It's been another hottest summer. Mirages multiplied, storms materialized out of clear air, and some days, the dripping sun made walking to the bodega feel like a bad trip. There is something surreal in extreme heat: It's a climate in which holograms, now seen on all these cultural strata, can thrive.
First there was Tupac, or Holopac, glowing battery-green above the Coachella crowd in April. On July 5, New York's New Museum opened Pictures From the Moon, an unprecedented retrospective of (mostly American) artist's holograms. Eight days earlier, the MIT Museum in Massachusetts – home to the country's largest holography collection – launched a year-long expo of contemporary holograms by artists from the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada.
In July, there was the new and not metaphorically titled Dave Eggers novel, A Hologram for the King, and last week, there was a hologram for the Queen, as Freddie Mercury was beamed onto the stage for the Olympic closing ceremonies.
It's not all art and games, though: In four more Olympics, according to technology company and Olympic sponsor Atos, we may be watching holographic projections of the games in real time. By then we'll be used to such fantasia, given the speed at which Apple is reportedly developing its 3-D interactive displays.
Leaving aside the uses of holograms, which are still too ephemeral and strange to not be art, it's almost funny we're suddenly all about them. Discovered in the forties and picked up by artists – beginning with Bruce Nauman – in the sixties, holography is hardly "new." It feels like something Don Draper is about to put in a Swanson ad. In the long view, though, it's spanking. Consider: It took 160 years after the invention of photography for that medium to attain museum status. It's been less than half that for holography.
And so do holograms, which already give the appearance of having time-travelled from the past's idea of today, have less than a century to go? Or will they flicker in and out, trendily, never surpassing kitsch?
The New Museum is not the place to make a case for tradition. Nor is the runway: Last year, fashion brands high (Burberry) and low (Forever 21) employed holograms to broadcast desire. They knocked off Alexander McQueen, whose 2006 laser facsimile of Kate Moss was recreated for last year's posthumous retrospective at the Met. (Holograms aren't cheaper than models, but they make more docile Galateas. Go ask Al Pacino.)
But if the New Museum were making a tradition out of this still techno-futurish form, I'd be mad, because where in the show is Michael Snow?
Snow, now 82, seminalized holograms in Canada. My friend Danielle Forest, an art-history grad and project manager at New York's Nyehaus Gallery, wrote her masters thesis on holograms; Snow told her he'd never seen them in an art context before Vancouver's Expo '86, when he was given $800,000 to create a whole holographic world. In retrospect, he might not even be lying. It was as if, in discovering a magical technique, he felt relieved of having to make anything new. That, or he wanted to turn the realest-seeming objects into holograms, as if to prove that everything we need is illusory. I mean, his '86 exhibit was just anti-fantastic to the point of total banality: tableau after tableau of entirely common, totally correlated objects, with some women thrown in for good measure.
"If it isn't interesting in real life," wrote a Vancouver Sun reviewer, "it isn't interesting as a hologram."
Another generation later, that dualism doesn't apply. Holograms return not because they are the future, as they seemed in the sixties, and maybe even the eighties, but because they're a way to resurrect the past and reify the present. There's now – as Net theorist Nathan Jurgenson has pointed out – a yen to touch and feel the Internet, to do with our virtual experience what Surrealists did with their dreams, instead of just fetishizing the already real.
Snow's holograms were superprescient in their homeliness. Yeah, a night-glo Tupac is cool if you're into sacrilege, and turning celebrities into lit-up, fleshless bodies seems like the most honest thing to do with them. Still, I feel like the future of holography doesn't lie in stars, or even art, but all around us, in our living rooms, where we most need the only real comfort: illusion. It won't be enough to touch our screens, some day. Our screens will touch us back.