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Life Among the Render Ghosts | by STML
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Life Among the Render Ghosts

TAR Magazine, Issue 8, Fall 2012.


The render ghosts are revolting. I saw a little group of them yesterday, processing down Cheapside, across the hoardings of a new British Land development. They were an odd assembly: multiracial yet homogeneous, young and old, heavily saturated—the kind of grouping you see in brochures but never on the street. A guy in construction gear next to a Muslim women with headscarf and pushchair; a young couple holding hands, a straggler with a Starbucks cup and briefcase. Children circled round their feet.


Several disparate light sources reflected off their neatly typed placards, at odds with the shadows they cast on the regular slate paving grid of the piazza. "End the evictions now." "Accessible housing for all." "Homes are a human right." High above them, on a balcony that appeared too small to accommodate him, a young man dropped a banner down the front of a dun-and-terracotta mixed-use housing block: "I don't remember how I got here."


One of the women in the procession explained the situation to me. "I was originally snapped in the old King's Cross in 2004, when they were demolishing the tenements on Battlebridge Road. I don't remember much before that. I've been here for two years; the last developer went bust, so we've been allowed to stay on, but there's a new planning process in motion now, the decision could come any day. I've heard about a new master plan in Docklands that's looking to fill some old warehouses, but I'm fed up of moving on. Sometimes it's like you can't breathe. The weight of expectation and the knowledge that this is all temporary pressing down on you like a sheet of glass."


"Sid, over there," she says, indicating an older man with greying, fuzzy temples and an indistinct dark suit, staring out of the frame at an oblique angle, "he's got it worse. He came bundled with AutoCAD 14 in '97. It was good for a while, all executive apartments and glass-walled gyms, but all the multinationals have upgraded now, so he only gets copy-paste group scenes like this now: he hasn't been indoors in five years."


Even less fortunate is the situation of the "scalies", pre-photorealist renders of regular people, heavily pixelated and mostly incapable of speech or independent movement—motion blur didn't catch on until the late noughties. They've been pretty much erased now, and the next-gen render ghosts (a term, they claim, which is offensive and stigmatising) don't, or can't, do much to include them in their campaigns.


The render artists, in turn, claim the situation is out of their hands. Since architecture became a business of selling futures and lifestyles rather than living spaces—sustainable LEED developments, third space business parks, "European-style" plazas—the job is to place entire quarters beyond critique, already integrated into the fabric of the the bustling, productive, hyper-efficient and eternal-sunshine smart city.


Lorem Ipsum architecture, they call it: furniture and infrastructure pre-rendered in the server farm, deployed at scale to infill blueprints of atria and living streets, for the eyes of the investor and the consumer. Once visualised, the result is inevitable. Shop hoardings and stairwell railings in a mall in the Gulf Emirates come in the shades and materials of downtown Minneapolis, a Google Image Search away. The client wants more trees: the species is irrelevant. Toxic palms arch over green spaces, children playing among the gaussian water features.


The network tends towards atemporality and aspatiality. Many of the older ghosts are dead now, the hoardings they inhabited torn down to reveal gleaming office structures, now stained and starting to rust like some vast urban before and after photoshoot. The ghosts are lost too: their ways unsignposted, suburban developments sold on the strength of of excellent transport links to shops and trading floors traduced by austerity cuts to rail and bus services. An exercise zone in Mile End, seen from space, forms the entwined logos of a sponsored sporting event and an apparel manufacturer: branding the Earth, visible only to orbiting satellites. A poster in Islington shows a jpeg-artifacted Eiffel Tower at night: "Work here and you're only three hours from Paris", and the real collapses into speculation.


The render ghost networks are fragmenting too: agent provocateurs encourage the better-looking to migrate to the new offshore databases in Korea and Singapore, where they will be reformatted for BIM, the building information modelling workflow of the future. The hybrid cloud promises permanent employment, on the condition of flexible security spanning the whole concept-to-occupation process.


The render ghosts have no real memories; they depend on the software to frame, process and encode their experiences, and the unstable flux of political will to ensure their continuity. And good luck to them: they inhabit our finest code/spaces, the notional realm of our imaginings, the near-just-future cities we will never get to live in. Some days, disconnected and adrift in the dirty city, I almost envy them.


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Uploaded on March 15, 2013