The modern art of loss

How technology is changing what artists create, and how families and individuals must prepare for the digital afterlife

I can’t remember the last time I saw my grandmother fully alive.

Was it at Thanksgiving? At Christmas? Why can’t I remember?

I remember seeing her the week she died, disappearing into the white sheets of the hospice bed. Still alive, but barely there, she rested as I sat in her quiet room reading with my mother.

While her loss was painful, her death was not particularly memorable since I knew it was coming. What is now fixed in my memory is that I was hit with a stomach bug the night before her funeral. Sobbing like a child over this, I apologized to my mother for making her life and the funeral plans more complicated.

“Oh,” my mother said, now crying with me. “This isn’t the hard part. This is just the funeral.”

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In February 2013, the second season of British anthology series Black Mirror opened with the episode “Be Right Back.” Set in a time that looks futurist yet is conceivably just a few years away (mobile phones are slimmer, touchscreens are everywhere), the episode tells the story of a lonely, grieving woman named Martha who turns to a messaging service to reconnect with her lost lover.

“‘Be Right Back’ is both a haunting vision of the future, and of what our relationship with technology could become,” the Huffington Post wrote following the episode. Hailed then as one of the best episodes of the series, “Be Right Back” earned additional acclaim for the way it recognized our full-on addiction to social media, the resulting all-too-real sci-fi storytelling possibilities, and the sad way grief will always serve as compelling source material.

However, since the episode aired a number of technological advancements and proposals have hinted that Black Mirror might have been right on the money: updates that allow for someone to have a continued Facebook presence even after death; a chatbot that mimics a departed friend; a virtual space that could be visited like a gravesite, but with the addition of the departed being there too.

My mother was right: Funerals are not hard. They have tradition and rules. They even come with a program of events. The hard part comes after. But what if you didn’t have to move on? What if the transition wasn’t just from life to afterlife, but from life to digital afterlife? Would it be possible — would it be healthy? And if it’s going to happen, how should we be planning for the next steps in the great, digital beyond?

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From elegies to memorial sculptures, creating and mourning have long had a symbiotic relationship.

“[When] the resources of literal speech alone are not enough, people often find themselves reaching for other symbolic resources to express, share and transform wordless suffering into something that can be borne, validated, even cherished as a source of growth,” Robert A. Neimeyer, now a psychology professor at University of Memphis and author of several books on grief, wrote in The Art of Grief.

Although contemporary art therapy is relatively modern in practice, it is not a new concept. Supporting this idea is an artwork that dates back to 1894, and other works go back even further. “Angel of Grief” was the last sculpture from American artist William Wetmore Story. Now an iconic image, one notable replica is in the Arboretum of Stanford University; even Dr. Who has encountered eerie facsimiles of the funeral angel. Story created the piece at the behest of children, who hoped it would help him cope with the loss of his wife, Emelyn. The marble angel is portrayed slumped over a headstone, arms outstretched in exhausted despair, wings drooped around her back.

“[He] could not live without her, and that they are together now is my great comfort,” a family member said following Story’s death a year later. The couple is now buried together in Rome, where they resided for much of their marriage.

From Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps Story would have related to the ancient legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, the tale of a love so great it could lead a person to rescue a partner from the dead. The quest for an object or loved one, or chance to defeat death through a trip to the underworld, is found in mythology from around the world. Ovid told the tale of “The Death of Eurydice” in 8 AD. In the Greek myth, Orpheus travels to the underworld to rescue his recently departed bride, hoping his music will soften the heart of dark god Hades. It does, but with one condition. Orpheus cannot look back on Eurydice until they have returned to earth. Of course, in his anxiety, Orpheus turns to look on her. Eurydice vanishes forever.

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A three-car collision claimed the life of a man’s girlfriend, but 13 months later she was messaging him on Facebook and tagging herself in photos — at least, that’s the story one user published two years ago on Reddit’s NoSleep community, a site for the sharing of “original scary stories.”

