“Slave to the Rhythm”: Embodied Records, Holographic Technologies, and Digital Resurrection

Tonia Sutherland


Holography and other 3D technologies, as well as 2D illusions such as Pepper’s Ghost, have been used to create lifelike reproductions of deceased performers and political figures—reproductions capable of addressing the audience, moving around stage, and interacting with others using pre-scripted effects. Employing a complex mix of creative sound editing, motion-capture techniques, CGI, and holographic technologies, it is now possible to see a reanimated virtual facsimile of the dead. In May 2014, for example, a Pepper’s Ghost reproduction of Michael Jackson (1958- 2009) performed Jackson’s 1991 song “Slave to the Rhythm” at the Billboard Music Awards. Similarly, two years earlier in 2012, a Pepper’s Ghost reproduction of deceased rapper Tupac Shakur (1971-1996), enhanced by Musion Eyeliner technology, performed onstage alongside rapper Snoop Dogg and producer Dr. Dre at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. The practice of resurrecting performers and public figures who have died has become popular with audiences around the world. However, the use of technology to reanimate the dead comes with a complex set of social, cultural, technical, and ethical concerns—including questions of race, representation, embodiment, commodification, memorialization, and spectacle. Using tools at the intersections of archival studies, performance studies, and critical race and digital media, this paper aims to both investigate and stimulate discussion around some of the cultural, social, and technological tensions created by digital resurrection practices.


Tonia Sutherland is assistant professor in the College of Communication and Information Sciences at the University of Alabama. Sutherland holds a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh’s iSchool, an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh, and a BA in history, performance studies, and cultural studies from Hampshire College. Global in scope, Sutherland’s research focuses on entanglements of technology and culture, with particular emphases on digital culture; data and society; critical engagements with information and communication technologies; technology and the arts; Science and Technology Studies; archival theory and practice; and community and cultural informatics.

Recently, Sutherland’s work has focused on the relationships between 20th century lynching records and 21st century digital cultures of racialized violence, critically examining issues of race, ritual, and embodiment in digital spaces. Sutherland’s current research focuses on the social facets of large-scale digital projects, specifically interrogating race, representation, and issues of inclusivity within expert cultures of work and collaboration.