Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 11, 2008


As this will be the last class, I thought a presentation on hypermediated cemeteries would be appropriate.

Deep in the heart of one of the most intensively media-centric landscapes in the world lies a large, unorganized collection of dead bodies, spread out in lackadaisical rows.  From here, the Hollywood Forever cemetery, one has a beautiful view of Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood Sign, the back of the Paramount Lot, and at least one doubledecker tour bus an hour.  This is perhaps not a good place to R.I.P., but I am doubtful whether any bodies mind.  Those who wish to be buried here are keenly aware of their mediated surroundings, as when one buys a plot of earth, they are also hiring a staff of biographers who categorize your life in photo montages and record any messages your dead self might like to extend to the living.  Some of these tapes feature touching (if eery) music and others include a narration by an assumed family member or friend who is able to explain what is going on in the footage.  While watching these, one may get the feeling that they are in the wrong and should not be viewing these people’s private moments and lives that were necessarily recorded at the solemn moment of one’s passing.  However, the question remains concerning why they would post this on the internet if they didn’t want people like me to dig through it.

This online collection of searchable lives is often referred to as “an archive,” a space which guarantees a permanent (if obscure) future and a certain academic gravitas.  While these stories constitute an archive, the slogan for the cemetery as a whole is “library of lives,” which suggests a radical rethinking of what the purpose of a cemetery is and what it should be.  This recontextualization of the cemetery is only possible because of the various levels of media that the space employs.  In   Urban Computing and Its Discontents, Mark Shepard asks “to what extent have mobile and pervasive computing actually begun to supplant the autonomy of traditional architectural practice as the technology of space-making” (33).  The implicit answer is “a lot.”  Fittingly, it would be impossible to locate a burial lot without the various videomaps attached to the lifestory kiosks.  Without this medial guide to order the landscape, it becomes difficult to understand this space as anything other than a schizogeography.

While I do not mean to argue that this space is a model for the use of situational technologies, one can see here a certain strong desire and readiness for this architectural change to take place.  Presently, there are only 3 to 4 working lifestory video kiosks available for “viewings” at any one time, but it is clear that this is a movement toward HD tombstones with sensurround sound.

Walking through the cemetery, one can see a plethora of medial objects that figure the dead body through various lenses and guises.  There are rare 3-D sculptures, statues, and busts that express the dead person in a classical mode, suggesting that they are now important and part of a pantheon.  Far more common are photographic images that are either permanently attached to the tombstone, or precariously sit on top.  Many of the graves used a framed picture as the headstone, though it was unclear whether these were considered permanent fixtures or not.  Regardless, their presence made me consider the classical headstone and its utter inability to represent a person.  Other stones appeared to be very hi-tech and featured photographic images that had been laser engraved into the stone in the same way that one might get their name on an iPod.  Others were super low-tech and had an arts and crafts look, with painted on messages, names and pictures.

The question often arose as to how one would choose the photo that could represented their entire lives.  While most of the photos were obviously taken of people close to the end of their lives, others featured the more vibrant figure of a 20 or 30 year old even as the person may have lived to 80 or 90.  These photos quickly became a way of ordering and making sense of the absent person, whose body was present but hidden.  Because of these photos, I rarely thought about the buried bodies at all and instead thought of the photo as the evidence that the person had existed.  The body became meaningless, or at least lost its supposedly inherent importance.  This made me consider Sterling’s piece and his point that “sometimes I really want an object, the thing qua thing, the literal entity itself, physically there at hand.   At many other times, may crucial times of serious decision, I’m much better served with a representation of that object” (95).  Does one ever want a dead body?  Is the photo montage and last words really what we are wanting when we go to a graveyard?  These images are not a spime in any normal (if there is a normal sense) of the term, but I would argue they act in the same way as a “weightless, conceptual, interactive model” of the living being, which is arguably a better representation than any physical object.

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Sorry for no images here, had to save something for tomorrow.


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