Writing about Facebook profiles as memorials to the dead, Patrick Stokes notes that “our social identities are not necessarily coextensive with the biological life of the individual human organism with which they are associated, and thus it is not the memory of the dead person that is being honored and sustained through this form of memorialization, but some dimension or extension of the dead person themselves” (367). This is part of a growing body of literature that has coalesced around the agency of the dead — an agency facilitated specifically through durable, mediated representations of formerly living bodies.
My research is rooted in a sizable patch of this, but I’m commenting on some of it here because of a couple of nifty examples encountered just this week — mediated, shared, and hyped performances by two public figures who are no longer alive. (Warning: a few minor “Rogue One” spoilers lie ahead.)
My two most productive research interests seem quite different. My current dissertation project investigates the cultural histories and spatial embodiment of holograms and hologram simulations. In my copious free time (cough, sputter), I also maintain a course of study that began well before my grad-school adventure; as a journalist, both in Tulsa, Okla., and at the Chicago Sun-Times, I wrote a great deal about folksinger Woody Guthrie and the revival of his legacy within his home state, and now as a scholar I continue examining the ol' cuss and his peculiar communication strategies. One interest is old, analog, and sepia-toned; the other is shiny, digital, and futuristic.
But — as I explained in my presentation this weekend at the Woody Guthrie Symposium, hosted jointly by The University of Tulsa and the Woody Guthrie Center — there's actually a bit of Venn-diagram shade between the two. What interests me about these emerging "hologram" technologies, especially uses of the tech in pop-music performance contexts, is how the digitally projected characters achieve some semblance of believability, how their creators manage to craft a successful performing persona, and whether these simulations can claim something like Benjamin's "aura" or even Bazin's "fingerprint." This is not far removed, I'd say, from the process human performers go through in crafting their own performing personas — which is what I claim Woody did during his two years on L.A. radio beginning in 1937, as a direct result of his encounter with the new mass medium and its delayed feedback channels. Such is the basis of my paper on the subject, and my talk this weekend.
No one, to my knowledge, yet has proposed that Woody be among the legions of dead musicians resurrected in hologram form. This sounds like both a terrific idea (he'd probably love it) and a dreadful idea. Who knows?
This month saw publication of The Oxford Handbook of Music & Virtuality, containing my chapter, "Hatsune Miku, 2.0Pac and Beyond: Rewinding and Fast-forwarding the Virtual Pop Star."
In it, I survey a history of virtuality in pop music stars, from the Chipmunks and the Archies up to Gorillaz and Dethklok — many of the non-corporeal, animated characters that presaged current virtual pop stars like Hastune Miku and the Tupac resurrection.
What is a hologram?
Dictionaries say one thing, but popular discourse says much more. From its birth as a collage of post-WWII optical sciences through the 1970s, holography was an evolving but fairly easily defined practice. Its products were called holograms — photo-like film images that delivered a more three-dimensional view of the subject.
Then "Star Wars" happened.
Black lives matter, yes. But what about black holograms?
The criminalization of black bodies apparently extends to their digital form, as well. This important lesson came to us via Chicago rapper Chief Keef, who a couple of weeks ago attempted to perform in concert as a hologram simulation; his digital body, however, was powered down and prevented from performing in the same manner as his physical body. It’s a weird case of police overreach and an interesting example of how culture is still trying to get its collective head around the meanings of hologram simulations.
Perfume is a Japanese techo-pop group, a trio of women cranked out of a Hiroshima idol-singer mill nearly 15 years ago; last week they at last made their SXSW debut, after touring the United States for the first time only last year. Their performance — an eye-popping, digitally mashed-up overload of projection-mapped spectacle — offers exciting new ways to consider the negotiations between digital and live bodies on stage.
SXSW has supported talent from Japan for most of its run, despite often pigeonholing it in the single Japan Nite showcase — which observed its 20th anniversary this year (I had the fortune of being present for the first back in ’96, featuring the great Lolita No. 18). But as bands from Japan have upped their cultural cachet here, bigger acts have spilled over into the festival’s other venues and showcases. Perfume’s set last week — sandwiched at the end of the festival's Interactive portion and the beginning of its bedrock music week — certainly turned some heads.
There's an oft-cited quotation within the circles of popular music. It goes like this: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." It's a succinct summation of the challenge of music criticism — of experiencing the ineffable magic of any art and then using mere words to pin down all that smoke. Throughout my 20 years getting paid to do just that, I recognized the futility of the activity (while counting my lucky stars).
The quote — attributed to a wide variety of sources, though it was most likely a Martin Mull original, according to the fearless and tireless Quote Investigator — usually is bandied about by musicians (commonly by those who have been on the receiving end of some sharp criticism) with the intent of belittling music critics. They wield the statement in order to point out how worthless is the critical pursuit, how beneath their attention. They could be right.
But I'm newly involved in plumbing the depths of performance studies, and it's lead to a not-small revelation about that quotation's very metaphor.
That's no moon. That's the Light Stage X, a complex and utterly cool device created by USC's Paul Debevec and teams to capture image data from human faces and bodies.
This week I enjoyed a tour of USC's Institute for Creative Technologies, featuring demos of several of their virtual-reality projects, including Bravemind (VR assistance in PTSD therapy), ELITE (VR training for counselors), Gunslinger (a wild simulation of a Western cowpoke showdown that artfully brings narrative into real-time VR interaction), and one of the Graphics Lab's Light Stages.
In my recent research into virtual performance simulations, I've ended conference presentations, my upcoming book chapter, and my thesis with some measured forecasts of the cool technology likely just over the horizon — in digital re/animation, projection systems, and artificial intelligence — all the while keeping in mind that technology forecasts tend to become outdated if not entirely quaint within hours of utterance. This week, however, brought very exciting news that sent me gleefully diving into some revisions.
Princess Leias and 2.0Pacs, I give you: the Ostendo Quantum Photonic Imager.
Per last week's rumors, Michael Jackson last night became the latest holo-resurrection in pop music's crescendoing digital-zombie apocalypse. As a highlight of the otherwise pointless Billboard Music Awards, the King of Pop (now five years in the grave) appeared as a simulated hologram and performed "Slave to the Rhythm," an elaborate promotion of his new posthumous album out now, "Xscape."
Good luck, however, finding video of the spectacle this morning. Sony's lawyers seem to have pulled an all-nighter slapping down YouTube links — the metaphor of opening the performance with ominous music and a riot-line of dancers dressed as crypto-corporate soldiers was not lost here — except for the official MJ account, where the performance is shown in full here ...
I'm THOMAS CONNER, communication researcher and culture journalist.