The Render Ghosts — R / D


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I first noticed the Render Ghosts on the hoardings surrounding a new development near Finsbury Square. On the balconies of some vast, virtual tower, two pixelated figures looked out over a darkened London, a perfect red-pink gradient sunset behind them. He had short dark hair and stubble, wore a black jacket and blue jeans. She had a cropped red bob, white jacket, and a purple knee-length skirt. I didn’t know who they were, but I started seeing them everywhere.

The Render Ghosts are the people who live inside our imaginations, in the liminal space between the present and the future, the real and the virtual, the physical and the digital. A world of architecture, urbanism and the city before it is completed - which is also never. They inhabit a space which exists only in the virtual spaces of 3D computer rendering software, projected onto billboards, left to rot and torn down when the actual future arrives; never quite as glossy or as perfect as our renderings of it would like it to be, or have prepared us for. 

There are thousands of them, millions. I have seen them walking down the imagined high streets of Glasgow and West London, shopping at Lara, Cap, and M&H. They sit out and dine, or wander through the European-style piazzas of new commercial developments, which we know will turn out to be empty and wind-swept squares, patrolled by private security guards. They flit through new subway stations and airports, stroll in leafy parks; their children play among physically-impossible fountains and bright, toxic plants. Most of all, they like to stand on balconies, those too-narrow balconies which real urban-dwellers fill with bikes and rusted BBQs, but where the Render Ghosts dance and chatter, sip from tall flutes of champagne, admire sunsets and city views, live, love, and wait. They are waiting for their own end.

The digital already has a long history of ghosts; things and individuals whose essence has been photographed, reproduced, filtered, copied, repeated endlessly, broken down, edited, reprocessed and projected. Lena Söderberg, a Swedish glamour model, photographed for Playboy in November 1972. Her centrefold is cropped and scanned by engineers at University of Southern California Signal and Image Processing Institute for a colleague’s conference paper in ’73. As ‘Lenna’, her image becomes one of the most reproduced images in computer history, the test bed for a thousand image transformations. In 1975 at the University of Utah, computer graphics researcher Martin Newell creates the spectre of a teapot in an early 3D modelling program, to test its facility with curves and hollow objects. Distributed for free with almost every subsequent piece of commercial 3D software, the Utah Teapot appears in product demos and in films, appearing in the Simpsons classic 3D episode, and nearly every Pixar film. In “A Letter to Jennifer Knoll”, the artist Constant Dullart writes: “Dear Jennifer, Sometime in 1987, you were sitting on a beach in Bora Bora, looking at To’opua island, enjoying a holiday with a very serious boyfriend. The serious boyfriend, John, took a photograph of you sitting on the beach, not wearing your bikini top.” That boyfriend used that photograph in one of the first demos of Photoshop: it went on to become “a part of my history, and that of many other people”. Lenna and Jennifer are modern day China Girls, real people turned into ideal calibration markers for contemporary technologies. These ghosts of things and people, endlessly recycled and reproduced by the network. 

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I spoke to architects and visualisation artists, trying to track down the original identities of the Render Ghosts. I photographed them, collected them, wrote stories about them. Occasionally some would come to light: a set of photographs of the advertisements for a new marina on the Medway was revealed to be populated entirely by papped celebrities – Olson twins and Hollywood starlets with children in tow wandering through the sunlit unreality of a small English town. Most, however, are more obscure, their origins lost. I spoke to one visualiser who described the images they deployed as “lorem ipsum architecture”: placeholder things and people, pulled at random from vast databases to populate imaginary places. Others talked about them fondly, had their favourites, created histories and back stories for them, placed them with thought and care into their new, albeit temporary, surroundings.

Some time in 2010 I discovered a company selling scenery for 3D visualisations online. Their stock included sets of trees, foliage, street furniture – and people. Hundreds of them: Urban People, Business People, People on the Weekend, Children, People in Perspective – the latter photographed from above, for the most spectacular views. Among their collections I recognised faces I had seen elsewhere: sitting patiently in Heathrow’s soon-to-be-completed Terminal 2; gazing down from the High Line in New York next to an angular, unbuilt new Whitney Museum; exploring the upper stories of London’s shimmering, dream-shattering Shard. The company ran a zombie website: still online, and apparently doing business, its wares had long since escaped onto the Internet, migrating across torrent sites and hobbyist servers, appearing in Google Image searches, to end up on the hard drives of every student architect, nascent practice, and day-dreaming visualisation artist around the world. Everyone I asked recognised them; none could tell me where they were from.

