On Contemporary
Ranjodh Singh Dhaliwal
  • Essay

Celebrity Holograms, Tricky Ghosts, and Other Technologies of Political Bodies

In his essay, On Contemporary Image-Making, Ranjodh Singh Dhaliwal provides a particularly captivating account of the image, both in terms of likeness and public perception, as cultivated by various celebrities and their public relation management firms. Dhaliwal, a media theorist, science studies scholar, programmer, and literary critic, draws upon his varied backgrounds to trace one strand of the history of the use of holographic imaging – as representation – in order to construct a public image – as conceived by the masses. Bringing together (often dead) celebrity holograms, ghostly parlor tricks, and cyberpunk author William Gibson’s first published story, Fragments of a Hologram Rose, Dhaliwal’s writing narrates the unexpected encounters between the colonial and post-colonial deployments of technological mediations.

When Britain was celebrating the Platinum Jubilee1 of the previous leader of its monarchy – an institution somehow still not dead, though said monarch is, in the year of our Lord 20222 – news outlets latched on to an especially bizarre scene: a digital representation of Elizabeth II waving at the crowds in a parade that showcased the Gold State Coach, the especially gilded carriage of the British Royal Family. There she was, not 96 years old, but instead, shown as a sprightly 27-year-old sitting in a cabin made of solid gold, just as the moment had been captured during her coronation in 1953. The press read and publicised the instance as that of a hologram standing in for the Queen.3 It was also a monarch absent from her own jubilee celebrations, with the institution she led stepping in to provide her likeness as a substitute.

One is reminded of the long reach of mediaeval political theology – what German historian Ernst Kantorowicz famously called the “The King’s Two Bodies” – which made possible the fiction of a sovereign inhabiting not only their own physical body but also the intangible, ever-present body politic (that is, the political site and instantiation of sovereignty granted by religion, law, or political structures).4 The proclamation “The king is dead! Long live the king” – said to have been first declared in French as Le roi est mort, vive le roi! – encapsulates this concept well. On the one hand, a king – someone with a physical, mortal body – has died, but on the other hand, the king – the idea of a king, the institutional structures that make a geographical entity a king-dom, and perhaps the new king (the heir who may automatically be granted this kingdom upon the death of his predecessor) – is alive, and may he live long! This split in the sovereign body may seem like a curious problem for mediaeval historians and other aficionados interested in royal workings. That is, until you start to notice that the techno-logical functions of bodies – especially bodies of people with power, as in the case of Elizabeth II’s carriage-image – are present and hold an outsized role in many places in our world today.5

Holograms, after all, have been increasingly used in recent years as a way for celebrity estates, patent hawks, and technology providers to make money with the images of the dead. The hologram of Tupac Shakur, performing at the 2012 Coachella with Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, garnered media attention and controversy owing to the ethics of imagistically resuscitating the legendary dead hip-hop star and the technology deployed to do so. Tupac is not alone in his post-mortem journey; Whitney Houston, Elvis Presley, Amy Winehouse, and Michael Jackson, among others, have all been revived as holograms, with each instance provoking moral, ethical, and legal questions concerning the use of such technology. In the case of Tupac, Digital Domain, a special effects company co-founded by film director James Cameron – that has created Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) for movies such as Titanic, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame – was paid an undisclosed six-figure USD amount to make the effect work on stage.6 That Digital Domain filed for bankruptcy mere months later is perhaps not coincidental; the very visions of speculation that grant capital to one have to sometimes take it away from another.7

Another dead figure revived by hologram was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the former US President (and, fittingly for this story, one-time Hollywood actor) Ronald Reagan, a solid candidate for being the favourite politician of your nearest libertarian named Richard and a top three hall of fame character in the history of neoliberalism. A company named HologramUSA was hired by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California to bring Ronald to life in 2018, and the spectre of Ronald has been hard at work ever since, just like its namesake and his policies throughout the world. HologramUSA, it must be noted, has a webpage full of dead stars that are listed as “talent” managed by the company.8 In this case, the names of Black artists such as Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, and Whitney Houston especially stand out, given the notably violent racial history of artistic management.9 Today, holograms are used to extend this historical management and control of Black bodies by corporations concerned with image rights. Even death cannot stop the exploitation of these stars.

