Faculty Feature

micha cárdenas – Bulletproof art, technology, and social justice

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photo of micha cardenasmicha cárdenas joined IAS in 2015 as an assistant professor. cárdenas has a Ph.D. Media Arts + Practice from the University of Southern California, an MFA in Visual Arts from UC San Diego, a master’s in Communication from European Graduate School in Switzerland, and a bachelor’s in Computer Science from Florida International University. “I feel very fortunate to have found IAS, because it really is very interdisciplinary, and that’s how I work,” says cárdenas.

cárdenas describes herself as an “artist/theorist.” This summer, we sat down to talk with her to find out how that description plays out in cárdenas’s teaching, research, and creative practice.

How would you characterize your teaching?

Most of my work – teaching and research – deals with the intersection of technology and social justice. In terms of Interactive Media Design, that can look like design-as-research or research-in-design. It can also be teaching gender studies, critical race theory, and queer theory so that students can use those as design parameters and as methods for analyzing design and technology. It’s a lot of thinking about how technology is co-constituted with social formations – how technology shapes race, class, gender, ability, and nationality, but also how those formations shape technology.

My approach to teaching is very interdisciplinary. For example, in my Intro to Interaction Design class, students read gender theory, queer theory, and trans-gender studies. They then learn to write code in JavaScript, while applying those theories to how they write the code and to the way they design. Or in my Intro to Interactive Media class I introduce students to code poetry. They look at the work of Mez Breeze, an artist who writes code that is not necessarily functional, but uses the syntax of code to write poems.

What does this look like in your research?

In March 2016, I started a lab space on campus, called the Poetic Operations Collaborative, to unify the different projects I’m working on, and to have a space in which to work with students on research. The focus of the lab is applying technology to social justice, creating technologies for social justice, and using design research or arts-based research to address social justice issues. My undergraduate research assistants Lund By, Kate Sohng, Emma Waverly and graduate research assistant Josefina Garcia-Turner have done fantastic work on Unstoppable and #stronger.

Currently I have two main projects going. The first, Unstoppable, is a project to find methods to help people create do-it-yourself bulletproof clothing. The second is called #stronger, which is about developing technologies to promote fitness for people that don’t fit into gender binaries – people for whom the existing fitness technologies are very alienating.

What motivated you to work on creating DIY bulletproof clothing?

kevlar dressI began Unstoppable last summer in collaboration with a few other artists, including Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Edxie Betts, Los Angeles based artist/activist, and Chris Head, San Diego based artist, as a reaction to the ongoing murders of black people and trans people. Almost every day someone is murdered for being black or being trans in this country and around the world. So I really felt a sense of urgency to do something about it.

For a number of years my research has focused on using art to work for safety for different marginalized groups. My first experience trying to create safety through art was during my MFA at UC San Diego, where I collaborated with the Electronic Disturbance Theater on a project called the Transborder Immigrant Tool, which is a cell phone app to help migrants find water in the desert, since the number one cause of death for migrants is dehydration. Then my dissertation project was about creating clothing and accessories that are mesh networked [a wireless network in which all points on the network send and receive data] to create safety networks for trans people of color. Basically, the clothing or accessory has a transmitter that can send a distress call to any other device on the network, alerting the wearer that you need help. My dissertation uses a practice-based research approach, theorizing Autonets alongside other projects by myself and other artists and designers.

Last summer I met with Patrisse Cullors at the Allied Media Conference. She told me she was really inspired by Autonets, and that she would like to collaborate with me. At the time, she was releasing a line of clothing called Bulletproof that consisted of t-shirts and hoodies that had “Bulletproof #BlackLivesMatter” written across the front. I suggested that we actually make the clothing bulletproof, and Unstoppable was born. My hope is to distribute this information to people. So far I’ve been showing the results of this work in art and academic venues, and I maintain a research blog on the Unstoppable page.

bullet stopped in testing for unstoppable

How does fitness technology fit in with the safety concerns that motivate Autonets and Unstoppable?

Part of why I talk about myself as an artist/theorist is because my work has one long trajectory of ongoing experimentation. A lot of the feedback I got from the communities I was working with on the Autonets project was that the gear was just too expensive. People said to me in community-based design workshops: mesh networking is cool, but it means a $100 hoodie, and we can't afford that. So when I started working on Unstoppable, I set out to work on a zero cost (DIY) solution. But still, a lot of the feedback I’ve gotten about Unstoppable questions whether I’m only addressing the symptoms of violence, and not the causes – a Band-Aid approach. I’m not saying I agree with this perspective on the Unstoppable project, but it did get me thinking about ways in which people who are regularly targeted by violence can actually feel safer on a day-to-day basis.

It’s true that violence happens, but in between moments of violence there’s also the daily fear of violence that people experience. And I have found for myself that focusing on health, fitness, and strength made a big difference for me in feeling safer on a daily basis.

So in the POClab we began interviewing other trans people and doctors to talk about how focusing on health and fitness can help people actually feel and be safer. One of the things I found was that a lot of the fitness environment and the products designed for it are very gendered, designed for “masculine” men and “skinny” women. One of the forms #stronger is taking, then, is a prototype of what a fitness app would look like if it was designed for people who are gender non-conforming, so that trans people can feel comfortable in the quest to become stronger and feel safer.

#stronger prototypeFor example, fitness apps typically begin by asking you if you’re male or female and set your calorie goals and workout goals by that. The Apple watch tries to be better by asking if you’re male, female, or other – but I think that’s actually worse, since they’re literally othering (or marginalizing) people who are non-binary. So one design element we’ve added to this fitness app would be to have the option to ask you what your gender is every day, as many people's feelings about gender transition from day to day. Also for the app I want to use an expansive concept of gender that can also include race and ability, because I don’t think of those as separate from gender.

In the same spirit as Autonets, another feature is to find friends nearby who are also working out, so that trans people can both be and feel safer working out in public. A major part of my fitness journey was even finding the courage to work out in a gym. When I was a kid, gyms were places where I used to get beat up. Gyms were places of terror and violence.  It wasn’t until I had another friend who was also queer and trans who brought me along to his gym that I was able to start going.

Another theme you mention in all your projects is performance. How does that fit in to creating apps or clothing for safety?

I use performance as a research methodology. For me that comes from feminist scholarship and women of color feminism combined with a performance studies approach. I want to be doing the things I’m writing about; and I want to be writing about things that I’ve done. So as part of the Stronger project I’ve been doing CrossFit, which gives me the first-hand knowledge to add detail to the app design.

Where do you see your research and creative practices going from here?

I want to keep focusing on social justice and marginalized communities. For a long long time, women and people of color were not allowed to imagine the future. But now we have that opportunity. So I want to keep this lab space, the Poetic Operations Collaborative, open. Having a lab like this has been a major life goal for me, having worked with other artists, like Ricardo Dominguez, in their labs. There’s a long history of artists being innovative, coming up with new technologies thirty years before they’re appropriated by corporations who turn them into marketable products. I just want to keep doing that – creating the future in order to try and create a better future.