When Spain's senate approved a series of controversial "citizen security" bills that would infringe on people's civil liberties—including the right to protest in public—Spanish activists took action. Surmounting bodily restrictions, they fought back, and simulated a protest as holograms.
Hologramas por la libertad (Holograms for freedom), the world's first holographic protest, was meant to be ironic. It was organised and staged in April 2015 by Spanish activist organisation No Somos Delito (We are not a crime). Streaming their projection of hologram people marching with banners and placards in front of Spain's Parliamentary building, they argued that holographic protests were the reserve of a dystopian future, where governments had stripped citizens of their right to protest and assemble in public spaces in the flesh. What world would it be if you could only protest as a screen?
"Once this law passes, the only way we will legally be able to protest is by turning ourselves into holograms."
Yet, despite the intended ironic message, the holographic demo became a weirdly powerful virtual protest. Cristina Flesher Fominaya, one of the spokespeople of No Somos Delito and an associate professor at the University of Aberdeen, explained that there were two steps to the protest. The first step comprised a web page where people could capture their faces with a webcam so that it could later be turned into a hologram, send messages, and record a slogan—all of which were later included into the audio track of the holographic march. The second step comprised the actual filming and projection of the protest in front of the Spanish parliament building.
"About 18,000 people left a hologram imprint, or a message of a short, and we had around 54,000 visitors to our site from at least 88 countries," said Flesher Fominaya over the phone. She also pointed to the transnational dimension of this protest. "It was a way of connecting people's outrage about the law, and letting them participate through the internet beforehand to try and incorporate their messages and shouts on the protest audio track."
Spain's controversial Citizen Security Law, once implemented this July, could issue fines of up to 30,000 euros for protests near parliament and Spain's regional government buildings, and up to 600,000 euros for unauthorised protests staged near places such as telecommunications installations and refineries.
"The symbolic part of it [the holographic protest] was to say, 'Look, once this law passes the only way we will legally be able to protest is by turning ourselves into holograms,'" said Flesher Fominaya.
"There have been 87,000 protests in Spain just in the last two years," she noted. "In a European and international context, we wanted to signal to our neighbours that if this can happen in Spain it can happen anywhere."
"Humans are creative and if they have digital tech and different kinds of technology, they will find a way to put it to the service of protest and politics."
Protests have occupied an important place in human history. From the popular revolts in late-Medieval Europe to the Arab Uprisings, and global Occupy Movements, demonstrations have been a way for people to voice their discontent and restrict the power of political demagogues.
But governments world over are continuing to implement draconian laws that infringe on civil liberties and impose heavy prison sentences and fines for those who protest. In March 2015, for example, Turkey passed a restrictive anti-protest law, which implemented a series of harsh measures such as a prison sentence for people who partially or fully covered their faces, or for anyone who shouted a banned slogan.
So I asked Flesher Fominaya, whose research focuses on social movements and uprisings, if this form of virtual protest couldn't in fact be deployed in other parts of the world, and adopted as a way of circumventing stringent government controls.
She said that anybody with the right resources, knowledge, and technique could easily follow suit. "Humans are creative and if they have digital tech and different kinds of technology, they will find a way to put it to the service of protest and politics," she told me. "For us, however, this was a one-off. It's important to recognise that the idea was given to us for free by media professionals, concerned by what was happening." She noted that all the resources, labour, and technical expertise had been provided by media figures in Spain.
Ultimately for No Somos Delito, nothing beats the democratic right to the real, lived experience of flesh-and-blood protesting.
"What we're trying to say with this protest is that we won't turn ourselves into holograms. We're people, not criminals, and we will continue to have the right to express our opposition to laws that strip us of our fundamental democratic rights," said Flesher Fominaya. "If you take that away from us, you can no longer call yourself a democracy. That's the message and, by doing a symbolic protest, we're hoping in fact to increase people's presence on the streets."
Perfect Worlds is a series on Motherboard about simulations, imitations, and models. Follow along here.