I came across this post by a convoluted route a couple of weeks ago, my attention caught by the notion of ‘render ghosts’: it’s a lecture by James Bridle called ‘Waving at the Machines’. ‘Render ghosts’ is the term James uses to refer to the photographs of people that have been inserted into digital visualisations of new urban developments via PhotoShop.
I’m currently working on a research project that looks at how those digital visualisations are made, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council. You can see a great collection of render ghosts, courtesy of James’s lecture, here, as well as on most billboards surrounding building sites in a city near you.
The lecture is part of a larger argument about a new, digital aesthetic – The New Aesthetic, indeed – and the render ghosts are for James only a segue into that argument. But the phrase struck me because it feels quite different from how I’ve been seeing those people in the hundreds of visualisations I’ve been looking at over the past year and more. To me, they haven’t been ghosts but rather omens; not traces of past people inserted into a present, but rather present people transported into the futures visualised in these images. They are photographs of real people, inserted into images of as-yet-unbuilt urban places.
I’ve always thought of them as omens, omens of a future urbanity: the mode of inhabiting cities promised by this sort of development project. And thus far I’ve been thinking mostly about what it is they’re shown doing: which is always and only chilling, drinking coffee, playing, shopping, strolling and drifting. All rather pleasant, if bland.
But the notion of ghosts does emphasise something else that’s struck me about them: their loneliness. Despite being created to picture sociable places, public places, they’ve never evoked to me the sort of public that urban scholars are so keen on: a public that’s all about encounters, participation, the rubbing up against difference and otherness, the frictions and engagements and troubles and pleasures of the public. Instead, these cut-and-pasted figures always feel isolated from each other. They can be cut-and-pasted in groups, of course, and that sometimes lends a sense of sociability; but 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; also, perhaps, because the plastic people used in architectural models are also haunting these visualisations; and, too, it’s an image of a certain sort of denuded public space, where people just move along, glancing, being glanced at, but not really interrupted in any way.
Which is quite appropriate for these spaces which, as yet, are only visualisations, I guess.