cappotto peuterey uomo An Ontology of Render Ghosts

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This paper will cover the topic of render ghosts and will discuss their role in our world, as well as the relationship we have with them. To do that, concepts from sociology, philosophy, and physics were used. The analysis of Jean Baudrillard on modernity was useful to explain what a simulacrum is, and to demonstrate that we live in an everlasting hyperreal situation. The reflections of Karen Barad on the void as an on going process of creation were necessary to understand the ontology of digitally unborn creatures. Finally, James Bridle and his premises about the New Aesthetic provided us with a panorama of the convergence, and retro alimentation of the digital and the real.

At the end of the last millennium, The Truman Show film (Weir, 1999) starred by Canadian born comedian Jim Carrey was received with great acclaim. The movie depicts a nonchalant man who lived all his life unaware that he was only a character inside a televised series. It was only by an accumulation of signs that he ended up uncovering the truth.

In The Truman Show, the scope of reality television was cleverly questioned: what if we were only props in a simulated world? I cannot but wonder that Truman Burbank is the perfect analogy for a virtual entity. Isolated in a parallel space, living in an idyllic world, raised as real but fake as a forgery banknote.

In present times, reality television series are not shocking anymore. In the same manner, the fact that our environment has been duplicated is not a big surprise. On a daily basis, we experience a series of simulated phenomena and we do not even bother to question what is substantial, and what is not. In fact, it would be almost impossible to tell apart one thing from the other, because that is by definition a property of simulacrum.

Render ghosts constitute, more or less, one of these simulation phenomena. These spirits share some commonalities, for they have discussed themes such as simulation, ontology, and virtuality on their own works.

A good point to start our discussion about render ghosts is to look up the ideas of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. He is considered to the date one of the most influential thinker and theorist of modernity. His ideas about simulation and hyperreality, conceived during the decade of the 1980s will allow us to settle good foundations so as to understand other hypothesis, like the ones Karen Barad and James Bridle have presented in more recent times.

The first question will be: what is a simulation and how it differs from a mere representation? While both terms can be easily confused, Baudrillard makes an effort to make a distinction between both concepts. When we face an image a form of representation we can distinguish it from the original. Therefore, reality has not been compromised; in this case, it is clear the boundary between the source and the copy. A simulacrum, on the contrary, threatens reality masking it. It no longer resembles reality, because it is a product without a basis on something authentic.

Baudrillard starts citing Borges’s fable on the first chapter of Simulacra and Simulation (originally published in 1981). In that story, an exact replica of the territory was created in the form of a map and was placed over the land. Over time, it was the map that survived, masking what it had below. Citizens will no more inhabit the real world, but the map. Here and there we can find vestiges of the territory, a subverted scenario where reality has been superseded. This will lead to a scenario where a new reality is generated without having an origin in the real: the hyperreal (Baudrillard, 1994).

Constant exposure to media alters and influences the way we perceive reality. Because of that, there is no more need to deepen in into the real in order to construct new universes, for everything can be simulated. In words of Baudrillard (1994), by using matrices reality can be manufactured and reproduced infinite times. Our render ghosts are clearly a simulation, generated from models (beings) and placed inside a virtual environment (Figure 1).

Can we think of these digital worlds as non places? If so, we should stop for a while and refer to the work of Marc Augé. For him, non places are a consequence of supermodernity, an era characterised by excess on three main fronts: overabundance of events (the speed at which they occur makes impossible to grasp history anymore); spatial overabundance (changes of scales, proliferation of imaged and imaginary references, and the acceleration of means of transport); and the individualisation of references (citizens becoming isolated worlds) (Augé, 1995). Non places and places complement each other, they “are rather like opposed polarities: the first is never completely erased, the second never totally completed; they are like palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity and relations is ceaselessly rewritten.” (Augé, 1995) What are, if not, these pristine minimalist villas found in advertising billboards? What about those HDR beaches where phantasms stroll next to the seashore, expecting a marvellous Bali like sunset? What can be more hyperreal than this non existent microcosm? Like Disney World, nobody questions these chimeric mise en scènes.

The aftermath of being progressively accustomed to the hyperreal is that our past experiences are no longer satisfactory. Lo res videos or five megapixel photos are some kind of heresy nowadays. Resolution overrules content. Programmatic obsolescence. This hyper thirst for the ultimate gadget and a hubristic desire to achieve (a better) reality has leaded us towards a maze of artifices. And then, Elvis appeared from thin air in 2007, materialized thanks to light on a televised show. Dead or not, his resurrection in the form of a hologram surprised more than one. Would not many of us like to have also a three dimensional self? Baudrillard (1994) could not have said it better: “the closer one gets to the perfection of the simulacrum (), the more evident it becomes () how everything escapes representation, escapes its own double and its resemblance.”

Many relations can be found between render ghosts and holograms. Both are generated in another world, that of the software. Whether emerged from a Computer Aided Design (CAD) environment or sculpted thanks to a laser beam, they belong to the virtual. Holograms and ghosts are, to some extent, prolongations of our existences. We are not unique anymore.

cappotto peuterey uomo An Ontology of Render Ghosts
according to Mach, the universe is that of which there is no double, no equivalent in the mirror, then with the hologram we are already virtually in another universe: which is nothing but the mirrored equivalent of this one. But which universe is this one? (Baudrillard, 1994)

I have an answer to that question. That is the universe of the void, a place in which things are neither real nor material. In order to understand this, we need to go further in time, and examine the theories of Karen Barad.

