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Shantell Martin and Ben Sheppee, “Bowie 1976” (2021)
Shantell Martin and Ben Sheppee, “Bowie 1976” (2021)Courtesy of the artists and Playboy

The artworks inspired by Bowie’s 1976 confessional Playboy interview

At the height of his mid-70s grandeur, Bowie was interviewed for Playboy by Almost Famous director Cameron Crowe. Artists Shantell Martin and Ben Sheppee have now created a series of multimedia works exploring their remarkable conversation

In 1976, at the height of his emaciated, otherworldly appeal, David Bowie was interviewed by Cameron Crowe for Playboy in what would prove to be one of this elusive figure’s most revealing exchanges. Crowe, who was then working as a precocious young music journalist (a passage of the future-film director’s life he would later dramatise in the semi-autobiographical movie Almost Famous) was encountering Bowie in his enigmatic guise of The Thin White Duke. 

The star was ensconced in Los Angeles in the midsts of an “astronomical” intake of cocaine and in the wake of his role as humanoid alien Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg’s seminal and stylish sci-fi film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Having moved through the realms of acoustic folk, psychedelic space pop, glam rock, and soul, 1976 saw Bowie release Station To Station as he began experimenting with grand, soaring melodies undercut with discordant noise and tempered with American rhythm and blues. 

His conversation with Crowe would capture Bowie in a rare mood of confessional honesty – albeit tempered by his usual playful evasiveness – in which he spoke candidly about his sexual experimentation. Artists Shantell Martin and Ben Sheppee used the interview as the starting point for a creative collaboration that raises money for LGBT Charity GLAAD.

In the true Bowie spirit, Side By Side cross-contaminates different mediums and incorporates ever-evolving technology in order to create the feeling that “a page from the magazine was coming alive”. Martin explains: “I’ve always been in awe of his elaborate costumes and alter egos, and obsessed with his use of technology as a tool to generate lyrics in innovative ways, not to mention all the music.” Accordingly, the project draws on augmented reality, animation, and live performance drawing, to create “Bowie 1976”, a collection of three NFTs.

Below, we spoke to Shantell Martin and Ben Sheppee about the future of digital art, whether NFTs disrupt the idea of ownership, and the continued allure and prescience of David Bowie. 

Please could you talk us through the project? And how do the different mediums interact with one another?

Shantell Martin: There are a few things happening… we have the photography by Andy Kent, the words from the Playboy article by Cameron Crowe and my own lines. These are all carefully curated to represent various themes that fall into the categories of sex, drugs, and rock and roll and then integrated into one piece. 

Ben Sheppee: This collaboration was set up to explore the 1976 Playboy interview of David Bowie by Cameron Crowe. In this interview Bowie was talking very openly about his sexuality, so as I understand it, the interview was selected to relaunch as an NFT in connection with Pride this year to raise money for the LGBT Charity GLAAD

For me, what was interesting about this work was taking print and rediscovering it through graphic design, 3D animation, and, eventually, augmented reality. We tried different mediums to gain new perspectives on the interview but ultimately I was always keen to see it exist in 3D space after having been locked up on a two-dimensional page for 45 years.

Could you tell us about your collaborative working process? 

Shantell Martin: There were many phone calls, video chats, and a lot of back and forth with Ben who was in London when I was in New York so we were also navigating different time zones. The collaborative process… it’s like a conversation, and you don’t know where it’s going but you’re present and mindful of allowing the work to come forth. Conceptually, we wanted it to feel like a page from the magazine was coming alive. 

Ben Sheppee: When we received the article we began by reducing the text down to some key quotes and focusing on moments of the interview that we found interesting. From there I worked on several layouts, arranging them on a large canvas and leaving space for Shantell’s linework to connect the moments in the interview and detail them through her illustrative style. We chose to divide the quotes into three categories, responding to different themes the original article explored and taking these elements into 3D. I found that moving a camera through the quotes gave a sense of a journey through the narrative of the article. 

“We never really own art. We’re just custodians of it. NFTs perhaps make that custodianship more transparent and maybe even more immediate” – Shantell Martin

Ben Sheppee: Could you tell us about Bowie’s encounter with Playboy and what the tone of the interview was? What aspects of the interview did you find inspiring? 

Shantell Martin: The tone of the interview was really intimate, open, very fluid and there was a refreshing honesty about the whole thing. 

Ben Sheppee: I found Bowie’s responses to be quite revealing, and got the impression that he must have known Cameron Crowe quite well. He was boasting about his sexuality, and teasing the interviewer, almost looking to embarrass him at times. This jovial approach gives us a close insight, allowing us to know Bowie’s quite playful and flamboyant character. 

