An Ontology of Render Ghosts

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.
1. Introduction
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. Because it would be complicated to approach this topic from a single point of view, this proposal will cover the ideas of three authors: Jean Baudrillard, Karen Barad, and James Bridle. These spirits share some commonalities, for they have discussed themes such as simulation, ontology, and virtuality on their own works.
2. Hyperreal Beings
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.
If, 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.
3. A Non-existent Existence
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).
To comprehend better how the author came up with her proposal, it is necessary to branch out a bit and look into physics, for that is the discipline Barad chose to gave birth to her statements. 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. In other words, “virtual particles are short-lived particles that cannot be directly detected, but that affect physical quantities -such as the mass of a particle or the electric force between two charged particles- in measurable ways.” (Dukes, 2009)
While it is true that these particles do not exist as regular particles, it is also important to notice that an electron intra-act (to use the author’s terminology) with these particles in the vacuum, because they cannot be isolated from the void. 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.
4.  Ghosts
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?
Actually, Bridle is often accused of a lack of foundations on his thoughts. Using Tumblr as a platform to collect and show examples of the New Aesthetic phenomenon might be good to reach a broad audience, but it is not the best way to approach the academic and scientific community. His public speeches, although well documented, have less theory behind that one could expect. Despite that, there is no doubt that his opinions are accurate, and that he created a buzz around the topic. For better or worse, that aspect was the key to be worshipped and hated at the same time.
5.  Conclusion
To summarise, hyperreality is a condition sine qua non of post-modernity; we are no longer in the realm of authenticity, but of the simulacrum. Render ghosts are, like holograms, disturbing duplication of ourselves. Unlike holograms, it is not possible to touch them, to pass though them and see what is on the other side. But, alas, would that be necessary? Concerning their habitat, both Baudrillard and Augé noted the appearance of non-places in their respective works: spaces characterised by their indeterminacy, stripped of identity. These environments are the world in which render ghosts are frozen in time and space. To enter (or, more precisely, to be inserted) into these places is to enjoy a rapture state where one enjoys being disconnected, possessed by the joys of indistinctiveness and the pleasures of role-playing (Augé, 1995). The speediness in which technology is shaped, the surplus of information and occurrences, summed to our tolerance to hyperreal events and situations, makes difficult to question contemporary phenomena, because they have become an indivisible part of our time. We have developed a tolerance, and the bar will go higher with each new generation.
In this context, physics gives us a hand in order to comprehend the ontology and indeterminacy status of virtual beings. In the same way as virtual particles, render ghosts are non-beings, for they speak of something-to-come, of possibilities. They can be seen as speculative outcomes as well as a particular solution to a design problem.
Ontologically speaking, although these phantasmagorical appearances were created in a digital milieu, they are not entirely virtual. A model (Baudrillard would be tempted to say matrix) was used for that purpose, not always with their consent, as James Bridle sharply pointed out.
We recognise we live in a world in which the leakage of the digital onto the real is undeniable. The frontiers are open, enough of shuttled doors! Although one would be tempted to think of The New Aesthetic as a soon-to-be-gone fashion, it is true that design (in the broader scope of the term) sap from that source, for the good or the worse. Render ghosts are undeniable part of that trend. Real beings photographed, scaled, converted into props, and distributed like products. They are we… and not. Uncertainty. Indeterminacy. Future.
This paper would have not been finished without the help of Professor Dr. Andrea Sick from the “Hochschule für Künste Bremen,” whose suggestions allowed me to make this text more accurate and intelligible. I would also like to thanks Antoine Royer and Richard Murphy Architects for granting me permission to include their images in this document.
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