LACMA's Hereafter Institute Explores The Graveyards Of The Future

We know what will happen to our bodies after our death, and there are mixed opinions on what happens to one's consciousness. But what will happen to our digital life—our artful Instagram photos, our best Twitter jokes, our most embarrassing Facebook statuses—is a relatively fresh concept. A new immersive program at LACMA's Art + Technology Lab contemplates what will become of our digital lineage long after our physical selves are gone.

Artist Gabriel Barcia-Colombo, a 2015 LACMA Art + Technology Lab grant recipient, worked with several others, including theater director Benita de Wit, to create a fictitious company that deals with your online presence after your death and how to use a digital footprint to memorialize the deceased. The company is called the Hereafter Institute, and it sounds like a corporation from some dystopian near future. Barcia-Colombo describes it as "part-funeral home, part-tech company." Make a consultation with the Hereafter Institute, and their skillfully trained technicians will guide you through this sensitive process. They even have an oddly calming and vaguely futuristic video.

But when you really think about it, there's very little that's dystopian about it. The way we memorialize our loved ones is constantly evolving.

"We're going to instruct people and educate them on the techniques that we have created for the preservation of data and the future of memorials," Barcia-Colombo tells LAist. "So really, the question is, 'What happens to your data after you die? Are we living the same lives online that we are in real life?' A lot of us have an experience with people passing on [who have] a Facebook [or other social media account], and there's no real practice for what we do with that. There's no cultural ritual surrounding that. It's also somewhat problematic because Facebook and Twitter are privately-owned sites, so they're kind of owning our memories. So the institution is designed to help you deal with putting a plan in place for your data and for your memories, digitally."

The exhibit will consist of multiple installations within the framework of the Hereafter Institute. There are virtual reality simulations where you can spend time with people who have died. There is wearable technology full of past memories. There are household objects that contain data derived from the deceased. It is an idea that is not so different from keeping ashes in an urn, or the Victorian practice of creating mourning jewelry from black enamel and a late family member's hair.

The people whose data appears in the installations were real people who have died. To select the people whose data would be used in the exhibit, Barcia-Colombo put out a call among his friends and social media contacts explaining the project, and found people who wanted to memorialize family members via his work.

In one of the virtual reality simulations, you may encounter Barcia-Colombo's own grandfather, who died in 1997. He was a writer and a poet, and users will find themselves entering his garden and experiencing his poetry. The piece, which Barcia-Colombo created with VR expert Sarah Rothberg, uses an HTC Vive headset, which, unlike other VR headsets, allows the user to walk around in the space rather than remain in one spot. "It's this living memory that I have of [my grandfather] that you can step into. You can walk around and spend time with him," he said.

Another installation contains an idea for the gravestones of our future. These are "giant black monoliths with a record player sitting on top," Barcia-Colombo said.

"What we've done is created a one-of-a-kind record for each person that is part of the project and on that record are audio tones, which are data from Facebook coded into audio tones," he said. "[The deceased's] posts from Facebook appear as white text on a black background, and it appears as though they're talking through the monument."

Barcia-Colombo worked with sound designer Jason Sigal and creative technologist Pedro G.C.Oliveira to turn the data not into a noise that sounded like data, which he said sounds like a modem, but something more aurally pleasing. This idea was somewhat inspired by NASA's Golden Record, which they shot into space aboard Voyager I and II in 1977.

The Golden Record was a 12-inch, gold-plated copper phonograph record full of various sounds and images from planet Earth curated by in part by astrophysicist Carl Sagan. The record contained pieces of music, nature sounds and the brainwaves of author and producer Ann Druyan, Sagan's wife, as she thought about Earth, humanity and love. The record was meant to introduce extraterrestrials to Earth.

"The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet," Sagan explained at the time.

Another Hereafter piece finds old VHS tapes now embedded into a necklace that a person can wear.

Barcia-Colombo chose not to create any sort of artificial intelligence installations as he said it feels somewhat "sci-fi and silly" at our current level of technology, and that Hereafter's installations are more tactful and emotional than a bot spitting out text as though they were that person.

"It's great if you are doing a purely speculative art project, but because we are dealing with actual people who have passed away, I would never feel comfortable going to someone and saying, I am going to reanimate your grandfather, but in a sort of bad way that doesn't really work," he said.

If you are lucky enough to snag one of the very limited individual consultations with Hereafter, you will experience an immersive performance that is tailored to you, as you will be required to link your data trail—that is, your Facebook—to the Hereafter Institute. There are also group tours available on Saturday, August 27 and Sunday, August 28, both starting at 5 p.m., where you can learn about your memorialization options via 3D body scans and embedding your own data into various objects. Sign up for a group tour on Saturday here, or on Sunday here.

While contemplating one's own mortality may be morose, Barcia-Colombo said he hopes the Hereafter Institute makes people think about technology, but also desire to connect with humans without it.

"I hope it makes us think about how we spend time with people that matter to us, and maybe not through a device with a screen. Maybe think about what it's like to be face-to-face with people again," he said.

The Hereafter Institute is open at LACMA's Art + Technology Lab August 27 & 28. Sign up for individual consultations here, or attend the group tour on August 27 at 5 p.m. LACMA is located at 5905 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.