Although other Reddit users commented with condolences or their own experiences with loss, Snopes.com has since classified it as “merely a bit of supernatural fiction.” But the fiction started with a description that perhaps other Facebook users found plausible: “I had left Emily’s Facebook account activated so I could send her the occasional message, post on her wall, go through her albums. It felt too final (and too un-Emily) to memorialise [sic] it.” It’s likely many Facebook users have similarly faced the decision of what to do with a loved one’s profile. Using data from Facebook and the Centers for Disease Control, online legacy planning company The Digital Beyond estimates millions of Facebook users (of which there are currently 1.7 billion) have died. In 2016 alone, 972,000 are expected to pass.

Such numbers have led Facebook to innovate, but the social media company learned its lesson the hard way in 2009. Confronted with complaints its new “reconnect” feature was encouraging users to contact people who had died, Facebook introduced memorial accounts. Facebook promotes the accounts as “a place for friends and family to gather and share memories after a person has passed away.” Grievers often want to express themselves and share memories, but listeners are not always there. The internet easily provides a powerful platform for them. In 2013, Modern Loss launched as “a new website offering candid content, resources and community on loss and grief,” and was widely recognized as filling a void. Both Facebook and Modern Loss could help people grieve, but while Modern Loss invited grievers to send in thoughtful essays, all Facebook needed was for users to log in.

After someone has died, Facebook will memorialize the account if a family member or friend submits a digital request for consideration. The name of the deceased and date of death is required. Adding proof of death (through linking to an obituary or other documentation) helps the review process, but is optional. Once memorialized, accounts feature the word “Remembering” next to the person’s name. Depending on the privacy settings, friends can share memories on the timeline. The person’s content remains visible to the audience with whom the person originally shared it; and memorialized pages don’t appear in “People You May Know” suggestions. Since announcing the option, Facebook has made several updates. In 2015, Facebook introduced “Legacy Contacts,” which essentially allows users to appoint a digital caretaker.

The memorial feature has not been without problems, though. One Chicago woman, frustrated over seeing reminders of her deceased brother’s birthday, complained to the Chicago Tribune that she spent years trying to correct the issue. This past November, a glitch caused an unknown number of Facebook user profiles to be incorrectly marked as memorial pages. The event brought attention to the service, which not everyone is aware of or chooses to use.

“Historically, surviving loved ones had no real right to access the digital files and secure online accounts of a decedent,” estate attorney Stephanie Reid, who practices in Delaware and Maryland, wrote this past June for The Digital Beyond. “Absent personal knowledge of the departed’s password and login, family members were left to deal with a labyrinth of legal obstacles erected by well-meaning tech companies, mostly for purposes of online security and privacy.”

As the Reddit user demonstrated, the line between reality and fiction easily blurs when social media gets involved. Right now, memorial pages are a digital shrine that can be used to honor someone and help those left behind, but this does not consider the possible benefit for the deceased. Self-discrepancy theory states individuals identify with three different types of self: the actual self (the person we perceive ourselves to be); the ought self (the person we should be); and the ideal self (the person we want to be). On social media sites, our profiles are presentations of who we are, yet typically only show our most flattering selves. If we see our social media presence as both our real and ideal selves, and this virtual account can exist beyond our own lifespan, does that mean our best self can live forever?

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Both art and technology allow us to step into the past. For Chicago composer Olivia Block, experimenting with old answering machine tapes and recordings has allowed her to create while reflecting on the past.

“I find it slightly nostalgic,” Block told NPR in January. “I definitely feel, like, nostalgic about the noise. I mean, if you listen, this is somebody that just recorded themselves in a room, just kind of, like, shuffling around. And it just reminds me of my childhood.”

Block’s ghostly voices are default time travelers. They didn’t know they would serve as a type of time capsule when created. While Block is in the dark as to the identities of the strangers, it is not unusual for people to hold on to voice recordings. An enterprising artist might see this as an opportunity — share the old voicemail of your loved one and it could be “songified” for you to repeat at will.

