By Doug Harvey
You can take the boy out of the Rhode Island School of Design, but you can’t take the Rhode Island School of Design out of the boy. Since first coming to prominence in the mid-'70s as the front man and driving wheel of the Talking Heads, David Byrne has written music for dance, theater, film and video. He also wrote and directed the feature film True Stories and the documentary Ilé Aiyé (The House of Life), founded the amazing record label Luaka Bop (which alerted the general populace to the work of Tom Zé, Vijaya Arand, Shoukichi Kina, Os Mutantes, and a bunch of other non-Anglo musical geniuses), and hosted a television series. This is all in his spare time, of course, in between recording his six solo albums (not including remixes, film scores, production and collaborations). Then there's his art career.
Though he dropped out of RISD in 1974 to become a rock star, Byrne kept up with his visual art practice. He designed the striking pre-Hockney SX70 photomosaic cover for More Songs About Buildings and Food as well as much of the Heads’ theatrical presentation documented in Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense. But it wasn't until the Heads petered out that he began making his presence known in the art world per se: exhibiting his photographs; designing billboards, subway posters and lightboxes; publishing oddball books; and creating multimedia works for museums and galleries around the world.
Most recently, he’s been expressing himself in the unlikely medium of Microsoft PowerPoint, a decidedly un-state-of-the-art digital audiovisual program. I caught up with him between the tail end of a tour in support of his most recent album, Grown Backwards, and a short tour of his I ♥ PowerPoint lecture, which includes stops at UC Santa Barbara next Tuesday, the Hammer on Wednesday, and UC Irvine on Friday. I asked how he got interested in such an improbable vehicle for his visual work. "I kind of stumbled onto it," he admitted. "I didn't grow up using this software, but some years ago I was doing book readings from another book, one that was like a little bible (The New Sins, 2001) and I wanted it to appear like a sales presentation. It looked to me like salespeople all used the same software for their presentations — they carried it around in their laptops. So I thought, 'Well, I've got to use the right paraphernalia to give that look,' so I decided to learn how to use the software and it was remarkably easy, as it's supposed to be."
Byrne's PowerPoint presentations are anything but businesslike. The five short films on the DVD included with his most recent book, Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, range from elegant black-and-white ballets choreographed for stock typographical symbols to frantic layers of high-chroma images snagged off the Web. When I'd first heard of these works, I had envisioned something addressing the culture of business in a more specific, possibly critical, way. Byrne’s approach was more organic: "Not having grown up using PowerPoint the way it's supposed to be used I just started playing around with it. I'd never seen a PowerPoint presentation so I didn’t know what you were supposed to do with it. I could sort of tell what kind of things it did very easily. One of the great things about it is you can dump in all kinds of different things. So I started playing with it and realized I could make these little films, attaching music to it, and my own images, and all kinds of things."
Byrne's work has often addressed the square world without being overtly critical, examining overlooked or disparaged aspects of culture and society from new and surprising angles. I asked him if he had received any comments or response from Microsoft. He laughed. "Yes, they flew the woman who runs my art studio out to [Seattle] to give them a presentation on what I was doing. I guess it was okay. Then when I gave an earlier version of this talk at the L.A. County Museum, I met the guy in charge of the PowerPoint division. I don't know what he thought. He didn't come back after."