Hologram If You Hear Me: Putting the Aura Back In Digitally Reproduced Performances

After holographic Tupac crashed Coachella 2012, the buzz about holographic performances by dead musicians has breached the music blogosphere and hit the mainstream. Even Jezebel, which isn’t really a music blog, had a featured article about the topic. Sure, the hologram is innovative and futuristic and techy, it’s a little uncanny and creepy, and it pretty much asks for a quick Star Wars ANH joke (that’s “A New Hope,” or the original 77 film, for my non-geek readers). But why, beyond these superficial reasons, do so many people find the idea of “live performance” by dead-musician holograph so appealing? Or so creepy? Or both?

I think Walter Benjamin can help us out a bit here. His famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” argues that technology has shifted art’s “aura” from the work/object/performance to the artist. Mechanical reproduction (lithography, photography, pressing records, copying and distributing film reels, etc.) allows us to mass produce artworks. Sure, there may be a master copy of The Wizard of Oz, but you don’t need to see that “original” in order to view the film. In fact, most people don’t even view it on film anymore, but on DVD, Blu Ray, or digitally. And it makes no difference which copy you see, or what kind of copy you see (Betamax FTW!), the content is the same. Art objects are no longer unique snowflakes, uncopiable and irreducibly individual. Because anyone can easily (or relatively easily) access mass produced art objects, they no longer have an “aura” of either exclusively or originality. Benjamin defines “aura” as an art object’s “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (3); location and provenance is important because “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” (4). He then defines “the authenticity of a thing” as “the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (3). The “authenticity” of an artwork is really “the authority of the object” (3; emphasis mine)–it’s what makes it important, valuable, good, interesting, etc. With mass production/reproduction, no single work is “authoritative”.

Benjamin goes on to note that audiences still crave something like an aura to covet, worship, or fetishize. If they can’t locate it in the work, where do they turn? To the artist or performer him or herself. Film studios and record companies create “cults of personalities”–i.e., celebrity–as second-rate “aura” substitutes. As Benjamin explains,

The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the “personality” outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the “spell of the personality,” the phony spell of a commodity. (5)

So, instead of worshiping artworks we worship celebrity-artists. The appeal of the holo-performance is that it brings the artist to us, on demand, not just his or her work.

Mechanical and digital reproduction and distribution allow us to hear anyone’s music, pretty much anywhere at any time. Pac, MJ, Strummer, they’re all long gone, but they’re all readily available to me on my iPod (I just listened to the Clash at the gym this morning). Music fans are used to hearing music more or less on demand. We’ve long had the audio technology to hear musical performances on demand, and we expect that audio performances don’t have any sort of aura that would tether them to a specific place or moment. But now we have the visual technology to see “live” musical performances on demand–not filmed/videoed recordings, but actual projections of an artist’s image, in a specific, concrete material context. By putting it in a specific historical-geographical context, we can put the provenance, and thus the ‘aura’ back in the artist (or rather, the artist’s image) Remember, Benjamin specifically contrasts live stage performance with film. Live stage performance has aura, film does not. But these holo-performances complicate things, b/c the performer isn’t the living artist. It’s a digitally reproduced recording of the artist’s performance.

So, I’m going to suggest that the real uncanniness (or uneasiness) generated by these holo-performances is not traditional “uncanny valley” reactions to posthuman doubles. Rather, the uncanniness comes from the juxtaposition of the aura-less recording with the aur-acular/aura-full “provenance” of the concert/stage performance. The concert is a ritualistic communal experience. If, as Benjamin argues, “the unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value” (5), then the holographic “live” performance puts a digitally reproduced cultural object right in the heart of the center of “authenticity.” If mechanical reproduction de-ritualizes artworks, holographic performance re-ritualizes the de-ritualized. In other words, the holographic performance collapses Benjamin’s distinction between the provenanced-object and the reproduced-object.