Who Owns the Underworld: Holograms and the Taboo

By Louise Ho

The last five years has seen the realization of advanced holograms, which can be projected onto any setting, including outdoors and in daylight. Most of these holograms are used to recreate live performances of dead celebrities, mining the underworld for stars thought to have gone too soon. The handful of companies which own the expensive equipment needed have been vying to develop a Madam Tussaud-style collection of celebrities who can be mobilized to perform for live audiences.  Holograms of deceased singers are created by compositing archival footage of their performances onto footage of body doubles, using advanced photography and CGI technology. Holograms possess an uncanny weightless quality that seems lifelessly digital while conjuring ghosts of the past; they condense anxieties about idolatry, commercial exploitation, and the undead. These elements are present whenever we consume media generated by deceased singers, but we don’t think twice about listening to a song by a digital ghost. The frictionless body of the hologram has a haunting quality which reminds us how eerie it is to revisit archives of the dead.

Modern hologram technology had a slow start, with interest coming mainly from magicians, fictional performers like the Gorillaz, and other novelty acts. The medium hit its stride when event managers started to experiment with the most intuitive use of this ghostly technology: recreating live performances of popular singers, particularly those who died at young ages. Holograms convey celebrities’ legacies in a surprisingly tactile way, but these archives were alive long before they were animated. In a certain sense, stars can never die. Celebrities are a text: they are always in the present tense. There is no parallel in history to today’s ubiquitous “living” form of celebrity, powered by newspapers, PR departments, magazines, and electronic mass media. Celebrities inhabit a liminal space between human and commodity. They are people, but they are also archives.

Fame does not reside in the individual, but in the discourse around them. To some extent, a celebrity can be said to belong to the public. When the body of a celebrity dies, their aura persists, as experienced through artifacts of their fame such as songs, films, photographs, and public recollection. If the remains of a celebrity can be said to belong to their fans, their distribution platforms, or their estate, then do those parties also have a right to “resurrect” that celebrity by using their art? Recirculating fragments of a celebrity’s life in memoriam is a standard practice, especially on meaningful anniversaries. Holograms, however, seem to animate something more essential to celebrities, something akin to a soul.

The celebrity hologram makes a point that stars were hollow and uncanny all along. If celebrities are constructs of multi-media discourse, then holograms are the apex of stardom. Celebrity culture is, in part, a reaction to the post-Enlightenment decline of religion. The superstitions that we first expressed in religious language are now redirected toward anxieties about technologies that play God. Repulsion of holograms in societies with Christian influence could be a manifestation of deep-seated cultural taboos.  Like Jesus, celebrities are both ordinary and extraordinary, partially human and partially celestial. Thus, celebrity worship is condemned as idolatry and carries connotations of foolishness and perversion. Celebrities are already sinful for being false prophets, and their claims to be immortal are positively blasphemous.

Jesus is resurrected every day, if not through transubstantiation, then at least in spirit, and reproduced all over the world simultaneously. It would seem Christ is the only true hologram. Celebrity holograms are doubly profane, for first elevating themselves as icons, then making a mockery of resurrection. A hologram of deceased rapper Tupac at the 2012 Coachella music festival sparked the fad as we currently know it. The choice of Tupac for this stunt exploited the folk belief that his early death was a hoax; there is a dense mythology behind this conspiracy that involves song lyrics, supposed sightings, and his many posthumous albums and guest appearances. Tupac’s image was strikingly lifelike, yet just weightless enough to arouse discomfort.

By using Tupac, the orchestrators of this feat winked at the belief in Tupac’s continued life. The event’s coordinator was toying with ambiguities surrounding life and death. To fans who believe that Tupac is still alive, the materiality of his hologram was an uncanny affirmation of this belief, even though the image was obviously manufactured.  Holograms resurrect the dead twice, reviving both the ghosts of the past and our primitive belief in them. Press coverage around hologram performances emphasizes the technological trickery that goes into producing the image. However, these explanations do nothing to lessen the feeling of resurrection. Technology is not demystifying; it has a mythic quality of its own.

The primal scene for holograms is the 18th century ghost shows of Etienne Gaspard Robertson. He was originally ordained as a priest, and he had a keen understanding of how Enlightenment era science had become imbued with a sort of mysticism by overturning the authority of the church. Robertson defined phantasmagoria as the science which deals with the physical methods used to create belief in the resurrection and apparition of the dead. His ghost shows were designed to create a spooky effect. Robertson projected macabre and demonic images onto screens that wheeled back and forth through immaterial media, like fog and smoke. These visual codes borrow from art and folklore to represent the dead as immaterial, luminescent beings, “incorporated but not enfleshed, clothed in light rendering [them] at once palpable and insubstantial” (Warner, 63). Because these representational conventions are deeply embedded in Christian cultures, death appears to be an intrinsic theme to mediums of light, shadow, and ephemera.