The presence of Reagan, yet another protagonist in the history of exploitation, on this list highlights one short-circuiting in the arena of politics and public image today: the fact that all politicians are also necessarily celebrities in our day and age (and, vice versa, for most celebrities are politicians). Not that this was not true before; public images and public relations for politicians are a story as old as politics itself – the ancient Romans often had to use likenesses on coins as a technical arrow in the public relations quiver, for example10 – but as Walter Benjamin predicted in his famous theses on mechanical reproducibility in the 1930s, politics today functions via modes and modalities of celebrity.11 For Benjamin, politics had replaced ritual as a source of the function of art, and as a result, we were headed towards a dangerous era in which politics would be aestheticised. From his vantage point around Nazi Germany, Benjamin warned ominously: “All efforts to aestheticize politics culminate in one point. That one point is war”.12 Reagan and Elizabeth II are but contemporary instantiations of these long-standing trends, and interesting ones at that: one alive and another dead (alive while appearing as a hologram, that is; Elizabeth has since said her goodbyes, of course), one declared an almost-inert monarch-for-life and another whose short-lived executive power harrowingly shaped the US and the world, for several decades (at least) to come. What unites such public images (as perceptions) today, as they reach out for holographic imaging (as representation) techniques?

Allow me a brief technical digression. Holograms are essentially photographs produced with lasers instead of white light, which record, indexically, a moment in space and time that can then be reproduced, often with the help of a laser light, to give the illusion of a 3D scene.13 Used both for the process and the product, the term hologram denotes the whole procedure, from the splitting of a laser beam into a reference and an object beam to its capture as an interference pattern and finally to its display. Two images made from one: a reference and a shift. This techno-logic of fragmented reality perhaps encapsulates a media theory of hologram better than anything. Holograms, in many ways, are technologies that augment reality (AR). In fact, Microsoft’s HoloLens (2015), often considered a first-generation AR device, was heralded as an instantiation of this relationship.14 Another, perhaps more famous example of a technology drawing upon this etymological connection is, quite tellingly, a fictional one: the quasi-magical experience-generator Holodeck in the TV series Star Trek. The term ‘holographic’, as an adjective, is often applied colloquially, whether it is technologically correct or not, to a broader set of phenomena than what are technically holograms. Holograms have been used as an authenticating marker on bank notes and credit cards since 1988, but recently, other Optically Variable Devices (OVDs) have, in some instances, taken their place.15 Moving from the technological guarantor of an instrument of credit (the modern sub-unit of our financial systems) to the technological promoter of celebrity politic (and both are versions of each other at a systemic level), today, holographic techniques operate under the radar as a first line of technologically-mediated illusion-works. The bland dreams of virtual realities and Facebook’s Metaverse might just be the other dystopian end of this spectrum that yields realities we wish to escape from/to. This is why it is noteworthy that the Queen’s image-illusion (as well as those of Tupac and Jackson and the others), which sought the waving hands of its subjects in exchange for the promises of a youthful sovereign, was not even technically a hologram. It was a “Pepper’s Ghost”, a parlour trick from 1862, first performed for Charles Dickens’s play, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain.16 Pepper’s Ghost involves yet-another dual splitting: in this case, it is spatial. Light reflecting off a reflective glass17 in conjunction with a space that is hidden from the viewer produces an illusion that makes the viewer perceive a 3D figure in front of them. If holograms are low-tech versions of what is today called AR (and one can certainly make a case for it being the other way around), then Pepper’s Ghost is a significantly lower-tech version of a hologram. All of these layered illusions must be symbolically understood as just that: illusions.

