On micha cárdenas’s Redshift and Portalmetal
What is the color of
spatial infinity? It is the color of air.
In micha cárdenas’s Redshift and Portalmetal, the color of spatial infinity is red. In this interactive online game, the viewer/player becomes active through a complex navigational interface. Redshift is all text and moving image, woven together in order to tell the story of Roja, its main character/avatar. The game is composed of poetry and prose, vignettes of filmed performances by cárdenas as the character Roja, and digital photography of various landscapes, also shot by cárdenas. The text is instructional and helps the player navigate the game while simultaneously providing a narrative voice. Redshift is designed to involve the viewer in the telling of its story and hence the viewer/audience becomes the player. At times we see cárdenas, as Roja, in the middle of these spaces, looking right into the camera, returning our gaze. When I play the game, Roja is activated by me—the player, the viewer, the audience—and I get to choose which journey, which story, which planet she will engage next. That’s how the game is played: the multilayered story of Roja is written by cárdenas, but as players, and as audience, we get to participate in that telling. As Roja gazes back at me, I realize she makes me aware of how I am being activated, and how I in turn activate the game, initiate the play.
The intertextual play between the personal and political, poetry and narrative storytelling, digital media art and instruction is made palpable through encounters: encounters that attune to an experiential quest into outer space. To be and become on an otherworldly planet is to be and become in futurity. What we know to be on this Earth—environmental disasters, hyper surveillance, criminalization of migration, extreme weather patterns, perpetual war and colonial violence—can also be otherworldly forces that take place on other planets. As audience, viewers, and players we are able to activate our own thinking around agency, perceive our own power, determine our own positioning when it comes to decision-making within the game, which is contextualized by the reality of global violence in its many forms. Questions arise: which planet do we want to be on? How do we get there? What needs to get done before we embark on this journey? Who do we tell? What are we leaving behind? Most importantly: what is the struggle? cárdenas gently reminds us that re-imagining our movements through interactive digital planes can inspire us to re-imagine our movements here on Earth. The potential of possibility for new forms of solidarity, new modes of healing, and new paths toward self-care emerge. Images, moving or still, and poetic vignettes inform how the avatar, Roja, travels through the game: maybe to the red “planet with no rain,” or to the white grey-blue of “the ice planet,” or to the “ocean moon.” But, as Lispector beautifully writes, air is integral to either colour (or planet)—the sensation of time travel is felt, composed, narrated, and framed through an urgency named climate change. Roja decides on the chance encounter: where do we want to be, and what do we want to do? Soon we realize she is faced with limitations that remind us of our own planet that is dying, of our inability to move across borders with ease, of not being able to run or to hide, but feeling compelled to stay and help, and to contend with what it means to be and become in the violence that makes this planet ill. In this way, Redshift engages our positioning. Roja is a settler on this land. Redshift constitutes the spatial infinity of a decolonial imaginary.
I click on “Start.” The first interface/encounter:
"Your planet is dying"
I don’t want to stay and help. Not here; I am tired. This is my opportunity to take flight, start anew, and move to where I may find rest. I want to be on another planet, where a new home awaits, one that doesn’t require my help. I click “Go to ice planet,” hoping it’s not as cold as it sounds. Assuming it was an escape route and excited to see what an ice planet is, I find myself at a checkpoint, face-to-face with an Interplanetary Border Guard. I click “run,” instead of “wait quietly and hope.” In games, risks like these are actualized. The next phase of the game tells me that I am not able to run: “As if running would ever get you past their sensor networks. As if running would help you live the life you want on this planet. It won’t. You know you can’t. That is not your struggle, not now.” Disappointed, I click on the only option, “hold on.” I realize at this point into the game that I am not playing me; I am playing Roja, I am following her story, how she moves around, where she wants to go, what she is thinking, how she is feeling, who she wants to be. I follow her experiences, struggles, and desires as they unfold on these planets that are opposites in colour, texture, movement, and sound. As I navigate through the game I know this is Roja’s narrative, not mine. I get to move her, choose the way, but in moving and deciding I also get to learn, to see, to listen to her story.