What’s interesting about this snapshot of his life at this specific moment is how it embraces lots of things that happened in his career. He talks about the different personas he adopted and how his own personality was always in question as a result. It seems he adapted to the different situations he found himself in and, in a similar way, his sexuality was also open and diverse according to each particular moment in his life. As a person, he seemed to enjoy complete flux and was constantly reinventing himself.

What do you think Bowie represents as a cultural signifier? 

Shantell Martin: Bowie represents many things but what I identify and admire the most is his innovative and non-conforming creativity that both felt of the time and of the future. 

Ben Sheppee: I was born in the 70s but I remember his influence from an early age on television… from what I understand, the 70s was a time for revolution on many levels. It seemed like a time people were embracing change and anything was possible. 

Maybe he embodied that spirit of the 70s by allowing himself to adapt freely and ride the waves of fashion, music, and art that were constantly challenging everyday life. I think now society looks at Bowie and maybe fantasises about revolution, seeking change in their own lives, and finding a unique voice.

I try to imagine Bowie in the charts in present times. It’s rare to find modern artists with a similar kind of approach or appeal, but Bowie’s music seems to transcend most demographics and he has audiences of all ages. There are many changes we need to make in order to make life sustainable on this planet. I wonder if Bowie’s voice may have been a powerful influence in helping society adapt to the challenges we face.

As a creator with one foot in the future, Bowie foresaw how the internet would change the landscape of art and music. How do you think he’d respond to this project? 

Shantell Martin: I have no idea but I would be honoured if he had anything to say about it all. 

Ben Sheppee: I believe he would have very much taken it in his stride and embraced it. It was part of his nature to move with the times. Just before he passed his last music video incorporated projection mapping… he was very much in tune with new artistic techniques and technological advancements.

In what ways do you feel the pandemic has influenced how you work? 

Shantell Martin: I don’t think it’s changed or influenced my work per se. Maybe in one sense it’s been easier to focus on my work with less travelling and fewer distractions. 

Ben Sheppee: For me, it was a chance to step back from some things that were consuming me and make more time to focus on what turns me on aesthetically. Space to think and time to create were things I’d been yearning for, albeit under different circumstances. But I don’t think it influenced my work conceptually or aesthetically… the themes I work with are mostly constant and detached from issues like the pandemic. I’m mostly interested in more abstract visual studies and subject matter.

I guess it gave me the time to engage in this NFT movement though, and try a new platform to expose my work and exhibit online. I feel like the NFT movement really did pick up speed, partially due to people’s confinement and their need to connect to each other and collaborate through creative endeavours. I found myself taking part in online spaces and art talks which helped me feel connected to different cross-sections of the art community.

“For me, what was interesting about this work was taking print and rediscovering it through graphic design, 3D animation, and, eventually, augmented reality... I was always keen to see it exist in 3D space after having been locked up on a two-dimensional page for 45 years” – Ben Sheppee

Bowie once said, ‘Art was, seriously, the only thing I’d ever wanted to own. It has always been for me a stable nourishment. I use it. It can change the way that I feel in the mornings.’ How do you think NFTs and digital art are changing our ideas about what ‘owning’ art means? 

Shantell Martin: We never really own art. We’re just custodians of it. NFTs perhaps make that custodianship more transparent and maybe even more immediate. 

Ben Sheppee: Being primarily a digital asset, I think it challenges some collectors. But we also live in an age where a large percentage of the population purchases apps and music downloads, so it seems like a natural progression for art to also transfer across mediums. 

There are whole movements of art – including the fluxus movement and graffiti –  where work was ephemeral and only existed for a moment in time. I think art collectors embrace the conceptual challenge of ownership in this way. Look at the recent success of Banksy’s self shredding work as an example. 

To some, it’s a new experience closing the deal without holding a physical object, but some NFT sales do include an accompanying print or physical piece of work alongside the piece existing on blockchain. With NFTs, the blockchain does allow for protection against fraud and better artist royalties. It’s a far safer way to ensure legitimacy, making the principle of certificates of authentication more robust.

What do you think is the future of NFTs? How do you see the form evolving? 

Shantell Martin: Definitely more utility and more virtual spaces to engage with and experience art. For example, Stageverse is a really great metaverse project that is putting art front and centre. 

Ben Sheppee: I’m interested in new kinds of NFTs that use AI. Essentially, these NFTs are code-based and evolve over time. It opens up new possibilities for programming work which is very much in line with lots of my processes which are generative.

I’ve noted a couple of NFT galleries opening up online as well as in physical spaces, so the places where these works can exist are also opening up.

What would you most like visitors to take away with them from the experience of this exhibition? 

Shantell Martin: I’d like them to see the power of collaboration and how you can bring two identities together. 

Ben Sheppee: I hope it broadens people’s understanding of art crossing mediums and introduces new audiences to different ways to collect work. It’s been a learning experience finding the best way to present works that live across several formats.

Editions of the collaboration between Ben Sheppee and Shantell Martin are available here