The Uncanny Resurrection of Tupac Shakur

When I was watching this morning’s celebrity news on TV I was expecting a lot of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the usual juicy stories involving my favourite VIPs and wannabes. Instead, what really caught my attention was this video of a performance from this year’s Coachella festival. (Please watch at least until Snoop Dogg enters the stage.)

Modern technology has resurrected rap legend Tupac Shakur, who was shot in 1996. What you can see in this video is a “hologram” which has been created by James Cameron’s digital effects team and close friends of Tupac. The close attention paid to details like his Timberland boots and the perfect harmony created by old sound and video recordings create the impression of a lifelike performer on stage which even made pop singer Katy Perry cry with emotion. In 1817, romantic writer and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief” can make him forget about any implausibilities of a story and that the reader can thus fully engage with these new imaginary worlds. This is exactly what happens here. I would argue that you need some imagination to forget about all the technology involved but with a little “willing suspension of disbelief” you could really enjoy the atmosphere of a Tupac performance.

What is astonishing about this “hologram” is that it is not actually a hologram because it is not 3D but rather a 2D reflection. This technology, which is called a Pepper’s Ghost (named after John Pepper who popularized the technology) is also far from new and innovative. It was invented in the 16th century and achieved popularity during the Victorian age. This rising interest is not surprising as the Victorian age was fascinated by spectacular entertainments, starting with paintings and art exhibitions, leading on to panoramas (large panoramic paintings which were put on enormous scrolls and then made to move), and culminating in the invention of film.

But why Tupac? A similar technology has already been used to enable performances of the band Gorillaz, a band which virtually consists of cartoon characters, and Frank Sinatra was also “brought back to life” in 2003 for a single performance. My personal theory is that Tupac’s posthumous performance has gained more public interest because of the controversies surrounding Tupac’s death. Although rather a pop culture myth, there are constant rumors that the rapper did not die in the 1996 shooting. It is as if a ghost story has come to life: You have always heard the stories but never believed in them… yet suddenly there is this uncanny apparition.

And “uncanny” is the perfect word for it. The Uncanny (dt.: Das Unheimliche) is a concept by Sigmund Freud which describes an effect that is constantly evoked in horror fiction and movies. It is something that is at the same time familiar, yet unfamiliar and thus creates the effect of being strange and frightening, yet disturbingly attractive and fascinating. It is like entering home but you immediately know that something is wrong and that someone has been there. To me, this is what happens here. I see Tupac on stage – 6 years after his death – and while I feel astonished and well entertained, I am also aware that this is something deeply disturbing.

What do you think about Tupac “Zombie” Shakur? And would you go to a concert of a dead singer? After all, the technology is not very expensive and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg plan taking the Shakur “hologram” on tour with them. Which dead singer/bands would you love to see? Or which two singers, which might never actually have met in life, would you like to hit the stages together?

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