In the early 1990s, folk-rocker John Wesley Harding released one of the best B-sides around: “When the Beatles Hit America.” A lengthy narrative about a dreamed-up Fab Four reunion, it envisions both cultural and technological contexts for a new Beatles event — and this is back when only one of them was dead.
In Harding’s epic ballad, the Beatles are going to reunite on stage, all “due to a miracle marketing strategy / beyond the realms of reasonable possibility.” The lyrics realistically dramatize the build-up (securing the film rights, sponsorships, talk show scheduling, etc.) and then inject a bit of scifi to make it happen (the manager of the new Beatles is “made up of cloned parts of Col. Tom Parker and Col. Sanders”). Ringo won’t actually play, though, because he’s been replaced by a more accurate drum machine; he’s “disappointed to find that no one / needs him anymore except for the vibe.” Lennon, meanwhile, is substituted with a life-size cardboard cutout, and then — per today’s news, in a way — he speaks to the press, sounding suspiciously like some old recordings:
John, who was never the quiet one
makes all his press contributions from his old songs --
in tune, in time, and with the backing track behind him
And when they ask him how it’s been in the studio,
he says, “It’s been a hard day’s night”
And no one understands him, but he always was the cryptic one …
Funny stuff, but now prescient. Today marks the release of the Beatles’ latest — and allegedly last — technologically resurrected cast-off, a “new” old song called “Now and Then” that features the two living members and the two dead ones reunited in eerily perfect harmony and time. As a scholar who studies the uncanny properties of media and its inherent constructions of liminal spaces between life and death, well, I have some initial thoughts.
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The following post points to other places you can find me & my work, as the Feelies sang, for a while anyway …
When I was the pop music critic at the Tulsa World in the late ’90s and early aughts, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting and writing about one of my musical heroes, Dwight Twilley ("I'm on Fire," "Looking for the Magic," "Girls"). The ol' cuss passed away recently, and I returned top the World's pages this weekend to try and say something about what I learned from him — like, how to be proud of where you come from without coming off like a chamber-of-commerce goon. Twilley's pop-rock sound was Tulsan, pure and simple. He knew it, he understood it, and he hired the guys to maintain it. (Different than Leon Russell or J.J. Cale and all that "Tulsa Sound" stuff. Dwight was just nine years younger than Leon, but somehow I think of Leon as an uber-boomer and Dwight as a bit more forward-thinking.) Here's to you, DT.
It's the first week of classes at The University of Tulsa, where I'm a new Visiting Assistant Professor of Media Studies. My upper-division seminar is Music as Social Action, a theoretical and historical survey of American protest songs. And wouldn't you know it — a protest song just went viral around the country. Given this confluence — and the fact that stories about the song keep tagging Woody Guthrie and Billy Bragg, with whom I have some considerable personal experience — I had some thoughts. My colleagues at the Tulsa World were good enough to print them.
A new journal article of mine is now published: "Rock and Roll Will Never Die: Holograms and the Spectrality of Performance" in the spring issue of Spectator, the film-studies journal at USC. The work extends a conference presentation I gave at USC's First Forum in 2021.
In 2012, the rapper Tupac Shakur performed in the top slot at a major music festival — an event only notable because he had died 16 years earlier. The performance was made possible by a 21st-century digital upgrade of a 19th-century stage illusion called Pepper’s Ghost, and it ushered in a trend of creating and presenting similar “hologram” performances of posthumous pop stars. This article offers an explanation of what is seen in such a performance, examining the simulation of 3D video imagery designed to veil its mediation in order for its subject to appear unmediated, present, and “real.” Ultimately, I claim that these illusions are contemporary séances — a revival of historically spiritualist practices but one in which what is conjured is actually the deceased’s previously existing performing persona, as the concept has been extended by Philip Auslander. This cultural entity (distinct from the body and able to outlive it) is offered a new embodiment within a media system that restores the immaterial entity to the material space of the stage — a context previously off limits to the dead performer.
Read the article here!
I thoroughly enjoyed being a guest on this podcast this week, Star Warsologies, to discuss my historical research on holograms. Star Wars, after all, is the source code for our contemporary denotation of the term "hologram." Those two scenes of Princess Leia's futuristic video-mail in the first film overwrote existing understandings of holograms, changing colloquial notions from optical kitsch to computer projections. Today's headlines and even research routinely name-check the princess imagery as a ready-made identifier for projects attempting to actualize that scifi imaginary. Thanks to hosts James Floyd and Melissa Miller for a lively conversation about all things digital and spectral!
Check out the episode here:
With the dissertation behind me, I’ve managed to fill some of my spare research time with a personal project — family genealogy. I’ve been setting aside notes and data for decades, and this summer I committed to connecting the dots and ferreting out the stories. Somehow I timed this right, life-wise. My research muscles are well-trained now — in a lot of historical method, no less — and university library access really enhances the verification (and, more often, debunking) of the often suspect data found through online genealogy databases.
Among the curious tales unearthed thus far, I discovered that while I might be the first “doc” in the family, I’m not the first published academic.
Raffi Kryszek, of PROTO Hologram, and myself before the panel at SDCC22.
What a great time hosting a panel at Comic-Con in San Diego on Friday! A sizable crowd joined us for "From Scifi Imaginary to Tech Reality: The New Science of Holograms" — and, wow, did they ask superlative, knowledgeable questions! Panelists were myself and Raffi Kryszek, the principal hardware architect for the PROTO Hologram company in Los Angeles. (Tara Knight from Colorado U's Critical Media Studies program was unable to make it.)