However, that millennials are shying away from voicemails pushes this into another direction. When Eugenia Kuyda, co-founder of the AI startup Luka, lost best friend Roman Mazurenko in an accident, she created a memorial chatbot. She had already been working on Luka, a messenger app for interacting with bots, and after reading old text messages from Mazurenko had the idea to create a bot that could mimic Mazurenko. This past spring, Kuyda announced the creation on Facebook and invited anyone who downloaded the Luka app to chat with “Roman” by adding @Roman.

Although certainly a new idea, and one that gained a lot of attention after being covered by The Verge this fall, the technology involved dates back to the early 1960s. Joseph Weizenbaum, one of the fathers of modern artificial intelligence, debuted ELIZA, an early natural language processing computer program, in 1966. ELIZA gave an illusion of understanding, and even famously sounded like an empathetic psychotherapist, but ultimately the program could not contextualize events.

In The Verge coverage of the Roman bot, Kuyda responded to the aforementioned episode of Black Mirror, explaining she had mixed feelings. “It’s definitely the future — I’m always for the future,” she said. “But is it really what’s beneficial for us? Is it letting go, by forcing you to actually feel everything?”

In the episode, Martha (portrayed by Hayley Atwell) at first resents being unknowingly signed up for the service that allows her to receive messages from the recently departed Ash (portrayed by Domhnall Gleeson).

“Just say hello to it,” a friend tells a grieving Martha. “If you like it, then give it access to his private emails. The more it has, the more it’s him.”

“It won’t be!” Martha shouts.

“No, it’s not,” the friend responds. “But it helps.”

In this vision of the future, Black Mirror imagines various levels of engagement: a griever could start with creating a chatbot, then upgrade (after paying a fee and uploading private recordings and emails) to a voice. In voice form, AI Ash can talk, as well as look up information a la Siri or Alexa. AI Ash also has the power to “see” when Martha holds up the phone with the camera on, and can save and play back conversations. When Martha drops her phone, she panics, feeling as if she has lost Ash again.

“I dropped you,” she cries.

“I’m not in that thing, you know,” AI Ash responds. “I’m remote. I’m in the cloud. You don’t have to worry about dropping me.”

By the end of the episode, AI Ash is not just in the cloud, he’s in a humanlike replica that can walk and talk. He looks like the real Ash, but him “on a good day,” Martha says. By way of explanation, AI Ash responds, “The photos we keep tend to be flattering.” While he mostly acts like Ash, he has no knowledge of memories or events that weren’t recorded on social media. When a Bee Gees song comes on the radio, AI Ash mockingly calls it “cheesy,” even though the real Ash once lovingly sang it to Martha in private. Eventually, Martha cannot bear to be around AI Ash. “You are not enough of him,” she tells the digital intruder.

Others considering the question of forever are focusing on the positive, that technology can allow life and love to continue. Entrepreneur and SirusXM founder Martine Rothblatt was featured this past spring on the National Geographic series The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. In one episode, Freeman interviewed Rothblatt’s creation “Bina” — “a human who happens to be a robot” that is modeled after Bina Rothblatt, Martine’s wife. Russian internet millionaire Dmitry Itskov has also boldly stated, “Within the next 30 years, I am going to make sure that we can all live forever.” He aims to do this by uploading an individual’s mind to a computer, bypassing the complications of an aging body. His ultimate goal, he said, is to transfer a personality into a completely new body.

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For those stuck between wondering if a physical recreation of a loved one is a good idea and wanting some way to remain close to a person by indulging in new technology, there are artists considering an option somewhere in the middle.

This summer, mixed-media artist Gabriel Barcia-Colombo opened his Hereafter Institute at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for its first official public consultations. Journalists talked with representatives about services and memorials now available for the digital afterlife. The piece de resistance was a meeting with Barcia-Colombo’s own grandfather, Spanish poet Jose Rubia Barcia. It was particularly notable because Rubia Barcia is dead.

