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Holograms of dead relatives: a natural media leap | COMMENTARY

<p>In 2012, Coachella hosted a performance from the late hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur in hologram form. It cost between $100,000 and $400,000 to create the special effect, which would become a model for other hologram tours, according to Amy X. Wang of Rolling Stone.</p>

In 2012, Coachella hosted a performance from the late hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur in hologram form. It cost between $100,000 and $400,000 to create the special effect, which would become a model for other hologram tours, according to Amy X. Wang of Rolling Stone.

(Christopher Polk // Getty Images)

Long before Kim Kardashian West made headlines for being gifted a hologram of her deceased father for her 40th birthday, the tech conference South by Southwest Interactive held a panel called “HoloGramma: How Tech Can ‘Bring Back’ Our Departed” predicting that technology would allow your dead grandmother to be switched on in the living room, whenever you wanted to talk to her.

Is such an idea shocking? I already can make coq au vin at home, guided by an old YouTube video of Julia Child while listening to Prince. To live a media-saturated existence is to swim in ectoplasmic estuaries of life and death, in which living bodies regularly mingle with specters of the long-gone.

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The disembodied voices on radios and the luminous figures on cinema screens constitute what media studies professor Jeffrey Sconce equates with hauntings, writing about a “media occult” surrounding the “seemingly ‘inalienable’ yet equally ‘ineffable’ quality of electronic telecommunications.” Communication scholar John Durham Peters claims that modern media is infused with a “spiritualist tradition” — one we participate in as readily as grieving people in 19th-century America and Europe sought out the services of spiritualists, who claimed to be able to conjure the dead for a brief chat. It is, Mr. Peters argues, from those very practices of communing with the dead via mediums that we derived our present-day terminology about communication via media.

Celebrities, our technical ghosts, are people, but most of us interact with their persona, which is shaped not just by stars themselves, their managers and publicists but by their audiences and fans. The persona is not the real person, nor the fictional character; it’s the liminal figure in between — the one modern media, by its spectral nature, is adept at presenting, projecting and protecting. And when a public figure dies, their persona continues to be managed posthumously. Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Mama Cass, Elvis Presley, both dead Beatles and Tupac Shakur are among hundreds of artists who sold previously unreleased or even newly crafted records while dead. Deceased pop-music figures — from Roy Orbison to Buddy Holly, and Michael Jackson to Whitney Houston — have been resurrected for new performances via animated digital simulations; on stage, real people interact with the spectral imagery.

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As a former music journalist and current researcher in communication and science studies, I have examined the specific technical means for the production of these “holograms” — an inquiry that began when I received a 2011 news release about “the world’s first virtual pop diva,” a Japanese anime-style character named Hatsune Miku, who has no corporeal existence but who nonetheless headlines concerts in crowded arenas. When I attended a “live” concert by this digitally projected character, in a large theater with a thousand rapt fans singing along, the pop-music critic in me wondered whether years of honing criteria for evaluating human performance on stages had been made irrelevant. The scholar in me, however, recognized another intervention of technology into social norms and rushed to connect history and theory to the new experience.

The American fountainhead of this trend was Tupac Shakur, who — 16 years after his death — headlined the 2012 Coachella music festival. Before an audience of nearly 100,000 people, the real Snoop Dogg and the real Dr. Dre introduced the “not real” Tupac, who performed two songs (one of which had been released after Tupac died, implying a chain of production unbroken by pesky mortality). My own analysis of spectator reactions posted to Twitter within 24 hours of the Tupac spectacle shows that fans initially experienced an uncanny unease but then quickly settled into the experience of a reality they were accustomed to through a lifetime of modern media hauntings. They were happily haunted, already living with the dead yet again.

The idea of holographic grandmothers is simply a dimensional extension of existing media interactions between the living and the dead. While a Tupac hologram is currently beyond the means of most, the average person’s persona, imprinted across digital platforms, is not buried as efficiently as our body, nor does it decay as swiftly. This data may live on and continue to act. That suggests the future of posthumous presence begins in the ways we currently organize and nurture, while we live, the mediated elements of persona that will survive us — and that may be crucial to the mourning of loved ones left behind.

Thomas Conner (thomasconner.info) is a longtime music critic and journalist. He wrote this for Zócalo Public Square.

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