As stated in the last chapter, it is compulsory to revise some of the hypothesis that Barad developed concerning nothingness, the void, and the interactions among beings and non beings. These aspects will abet us to come up with a more consistent definition of these contemporary creatures that are materialized in a digital/virtual dimension.

I would like to start with a quote from The Measurement of Nothingness, which will open a door to further discussion into the matter of existence: “virtuality is not a speedy return, a popping into and out of existence with great rapidity, but rather the indeterminacy of being/non being, a ghostly non/existence.” (Barad, 2012)

It is this duality immanent to render ghosts that is fascinating. When we see an image depicting a fictional space we think it is just a mere representation. However, what we are witnessing is a parallel world, filled with of (non) humans, performing common actions like talking casually to each other or using their smartphones, always unaware of our presence (Figure 2). In that sense, a critical aspect to grasp the duality of existence and non existence is the concept of virtual particles.

In classical physics, the vacuum is the absence of matter, and therefore possesses zero energy. In contrast with that, the quantum field theory (QFT) considers that “the lowest energy state of all the systems could be called a vacuum state.” (Boyarkin, 2011) Although the vacuum, under this definition, does not contain physical particles, it is not empty as the classical model propagated. In direct connection with the quantum vacuum zero point energy is the idea of vacuum fluctuations. Virtual particles are responsible for these fluctuations. Moreover, according to Barad (2012): “() even the smallest bits of matter are an enormous multitude. Each ‘individual’ is made up of all possible histories of virtual intra actions with all Others. Indeterminacy is an un/doing of identity that unsettles the very foundations of non/being.”

Render ghosts are indeterminate creatures. Ontologically speaking, they were born in our territory, but they were shifted to the virtual (Figure 3). To some extent, one can also relate indeterminacy to the concepts of speculative design and design thinking. The former because design becomes a tool in order to come up with what if scenarios; in that regard the displacement of humans to the digital realm is one solution to evidence that these non places will eventually be populated by regular people. The second insofar designers are responsible for conceive and plan what does not exist yet (Buchanan, 1992). With the risk of branching out a bit, lets say that in Buchanan’s paper the determinacy and indeterminacy dichotomy is a neural point of his discourse. In opposition to the classic “problem definition / problem solution” model for design, the wicked problem (a term coined by Horst Rittel) approach acknowledges the following:

Design problems are ‘indeterminate’ and ‘wicked’ because design has no special subject matter of its own apart from what a designer conceives it to be. The subject matter of design is potentially universal in scope, because design thinking may be applied to any area of human experience. But in the process of application, the designer must discover or invent a particular subject out of the problems and issues of specific circumstances. (Buchanan, 1992)

In the next chapter we will revise a clever study of the render ghosts phenomenon by journalist derived into media artist James Bridle.

The term render ghosts, coined by James Bridle, refers to those mysterious inhabitants of virtual sceneries: anonymous denizens, which are used to represent an idyllic, almost dreamy life style. They populate unreal universes, future places that still have not been erected (Figure 4).

In an evolutionary fashion, architectural representation shifted from traditional schemata and blueprints to physical plaster models, to digital representation, and now to hyperreal environments (Figure 5). Due to the increasing demand of project visualization, rendering ended in the hands of designers and visual artists. As James Bridle (2013) himself stated, “( visualizations are produced for a range of purposes, but it’s almost by accident that they surface in public.” From some time ago, architecture firms and building companies have decided to display these models on their websites as well as the urban scenery. Even though the final result can be faithful to the blueprints and 3D representation, render ghosts will not survive and will disappear without leaving traces. An empty space is waiting for us to occupy it. We will take their place.

The fact that nobody knows exactly who these persons are makes the issue more intriguing. They, in turn, do not realize that they have been photographed, cropped, and inserted in a hyperreal world. I cannot but surprise myself with the following assertion on the condition of these beings by Gillian Rose, Professor of Cultural Geography at The Open University in the United Kingdom: “() mostly they drift as isolated individuals. This impression that they’re atoms floating in a void is probably enhanced by the fact that I know they’ve been taken from other places and inserted into these scenes.” (Rose, 2013) It is not hard to encounter commonalities with the theories of Karen Barad (2012):

Virtual particles are not in the void but of the void. They are on the razor edge of non/being. The void is a lively tension, a desiring orientation toward being/becoming. The vacuum is flush with yearning, bursting with innumerable imaginings of what could be.

Even though they are non beings, it is only a transitional momentum, a hibernating process a waiting stage to become something/someone. With human libraries now sold as packages for architectural model software we have reached another level of absurdity; in the same way as furniture and objects are incorporated in mock ups, men, women, and children can be included too. It only takes a couple of key words to find and download these human packages on any search engine.

James Bridle embarked on a journey to trace the origins and the identities of these render ghosts. Suffice it to say that he failed in his mission, but that trip allowed him to reflect on this subject and the ephemerality of Internet. But, how powerful can this new phenomenon be to make someone travel to the middle of nowhere?
cappotto peuterey uomo An Ontology of Render Ghosts