For the meeting, visitors put on virtual reality headgear. Once “inside,” the wearer could visit a virtual marble lobby that looked like a mausoleum. Barcia-Colombo created it after his grandfather was already gone, but those ready to think about next steps themselves can consult with the Hereafter Institute on “the preservation of the digital self.” “How do you want to be remembered?” the Hereafter Institute website asks in a video that mentions the option of 3D body scans. Instead of leaving loved ones notes, this avatar, presented in either AR or VR, could read aloud a will or potentially interact with those left behind. (It’s hard not to think of the image of a virtual Jor-El communicating with Superman).

Then there were the Hereafter Institute creations that celebrated life through more traditional ways, while also making the most of modern technology. Think of it as a digitally upgraded locket: about four hours of videos and photos can play randomly from these memorial pendants. Rochester-based artist Amanda Preske of Circuit Breaker Labs is doing something similar. Each piece of Preske’s art (from earrings and cufflinks to necklaces and rings) is made from recycled circuit board. Her work allows what would ordinarily be stuck inside a machine the chance to be seen.

“I do get people asking if my stuff lights up or does anything, completely missing the point that it is recycled,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Preske

While her main mission is to give new life to something that may otherwise end up in a trash heap, she has also received custom requests. She created a piece for someone whose father worked in technology. Another person who majored in IT asked for a custom ornament made in their college colors. Even though our lives are becoming increasingly digital, people still want traditional mementos. Keeping Dad’s computer isn’t the same as keeping Grandma’s vase, and the ability to turn the digital into physical art could potentially connect the dots.

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In the early 2000s, Evan Carroll and John Romano worked for the same digital communications firm. Hoping to better understand what the future might look like, they started tossing around ideas on how living life online might change living life in the real world. The result was a presentation on the digital afterlife at SXSW 2009, and that grew into the online resource The Digital Beyond. The blog offers archival, cultural, legal and technical insights to help readers predict and plan for the future.

“People are realizing their digital lives produce a wonderful record of their life,” Carroll said. Pointing to digital assets like PayPal and EBay accounts, he added, “There’s also potentially real financial value tied up in our digital affairs.”

Despite almost 10 years passing since the initial presentation, Carroll said digital estate planning hasn’t gone mainstream. However, he also noted that people are just bad at estate planning in general, and that the traditions associated with death make the funeral industry one of the slowest changing industries out there. “Humans are really uncomfortable with death,” Carroll said, perhaps obviously. However, art, as well as the more spectacular advancements in technology, provide a conversation starter. Carroll is hopeful more people will start thinking about their digital futures because of this. There are also legal changes coming at the state level. In 2016, several states enacted a version of the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which addresses the ability of trustees to access an individual’s digital assets upon death.

“So many things are going to change in the coming years and it’s next to impossible to be 100 percent prepared,” Carroll warned. He encouraged people to take a small action now in thinking about their digital assets. “We’re going to see digital become more normal, more typical. We’re not going to think about digital estate planning, we’re just going to think about estate planning.”

When it comes to digital representations of people, Carroll voiced concern over how this may change the grieving process, although he admitted that is just his personal bias. “It’s great in concept, but I do think that humans need to evolve a bit before we get used to it,” he said. Then there is also the question of who benefits from our continued presence, and what to do if we do not want our families to digitally resurrect us. Carroll, who freely admitted he is not a lawyer, said his research has indicated these concerns would likely fall under privacy law, and, as of now, most of our rights to privacy expire after death. On the other hand, what can families do if an individual plans for a digital afterlife and the family disagrees? One case that may apply is Catsouras v. Department of California Highway Patrol (1999), which states, “Families have a right not to be embarrassed or humiliated by the outrageous display or exposure to public view of the remains of a loved one.”