Let’s take the example of yet another famous hologram (again, one that is technically not a hologram but a Pepper’s Ghost), one that reached significantly more people than the jubilee carriage episode: that of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during several election campaigns over the last decade or so.18 Modi’s holograms have simultaneously called on people in several regions of a giant, billion-peopled nation to vote for his political party (the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP). Details are scarce, but Modi has been deploying this technology since (at least) the 2012 Gujarat Legislative Assembly elections.19 In 2014, when the national elections were underway, Modi’s 3D representation gave rousing speeches to thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of Indian voters, again, all at once, in several different parts of the country. To be fair, this was perhaps done to ensure they earned a Guinness World Record – something that the global horde of uncles and wannabe dictators (often the same demographic these days) desperately desire – for “Most simultaneous broadcasts of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion”.20 Modi used, incidentally, Musion, one of the companies involved in Tupac’s resurrection, further highlighting the global interconnectedness of technological players and political players in this weird theatre of image-making.

It is my contention that Narendra Modi’s use of holographic technologies – or, more accurately, nineteenth-century parlour tricks – for nationally deployed political illusions should be read as a marker of the ethos politicians such as Modi wish to cultivate: literally tricking their subjects into believing a certain image of the politician. So, while the dying monarch needed the veneer of youth to remind her subjects of the colonial times when she (and, by extension, they) had still ruled over half of Africa, Modi needs a parlour trick as evidence of the technologically advanced nation that he claims to have been building (towards) – evidence that is largely lacking outside of the trucks carted into Indian cities and villages to showcase his holograms. Colonial (in the case of Elizabeth II) and postcolonial (in the case of Modi) hopes, dreams, and lies are first and foremost constructed (and also enhanced) using these technological mediations, with India and the UK being joined in a common-wealth of deceit. Narendra Modi was, it must be remembered, in charge of Gujarat when that state saw a ferocious pogrom against Muslims in 2002, with nearly 2,000 dying at the hands of mobs that were state-tolerated, or worse, state-sanctioned.21 Modi’s stock sank to an all-time low and required several years of rebuilding before he could run for the post of Indian Prime Minister. A large part of that rebuilding came thanks to public relations campaigns that were carefully managed by international firms such as APCO Worldwide – a public relations firm specialising in, fittingly, crisis management – which doubles as a lobbying firm too.22 From national and international marketing campaigns that seek to convince investors, businesspeople, and laypersons of Narendra Modi’s technological and economic acumen, to drumming up support in American halls of power (after Modi had been denied a visitor’s visa to the US), firms such as APCO (and others including Soho Square, Ogilvy and Mather, and Madison World) are essential for the image-making of someone like Modi should he, or any other politician today, need the world to forget the past and embrace a new vision. The holographic apparatus does not just enable Modi’s 3D representation to act like a stand-in, giving speeches simultaneously across the country; rather, it itself stands in for the mutable political relationships between the sovereign and his subjects. In this case, a parliamentary democracy, where the prime minister is elected not in elections but post facto by the members of parliament, begins to function like a one-person executive system with Modi at its helm; hence the need for that one man to be everywhere all at once is a techno-logical need as much as it is a political aspiration of the BJP. And this is why the holographic image-formation using Pepper’s Ghost at a world record-breaking scale is an illusion that must be understood as an allegory for Modi’s other image-formation campaigns: the decades-long campaign to achieve his rehabilitation as well as his more recent PR drives such as “Digital India”, which sought investment to demonstrate how strong India’s technology manufacturing and services sector were, and could become; how could a man whose body is literally constructed in rural India using such advanced (sic) technology be anything but a harbinger of a techno-optimist future heralded as Digital India™? The image-making inherent in politics today, via PR campaigns and coordinated international lobbying, runs through and with the operational image-making23 inherent in media technologies; together, they form a tight network, each the mirror image of the other, co-constructing a new immortal sovereign body.

