Who needs people when you’ve got a smartphone? The David Bowie Is… exhibition at the V&A in London. Photograph: Rune Hellestad/Corbis via Getty Images
Released on Bowie’s birthday and narrated by Gary Oldman, the David Bowie Is ... app intends to bring you the gift of sound and vision – but falls a little short
You have to feel for anyone tasked with designing a David Bowie app, which launches on 8 January, his birthday, priced £7.99. Given the guy was a shape-shifting pop genius who worked 10 steps ahead of his peers, transformed our cultural landscape and even turned his own death into a piece of art, you’re probably not going to get away with throwing up a few annotated pictures. Bowie fans want something that lives up to the icon’s name. No pressure.David
Bowie Is … is an app based on the V&A’s record-breaking 2013 exhibition of the same name, which toured the world before ending up at New York’s Brooklyn Museum last year. The rather ambitious plan is not just to recreate the experience of going to the exhibition – which focused on the colourful, theatrical side of Bowie and drew a staggering 2m visitors – but to better it. As the creators put it, the app gains you access to all the exhibits: “Without the entire exhibition in the intimacy of your own environment, without glass barriers, vitrines or throngs of visitors.” Who needs people when you’ve got a smartphone?
As someone who will happily seize any excuse not to have to mingle with the public, I settled down on the Guardian sofas for a play around. The makers have gone for an augmented reality approach – “staging” the exhibition in front of your camera viewer (that Guardian sofa gets quite psychedelic at times) and allowing you to navigate the items in three dimensions. You progress through the virtual museum’s series of rooms that range from the obvious (“Early influences”; “Life on Mars” etc) to the more esoteric (there’s a good one on Kansai Yamamoto, the Japanese fashion designer who created costumes for Bowie’s legendary Aladdin Sane tour). In each room, you’ll find the exhibition’s artefacts – lyric sheets, pop videos, various ephemera, not to mention a huge range of costumes – while Gary Oldman narrates.
You can see Bowie’s early sketches proposing outfits for his teenage band the Delta Lemons (brown waistcoats with jeans), watch him perform in the short 1969 film The Mask (A Mime) and see the Warhol-esque lithograph he created of his wife Iman in 1994. In the Blackstar room, we hear him questioned on the subject of religion: “Do you indulge in a form of worship?” he’s asked. “Life,” he answers. “I love life very much indeed.”
Starman … David Bowie performs on stage on his Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane tour in London, 1973. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images
I found the more obscure rooms the most fascinating. In the Yamamoto room I learn the roots of Bowie’s love of “hikinuki” – the Japanese method of quick costume change that he experimented with during his Aladdin Sane shows at Radio City Music Hall in New York. It was here, while performing half-a-dozen costume changes each night, that he received standing ovations and realised he was on to something. As Bowie himself puts it, he didn’t want to be a radio, but a colour television.
The exhibition subscribes to this notion too, and is deep and rich – even after an hour or so messing around I’d barely covered a third of it. It’s great that you can zoom in on lyric sheets and rotate the outlandish costumes a full 360 degrees. But for all the “behind the glass” hype, it’s no match for seeing the costumes in real life – the renderings inevitably lose some of the character. Mingling with the public is unfortunately still the best way to experience this kind of thing.
As for the augmented reality interface – it’s both impressive and frustrating. At times you wish it was simpler, as certain artefacts are hard to access and the screen positioning makes viewing them a disorientating experience. You can be forced to hold your phone at awkward angles to get the best view.
It’s great that the app invites you to take your time, revisit at your leisure and to take lots of breaks – a welcome antidote to the hectic-pace of most pop culture consumption – but browsing through David Bowie Is … isn’t always the most relaxing experience.
Neither a radio nor a colour television … David Bowie Blackstar still
Still, for the millions of fans who didn’t get to see the exhibition, or even ones who did but spent most of it trying to crane their neck around someone else’s shoulder, there’s plenty of value to be had in this summation of an artist who was neither a radio nor a colour television but something far more advanced indeed.