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The Scarlet & Black

Algorithms and activism


Micha Cárdenas, assistant professor of interdisciplinary arts and sciences and interactive media design at the University of Washington Bothell, came to Grinnell this past week to discuss the intersection of art, activism and technology, with a primary focus on transgender activism.

At the beginning of her talk on Tuesday, Cárdenas stated that she wanted to start with an experiment in post-apocalyptic democracy and posed a question to the audience.

“Your planet is dying. Do you stay and help, or go to the ice planet?” she asked. After the audience collectively made the decision to stay and help, a volunteer went up to the computer and clicked on that option, which then brought up a poem Cárdenas wrote.

This game, which provided a series of options that led into a new set of choices, is called “Redshift and Portalmetal” and was created by Cárdenas. It simulates an end-of-world situation to probe players to consider questions they would not otherwise think about. As for her areas of study in particular, Cárdenas spoke about how art and activism have always been intertwined.

“The new-fangled thing is to think why we would ever separate art and activism, or art and healing or art and society,” Cárdenas said.

Surprisingly enough, Cárdenas states that most of today’s games are offensive and she would not play them. However, she said that, “games are a powerful medium for creating art,” and in turn, a good platform for activism.

One project in particular that brought together digital studies and transgender studies was “Becoming Dragon,” where Cárdenas spent 365 hours in a simulation as a dragon to mimic the process transgender people go through, who have to live full time in their preferred gender role for one year before they can begin medically transitioning. This project dealt with transgender realities, questioning and challenging the system that is currently in place for transgender people.

Cárdenas said she began coding when she was in fourth grade and described how she has always thought in algorithms. These algorithms have been essential in helping Cárdenas to put her ideas into action. One such idea was to create a line of clothing with a device that could send signals to other people in the support network who could help in situations of possible violence.
Currently, Cárdenas is working on a game called “Sin Lluvia,” and she is collaborating with native Inuit people in Alaska about climate change.

Cárdenas pushes for social change through art and technology on a wide range of topics. She employs a tactic of crafting early and crafting often, stressing that she does not have all the answers. However, Cárdenas explained how to start — we all simply “must be willing to change things.”

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