It’s a lovely Thursday night in Chelsea, and the closing party for the New Museum’s creative “incubator,” known as NEW INC, is getting under way at Red Bull Music Studios. At the moment, the primary activity seems to be name-dropping over vodka–Red Bulls, but one man stands by himself next to a humming 3-D printer. He holds a smartphone in front of a glimmering purple sculpture that looks like a 21st-century Dr. Seuss tree. Standing behind him, you can see the image of the sculpture on his screen begin to glow and pulsate, and then a virtual city begins to erect itself. The city grows in size and becomes more ominous. Spaceships appear and the man thumbs the screen to make them blast buildings.
He’s playing with a “totem,” an interactive sculpture encoded with music and visuals that connects to your mobile device. They are developed by a creative firm called REIFY, whose 26-year-old CEO, Allison Wood, was an intern at another company a year ago. Wood describes the totems as an “art-meets-tech platform that transforms music into something you can hear, see, and hold.” Think of it as a festival experience for your smartphone: You download a band’s totem app, plug in, and pretend you’re getting your mind blown at the main stage.
The totem Wood is showing off is a collaboration with noise-rocker/electronic experimenters HEALTH, who revealed their latest single, “Dark Enough,” through the platform on July 15. While getting ready for their set at the NEW INC showcase, which featured music from their upcoming album Death Magic, HEALTH’s Jake Duzsik talked about the impetus for creating their totem. “Music is becoming ubiquitous. It’s more present in our lives than it’s ever been before, but things exist as background,” he said. “What excited us was returning to a physical relationship with music, in the way people might buy vinyl.”
Duzsik doesn’t think totems are a replacement for vinyl, but an object that has almost unending possibilities. It could have a live application, through installations at shows, or be used as a morphing piece of jewelry.
When asked about musicians like Jack White demanding that people not be on their phones or taking photos at shows, Duzsik says he isn’t a Luddite. He thinks that a fundamental new technological reality exists and that avoiding it isn’t realistic. “I don’t know Jack White, but I bet he’s got more than one assistant who has an iPhone,” he says. “Maybe he doesn’t, I don’t know. I don’t mean to speak out of turn, but I find it doubtful that no one in his organization is allowed to use technology. I really love Bon Iver’s music, but I bet he still has an iPhone out in that cabin in the woods.”
Wood agrees with Duzsik, saying she wants artists to own the space between your phone and the stage. “You’re going like this [holds up her phone] at a show anyways. An artist should own that space. Why not give you a tool that at least lets you put something there that you want?”
When asked about some people who might take issue with that, like Neil Young, Wood makes a direct appeal to him. “I think there are elements of our platform that can be used for everyone. Neil Young, this is a new way for you to reinvent album art. Dear Neil Young, I am a huge fucking fan. I would love to work with you. I have so much to learn from you, but also, this is about synesthesia. This is about having people see and hold your music.”
Wood thinks there is a future not far off where a kid could 3-D–print an interactive album from his bedroom, or where totems would be sprinkled around Coachella. Doesn’t that sound like a nice world to live in? We can imagine White’s response.
HEALTH’s Death Magic is out August 7 on Loma Vista Recordings. For more information on REIFY, visit their Tumblr here.