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Clash of the Featherweights

At virtual cockfights, the scene is wacky and hip--and the crowds are downright fowl


Squeezed into a dark basement in a Chinatown alley were a couple hundred people, their bodies glistening with sweat as they slapped down bets, swigged Tecate and bellowed as two contestants attacked each other.

Feathers flying, the rivals grappled in a pecking and clawing frenzy. Soon enough, one died. The other strutted in victory.

Welcome to Cockfight Arena.

This was no ordinary fowl play. In fact, no real roosters were hurt during the fight because no real roosters were involved. The contestants were people dressed in rooster regalia rigged with sensors. Their flapping and pecking were turned into digital data via accelerometers--tiny chips used to sense movement--and mapped by a computer into a virtual cockfight between on-screen birds.

Think of the costumes as elaborate controllers for a computer game and the contest as a convergence of gaming, physics and performance art--all designed to be maximally absurd.

"I'm interested in how you can have the audience be performers in a way that's not corny," said Mark Allen, one of the organizers of the event, held Sept. 20 at a cooperative space called C-Level in the burgeoning artists' enclave in Chinatown. "If you look at performance art in the 1970s, it was about breaking down space between artist and audience. People live in bubbles, and you had these sidewalk performances to break people out of their bubbles. But there was something intrinsically confrontational about that. Who's to decide that it's my role to break you out of your bubble?"

At Cockfight Arena, guests signed up for bouts using pseudonyms such as "Thermonuclear Slug." In the course of the evening, close to 20 bouts were fought, with several people signing up more than once.

"There's something charming about taking volunteers," Allen said. "Once they wear the bird suit and start playing, there's something about the competition, the virtual space, that makes them let go of their self-consciousness and give these out-of-control performances. How could you not? I mean, cockfight? Basement?"

One volunteer was Molly Rysman, a tattooed 25-year-old from Echo Park. She suited up as "Foghorn Leghorn," donning a beaked helmet and aluminum-framed wings. A trumpeter, musician Jeff Knowlton, signaled the beginning of her bout. Vigorous flapping ensued. Rysman's bit-mapped bird rose to the top of the screen as she flapped toward her opponent. The two approached each other, then both started pounding their foot pedals to initiate their claw attacks, spilling virtual blood. They pulled away. More flapping. The crowd went mad.

"You fight like a hen!"

"C'mon, you chicken!"

"Shake it! Shake it!"

Rysman won one round, but lost the other two.

She paused later to evaluate her performance.

"It's pretty intense," said Rysman, who coordinates a city program for troubled teenagers. "When your cock gets hit, you see all this blood, and you see some of your soul fly away. It's kinda gruesome. And it's disheartening when your see your cock die."

The evening was the second in an occasional series of collaborations by a loose group of artists, gamers and geeks. Their first was based on the video game Tekken and called "Tekken Torture." In that stunt, players got electric shocks when their online characters were hit. The zapping did not inflict pain as much as it momentarily hobbled the player.

Cockfight Arena was organized by CalArts graduates Mark Allen and Eddo Stern. The costumes were designed and built by Jessica Hutchins, Karen Lofgren, Bill Balou and Cecile Bouchier, and Julian Gross and Jason Brown helped design the game's graphics and sound. Daniella Meeker, a Caltech grad student, designed the gambling software that calculated the odds and the payout.

Although just as competitive, the bouts differed radically from traditional cockfighting. In many parts of the world the sport is considered a male contest, and women are often barred from attending, said Alan Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California at Berkeley who wrote "The Cockfight: A Casebook."

Much like football, Dundes posits, cockfighting is homoerotic combat. In his book, he reprints a passage from the 4th century, a rumination by St. Augustine on the question: "Why do cocks fight?" Such combat--like war--is evidence of the presence of evil, which proves the existence of good, Augustine concluded.

Such profound thoughts were unlikely to have crossed the minds of the revelers at Cockfight Arena, most of whom were there for the spectacle. The crowd, a mix of Chinatown denizens, game industry nerds, art school grads and Caltech alumni, was charged with a giddy sense of being part of something absurd, unpredictable and entirely hip.

"This is wacky, bizarre, insane," said Eddie Diaz, who wandered in after having dinner in the neighborhood. "I love these costumes! They're perfect. Are the feathers real?"

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