Redshift is both an interactive online game and a live performance. The live performance positions the audience into “a post-apocalyptic collectivity,” as cárdenas describes.  In a conversation with me over the phone, she says, “the audience has to decide which path to take through the story.” Redshift foregrounds audience participation in order to activate their position: “they’re not just passive viewers.” They have a stake in how the story is told. Similarly, in the online game, with each poem, dance, or video encountered throughout, a story reveals itself as we navigate the different terrains, the planets of specified climate—hot or cold, dry or wet. “Do I want to settle on this planet? Or do I want to leave?” For cárdenas, these inquiries shape the process.
At the ice planet, me/Roja is waiting for the guard to come back. He appears again and we’re able to “go ahead.” Here a poem explains a people’s migration or exile to another land, to this ice planet, a place they settled. So much was left behind, like “the skies we loved with our eyes.” Here, our only choice is to click on “eyes.”
Roja’s story is driven by gestures of solidarity, expressed through language, communication, and storytelling. As cárdenas insists, “the person in the story works for decolonization.” As a settler/audience member, I am reminded that I am a guest here on this land—both in the game and in reality, as I play this in Montreal, on Mohawk territory. For cárdenas, Redshift raises fundamental questions that inform our lived experience as settlers, that challenge our practice (whatever it is), and that help realize healing initiatives: “what does decolonization mean? How do we practice solidarity as part of our collective struggle, and in how we produce and develop our work for decolonization?” In cárdenas’s interactive game, decolonization is not separate from issues concerning climate change. The planets in Redshift are sick and in Roja’s story this is a result of colonial violence: how does this take effect on the planet that we choose to live on?
Roja/I chose Ice. Here another poem explains the circumstance. An excerpt:
It only took a few
the colonizers’ civilizations
the order that had ravaged and endangered the planet
was destabilized, attacked, shrank, fell,
and the majority…
began to organize the planet again,
in their own fractal, local ways,
connecting across translocalities with respect and love,
in a time of fragility,
and the closeness of death.
In order to feel a sense of linearity between poems, in how they construct a narrative, I/Roja choose “Living on the Ice Planet.”
The first line of this poem: “Space is cold, dark.” Here, for the first time we get a glimpse into Roja’s personal life. She is an immigrant/settler from somewhere else. Recognizing her home planet on a screen, she realizes its ecosystem is almost extinct: “We have no home to return to, intergalactic diaspora.” Ice planet is bright, in shades of grey-white-blue, covered in snow and ice, cold, vast. As dire as the landscape seems, Roja finds comfort in the idea of building a home. As she sits in the arms of a loved one she dreams: “We need to build homes where we go, to carry them with us, and in us.” The next movement in the story offers only this: “Yet You Build A Family Here.”
On the phone with cárdenas, she recalls the concept behind Redshift, “I wanted to sit and write about my story. I wanted to write about survival strategies, and turn them into movement. I wanted this project to be more personal. But I was also cautious in how I went about sharing life experiences with an audience because artwork by Trans people is often seen in a voyeuristic way. And so I used science fiction as a lens to shift the way people perceive the story.”
“How so, or in what way?” I ask.
cárdenas: “I didn’t want Redshift and Portalmetal to be about my daily life and experience, or reduce the story to that. I didn’t want to condition a voyeuristic approach to the game. So I used time travel, and interactive digital technologies to write about personal experience. Science fiction became a way to write through healing and that’s why I wrote in the third person, in order to create extra space between the character and myself. Redshift is about a character named Roja; it’s not about micha.”
Roja and I are still on the Ice Planet thinking about home:
To build a home,
I have to be willing to break ground,
to open space, in dialog with others,
to be willing to move on from past homes I’ve left behind
bringing with me what I need and what I’ve learned,
and stay here in this place I have chosen
and face what comes
with dignity and integrity.
In honour of the theme “home,” I click on “Feeling At Home.” The next poem is an ode to a lover with our only option being “I am home.”