LA Weekly writer Catherine Wagley was there for the Hereafter Institute open house and raised similar questions after completing a survey included in the consultation. She was asked if it mattered whether her politics, creativity and personality would be remembered, and considered the potential negative outcome. “Those seemed like concerns that happily ended with death, when there was no further need to wonder how I came across or whether people liked me,” she wrote. “Who would benefit if I kept dictating how I was perceived after dying?”

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About three months after my grandmother died, my great aunt also left us, somewhat suddenly. Aunt Marie was my godmother, so her death was going to be hard on me however it happened. Her loss coming so close to my grandmother passing made it especially difficult. Suddenly, my family felt extremely small and fragile.

The night before the heart surgery that would eventually cause her death, I talked to my aunt on the phone. She joked about what would happen if she didn’t make it through, and asked what I would want to remember her by. I hadn’t thought about it; I didn’t want to think about it.

“You’ll take me, won’t you?” she asked.

“Yes, I’ll take you,” I responded.

Years earlier, when it was briefly popular to have a loved one turned into a gemstone, we joked that I would get a ring made from her ashes. Should a big moment come up in my life, I was to pause, put my hand to my ear and say, “Now wait while I ask Aunt Marie.”

She was cremated, although her ashes went into a white marble box instead of a ring. I don’t know much about how Aunt Marie died, but I recall my mother making an analogy about sewing frayed cloth. The doctor just couldn’t stitch her heart back together.

When I write about Aunt Marie and what I remember from growing up with her, I feel like she is there. Sometimes I get so lost in writing that when I look up from the page it is almost a shock to be in my room and not her house. I want to be back there with her, and in that way, I do seriously consider the benefit of having my own virtual reality where I could visit her. Yet, a few months after her death, I had a dream that I was visiting her and my grandmother. It was a good dream, but waking up from it was like losing them both all over again, and I started wishing I would no longer dream about them.

Art will always be an outlet for grief, but technology introduces a new layer, whether we want to accept it or not. With our digital selves increasing our assets, we must get better at planning for the future, no matter how uncomfortable a subject. While media companies can be there to help the process by offering emotional outlets and platforms, lawmakers and estate planners need to keep up with these advancements so people ask the financially and legally important questions. Similarly, media companies and individuals must consider how they want the digital afterlife to serve them — not just the people they leave behind.

And at the same time, there will always be those who reject technological advancements and instead choose to grieve whatever way works for them.

“Grief is already a heavy thing,” Delaware-based artist Jane Kavanagh Morton recently told me. “And you have to figure out how, when you lose someone, how to still function, because the person who left really wants you to function, and you have to move on no matter how sad you are.”

Kavanagh Morton would know. In 2015, she lost her 29-year-old daughter Sarah to complications of diabetes. As an artist specializing in ceramics and clay sculptures, Kavanagh Morton said creating in her backyard studio has helped her grieving process. She described Sarah as a caring and understanding person, someone who would take the time to get to know strangers she happened to be waiting with in line. She also remembered Sarah as a great animal lover. One day while working in her studio, Kavanagh Morton fired a series of clay balls she had absentmindedly pinched into shapes. When they came out of the kiln, she noticed that they looked like penguins, one of her daughter’s favorite animals.

“Mother and Daughter” | Photo courtesy of Jane Kavanagh Morton

“I still have a sadness that I carry with me, but I choose to live,” Kavanagh Morton said. “And one of the ways that I choose to live is to have her, I think, her spirt come through me when I work.”

Kavanagh Morton doesn’t advertise the inspiration for the pieces, but will post on social media to share them with friends and family who know of the connection. While she wants to feel close to Sarah and her memory, Kavanagh Morton said she couldn’t handle Sarah coming back in one of the ways technologically-advanced artists like Barcia-Colombo are experimenting with now.

“I’d rather she just decided to come back, or that wherever she is, that they would just send her back,” Kavanagh Morton said. “But I don’t think that’s possible.”

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