The Age of the Undead Celebrities

Perhaps it’s a bit old-fashioned of me but isn’t there something a little worrying about the ongoing trend towards the resurrection of dead celebrities?

In 2012 we had the resurrection of Tupac Shakur at Coachella Festival by way of ground-breaking 3D holographic projection. By-and-large the musical press was filled with wonderment at this new technology as a way for new listeners to experience an artist whose life was tragically cut short.

But there was also a subtle undercurrent of unease to see 2Pac used as a PR stunt to increase the festival’s reputation as the ‘biggest’ and the ‘best’, not least because it was done with consent and collaboration with his friends and contemporaries Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Far be it for me to criticise anybody’s integrity but the whole thing had a faint aroma of cynicism about it.

A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN?

In 2013 it was the turn of grave-dwelling famous face, Audrey Hepburn, who took time off being dead to charmingly flog chocolate for Galaxy’s glamorous ad. Now I understand that Hepburn’s sons Sean Ferrer and Luca Dotti, who control her estate, authorised the use of her image so I suppose that’s okay then. Except that it still feels… creepy.

In the past dead celebrities have been conjured back to life through the use of actors and lookalikes; Hepburn’s features were instead computer-animated then mapped onto an actress’s face. This is pure simulation, and a reappropriation of personality. However much she, “often spoke about her love of chocolate and how it lifted her spirit”, we are essentially playing with the dead.

Now the advancing march of technology is such that the real celebrity and their digital counterpart are completely undistinguishable. Sure, I can definitely see Audrey Hepburn getting up to those kind of hi-jinks on the Amalfi Coast, being all cute and continental, and apparently she loved chocolate so that’s fine too, right?

Well, perhaps so. Perhaps the truth of the matter is more acceptable than our initial discomfort might suggest. The argument would go that celebrities trade on their image as a commodity of sorts; so if someone commodifies themselves, then who’s to say that the commodity shouldn’t be traded. If daddy’s business was himself rather than oil, for example, why shouldn’t his kids get a slice of the action?

THE RIGHTS TO YOUR SELF

This conundrum calls to mind Ari Folman’s recent film The Congress (based on Stanislaw Lem’s short story The Futurological Congress) in which Robin Wright (playing herself) signs over the rights to her virtual self to the animation studio ‘Miramount’. The studio then proceeds to wow the world with the rejuvenated ‘Robin’, gaining her the superstar status she never achieved as an actress (it was made pre-House of Cards…). Wright is paid a vast sum for the rights to her image but is horrified by the extraordinary success of her digital counterpart, and the eventual merchandising of her ‘self’. The film isn’t a masterpiece, but it shows unnerving prescience about the commodification of people as brands that seems so pertinent today.

Just last September Joan Rivers died from complications following surgery. Except that she didn’t. Ever irrepressible, she kindly followed through on her contractual obligations to Apple by tweeting her endorsement of the new iPhone several days after her death. What a trooper.

What Joan Rivers did in partnership with Apple is far from rare, but what happened following her death points to an obscenity inherent in the modern digital age. As developments continue and the commercial world increasingly begins to see people as marketing tools, we need to ask ourselves some pretty searching questions about property, and about propriety.

Is the personal ownership of our own image a fundamental human right, or is it tradable?

Is this a tasteless abomination, or is it no different to other successful mediums, like TV or radio?

Is this going to become an industry normality?

The only answer at this time comes from 2Pac himself: ‘Lord Knows’.

Ferdie Simon is a junior writer at The Clearing

 

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