David Bowie Is… [the future of communications]

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At the end of last year I went to the ‘David Bowie is’ exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario and I saw the future of marketing communications.  If you’re in the business of communications, “David Bowie is” – a V&A exhibition – is a glimpse at the future of our industry.  It’s an example of what is possible.

The exhibit – I call it an exhibit, but it was really an experience – and is a masterclass in how to use many of the key elements that will define the way businesses communicate with their audiences in the next few years.  It brings together location, multi-media and static content and retailing to create a memorable experience, build relationships [if you didn’t know Bowie at the start of the exhibit you definitely will by the end] and leads visitors to a Bowie merchandise shop before they leave.  Want to learn about how to take an audience on a journey, ‘David Bowie is‘ will teach you everything you need to know.

“The concept came from co-curator Geoffrey Marsh and me!  We knew from the outset that we wanted to create an exhibition based on Sound and Vision [and] we did not want the exhibition to look or feel like any that we had ever been to, (and we have been to many).”, explains Victoria Broackes, co-curator of the exhibition.

It delivers.  At the AGO the exhibit was split over two floors and took visitors on a journey through the life and music of David Bowie, guided by a headset.  The headset played a combination of audio commentary, music and David Bowie in his own words as you moved from exhibit to exhibit.

We wanted to bring something of Bowie’s own theatrical and pioneering spirit into the design and narrative of the exhibition. We fixed on the idea of using 59 Productions whose live performance/opera work integrating 3D with AV was cutting edge – but in order to work within museum constraints (conservation, security etc.) we needed to bring them together with a company who excel at museum exhibitions such as Real Studios.”, explains Broackes

But, far from simply processing visitors from start to finish the track played the appropriate content depending on your precise location – seemingly knowing when you’d gone back to look at something you’d already seen.  The syncing was seamless – as you turned to look at a video screen the audio changed to match it.  Within the larger exhibit the headset appeared to know in which direction you were looking – providing the audio for the screen that was being watched, rather than the one behind you.

“The use of geo-location technology was decided early on“, explained  Victoria Broackes. “…but equally to mix it up with ‘out-loud’ sound in places (because I, in particular, was concerned to lose the sociability of a visit to a V&A exhibition), and also, at the end of the exhibition to turn the visitors into an audience.

“We also talked to Sennheiser very early in the process.   The end result was due to the fabulous team we’d been able to bring together – Geoff and I didn’t know what was possible, but we knew the sort of results we hoped to achieve.  59, Real and Sennheiser did an amazing job of realizing those ambitions.”

And the result of those ambitions is just incredible.  It also disproves anybody that says location-based marketing isn’t possible.  In one room, for example, – no more 12 feet square – there’s a checker board effect on the floor and nine video screens.  As you move from one square to another the audio changes to match the corresponding monitor. There was no audio bleed, no tricking the technology by moving back and forth between squares quickly [I tried!] and the moment you stepped out of the room you couldn’t access the audio dedicated to the room.

“I think again the key exciting thing was the ability to bring together people working in different disciplines and see them spark off each other.  We started creating the exhibition just over two years before opening, a very short time in exhibition terms.

“It is important with most exhibitions to retain their integrity at different venues, but with this exhibition it’s essential. We were thrilled by how well that had been achieved at the AGO with such a different space, and hope we will be able to do that at every venue on the worldwide tour.

“We’ve insisted that 59 Productions are employed to oversee the design as the exhibition goes around the world and that we as curators are consulted on every change that may be necessary. The important thing to remember is that an exhibition is not just a collection of objects, although it might seem like one! The concept and presentation of that collection of objects is absolutely vital to how it’s perceived. That’s why we put so much effort into getting the designers and the design right.”

Without location ‘David Bowie is‘ would be a collection of exhibits; with it, it creates an unforgettable experience that very few that see it will ever forget.  But the success of the exhibition is more than location; it’s about more than David Bowie; it’s about more than his music – it’s about bringing all of these things together with a vision.

“Without wanting to sound weird”, says Victoria Broackes, “…there were parallels learnt from doing an exhibition about David Bowie, and seeking to incorporate Bowie spirit into it.

“Controlling the creative process at the same time as embracing collaboration and challenging ourselves were all a part of the process, but so was the principle of adopting ideas from other disciplines.  Overall perhaps the biggest Bowie–ish element was being true to what we believed in, even in the face of opposition. This exhibition was certainly the most challenging that I’ve ever worked on, and there were moments of opposition and of self doubt when it would have been much easier to give in.

But in the end it was the challenging details that usually made the difference, so I’ve learnt to stick to my guns, stand up for what I believe in and on occasion to push things to the limits (if that doesn’t sound too dangerous!).

The exhibit was was hosted at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, after stopping in Toronto it headed to Sao Paulo, where it will be until April 20.  Over the next couple of years it will also go to Berlin, Chicago’s MOCA, Paris and Groningen.  More information about David Bowie is can be found here http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/touring-exhibition-david-bowie-is/

All images are installation shots of David-Bowie is| Courtesy David Bowie Archive © Victoria and Albert Museum London