The Inevitability And Murky Morality Of Hologram Tours

If we can reboot TV shows and movies, will we next normalise rebooting humans into an eternal purgatory of touring?

Hologram Tours

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At the end of 2011, Dr. Dre — together with Janelle Croshaw and Steve Preeg of Academy Award-winning studio Digital Domain — began to create a live performance like no other.

It was set to be a technological display that did what great entertainers do best — push the boundaries of integrity.

On April 15, 2012, fifteen years after his death, an eerily accurate CGI figure of Tupac joined Dre and Snoop Dogg on stage for one of Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival’s most unforgettable performances.

It was the first time a hologram had been used in a live performance, and the first time hologram technology was used to resurrect the dead.

The legalities were simple enough: Dre just needed permission from Shakur’s mother to use his likeness. The process meant not only licensing his likeness, but also his music and videos. While holograms had been used of the living, Tupac’s resurrection signalled a new morally murky avenue of revenue; where estates and companies could rake in a fortune.

Just days after Shakur’s digital debut, pop culture pundits lambasted the future of posthumous hologram touring, and with good reason.

After Billboard Music Award’s Michael Jackson hologram and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s virtual appearance at Rock the Bells 10th anniversary, dead stars being beamed on stage suddenly became second nature to the culture. Despite Dre’s failed attempt to launch a CGI Tupac world tour, many prophesised that hologram shows were an inevitability.

The Ghostly March

This year, the world’s first posthumous hologram tour kicked off in the United Kingdom. In April, Roy Orbison’s In Dreams, The Hologram Tour, featuring the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, played ten shows that promised a “transformative live entertainment concert experience.”

With the tour spanning shows across the UK, Canada, and the US, at up to $70 a ticket, it’s a veritable cash cow. And while Tupac’s Coachella appearance caused a divisive uproar, reactions to Orbison’s CGI performance have been mild, to say the least.

Tupac’s resurrection signaled a new morally murky avenue of revenue; where estates and companies could rake in a fortune.

The Telegraph’s Nick McCormick described the mood of the show as being somewhere between “awe and amusement mixing nostalgic pleasure and incredulous unease”. The sold-out show went off without a hitch and the attention to detail on Orbison was breathtaking, from the tasselled fringe on his jacket to his immaculate vocals stripped out of original recordings.

Despite this, McCormick recounts a particularly uncomfortable and at times, bemused crowd. “There was no real audience interaction or participation”, he wrote. “Applause was underpinned by nervous laughter as if everyone in the room was struggling with the irony of audibly endorsing someone who wasn’t actually there to appreciate it. As live shows go, it was about as dead as could be.”

In 1970, Masahiro Mori, then a robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, proposed in an essay that a person’s response to a humanlike robot would shift from empathy to revulsion as it approached but fundamentally failed to attain a human appearance.

This is known as The Uncanny Valley phenomenon, which accounts for our nervous and uncomfortable reactions to the virtual figures of our beloved dead stars.

While Orbison’s glowing figure was able to turn his back to seemingly interact with the band, he was otherwise stagnant and left the stage by rising and sinking from centre stage via puffs of smoke. No one was moved to sing along, and only a handful of people took photos.

Why Can’t We Let Artists Rest?

Last month it was announced that the hologram of Amy Winehouse is set for its North American tour in 2019.

Asif Kapadia’s Amy, a film profile of the late, great British pop star, famously revealed her father’s exploitative money-making schemes. Mitch Winehouse, who is the caretaker of Amy’s estate, has joined forces with Las Vegas company Base Entertainment to bring the tour to life. The response to the announcement has been a mixture of bewilderment, excitement, and anger from fans — but a more important question remains: What would Amy want?

Hologram tours don’t let the legacy or souls of the dead a moment to rest.

In 1998, Prince was asked whether he’d ever perform alongside a hologram of jazz paragon, Duke Ellington. “That’s the most demonic thing imaginable,” he told Guitar World. “Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age. That whole virtual reality thing…it really is demonic. And I am not a demon.”

The world’s fascination with musicians rarely ends when they die. Often, we mythologise their lives, exacerbating an obsession that turns paying homage into monstrous fascination. Hologram tours don’t let the legacy or souls of the dead a moment to rest.

Six years since Tupac’s posthumous debut, it seems that this technology has become more financially viable and we’re at a precipice of a deluge of hologram tours. Roy Orbison, albeit a strange choice, managed to sell out shows, and the same can be expected for Amy Winehouse. For those that are making the money, it doesn’t matter if sales come from fans or those with a morbid curiosity.

It’s Not Just About Resurrecting The Dead

The sudden popularity of virtual models has seen this trend rear its head also in the fashion world. Balmain revealed it’s Virtual Army in September, featuring the world’s first digital supermodel, Shudu. Her creator, the twenty-eight-year-old white British photographer Cameron-James Wilson, received immense backlash for creating the black-digital figure.

Then there’s Lil Miquela, created by the Los Angeles-based startup Brud, who is a virtual slashie — a model and pop star. Her debut single, ‘Not Mine’ has nearly 1.5 million plays on Spotify. In October, Dazed Digital announced Lil Miquela as Dazed Beauty’s new contributing arts director.

If we can reboot TV shows and movies, will we next normalise rebooting humans into an eternal purgatory of touring?

As virtual figures, whether dead, undead or alive become part of the zeitgeist of the time, a future of hologram tours seems imminent. If we can reboot TV shows and movies, will we next normalise rebooting humans into an eternal purgatory of touring?

Aaliyah once said, “It’s hard to say what I want my legacy to be when I’m long gone.” But allowing a digital animation company to make that decision for her could send the industry’s moral compass askew.

If posthumous hologram tours continue to be as lucrative as Roy Orbison’s, then it’s likely we have a burgeoning trend on our hands. Logistically it makes a lot of sense; it eliminates pesky administrative concerns like visas, stupendous riders, and even accommodation costs while bringing in an easy stack of cash.

But for the living concerned about their legacy, it’s the beginning of something a lot more grim.

Kish Lal is a writer and critic based in Melbourne. She tweets about raccoons and Cardi B at @kish_lal