The Virtual Image

The artist micha cárdenas highlights the importance of rethinking the image projected by the concept of «the human» in order to dismantle the exclusion and control it exercises over marginalized subjectivities. Placing virtual image as a space of power that, from fiction, she gives room to alternate realities that imagine other possibilities of existence.

Glenn Ligon’s painting Untitled (I Am a Man), painted in 1988, proclaims the title statement using a chain of references to perform visibility through an image with layers of virtuality. [1] Rendering the words as a painting, Ligon defies the distinction between text and image. The painting is considered Ligon’s breakthrough, the first time he used text in his paintings. It is an image of text, using language, font, and letter style to refer to a protest sign used by Black sanitation workers on strike in Memphis, Tennessee, made famous in Ernest Withers’s photograph.

The sign itself referred to the first sentence of the prologue of Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, which reads “I am an invisible man,” a comment on the experience of being Black in the United States. Invisibility deleted. In Memphis, we could say that the protester’s poetically edited this sentence, first, by removing the word “invisible” from it, so that the sign read “I Am a Man.” And secondly, by breaking the linearity of the sentence to emphasize their presence (“I AM”) as a self-determination method. This invoked an anti-racist claim to a virtual category, that of Man, or the human.

Caribbean philosopher Sylvia Wynter has called for the importance of a shift in the category of the human, saying that to overcome the injustices inflicted on people because of gender, race, class, and many other forms of structural oppression, the word man must be reclaimed to signify the actual, immanent, group of all humans on the planet, instead of the select group that it has been used to define. [2]She calls for a movement, an operation of shifting. [3] Wynter sees this performance of gender as a particular genre of the praxis of being human. [4] Following Wynter, we can understand the sign in Ligon’s painting to have multiple meanings, also making a claim about the radicalized gender of male as a claim to power, strength, and legitimacy in a violently patriarchal country. That Black people need to make claims on male or female gender underscores the racialization and instability of those categories, and how those terms, like human, have been used to exclude and control.

From 2005 until 2009, the contemporary artist Sharon Hayes created a project called In the Near Future, in which she held various protest signs in different locations around the world. In one image, she is seen holding the “I AM A MAN” sign. She encourages viewers to document the project to activate the culture of virtual images common to social media, whose production and circulation dynamics— where there is a possibility that different individualities appropriate or identify with an image produced in a specific context or situation unfamiliar to them—make the instability of gender categories resurface again in relation to racialization and sexualization processes from the white cisheteropatriarchal perspective. In her performance, the image of the protest text resignifies as a white cisgender woman holds the sign in front of two white police officers.

In a contemporary media environment where images algorithmically generated by AI proliferate at rates too fast for human consumption—appearing in virtual reality headsets at frame rates of ninety frames per second, a rate which can change viewers’ neurochemistry—the image of the text “I AM A MAN” through Ligon’s still image and Hayes’ performance calls into question one of the most powerful weapons of colonization: the definition of man as a universal category from which social hierarchies are created which originate, for example, racism or machismo. [5] These works remind us about the ability of oppressed peoples to make claims categories such as the men or the human, as well as calling into question the importance, the validity, and the authority of such terms to have power over people’s lives, or to simply disarticulate the mentioned categories by understanding them as an inert sign on a wall, an art object, or a product to be sold.

Today, images operate by being both virtual and real: transreal, existing across multiple levels of reality and stitching them together. Artists such as myself, Tamiko Thiel, and Mez Breeze have been working with mixed reality and augmented reality art, aesthetics which intentionally bring these issues to the viewer’s attention, for over ten years. In The Transreal, I claim that the experience of gender transition can inform the theory and practice, the political aesthetics, of creating art across multiple realities. [6] My most recent artwork is Sin Sol [7], an augmented reality game where a trans Latinx AI hologram named Aura tells players about her experience of climate change-induced wildfires and the smoke storms they produce. Led to the Aura hologram by a dog named Roja, players learn how Aura escaped her programming through poetry and dance that engage questions of how climate change is disproportionately harming trans, undocumented, disabled, and chronically ill people. The poems describe the experience of waking up to a sky blackened by wildfire smoke, and the feeling of not being able to breathe, an experience that continues to effect people across the globe, as it did this summer in São Paulo.

The power of the virtual image lies in its capacity to be a space of multiple potentialities in which its actuality can shift over time.

