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Photo: Tracy Cornish
Becoming Transreal
Photo: Tracy Cornish

Becoming Transreal: A Bio-Digital Performance by Micha Cárdenas and Elle Mehrmand

Becoming Transreal: A Bio-Digital Performance. Performed by Micha Cárdenas and Elle Mehrmand. UCLA Freud Playhouse, Los Angeles, California, USA. 3 November 2010.

Photo: Tracy Cornish
Becoming Transreal: A Bio-Digital Performance

Photo: Tracy Cornish

On November 3, 2010, UCLA’s Freud Theatre was transformed into a new type of performance and audience space for Becoming Transreal: A Bio-Digital Performance. The theatre had become a techno-site equipped with a projection screen, a synthesizer, a stereoscopic head-mounted device, multiple laptops, and a projector. As motion capture cameras blipped LED lights, pulsing confirmations of their ability to transform heat into data, roughly sixteen avatars were viewed on the screen, playing upon a sandy clearing in the virtual world of Second Life. Their backs to the audience, the avatars watched a screen of their own that reflected images of the live stage of the Freud Playhouse. This prismatic screen-within-a-screen effect—a destabilization of presence and self produced by the audience member’s realization that s/he is watching a Second Life audience, who are watching the theatre audience . . . who are watching Second Life—marks but one of several epistemological fractures the performance offered in terms of liveness, “real” bodies, and their intersections. The 3-D glasses issued to the audience further enriched the screen’s live images, bridging the chasm between two seemingly disparate domains of live/d “realness”—that which happened onstage and that which occurred in Second Life—thus marking performance artist Micha Cárdenas as a subject of in-betweenness from the outset.

Wearing a black bikini that revealed the transgendered male-to-female status of her body and a vertical tattoo that read liberación (liberation) across nearly half of it, Cárdenas entered the stage, wearing a virtual reality headset. Liberación underscores both Cárdenas’ “presence” and “absence” and reiterates, as both a trope and a corporeal reminder, much of the performance’s body-oriented tactics as memoir-manifestos of change. The headset obscured her eyes from the view of the “live” audience as she looked into the realities of Second Life. The performer’s countenance and gaze—the traditional interface between an audience and a performing subject—became thus inaccessible. Where exactly was Cárdenas? What was the status of her body? How might such an apparently split subject be tracked in performance?

Photo: Tracy Cornish
Becoming Transreal: A Bio-Digital Performance

Photo: Tracy Cornish

Cárdenas and her collaborator Elle Mehrmand only exacerbated these queries, dismantling the idea of realness—the “real” assigned to bodies, sexes, spaces, and borders—throughout the former’s forty minute-long monologue. While figuring predominantly as the unfixable and unfixed subject of a dual reality performance, Cárdenas reassured the audience of her very corporeal presence through poetic extracts: “I look at the mirror and I notice the curve in my breast for the first time.” Continuing with similar accounts of sometimes painful, but celebrated corporeal transfers incurred through female hormone therapy, Cárdenas weaved phenomenological accounts of the body of the in-between subject through references as disparate as deconstructive theories of identity and biomedicine as well as parallels to her schizophrenic mother. Challenged by cancer and possible dementia, the body of the mother was posited, like Cárdenas’ own, as transfigured through nano-biotechnologies, and also as becoming transreal. Cárdenas’ in-between body was most poignantly articulated when placed in dialogue with memories of transition—of a Fourth of July party where gender identification and sexual orientation figured divisively and disconcertingly, and of anxieties of perceived gender “discrepancy” if Mexican authorities in the Distrito Federal noted too closely the “male” gender designation in her passport.

Downstage, the realness of transfer/ence was staged through a quieter, more visceral technique, as Mehrmand placed and then activated suction cups on Cárdenas’ fully exposed breasts, as the latter continued her meditations on becoming. The first of these sequences, narrativized by Cárdenas as a way to “subvert my body of the drugs’ (female hormone) delivery . . . to milk myself of the drugs my body’s producing,” gave way to later ones that betrayed subtexts of pleasure and desire. Thus even as the suction routine revealed the biological body, highlighting its nodal relations to the social, it was underscored too by very “real” moments of erotic pleasure and pain.

Photo: Tracy Cornish
Becoming Transreal: A Bio-Digital Performance

Photo: Tracy Cornish

Becoming Transreal effectively produced a spectacle of excess—excess of memory, for instance, as well as surplus of images onstage and onscreen—in order to unhinge the “real.” The effects of this displacement via performance overload are the burgeoning dimensions of transreality, a product of the performers’ excessive reiteration of multiple types of transference—from body talk to tech chatter, from the performance of sex-as-becoming to the revealing of a momentary absence of gender, and through multiple transmissions of live presence/s between the realities onstage and those of Second Life. Subsequently, the pervasive presence of liberation, as it marks Cárdenas’ body, and as it was summoned ideologically in monologues, further framed the transreal as a corpo-digital fissure marking freedom. As Cárdenas became the transreal subject, she moved between the corporeal “real” and the “real” of the virtual, somehow less tethered by the burden of gender, sex, and flesh; exposing, at the same time, new epistemologies in the performance of self.


Corbin Zara begins his third year as a PhD student with UCLA’s Department of Theatre and Critical Studies. He holds an M.A. in Theatre, and is the recipient of multiple Backstage West Critics’ List Mentions (2003 and 2004), a KPBS Outstanding Male Performance of the Year Award (2003), a Playbill Outstanding Male Performance of the Year Award (2002), as well as recipient of the Jules Irving and Marion Ross Scholarships for theatre. Currently, he is researching the gendered, technologized, and cultural dimensions of motorcycling in/as performance.

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