Holograms are curious technologies in so far as, unlike photographs, they do not index the recorded moment in each spatial configuration of the recording; cutting up a hologram does not mean cutting up the image, as each holographic fragment is the interference pattern of the whole. Each fragment shows the whole image from a different angle, not a different sub-unit of the image as in a photographic film; or at least that is the argument made in science fiction author William Gibson’s first published short story, Fragments of a Hologram Rose (1977). Here, the protagonist (Parker), who inhabits a dystopian cyberpunk future created by indentured labour and shaped by the augmented reality of a technology called Apparent Sensory Perception (meant to be a partial distraction from the broken hypercapitalist world and global military strife in which the story is set), finds a broken hologram that reminds him of someone he once loved. "A hologram has this quality: Recovered and illuminated, each fragment will reveal the whole image of the rose".24 As Parker ponders what it meant to live through the “Lascaux/Gutenberg tradition of a pre-holographic society”, in which you could not feel someone else’s perceptual experience, he asks himself whether “[w]e’re each other’s fragments, and was it always this way?”

If “each fragment reveals the rose from a different angle”, then we may ask ourselves what this allegory of visual technological mediation through holography in a broken world has to tell us, as subjects with one foot still firmly in the pre-holographic tradition. If one of the Queen’s two bodies – or of Modi’s, or even of his Turkish counterpart, Erdoğan25 – is today composed of holography-adjacent illusions, then we can safely say that this body only functions by relegating the other, physical body to the other consideration of image-making: public relations. As fictions become our facts in this era of late capitalism, we find ourselves sifting between the many preserved bodies (corporeal and corporate) and constructed images (public and technological) of those in and around power. All we see are fragments, one angle at a time. Yet, there has never been a greater need to know more and feel more than what our vision can see.

The author would like to thank Jacob Hagelberg, Sahana Srinivasan, Elise Misao Hunchuck, Nora O Murchú, Anna-Lena Panter, Pip Hare, Jennifer Theodor, and the whole transmediale team for their help and support with this piece.

