The extensive and ambiguously titled exhibition “David Bowie Is,” which originated at The Victoria and Albert Museum in London but is now running through 15 July at The Brooklyn Museum in New York, gathers a ton of artifacts from the iconic musician’s many decades as an entertainer into one massive career retrospective. There are four hundred or so objects on display, including countless photographs, original album art, Bowie’s own drawings, sixty original performance costumes, dozens of samples of handwritten notes and lyric sheets, and more.
It all amounts to as complete an immersion into Bowie as you could ask for, but as with most everything revolving around the curiously unchallenged legacy of this singularly talented artist, it’s not particularly penetrating or surprising. If you’re a longtime fan, you’re not likely to discover new sides of Bowie—or, even, less well known sides. (Tin Machine, anyone?) Still, for those already familiar with his œuvre it makes for an enjoyable if not particularly edifying afternoon out. For those who are new to his work, it’s probably a pretty enjoyable primer.
The exhibition itself is designed thoughtfully and executed with a fair amount of technologically forward-leaning imagination, especially the audio component. Each visitor is issued a pair of over-the-ear headphones (Sennheiser is a prominent sponsor of the show) attached to a Bluetooth receiver that automatically plays audio based on your specific location within the exhibition halls at any given time. Step towards one artifact and you might hear one of Bowie’s many immortal songs; step towards a different one and you might hear an excerpt from his appearance on an old TV show synced with a video projected on the wall. Everything changes automatically; all you need to do is walk and look.
This coordination of exhibits and audio is technically impressive but has some unintended consequences too. If you walk up to an artifact that interests you, you may find it difficult to actually read the curator’s notes while listening to a voice in your head that may be saying something completely different. Your choices would be to either wait until the audio is done, pull off your headphones and miss out on that content, or to fumble with the receiver to find the pause button. One way or another, it’s at least momentarily discombobulating.
More significantly, if you enter the exhibition with companions, within moments you’ll realize that the experience is so tailored to your current proximity as an individual that there’s little sense in the group keeping pace with one another. Two people standing side by side may be listening to two entirely different things, so why stick together? To actually share the experience requires pulling off your own headphones, getting the attention of your companion and urging them to pull off their own, too. It’s an awkward ritual, and it gets annoying for everyone if it’s repeated too many times.
The overall effect struck me as a disappointing hint of what the future might look like, not just for ostentatious tributes to classic rock stars but for life in a technological society too. In a way, this example of automatically playing audio keyed to your location is a decent hint of how augmented reality will function unless it’s done much more thoughtfully: it’s an alienating combination of precision targeting and clumsy relevance. The experience is customized for your data points—your position in space, your implied interest in certain content—but it’s not necesssarily in tune with what you might actually want at any given moment.
It’s also surprisingly isolating. At one point I took off my headphones to survey the exhibition space and what I saw was a room full of people immersed in their own headphones while more or less oblivious to one another’s presence. That’s not to say that it was silent; to the exhibition designers’ credit, speakers were piping Bowie songs throughout the space. This offered a patina of human activity in what would have otherwise surely been an eerily silent experience, because there was no talking, no discussion of the experience that we were all ostensibly sharing. If you like to go to museums for the interesting discussions they inspire, this might not be for you. That old cliché about feeling alone in a crowd never felt more real.
And it was exacerbated by the museum’s restriction on cell phone service (which supposedly interferes with the ability of the headphones to connect with location beacons via Bluetooth) and an inane prohibition on photography. That latter rule struck me as particularly ironic given how media-aware Bowie’s entire approach to celebrity was from almost his very start. If ever there were a rock god made for Instagram, it was David Bowie.
It’s not clear to me that the curators of this exhibition intended to leave so little for its visitors to actually do, but it’s worth considering nevertheless that this might be a likely if not inevitable outcome of immersive media. On the one hand it isolates you from your companions in the real world; on the other hand it abets restrictions on your own technology and therefore your own ability to participate in the experience. Visitors to “David Bowie Is” are socially discouraged from sharing their experiences within the exhibition and they’re also officially prohibited from sharing what they see, hear, learn and think about with the world outside of it (at least in the moment). What’s left but just to consume what’s put in front of them, passively? David Bowie himself would’ve hated that.