Feeling Alone, then Connected

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How the David Bowie Is Exhibit Took Me by Surprise

Image credit: NASA

My wife and I visited the Brooklyn Museum for the David Bowie Is exhibition earlier this month. Upon entry to the exhibit, visitors were handed a set of cushy headphones. I slipped mine on and suddenly was immersed in a visual and auditory experience complete with music and interview clips syncing up with the pieces in front of me.

But something felt wrong about it. I was crowded into the space with dozens of other fans and yet I felt so alone. The headphones seemed isolating to me. Essentially, we were alone together. Thinking back on it now, this reminds me of the book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. This very much seemed like a situation in which we weren’t going to be interacting with our museum-going neighbors. Still, I went along with the exhibit for another 10 minutes or so until everything changed for me.

I stepped into an area focused on the relevance and impact of the song “Space Oddity,” the music pouring out of my headphones. And I turned and saw the video on a large screen and at least a dozen heads perfectly still–seemingly in awe–taking it in together. In an instant, I was part of something larger than myself. I felt connected. And that is the power of the arts. I stood and watched and listened and cried, thoroughly enjoying David Bowie’s most iconic tune, and I was not alone in doing so. This is also when I started to notice the crowd soften, offering smiles to strangers and sincere “excuse me’s” when brushing against one another.

The Space Oddity-Space Travel Connection

The exhibit explored the global impact of NASA’s space program, specifically the “Earthrise” photo taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders. It’s speculated that Bowie may have been moved by this first-of-its-kind image of the Earth, taken in 1968. In a time of turmoil, there was this awesome image providing a fresh perspective.

In the words of astronaut James Lovel, the photo “was a very significant factor in how people felt about themselves and their environment. The ‘Earthrise’ photo in just one picture gives the person a complete understanding and glimpse of his or her position in the Universe by looking back at the body that she calls home. It was the first time that people actually knew what the Earth looked like and where they were living.”

Pretty darn amazing! Here’s a documentary short on the Apollo 8 mission and the “Earthrise photo.” It’s funny–in the documentary, Lovel talks about the U.S. space progam being a unifying factor at the time. And for those of us in the Brooklyn Museum 50 years later, the combination of “Earthrise” and “Space Oddity” led to another kind of connection, even if only temporarily.

Note: While I referred to myself as a David Bowie fan, it’s probably more accurate to describe myself as an appreciator. For those who are devoted fans, here’s a post on an experience I hosted last summer–the strange and incredible Rebel Rebel Float Trip.

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