  1. 1
    The Platinum Jubilee Central Weekend (2 June – 5 June 2022) was a celebration marking the 70th anniversary of Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne (on 6 February 1952). She was the first British monarch to celebrate this milestone.
  2. 2
    Elizabeth II (Elizabeth Alexandra Mary; 21 April 1926 – 8 September 2022).
  3. 3
    For more on standing in, see D. Mulvin, Proxies: The Cultural Work of Standing In, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2021; W. H. K. Chun, Discriminating Data: Correlation, Neighborhoods, and the New Politics of Recognition, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2021; B. Geoghegan, ‘Administrative Detours-in-Being: Roman Catholic Political Form and German Media Theory’, public lecture, University of Notre Dame, April 13 2022. For an example of the press reaction, see http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/video/2022/jun/05/queen-elizabeth-appears-as-hologram-inside-260-year-old-golden-carriage-video?CMP=twt_gu - Echobox=1654443498
  4. 4
    Ernst H Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1957.
  5. 5
    The French thinker Michel Foucault used this analytic to talk about the body of the condemned; celebrity bodies and corporate bodies can be analysed through a similar lens, as can the images of sportspersons and their representations, and religious figureheads, to name a few examples. For more, see F. W. Maitland, ‘Crown as Corporation’, Law Quarterly Review, no. 17, 1901, pp. 131–146; M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, New York, Pantheon Books, 1977; M. P. Marks and Z. M. Fischer, ‘The King’s New Bodies: Simulating Consent in the Age of Celebrity’, New Political Science, vol. 24, no. 3, 2002, pp. 371–394; R. S. Dhaliwal, ‘Playing with Oneself: Six Notes on Fantasies and Frustrations of Famous Footballers’, in R. Guins, H. Lowood, and C. Wing (eds.), EA Sports FIFA: Feeling the Game, New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2022, pp. 145–160; Agostino Paravicini-Bagliani, The Pope’s Body, trans. David S. Peterson, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  6. 6
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  9. 9
    See, for example, G. Horne, Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music, New York, NYU Press, 2019.
  10. 10
    For a wonderful documental design history that touches on coinage and images, see C. Lee, Immutable: Designing History, Eindhoven, Onomatopee/Library Stack, 2022. See also H. A. Innis, Empire and Communications, Victoria, Press Porcépic, 1986.
  11. 11
    W. Benjamin, M. W. Jennings, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (First Version)’, Grey Room no. 39, Spring 2010, pp. 11–37.
  12. 12
    Benjamin, Jennings, p. 35.
  13. 13
    Sean F. Johnston, among others, has comprehensively studied the cultural and technical history of the process. See, for example, S. F. Johnston, ‘Attributing Scientific and Technological Progress: The Case of Holography’, History and Technology, vol. 21, no. 4, December 2005, pp. 367–392; S. F. Johnston, ‘A Cultural History of the Hologram’, Leonardo, vol. 41, no. 3, 2008, pp. 223–229. See also, Jens Schröter's work on this topic. For example, J. Schröter, 'Holographic Knowledge and Non-Reproducibility', MediArXiv, March 27 2019, https://doi.org/10.33767/osf.io/9zbe5 .
  14. 14
  15. 15
    https://www.gi-de.com/en/payment/cash/banknote-security-technology/insights-banknote-security-technology/30-years-holograms-on-banknotes . See also S. Gießmann, ‘Money, Credit, and Digital Payment 1971/2014: From the Credit Card to Apple Pay’, Administration & Society, vol. 50, no. 9, 2018, pp. 1259–1279.
  16. 16
    J. H. Pepper, The True History of the Ghost: And All about Metempsychosis, London, Cassell & Co, 1890; J. Steinmeyer, The Science Behind the Ghost: A Brief History of Pepper’s Ghost, The Victorian Theatrical Sensation, Burbank, Hahne, 2013.
  17. 17
    The reflective glass most often used these days is the ubiquitous plexiglass. For a cultural history of plexiglass, see S. Mattern, ‘Purity and Security,’ Places Journal, December 2020.
  18. 18
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  21. 21
    A. Basu, Hindutva as Political Monotheism, Durham, Duke University Press, 2020; A. D. Needham and R. S. Rajan (eds.), The Crisis of Secularism in India, Durham, Duke University Press, 2007. Also interesting is Modi’s obsession with statues and his recent promotion of hologram statues as stand-ins for actual statues promised in the future. See K. Jain, Gods in the Time of Democracy, Durham, Duke University Press, 2021; www.thehindu.com/news/national/prime-minister-narendra-modi-unveils-hologram-statue-of-netaji-subash-chandra-bose-at-india-gate-on-january-23-2022/article38314481.ece
  22. 22
    V. K. Jose, ‘The Emperor Uncrowned: The rise of Narendra Modi’, The Caravan, 1 March 2012, https://caravanmagazine.in/reportage/emperor-uncrowned-narendra-modi-profile ; D. Filkins, ‘Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India’, New Yorker, 2 December 2019, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/12/09/blood-and-soil-in-narendra-modis-india ; https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/company/corporate-trends/how-an-american-lobbying-company-apco-worldwide-markets-narendra-modi-to-the-world/articleshow/17537402.cms . See also J. Pal et al., ‘Twitter and the Rebranding of Narendra Modi’, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 51, no. 8, February 2016, pp. 52–60.
  23. 23
    J. Parikka, Operational Images: From the Visual to the Invisual, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming July 2023; H. Farocki, ‘Phantom Images’, trans. Brian Poole, in Public, no. 29, 2004, pp. 12–22.
  24. 24
    W. Gibson, ‘Fragments of a Hologram Rose’, Unearth, 1977, pp. 72–77, republished in an anthology of Gibson’s short stories, C, New York, Arbor House, 1986, and again more recently Burning Chrome, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, pp. 37–44.
  25. 25
    M. Ford, ‘Giant Hologram of Turkish prime minister delivers speech. Welcome to 21st-century politics’, The Atlantic, 27 January 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/01/giant-hologram-of-turkish-prime-minister-delivers-speech/283374/ The left-leaning French politician, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has also availed himself of this technology; the technological future that nation-states’ politicians aspire to and promise today is, after all, just as much a speculative priority for a stagnating imperial power such as France as it is for a postcolonial state such as India, for late capitalist troubles surround us all, albeit unequally. See www.radiofrance.fr/franceculture/podcasts/la-vie-numerique/l-hologramme-de-melenchon-et-surgit-un-fantome-9620584