In late May 2022, the Swedish pop group ABBA will open a seven-month residency in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, or, at least, their digital representations will. Almost 40 years after their last music release, ABBA announced in September 2021 that they would begin “performing” again as digital avatars called ABBAtars. The ABBAtars, created from filming the four singers of ABBA in motion capture over eight weeks, de-ages the pop group to their 1979 selves in order to “perform at [their] very best,” according to the band’s website. London audiences are invited to see ABBA in their glory, in a concert that would never have existed during their heyday.
This turn towards digital performance is not wholly new in the music industry, where deceased musicians like Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson have both become projected figures in guest appearances at music festivals and award shows.
It is also not new in the field of museums, where the Illinois Holocaust Museum has had holograms of Holocaust survivors relating their testimony since 2017 through the Survivor Stories Experience exhibit.
Fearing that the loss of physical dialogue will remove the critical work of remembering past atrocities, the holograms at the Illinois Holocaust Museum are intended to preserve the testimony and memory of survivors. Both the ABBAtars and the Holocaust survivor holograms attempt to recreate presence. The existence of these types of performance requires us as audience members to consider what digital representations, from musical acts to the sharing of testimonials, can actually provide when it comes to engaging with the past.
The motion capture of ABBA for concert performances and the Holocaust survivor holograms have different aims, but their use of curation, reinterpretation, and technology make them intriguing examples of this phenomenon. The ABBAtars are creating, per the band’s own language, “the concert [they’ve] always wanted you to have.” This concert was not one ABBA would have performed in 1979, not only because they won’t be physically present, but also because they can perform songs from their new album Voyage (2021) as their 1979 digitized selves. The singers, now in their 70s, can have their performances live on for fans who were not born during their peak of success, and they can do so while explicitly making the type of presentation they want their audiences to see. The past is in the present, even when it should be impossible.
The holograms of Holocaust survivors at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, on the other hand, demonstrate what happens when digitized performance is based in audience interaction. In participating in the Survivor Stories Experience, audience members can ask questions of the hologram they choose. Mediated by a docent, the voice recognition software allows a visitor to get an answer from a hologram, and selects for the visitors what stories they may hear from Holocaust survivors who agreed to be rendered in such a way. Unlike how the ABBAtars are purported to function, these holograms are in some way reactive to the people who come to see them. The testimony they bring forth is limited by what was filmed and collected, but it nevertheless captures some of the memories of survivors before they pass away.
Holograms, however, cannot fully recreate flesh and blood live performance or testimony, and what they offer only reminds us that these types of audience interaction cannot fully animate the past. When I visited the Illinois Holocaust Museum in 2018, the survivor I “spoke” to, Aaron Elster, had recently passed away and the museum was showing his testimony as tribute to his life and work. It was all too clear, sitting in the auditorium, that I was watching not the man, but his recorded memories about his trauma. While this fact did not diminish the power of his testimony, I knew that the hologram could not match the physical man digitally rendered in front of me. It is a blessing to have the technology (from the USC Shoah Foundation) to have Elster’s testimony in such a captivating way, but it cannot bridge the loss of him fully.
The ABBAtars will likely be confronted with a similar phenomenon when they debut this May. A digitized version of ABBA will certainly be a sight to behold and will most likely create the party that the band is hoping for over seven months in London. But they, and any digitally rendered performance of this ilk, cannot hope to capture the past in the ways that they may wish to. What they can offer, though, is a very different way for audiences to engage with the past that can supplement all the other avenues we already know.