For instance, seances came into fashion alongside cameras and keenly employed this technology. A popular service in the 1920s was projective imagination, where a subject could theoretically thrust the object of desire, a deceased loved one, into the material world by projecting a thought-image of longing, which is perceived by the camera alone (Warner, 231). Long exposures turned subjects to wraiths, and accidents of printing produced eerie flashes and streaks. It seemed reasonable that this unexplained phenomena could have metaphysical origins. When it was discovered the human brain could emit and receive electric signals, some hoped that new technology such as photography could finally render visible aspects of the human experience which are beyond the physical world and explanations of science, yet deeply felt. Phantasmagoria exposes the slippages between the technological and the superstitious. Contemporary phantasmagoria, including holograms, are experiments in photography and projection which explore the feeling of loss and photography’s forgotten relationship to the occult.

All photographs are memento mori. Photography captures the ephemeral traces of life, preserving subjects from the relentless melt of time. Cinema, which combines the uncanny practices of photography and light projection, has repressed its macabre nature with the formal paradigms of screen and frame. Holograms, the highest expression of modern photography and projection, disrupt this fantasy of containment by projecting three dimensional figures into the world of the audience. Performances materialize the specter of absence using the time-tested interplay of light, shadow, and ephemera. They challenge our repulsion of the underworld by summoning phantoms into our own plane, exposing our cohabitation with the dead. If photography is already creepy, then its human avatar is downright terrifying. In hologram performances, traces of real human presence (via the archive) are visualized as unstable, underscoring the vulnerability of individuality to erosion.

The modern hologram teases the audience’s expectations about what is and isn’t real, dramatizing the transition from one to the other. Janelle Monaé and M.I.A, two artists noted for their techno-futurism, performed a stunt in which first Janelle Monaé materialized by M.I.A’s side at a show in New York, then the two switched places and M.I.A was beamed to Janelle Monaés simultaneous show in Los Angeles. The duet dispensed with any attempt at realism, using integrated video mapping to create a more layered field of depth and showing off tricks like splitting, stuttering, and multiplying in a ghostly digital frenzy. Even memorial shows now play with hypermediation techniques such as flashing, transparency, disappearing band members, pixelating, and exploding to keep audiences engaged. Now that the uncanny sense of realism has started to fade from our experience of the medium, programmers are experimenting with making images as unrealistic as possible to highlight, rather than repress, the unplaceable strangeness of these illusions.

The owner of the original hologram patents, and the man behind the seminal Tupac hologram, is Alki David, heir of the Greek Coca-Cola fortune. He bet heavily on the future of holographic entertainment, investing $15 million dollars into buying up celebrity rights and fighting multiple lawsuits in his quest to monopolize the business of resurrection. According to his competitors, David’s litigiousness has lost them thousands of contracts, making the skance performances with holograms a poor litmus test of the public’s interest in them. Hollywood is ready to pounce on the technology, but the ferocity of the hologram wars, which includes accusations of sociopathy, cyberstalking, and emergency motions to stop performances, has given them pause.

David has made the news before for paying $1 million to anyone who would streak in front of President Obama and for live-streaming an assisted suicide (later revealed to be staged). David’s passion for pushing the envelope and his impulse to exploit both celebrity and death has drawn him to the hologram trade. David has amassed a deep celebrity graveyard that includes such stars as Judy Garland, Billie Holliday, Liberace, and Nat King Cole. He has also been quietly retrofitting venues across America to accommodate hologram technology. Given the 16 percent drop in theater attendances over the last year, he believes that the conditions are perfect for such a change, and plans to take advantage of the enormous amounts of empty real estate around Western Europe and the United States. The return of the living dead is nigh.

David understands that what makes holograms interesting to the public is their creepiness and difficulty to define. As the use of hologram technologies proliferates, we are seeing them employed in wider contexts that raise complicated questions about presence and power. Already, holograms can claim to have had a major impact on world politics, having been used to win an Indian election through the world’s largest simulcast. The surprising power of holograms is demonstrated with the bizarre case of Chief Keef and the state of Indiana. Chief Keef had not performed in his hometown of Chicago for over a year, due to outstanding warrants for his arrest in Illinois. The rapper had become a regular target of outrage in a city plagued by gun violence, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel denouncing him as “an unacceptable role model” who “promotes violence” so dangerous that even his digital projection supposedly “posed a significant public safety risk.”  When Emmanuel argues that a Chief Keef concert is dangerous, he means that a public gathering of Chief Keef fans is a threat to the communities he actually represents.

Alki David, ever the provocateur, attempted to side-step the warrants by projecting Chief Keef’s image from Los Angeles to Hammond, Indiana, just 20 miles from the rapper’s hometown. Chief Keef’s apparition managed to perform for three minutes before the mayor of Hammond dispatched a confused police force to contain the specter. They swarmed the equipment and cut the power to the entire venue. It would appear that Chief Keef is not only physically prohibited from Chicago, but that the mere idea of him is outlawed. It stands as a strange chapter in the hologram’s history, in which a reflection can be deemed threatening enough to warrant a police raid. Because it is not alive and only constructed, the Chief Keef hologram was a living embodiment of the dreams and values his fans project onto him. Shutting down the concert sent the clear message that this future was not welcome by the powers that be. Incidentally, Chief Keef remained invested in the technology and had plans to collaborate with then-imprisoned Gucci Mane, projecting the rapper beside him from his cell. Holograms continue to be a legally confounding phenomenon.

