Holograms

It’s still Jessica Yellin and you look like Jessica Yellin and we know you are Jessica Yellin. I think a lot of people are nervous out there. All right, Jessica. You were a terrific hologram.

— Wolf Blitzer, CNN

I woke this morning feeling distinctly unreal — a result of staying up late to catch every second of election coverage (though the champagne and cocktails with which I and my wife celebrated Obama’s amazing win undoubtedly played a part). But even after I checked the web to assure myself that, indeed, the outcome was not a nighttime dream but a daylight reality, I couldn’t shake the odd sense of being a projection of light myself, much like the “holograms” employed by CNN as part of their news coverage (Here’s the YouTube video, for as long as it might last):

I’ve written before on the spectacular plenitude of high-definition TV cross-saturated with intensive political commentary, an almost subjectivity-annihilating information flow on the visual, auditory, and ideological registers. In the case of CNN’s new trick in the toolbox, my first reaction was to giggle; the projection of reporter Jessica Yellin into the same conversational space as Wolf Blitzer was like a weird halftime show put on by engineering students as a graduation goof. But the cable news channel seemed to mean it, by God, and I have little doubt that we’ll see more such holographic play in coverage to come, as the technology becomes cheaper and its functionality streamlined into a single switch thrown on some hidden mixing board — shades of Walter Benjamin’s observation in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” about striking a match.

Leaving aside the joking references to Star Wars (whose luminously be-scanlined projection of Princess Leia served, in 1977, to fold my preadolescent crush on Carrie Fisher into parallel fetishes with science-fiction technology and the visual-effects methods used to create them), last night’s “breakthrough” transmission of Yellin from Chicago to New York contains a subtle and disturbing undertone that should not be lost on feminist critics or theorists of simulation. This 2008 version of Alexander Graham Bell’s “Mr. Watson — Come here — I want to see you” employed as its audiovisual payload a woman’s body. It was, in this sense, just the latest retelling of the sad old story in which the female form is always-already rendered a simulacrum in the visual circuits of male desire. Yellin’s hologram, positioned in compliant stasis at the twinned focus of Blitzer’s crinkly, interrogative gaze and a floating camera that constantly reframed her phantasmic form, echoed the bodies of many a CG doll before it: those poor gynoids, from SIGGRAPH’s early Marilyn Monrobot to Shrek‘s Princess Fiona and Aki Ross in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, whose high-rez objectification marks the triumphal convergence of representational technology and phallic hegemony.

But beyond the obvious (and necessary) Mulveyan critique exists another interesting point. The news hologram, achieved by cybernetically tying together the behavior of two sets of cameras separated by hundreds of miles, is a remarkable example of realtime visual effects: the instantaneous compositing of spaces and bodies that once would have taken weeks or months to percolate through the production pipeline of even the best FX house. That in this case we don’t call it a visual effect, but a “news graphic” or the like, speaks more to the discursive baffles that generate such distinctions than to any genuine ontological difference. (A similar principle applies to the term “hologram”; what we’re really seeing is a sophisticated variant of chroma key, that venerable greenscreen technology by which TV forecasters are pasted onto weather maps. In this case, it’s been augmented by hyperfast, on-the-fly match-moving.) Special and visual effects are only recognized as such in narrative film and television — never in news and commercials, though that is where visual-effects R&D burns most brightly.

As to my own hologrammatic status, I assume it will fade as the magic of this political moment sinks in. An ambiguous tradeoff: one kind of reality becoming wonderfully solid, while another — the continuing complicity between gendered power and communication / imaging technology — recedes from consciousness.

12 thoughts on “Holograms

  1. Haha, I knew you would write about this! I thought it was a pretty ridiculous stunt that made CNN look pretty silly (reminds me of http://www.hulu.com/watch/40678/saturday-night-live-update-freds-mapfix-it?c=87:260 a parody of another recent technological plaything).

    The interesting thing is how terrible it looked (especially the blue on the sides). I’m curious about the extent to which this was technologically necessary (they’re using HD cameras so it should be clearer and blue screens usually look better than this, but perhaps it’s all of the processing they need to do) and how much it was just degraded so that the hologram evokes our imagination of what one should be (e.g. Leia) and prevents it from blending in with the environment. I suppose the latter would both call it out as a flashy technological product and avoid confusing the audience into thinking she’s actually in the studio, which seems to be what most of the clip is about (rather than politics).

    On the other hand, I think if this technology became better and cheaper it could potentially be a nice resource for podcasters, especially when they travel or don’t leave near each other. The nice thing about audio podcasts is you can just record a Skype conversation and (with good mics) it’ll more or less seem like a professional radio/studio recording. With video, unless you just want to record video-chatting boxes, the transition to a visual medium requires higher production values (sets etc.) and demands that all participants share the same physical space. I guess for CNN I just think this isn’t necessary because they SHOULD be going on location and have these high production values, but perhaps this type of technology could one day have us watching videos starring citizens from around the world congregating around virtual (CGI?) sets. If this initial tech demo is any indication, however, I think we could be a ways off.

