By Nate Lippens
David Byrne is one of my favorite polymaths — making music, directing films and videos, scoring soundtracks, and creating art. Still I was surprised by his latest project, "I ♥ PowerPoint", a series of lectures tied to Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information (a boxed set containing a 96-page book and a DVD featuring 20 minutes of animation). Microsoft's "slideware" program with its bland animated graphics intended for sales presentations seemed like an unlikely art medium. "For every odd little tool, there's someone out there who's chosen that as a medium," Byrne says over the phone. "And in spite of the limitations of a given technology, they turn it around so that each defect becomes a positive quality."
For the project Byrne took those limitations and bent them to his will, using a corporate tool designed to simplify meaning, and transforming it into a challenging and entertaining art project. With "I ♥ PowerPoint" and EEEI the medium is the message to a level that would most likely horrify even Marshall McLuhan.
Byrne didn't discover the ubiquitous Microsoft business application in a boardroom; he encountered it as an artist. "I had never used it before, but I was going on a book tour for The New Sins and I decided to base the book-tour readings on sales presentations," he says. "It seemed appropriate to talk like a motivational speaker or preacher." The New Sins was a pseudo-religious tract, which continued Byrne's interest in preachers, motivational speakers, and self-help culture (he's also written Your Action World: Winners Are Losers with a New Attitude). "I was going for satire," he says, "and what could be better than using PowerPoint, which is something that every sales and marketing person relies on?"
After the book tour Byrne's fascination with PowerPoint continued. "At first I made presentations about presentations, almost completely without content. The content, I learned, was the medium itself," he says. But then it evolved into something else." Using the limitations of the program, Byrne found that he could create artworks that were about "something beyond themselves." He found that he could attach his photographs, short videos, scanned images, and music to create what amounted to short films. For him, the challenge became "taking a form that's purportedly logical and rational and making it poetic."
That sense of poetics is displayed both in the book and on the DVD. Byrne subjects PowerPoint's graphic templates to his artful ends, taking the rational forms and structures of the business tool and using them in irrational ways. Surreality and absurdity abound as arrows go astray of their trajectories and pie charts and graphs parody postmodern thought. Commonplace objects morph into one another with the steady pacing of a corporate-sales conference, all of it tinged with the deadpan tone that Byrne has used to hilarious and creepy effect since his earliest days playing music.
The book's unwieldy title, Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Edward Tufte's celebrated book Envisioning Information, which traces the various ways that people through the ages have visually displayed quantitative data. Byrne appropriates Tuft's academic discourse and technological jargon for the book and DVD. The self-importance and pretentious impenetrability of the language is used to great comic effect when taken out of its context and applied to daily life. It becomes a meta-commentary on language's alienating effect on modern life. "There's so much distance in the way that we talk about things," Byrne says. "Especially with the language we use for business and technology."
The book repurposes business and techspeak for text accompanying many stills from the DVD, exploring "the beginning of identity" and "the Goddess Nature." For one image titled Digital Physiognomy (a pseudo-science that determines a person's psychological makeup based on a digital scan of his facial features) Byrne overlays famous features. "It's Dan Rather's profile overlayed on the back of Patrick Stewart's head," Byrne says. "It's recombinant phrenology." A photograph of two take-out soup containers bears the title The Beginning of Identity. The containers are hand-labeled ME and YOU and sit side by side, separated by a few inches. A chapter introduction seems to sum up Byrne's mission: "If business is poetry, then numbers are words and sales presentations, marketing meetings and conferences are the salons and literary collaborations of our time."