Cultural Overload: Oblique Strategies vs Major Tom

This week, Content in Context took a break from start-ups, fintech and the information superhighway to immerse itself in some cultural overload, with hardly a digital device in sight. However, I didn’t need to wander very far to realise that digital technology is both enhancing and restricting our ability to engage with art, music, culture and live performance – while analogue still wins out in terms of creating tangible experiences.

What technology would Thomas Jerome Newton have used to interpret “David Bowie Is”? (Image found here.)

To start with, I went to the “David Bowie Is” exhibition currently showing at Melbourne’s ACMI. As a retrospective on Bowie’s music career, including his dalliances with mime, theatre, fashion, videos, cut-ups, painting and film, it’s pretty comprehensive. What makes it particularly engaging is the lack of digital trickery among the exhibits: no touch screens, no VR or AR spectacular, not even a smart phone app to accompany your visit. It’s all very museum-like sedateness, well-presented artefacts, and extensively annotated displays – not surprising given the V&A provenance.

The absence of complex digital displays or an interactive/interpretive visitor experience is somewhat surprising, given that Bowie has always been an early adopter of new technologies (after all, this is the man who launched his own ISP, BowieNet, and was one of the first musicians to securitise his songwriting royalties via the so-called Bowie Bonds). Not forgetting that  Bowie was using multiple characters, personas and alter-egos long before we got around to internet avatars.

Bowie’s remarkable run of studio albums in the 1970s (unparalleled in popular music) stretched the limits of contemporary recording standards, because each LP has a distinct sonic palette, based on the careful selection of locations, musicians and studio technology. There’s even a section dedicated to some lyric-writing software that Bowie used to automate his cut-up process (which emulated the Dadaists and writers like Burroughs and Gysin). And videos for some of his early 80s songs (“Ashes to Ashes”, “Fashion”, “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl”) were MTV staples when the medium was still in its infancy. (But as the exhibition reminds us, Bowie was using the short film format as early as the late 60s.)

The only real concession to digital technology is the audio guide, which uses a personal playback device. These devices are linked to either NFC tags or wireless beacons to trigger specific music, commentary or soundtracks when the visitor is in a relevant location. Mostly it works well, and provides a collage of sounds to accompany the more significant exhibits. However, the cut-over between some “trigger zones” is a bit abrupt, even clunky, and there is nothing interactive for the visitor to explore or experience.

At the end, each visitor was given a postcard with a promotional code to download a free Bowie album. All very nice, and a great idea, but poorly executed:

  • The choice of albums is limited to his more recent studio albums, and a fairly average live album (by Bowie’s standards) – so none of those classic 70s recordings
  • The promotion is linked to Google Play and the process of setting up and downloading my account was not very intuitive, and compared to iTunes was very clunky (at least on my iMac)
  • It was not possible to curate my own personal Bowie album, which could have been fun – now, I understand the reluctance to deconstruct complete albums into individual songs, but perhaps some specially selected and Bowie-approved thematic compilations (e.g., based on his many stage and studio personas) could have provided a neat compromise?

While I liked the fact that the exhibition mainly used analogue technology, I think there was a missed opportunity to create an additional layer of interactivity, either via the audio guide, or via a separate smart phone app or website (I’m thinking of MONA’s “O Device”, the NGV’s “Melbourne Now” app, or some of the marvelous exhibition apps developed by London’s Tate Modern, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux in France, and both the MCA and Gallery of NSW in Sydney). Something for the V&A and ACMI to think about?

Then, it was a short walk across Federation Square to the Arts Centre, for a 3-day extravaganza of live events (music, dance, theatre, mixed media) collectively known as “Supersense”. OK, so I appreciate that this curated festival was all about experiencing live performance up close and in the moment – without being (dis)intermediated by any layer of technology between performer and audience (apart from some 3D glasses I wore for one mixed media show). But a festival app would have been very useful to help navigate the warren of corridors and backstage areas where the festival was held, to let visitors know when events were due to start, and to notify them when there no more seats in the smaller performance spaces.  Also, the festival website’s complicated schedule of events was impossible to read on a smart phone, so an app would have been great!

Anyway, the festival format, range of styles and mixed quality inevitably meant it was a veritable curate’s egg – the broad theme made it difficult to establish a cohesive context, and yet there were some connections and overlaps (both direct links between performers, and indirect conceptual links among the cross-cultural references and influences). Again, an app would have helped to make those connections. But the organisers (and performers) are to be congratulated for pulling off this inaugural event, and I look forward to next year’s programme.

Finally, for the culturally aware (or just plain old trainspotters) there were a number of connections to be made between “Bowie Is” and “Supersense”:

  • The performance of Brian Eno‘s ground-breaking ambient composition “Discreet Music” by The Necks and friends reminded us of Eno’s crucial role in recording Bowie’s trio of Berlin albums, “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger”
  • More specifically, the incorporation of Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” into the “Discreet Music” concert was very pertinent; not only did Eno use this system of random instructions when working on “Lodger”, he gave Bowie his own deck of “Oblique Strategies” cards, which are on display at ACMI
  • The festival finale by John Cale (also a sometime collaborator with Eno) included versions of “I’m Waiting for My Man” and “Venus in Furs” which he first recorded with The Velvet Underground in the 60s – and Bowie was one of the earliest artists to cover songs by The Velvet Underground in the early 70s.
  • Bowie’s early career incorporated mime, poetry and performance art, reflecting his influences and interests. In turn, thanks to the influence of cultural polymaths like him, a festival as diverse as Supersense seems perfectly natural to contemporary audiences.

Next week: Tourism – time to get digital

 

 

2 thoughts on “Cultural Overload: Oblique Strategies vs Major Tom

  1. Bowie: a foundation of the musical anthology of the life of a child of the sixties, like me.
    Wish I had seen he exhibition.

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