Today, these transreal aesthetics are on the verge of being subsumed by capital into a consumer product developed by the US American startup company Magic Leap, Inc. The Magic Leap One (ML1) is an augmented reality headset, which includes a pair of translucent goggles onto which images are projected and comes with local audio and a portable computer called the Lightpack, a device as large as two or three smartphones and wearable with a strap over one’s shoulder. While demonstrating the ML1 to students, faculty, and friends in my studio/lab, the Critical Realities Studio, they often exclaim “Oh my God!” and similar expressions of amazement, when they see how believable the images are on the device. The ML1 augmented reality uses 3-D scanning to survey the local environment in order to place virtual objects on physical surfaces such as floors or tables. One of the showcase demonstration apps for the ML1 is an interactive sound and image artwork by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, called Tonandi. In Tonandi, the viewer/player can interact with abstract images whose forms resemble aquatic creatures and environments. Tonandi uses a feature of the ML1 which allows the viewer/player to interact with the virtual objects in one’s living room using only one’s hand. You physically reach out and touch a jellyfish, mushroom, flower, or ball of electricity and it makes a sound evocative of Sigur Rós’s beautiful languid fay soundscapes. Tonandi is a beautiful experiment extending new aesthetic possibilities of interaction with images and sound—a transreal aesthetic. Perhaps VR images such as Tonandi can provide an important respite of joy and calm for audiences who may be facing violence and abuse daily, a getaway from political and economic contexts such as those of the United Sates, where the ML1 is being created. This could be true for migrant people whose freedom is privatized by a presidential administration aligned with white supremacists that forces them into dangerous border landscapes from deserts to oceans, where thousands fall or sink to their deaths.

While Tonandi is a powerful demonstration of imagination, perhaps 6×9, an immersive journalism piece, is more effectively using virtual images for an urgent speech act. Created by a team of VR producers at The Guardian, the project allows viewers to briefly experience solitary confinement and the hallucinations and harmful effects on mental health that this cruel practice induces. [8] As the Trump administration forces more and more people into smaller cages in US concentration camps operated by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the urgency for artists to address this extreme violence escalates. However, the virtual image—created by the optical illusion of racist discourses in relation to social imaginaries—is also used in fascist imaginations to present a picture of migrant people and refugees as violent criminals that comprise an animal infestation, who deserve the extremely detrimental conditions to which they are being exposed. Virtual images can lie.

Returning to a contemporary protest sign, as the sun sets, I sit in the passenger seat and discuss the stakes of the human with Brooke Lober, an anti-Zionist feminist theorist and professor, as she drives along Highway 580 into Oakland. [9] We have recently returned from a protest outside of the San Francisco ICE building, where the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN), Bay Area Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) together organized a #CloseTheCamps protest, where a wall was constructed and then deconstructed by protesters who cited multiple histories of migration and invoked refugee populations in their call to abolish ICE and all militarized immigration and border control. [10]Brooke asks, “You would never face a migrant protester holding a sign saying ‘Ningún Ser Humano es Ilegal’ [No Human Is Illegal], and make a critique of the human, right?” We agree that perhaps Chela Sandoval’s differential consciousness is most useful here in order to recognize the times and places where a claim to the human must be declared, in word or in image, and other times and places where the category “human” must be recognized and rejected as a colonial tool used to devalue the lives of women, trans people, Indigenous people, racialized people, disabled people, and many more. The power of the virtual image lies in its capacity to be a space of multiple potentialities in which its actuality can shift over time.


  1. “Not only are there as many statements as there are effectuations, but all of the statements are present in the effectuation of one among them, so that the line of variation is virtual, in other words, real without being actual, and consequently continuous regardless of the leaps the statement makes… It is possible to take any linguistic variable and place it in variation following a necessarily virtual continuous line between two of its states.” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 94–99.

  2. Katherine McKittrick, Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 23.

  3. For my detailed description of this operation, see micha cárdenas, “Shifting Futures: Digital Trans of Color Praxis” in Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, no. 6, 2015, doi:10.7264/N3WH2N8D

  4. Ibid., 33.

  5. As scholars like C. Riley Snorton, Silvia Federici, and Qwo-Li Driskill have written, the colonial apparatus, and the capitalist system that resulted from it, have used the distance between words, images, and reality to describe native people, Black people, and women as animals, sodomites, chattel, and property. See more in: C. Riley Snorton, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch (New York: Autonomedia, 2004); Qwo-Li Driskill, Asegi Stories: Cherokee Queer and Two-Spirit Memory (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2016).

  6. micha cárdenas, Zach Blas, and Wolfgang Schirmacher, The Transreal: Political Aesthetics of Crossing Realities (New York: Atropos Press, 2011), p. 30.

  7. Sin Sol was created in collaboration with myself, Marcelo Viana Neto, Morgan Thomas, Adrian Phillips, Abraham Avnisan, Dorothy Santos, and Wynne Greenwood.

  8. For more information: [Accessed on September 11, 2019].

  9. I wish to extend special thanks to Lober for the conversations which informed this article and for her thoughtful editing suggestions.

  10. Facebook event: “Month of Momentum: 30 Days of Action to Close the Camps (ICE SF)” [Accessed on September 11, 2019].

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