I finally got the chance to show off one of the only vintage comic books I possess: a 1978 one-off called Holo-Man, about a doctor zapped by high energy in a holographic matrix, which grants him superpowers (projecting illusions, time travel, invisibility). We parsed the various ways holograms have remained ubiquitous throughout science-fiction narratives, evolving the imaginary of digitally projected matter and characters.
Then Raffi discussed the exciting work being done at PROTO to actualize that imaginary — creating life-size, photo-real 3D simulations of people through its unique "hologram" technologies. He even clued us into the next new model (desktop-sized!).
Good stuff and good fun! Thanks to the Comic-Con folks for having us!
In this week’s episode of the CBS crime drama NCIS, detectives interview an unusual person of interest in a murder case: the victim herself.
Older narratives might have made this possible via a traditional spiritualist séance, with interested parties holding hands around a table as Madame Blavatsky channeled the spirit of the dead in order to ask directly, “Whodunnit?” In today’s séances, however, the medium has become digital media: complex technical imagery systems that archive a person’s likeness and prerecorded messages intended to be posthumously played back for survivors. Several such apparatuses exist already, though most are still in experimental and prototype stages. This NCIS episode, however, brings to the broader public a fairly accurate depiction of what such “holograms” currently look and seem like, as well as providing some early fodder for conversations about how they might be integrated into social realities. That is, people often ask, “Why in the world would you make a hologram of yourself?” Here’s a pop-culture text that starts grappling with a few real answers.
Get Back — Peter Jackson’s extraordinary new reboot of Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1969 documentary footage following the Beatles’ penultimate recording sessions — has been revelatory in numerous ways, from its prompting of astute reconsideration of Yoko Ono’s much-maligned cultural narrative to final proof that Billy Preston utterly saved the day. The remarkable technology used to revive these old reels (and the audio) is important to attend to not only for its importance to the future of film restoration but for its increasing intrusion into filmmaking; Get Back is a highly computed film, perhaps the first movie many have seen with such dramatic and artistic contributions by an algorithm (“And the Oscar for Best Algorithm goes to…”?) — to the point that the documentary’s rotoscopic computation of imagery and sound can be seen as the construction of a kind of virtual reality.
In addition to this surface virtuality of the image, however, I’m interested in the virtuality of the individuals shown through that imagery — and the ways Get Back is less a documentary about live human beings than it is about a socially constituted band of living ghosts.
I'll be teaching performance studies this fall — fresh off one of the most exciting examples of "doing things with words" I've ever participated in: the moment last week when my dissertation committee reconvened in my presence and announced that I am now Dr. Thomas Conner.
Boundless thanks to my chair and adviser, Dr. David Serlin, and my stalwart committee. We had a thrilling and heady conversation about holograms and "holograms," materiality and immateriality, physical things and digital things, living presence and spectral absence, and of course life and death. Exactly how I hoped this journey would find its end.
Off to prepare scintillating job-market packets! Need a professor who can teach your wacky comm theory and your journalism editing lab? Inquire within!
Read the abstract of my dissertation
Awfully quiet, this blog — because my writing energies are obviously elsewhere, now revising a dissertation (whew!). But somewhere during the last few weeks I answered a call from Zocalo Public Square to wax thoughtful about hologram technologies and media engagement. At this particular moment in history — when we're all thinking more consciously about mortality than usual — it's been interesting to read about ways technology has both upended and renegotiated death and funeral rituals. The awful iPad visits to a hospital bedside. The inclusive livestream of a funeral.
Given my own perspective on how media, specifically holograms, intersects with and helps shape these social moments, my essay published this week draws from my research to consider the potential trajectory of holograms of deceased performers on stages (i.e., Tupac) to holograms of late family members in the living room. Posted just in time for the holidays!
Several iterations of performing “holograms” have begun touring the country, as I’ve written about a bit here (and it’s a primary subject of my dissertation). The rolling out of these nascent, futuristic spectacles constitutes early technical and market experiments to determine whether audiences will engage with posthumous, digital pop stars as a going concern beyond the one-off spectacles of 2.0Pac and Michael Jackson.
The subject matter selected for this first round of touring spectacles has been, in a word, niche. For instance, the late soprano Maria Callas has been making the rounds of international opera houses once again, in digital form. Likewise, dead crooner Roy Orbison just completed new tours of Australia and North America, and last week it was announced his hologram will return to the road on a double bill with Buddy Holly. We're not starting with the Beatles, in other words.
Last weekend, a hologram of heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio wrapped a 17-date U.S. tour with a final show in Los Angeles. I attended that show, and I offer some thoughts and observations here.
Image linked from Rolling Stone
“The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa” is a current concert tour featuring a resurrection of the title rocker as a “hologram” — the latest in a lengthening line of the digital deceased returning to stages. For instance, rock and roll pioneer Roy Orbison toured again last year and opera diva Maria Callas sang earlier this month in Los Angeles, where next month you also can check out the controversial Ronnie James Dio hologram. Each of these is an offspring of 2.0Pac — the “hologram” of the (allegedly) dead rapper that landed a headlining slot at the Coachella music festival in 2012. They are augmented-reality (AR) displays scaled to life-size: a visual likeness of the original star is recreated digitally, paired with archived audio, and projected onto a stage where the image “performs” alongside live, human musicians playing in sync.
It’s a phenomenon that should be generating fascinating visuals, breaking a stale mold of live musical performance, and inspiring new modes of both living and posthumous embodiment.
But it’s not, at least not yet.
Performing holograms thus far — even zany ol’ Zappa — are alarmingly conservative in their presentation and undemanding of their phenomenological experiences. For a technology inextricably linked to discourses of futurism and spectacle, the first wave of virtual pop stars has been disappointingly old-fashioned and dull. This post argues for some perspectives that might assist and direct the creative development of Holograms 2.0, with a nod toward last week's more interesting televised Madonna holograms.
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.