I called the company’s phone number, but they hung up on me – repeatedly. They didn’t want to talk about these images either. Somewhere in the Deep Web I found old business records for them: a domain registered to an address in Albuquerque, New Mexico. On Street View the address corresponded to an anonymous tract house high in the Eastern suburbs, a long road, a two-door garage, a single storey dwelling behind shrubs and a truck parked in the driveway. Was this where the Render Ghosts lived; was this the environment, knowingly or unknowingly, in which they had been photographed, captured, transformed, memorialised, digitised, disseminated?

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In late 2013 I found myself standing in front of the house. I had gone to Albuquerque to find the Render Ghosts, to ask them: what does it feel like? To become a part of the network, for your image, a part of your self, to be separate from you and have this other life, endlessly reproduced, endlessly pixelated. Would it be a shock, or a pleasant surprise – even an adventure? (German law, which has some of the highest protections of personal privacy in the world, contains the provision for ’Verpixelungsrecht’: the right to be pixelated. I do not know or understand the legal rights of the Render Ghosts, if, after all this time, they still possess them.) I took out classifieds in the local newspaper and ran Facebook ads against the appropriate demographics: “Do you recognise this person?” I tacked up photocopied flyers to telegraph poles and the cork noticeboards in local cafés. People told me I was looking in the wrong place: these people weren’t New Mexicans; they had different styles, different clothes, attitudes, racial characteristics. The same week, I found more business records, showing that the company had relocated to Albuquerque a couple of years after the photos were taken. 

I was in the wrong place, out in the desert, under wide blue gradient skies and a bright sun which cast hard, pixel-perfect shadows, no blur to them, like you could just step through into a purely rendered world, a domain of pure form. I felt like I had myself walked into a visualisation.

Three hours South of Albuquerque is Trinity, the site at which, on July 16, 1945, the United States detonated the first nuclear bomb. Two hours North and West is Los Alamos, the once-secret town and laboratory, high on an ancient mesa, where the bomb was designed and built. In the National Museum of Nuclear History in Albuquerque I saw the casings of old and broken bombs, saw the designs for missiles and shells, the lines on maps from the Cold War, which all started here, too. The nuclear project is inextricably tied to the history of networked communication and the Internet. Vannevar Bush, whose Memex concept defined the way we think about digital computers, sat on the Maud Committee, which decided that an atomic bomb was possible, and set in train the Manhattan Project. The mathematician John von Neumann worked at Los Alamos on the project, at the same time contributing to ENIAC, the first general purpose electronic computer, which was in turn used to calculate hydrogen bomb yields. His architecture came to define computer science; he also sat on the target selection committee which chose Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the first, and so far only, offensive detonations. In the museum in Albuquerque, I saw the famous photographs of the ghosts of Hiroshima – silhouettes burned into sidewalks and stone steps by the pure energy of the bomb.

Von Neumann also coined the term “mutually assured destruction”, or MAD, which obsessed the West for fifty years. In response to the threat of nuclear war, the Advanced Research Projects Agency put out a call for a distributed packet-switching network which would withstand losing portions of itself following an attack. ARPANET became the Internet: a world-wide network of digital networks, which we all spend hours of our days on and inside, but few of us truly comprehend, have even the mental frameworks to conceptualise. It haunts us, and we haunt it. 

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In Albuquerque I printed two of my favourite Render Ghosts on six-foot foamboard, and packed them into the back of an electric car. We drove out into the desert, and I photographed them on the way to Los Alamos, flexing in the breezes atop dusty canyons, staring out into the barely inhabited space. They were back in one place which I had imagined; not their original space, but yet another one, another place of the imagination. They had been rendered to Los Alamos, birthplace of the bomb, wellspring of digital computing, dark heart of the Twentieth Century. 

In fact, Los Alamos is still not a place either: the vast National Laboratory sits behind miles of fences. A small town, a local museum, is the closest you can get to it. The Internet is like history. History is like the Internet. You can go right to the site of it, to the centre, where it happened, and that’s not where it is. It’s diffuse, it’s everywhere; it’s the structure, not the event. I had been using the Render Ghosts as way to understand something about the Internet, but it felt like the Render Ghosts, the Internet, were trying to explain something to me. The Render Ghosts are lost too, adrift in history and virtual networks, which increasingly resemble memory. We can’t hear their voices but we can see them everywhere, if we look: those parts of ourselves and others, the remembrance of things, struggling to survive in the churn of information.