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‘David Bowie Is’ app celebrates an artist whose work transcends his death

Jeff Miers

God, he would’ve loved this.

A potential audience of millions using their iPhones and iPads to take a tour through his history. Digging his art. Reading his handwritten lyrics. Grabbing a gander at the many costumes that adorned his impossibly lithe frame over the years.  Scoping out his diary entries. Immersing themselves in his uber-artistic video productions.

All in a densely convincing virtual reality jaunt presided over by an Oscar-winning tour guide.

It’s all so Meta. David Bowie, among the many other things he managed to be in what demands to be regarded as the greatest career in art-rock, was always Meta.

He was the actor playing the musician who played the actor playing a musician. The onus was always on us to figure out what was real, what was fantasy, and what was the aggressive commingling of both. Only his family, closest friends, and the War & Peace-length list of profoundly gifted musicians he worked with knew the real Bowie as an intense but kind man with a killer sense of humor and an ever-present twinkle in his beautifully damaged eye.

For the rest of us, he was whatever we wanted him to be.

A still from the 'David Bowie Is' augmented reality app. (Photo courtesy David Bowie Is)

Jan. 8 would’ve been Bowie’s 72nd birthday. In celebration of that fact, the Bowie Archive and SONY Music Entertainment teamed to launch the “David Bowie Is” app for Apple and Android devices, in the process adding to the unmistakable feeling that has pervaded prescient pop culture since Bowie’s death 3 years ago - that he is somehow still here, that he never left, but simply transcended the mortal plain he always seemed to hover above, anyway.

If it was a celebration of any other departed artist, the new app might seem a touch creepy and voyeuristic. As it stands, it feels wholly appropriate to follow tour guide Gary Oldman as he leads you through room after stunning virtual room, as if you’d somehow gained VIP access to Bowie’s brain itself.

More than 2 million people took in the “David Bowie Is” exhibition in the flesh during its run, which kicked off at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 2013, circled the globe, and concluded in New York’s Brooklyn Museum in July. The app is here to offer those of us who missed “the real thing” a chance to right that wrong.

[Read more by Miers: Bowie taught us to be daring, dedicated]

Handwritten lyrics and drawing from 'David Bowie Is'. (Photo courtesy David Bowie Is)

“The AR (augmented reality) adaptation, a first of its kind, mirrors the physical exhibition through a sequence of audio-visual spaces through which the works and artifacts of Bowie’s life can be explored,” according to the “David Bowie Is” website. “3D renderings preserve and present his costumes and treasured objects such as musical scores, storyboards, handwritten lyrics, and even diary entries all in 360-degree detail, enabling intimate ‘behind the glass’ access rivaling that of the visitors to the original exhibit, and enhanced by an immersive audio experience featuring Bowie’s music and narration, best experienced with headphones.”

That last bit is significant, for I must admit that – after downloading the app on my iPad and clearing my schedule for a few hours in anticipation – it was Oldman’s voice in my headphones, reminding me that “David Bowie showed us that we could be who we wanted to be,” that kicked me straight down the rabbit hole into a virtual world of wonder. I spent 90 minutes there. I didn’t want to leave.

I’m clearly the target market for “David Bowie Is,” both the real-time exhibition and the AR app. This is a tour designed for hardcore Bowie fans – the sort you might find posting “I still miss David Bowie” memes on social media throughout the year or finding themselves getting more-than-misty-eyed when perusing Bowie’s handwritten lyrics for “Blackstar,” or gleaning real meaning from the 300 objects spread throughout the exhibit’s 25 virtual rooms. If you loved Bowie in a manner that could not be reasonably described as casual, grabbing the app will be the best $7.99 you’ve ever spent.

Bowie spent his career leaving most of his peers in a cloud of the artistic dust he consistently kicked up. He never stopped pushing the envelope, never stopped creating art that was wholly singular and yet somehow universal. Surprising and challenging both himself and us seemed to be his primary artistic objective. He even managed to turn his own death into an artistic statement. That he has now entered the world of augmented reality on its leading edge feels like another wholly appropriate final act.

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