Stars are avatars of cultural values, representative of the way society organizes its ideologies and fantasies. They embody unconscious societal characteristics or desires which they synthesize and give back to their target audiences. Celebrity is a key trope in articulating highly visible discourses on personhood, and intersect with a remarkable array of political, cultural, and economic activities.  The moral panic about gangster rap is a way to demonize the social groups that consume it under the false flag of caring for them. Though the celebrities in corporate hologram mausoleums represent a range of genres and races, David repeatedly uses gangster rappers in an effort to push buttons. This strategy manipulates the specter of racism, which haunts national wariness of gangster rap, underscoring a sense that the music is both dangerous and obscene. Using the likenesses of popular black stars like Tupac and Chief Keef is also cause for alarm in pro-black circles, as it raises questions about minstrelsy and the politics of “owning” the rights to a human being, even if it’s only their image.

The fear of cultural appropriation undergirded a recent panic about posthumous use of the artist Prince. A year after Prince’s death, his sister, Tyka Nelson, staged an exhibition of Prince’s memorabilia, including instruments, outfits, and hand-written lyrics, as well as hinting at a hologram tour. “All these items were important to him,” she explained, “I feel his presence in each piece. I hope that by sharing them with the world it will help his fans get closure.” She is of one mind with David in the belief that audiences have a right to what celebrities leave behind, up to and including their identity, as composited by hologram technology. In February 2018, however, several members of Prince’s inner circle spoke out against a rumor that his “hologram” would perform at the Halftime Show of the Super Bowl. Prince’s former drummer and ex-fianceé, Sheila E., rang the alarm to the public, declaring, “Prince told me don’t ever let anyone do a hologram of me. Not cool if this happens!” TMZ’s casual use of the word “hologram” touched on a sensitive issue. When is it “too soon,” as Sheila E. put it, to parade around a dead singer’s image for profit? The hologram rumor opened up a debate about ownership and appropriation that seems to be on the forefront of people’s minds as technology races ahead of us.

Why do people have such a visceral reaction to holograms? If these arguments can be leveraged against holograms, then it stands to reason that other media could be considered guilty of exploitation as well. After celebrities pass, are they reduced to cultural artifacts and objects of consumption, or do these canons have rights of their own? This brief panic about holograms gained traction because the erroneous rumor sparked accusations of non-consensual use of Prince’s image. This has been the fear underlying our fixation with holograms the whole time; the idea that one’s essence can be replicated and used without one’s permission. More dramatically, it is the fear that holograms could steal the soul. Coupled with the remarkable coincidence of Prince directly addressing his distaste for similar hypothetical technologies in past interviews, the story of the 2018 Halftime Show was the hologram urban legend that had been waiting in the shadows the whole time.

The hologram turned out to be only a mirage, a slip of the tongue. One was never planned for the Super Bowl. Sheila E. attempted to quell the hologram hysteria at the eleventh hour, tweeting, “There is no hologram. 🙏🏽💋.” She may have been satisfied, but fans doubled down on their anger, arguing that hologram or not, the use of the singer’s image by white Justin Timberlake was exploitative and disrespectful. In cases like Prince’s, in which the ordinary protocol of obtaining consent is not followed, there is a deeply felt sense that resurrecting the dead is an unwelcome disturbance of their peace for exploitative means. This was all underscored by a suspicion of the appropriation of black artists and likenesses by the hands of white corporate media.

Alki David considers the emotionally pitched hand-wringing over holograms a great gift, as it generates publicity. Stoking this chaos is a calculated maneuver on David’s part, who prides himself on his “noisy brand.” The rapid cycles of scandal and outrage on the internet are well-tailored to David, who has a habit of arguing with people in the comment sections of articles about himself. He has a history with TMZ, and if he didn’t orchestrate a rumor, then he was quick to use the moment as a platform to get people talking about the hologram revolution. As far as David is concerned, this is just free publicity. He has been known to use hologram incidents unrelated to his company, including the phantasmic Super Bowl hologram, to stir up the press.  Ultimately, David claims that continuing to live in the limelight after death must be every singer’s dream, since it is clearly what they craved in life. Celebrities, it seems, sign over their lives to the public by virtue of their fame; their aura persists, in the ether, beyond their control.

Regardless of what did or didn’t happen at the Super Bowl, people have a lot of concerns to air about the growing industry of celebrity reanimation. Something about holograms seems profane, and the concept strikes a raw nerve. David’s choices to pioneer his technology by resurrecting a rapper who people already suspected to be alive, to insert himself into the political arena, and to flout law enforcement using legal loopholes have all contributed to the prevailing sense of holograms as taboo, creepy, and very powerful. In under a decade, David has managed to cast holograms with a dystopic aura that captivates our attention. Even mentioning the word creates panic, as people scramble to decide how they feel about holograms and what they might represent. Holograms seem to cross a forbidden moral boundary. Identity has become increasingly textual in the era of mass communications. Hologram technology has kept itself in the news by raising questions about morality, legality, and personhood, thus raising the question: does the archive have a soul?

 


Louise Ho is a teacher and organizer in Austin, TX.


 

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