Redshift weaves the poetics of lived experience as struggle for life. For life meaning the practice of everyday decolonization as ethical habitation. As settlers, how are we in solidarity? This question haunted me as I played Redshift. To struggle for life—on this planet, for this planet—constitutes the meaning of home, where we are guests. The vignette “I am home” brings us face to face with Roja. A still image: I see cárdenas facing me, looking back at me, from a snowy, vast landscape, all white and grey. Just in time for an ice storm that broke records: “The melted ice poles caused an arctic vortex, polar winds escaping the ice cap, stretching tendrils across the planet.” The work of decolonization is also work for environmental justice, I think as I proceed to the next phase. Extreme weather is what makes Roja/me opt for “Go to Ocean Moon” instead of “Go to the Planet with No Rain.” And then:
“‘I'm always leaving,’ thought Roja, as she packed hurriedly.”
I/Roja click on “Pack hormones.”
“All my work comes from personal experience,” cárdenas tells me over the phone. “I develop theories from personal experience that touch on issues such as gender and violence. Decolonization ties back to this. A lot of decolonial theorists write about the way that people’s knowledge is invalidated by academia and philosophy. Colonized peoples have particular knowledge that gets dismissed. As an artist I don’t want to do that—defer to western/eurocentric theory in that way in order to validate my thoughts, or experience.”
“Why is it important to write from personal experience?” I ask.
“There has been 500 years of intellectual hegemony—most knowledge produced is made by white straight men. What is left un-thought comes from our own experience.”
“Or it has been thought but is not part of the mainstream intellectual curriculum. I am thinking of Black Radical Tradition with thinkers and writers such as Du Bois, CLR James, or Cedric J Robinson, which reminds us of the historical specificity of slavery as that which conditions the present. But also this discourse developed from tradition that produced modes of thinking and doing, that produced knowledge,” I respond.
cárdenas: “And the continuation of colonization is not just historically discernible, there is that—but the effect of existing now—we know something different and it’s still a struggle to be heard or get it out there.”
Roja packs hurriedly but makes sure to grab her hormones. Soon we are on our way to Ocean Moon where people are able to recharge in order to cultivate their magic, power, and strength: “time away from the ice planet gave them a moment to rest, breathe, recharge, and hone.” Here, as viewers we encounter a short film of Roja, looking toward a horizon, the sky is of dusk blue.
What is the spell of decolonial time travel? What we know we find out through solidarity in practice.
Decolonization means returning land to Indigenous peoples. cárdenas understands that Redshift is merely gestural. It is not enough to write about the importance of decolonial practice, or to build a story around it. That’s why cárdenas provides a page at the end of the game with links and resources, prefaced with the following acknowledgement:
This project is intended to honour the native peoples of the Anishinaabe, Mississauga, New Credit and Grassy Narrows territories, and their struggles against the murder and disappearance of native women, against mercury poisoning, logging and other destructive practices that harm them and their homelands, where I am currently a guest. To support their struggles and learn more, go to FreeGrassy.net.
After our phone conversation, cárdenas sends me a follow-up email: “Another thing I wanted to say about Redshift is that partly I made it to look at the complications in the gray areas of Trans of colour politics. I wanted to look at how Trans women of colour can still be oppressors in different ways. Because I am a mixed race, light skinned person, I often pass as white and in a way benefit from white supremacy. Similarly, I wanted to look at how Trans women of colour, while being oppressed, can still participate in colonization. The story in Redshift deals with all of these concerns.”
In playing Redshift, I am reminded of what writer and curator cheyanne turions—drawing on the work of Anishinaabe scholar, curator, and writer Wanda Nanibush—has written on non-belonging as decolonial practice: “Situate yourself in relationship to power through a practice of non-belonging. Make it a habit to align yourself publicly with the parts of your identity that belong the least. Through non-belonging, it is possible to disrupt one’s own privileges, whatever they may be, and create ruptures in logic that would otherwise be definitional.”  I feel that in creating Redshift, cárdenas, in cultural practice communicates this urgency. To be reminded that, as settlers, our position is one of non-belonging.
 All quotes from cárdenas are from personal correspondence with the author, 2015.
 cheyanne turions, “Reflecting on Couchiching: Some Thoughts on What It Means to Navigate,” Dialogue around Curatorial Practice (February 6, 2014).
Nasrin Himada is a writer, editor, and curator residing in Montréal. Her interdisciplinary research interests focus on the history of Palestinian cinema, art and activism, and the militarization of urban space through prison infrastructure and police surveillance. She is the co-editor of the journal Scapegoat: Architecture/Landscape/Political Economy.