  2. Peter: I’m glad — I think — that my blogging predilections are so predictable; I too, as I watched CNN’s high-tech carnival, had the weirdly third-person thought “This seems like something Bob Rehak would write about!”

    Anyway. Great observations, as usual. And wasn’t the Weekend Update bit with the interactive map hilarious? I’m coming to love Fred Armisen (though his Barack Obama impression needs some work). Regarding the thick line around Yellin, I’ve seen the explanation offered that this is a standard way of preventing unwanted “bleed” in bluescreen and greenscreen compositing — that without the margin, the body’s edges would fringe and blend distractingly with the background. Yet CNN’s blue envelope did seem unnecessarily huge, as though a child had been coloring outside the lines, a clumsy contrast to the rest of the visual field’s laser-sleek HD resolution. So I suspect you may be right: perhaps the line was an intentional artifact to mark off Yellin as belonging to another space. Interesting — and perhaps symptomatic — that the elaborate and presumably pricey illusion had to undercut its own verisimilitude so heavy-handedly.

    Prescient call, too, about how this technology (or a cheaper version thereof) might well be deployed in tactical ways by media productions outside the mainstream. It may not be too many years before the capture and reproduction of “holograms” comes a standard feature on MacBooks — built into the little square iSight lens that’s staring at me as I write this!

  3. Weird, weird, weird. Having just had my first experience of election coverage viewed from inside America, and can see why CNN have done this – I saw five days of election saturation, barely a mention of other news, and no interest in the outside world at all, so it makes sense to pull off a technical coup just to get noticed amid the noise.

    Here’s where I put on my Luddite, curmudgeonly hat – surely it’s entirely pointless! Blitzer is just pretending to be able to look at her: she hasn’t been projected into the studio, so he’s not interacting with his correspondent, just trying to make the eyelines look convincing. Satellite-linked reporters are always a virtual presence anyway, and I like to hope that viewers are most concerned with the content of the report and don’t care how it is gift-wrapped for them. Bah, humbug. It’ll never catch on…

    Goodness, I am grumpy this morning. Hope you’re still celebrating, Bob. The rest of the world is quite pleased, too.

  4. Jon, don’t backpedal … I know what you really meant. Seriously, though, thanks for the mention on Extratextuals, and the hilarious SW clip!

    Dan: it didn’t occur to me to ask what you thought of the U.S. mediaspace to which you were exposed in Chicago! I hope you will consider blogging about it — I’d love to hear how the neon orgasm looked from outside the national imaginary (or should that be “national hallucinatory”?).

    I have my curmudgeonly moments as well, though in the wake of election day I’ve largely set them aside. Your critique is valid: CNN’s charade of telepresence on Tuesday night was precisely that, a processor-intensive kabuki. At the same time, I would suggest that Yellin’s hologram merely continues a general collapsing of the graphical (animations, icons, logos, text) into the “real” (reporters in front of cameras) that has subtended the newscast form since its inception. TV news, that is, has always manifested a certain “will to composit,” blending live reporters with representations and visualizations of data and events. CNN’s experiment in holography just converts its intensively, electronically layered war room from a 2D to a 3D environment. (With Devan Goldstein’s fine paper on bullet time still on my mind, we might read CNN’s roaming camera as a spatialization strategy.)

    The curious thing to me is that these simulationist extravaganzas — these virtual Taj Mahals — remain the go-to sites for reliable, indexical information about the world!

  5. Bob – nice account of this odd moment. I saw the other hologrammatic interview, of Will.I.Am. There the Othering came through as CNN seemed to be channeling another type of being – an “authentic” black voice from the streets who clearly didn’t belong in the situation room except via mediated remove. And Will seemed generally just put off by the whole thing, reminding me of some of the more awkward scenes of Zion in the later Matrix films. Yucko.

  6. While the tangential notion of your point, Bob, about the so-called continuing refinement of the “male gaze” or the visual image(ining) of the female did initially strike me as an interesting additional point about this “moment,” after considering it for a minute or two, I tend to veer more towards the opinion that it isn’t really worth considering. I doubt CNN intentionally planned on making the first “victim” of this technological “presentation” female, just as Wolf Blitzer just as well could have been Campbell Brown or Candy Crawley (sp?)…

    Then again, you got my attention, so…

    As far as the rest goes, well, to me, it was more of a gimmick than anything newsworthy, although I wouldn’t be surprised if James Cameron was watching closely just to make sure he is still 10 steps ahead with his upcoming “Avatar” 😉

    As far as the Map goes, it was indeed interesting and informative during the whole election buildup, but “I can make it bounce” is now my favorite moment beyond anything that was used by the “real” guy, and that’s pretty much all of what I take away from that…!

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