 days, yet I feel that I could’ve stayed longer. After 5 days my symptoms of discomfort began to lessen. After the performance was over, my physical recovery was quick. After a week I felt that all symptoms from the performance had subsided.
People often ask if I feel that the experiment was a success, if we can replace virtual life experience with real life experience for psychological evaluations. I tell them that the main limitation I experienced for that kind of thinking occurred once the performance was over. As soon as I left the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts, my friend and I were driving home from the performance. On the way home, a police car began driving behind us on the highway. At that moment, I experienced the fear I feel every time I am approached by police, the fear that we would be pulled over because her car is not very new or we were driving too fast, and that the officer would see what I was wearing, decide I was transgender, and on that basis, decide to arrest me or hit me or worse, which is a common experience for transgender people. I realized then the primary limitation of my mixed reality experiment was the complete lack of physical danger. As a woman, as a queer person and as a transgender person living in the United States, I have to be aware of and concerned for my physical safety every day.
3. Local Autonomy Networks
My current work is inspired by a drive to create networks of communication to increase community autonomy and reduce violence against women, LGBTQI people, people of color and other groups who continue to survive violence on a daily basis.
Wearable electronics are a new form of electronics that are enabled by threads and fabrics which have conductive material woven into them.
The approach I am starting with will use the Lilypad Arduino and Xbee wireless transmitters, led lights and EL Wire to be able to send direction and distance information.
Autonets considers the potential uses of wearable electronics to create networks of communication based on mesh networking that do not rely on the internet to function. The first iteration was presented at the Queerture fashion show at UCLA. Later generations were shown at the Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. This performance included the development of technologies including wearable electronics, community building methods, theory and poetry.
I envision a wide range of possible uses for Autonets. For example, a group of sex workers collectively organize to protect each other from violence. A group of bicyclists want to flock together for a group ride. A group of women, transgender and cisgender, agree to let each other know when they are walking home and when they’ve arrived home safely. All of these communities can benefit from Autonets, remapping urban environments. ***
In economic and ecological crises, large scale communications networks often fail and locally based, mesh networked solutions become life saving technologies. My current work seeks to develop wearable approaches to mesh networking. Mesh networking is bottom up instead of top down, not depending on telephone company infrastructure, each garment in the network relays messages to other surrounding garments.
The point is to change the dialog about these forms of violence so that they are no longer seen as an individual problem to be solved on an individual basis, but as social problems to be dealt with collectively.
I my recent book, The Transreal, I began to think about how our bodies and identities are distributed across communications technologies, our faces are being served to people by computers on Facebook and we send our thoughts out on twitter for people around the world to respond to in real time. Now that augmented, mixed, and alternate realities are being used in art, games, advertising, entertainment, they are increasingly part of our everyday lives. Our bodies are no longer limited by our skin and our physical potential, but are increasingly part of networked ecologies and multiple realities. I have described our new condition of identites that extend across realitles as Transreal, starting with the experience of crossing genders and thinking about how we are crossing realities. Much of my art work has involved mixed reality, augmented reality and alternate reality practices.
When I recently visited my mom, as I said, I was so worried about what she would say, her first time seeing me in a dress, this dress in fact. As I walked into her room, she said, simply, “you look beautiful”. In that moment, we began a new relationship together, as women who have a lot in common, as two people who have been deemed mentally ill by medicine, but as people who need to take care of each other.
As our bodies continue to be transformed by technology, my work urges us to consider the social marginalization of populations based on the categorization of bodies in order to not replicate these patterns, but to imagine new possibilities for human freedom and autonomy enabled by body extension technologies that are at the center of the transhumanist imagination. If we want to learn about going beyond the body, we should ask transgender people, who are permanently biologically modified, or mentally ill people who have a totally different cognitive experience or differently abled people who live with technological extensions every day, so that we don’t extend and worsen social inequality with new technologies but instead work towards a world in which people who are currently marginalized and oppressed based on their bodies can be valued and safe.