David Byrne’s Alternate PowerPoint Universe

Via The New York Times

By Véronique Vienne

PowerPoint, the ubiquitous Microsoft business application, is not meant to be looked at too closely. People aren't supposed to notice its simplified graphics, ready-made templates, pie charts, arrows and icons; they're only supposed to notice the ideas that these features help organize. What's not hard to notice, however, is that in addition to organizing ideas, the software has a tendency to homogenize them, translating a Babel of voices into a single, droning voice of corporate culture. The experience of watching a PowerPoint presentation is meant to be the same in a San Francisco conference room as it is in a Chiang Mai Internet cafe. And in either setting, PowerPoint's graphic identity might not literally be invisible, but like the buzzing fluorescent light that office workers eventually tune out, after a while you just don't see it.

With his newest project, David Byrne has tried not only to see it anew, but also to use it in the least likely of all applications: a medium for creative expression. "Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information" (Steidl and PaceMcGill Gallery, 2003) is a boxed set containing a 96-page book and a DVD featuring 20 minutes of animation. In both mediums, Mr. Byrne, who is best known as a musician but who was trained as an artist, subjects PowerPoint's characterless graphic templates to a radical metamorphosis. Arrows that curve out of their trajectory and into psychedelic rainbow-colored curlicues, surreal charts that satirize postmodern posturing, typographical compositions that present absurd abstractions with straight-faced conviction and deadpan photographs of the most humdrum of everyday objects all morph into one another with the steady pacing of a corporate sales conference.

You can feel the medium resisting the invisible hand of the artist. Designed for easy digestion when projected on a screen, PowerPoint reveals its true identity when forced to perform without its well-rehearsed scripts. On the pages of the book, what you see is brute force, elemental verve, joyful savagery. Viewed on DVD, however, with the addition of music and movement, the same layouts become less threatening, less ruthless, even soothing at times.

The juxtaposition of book and disc, then, produces a kind of cognitive dissonance: is the slip-cased volume just a deluxe package for a short art film, or is it the other way around? Is the book an antiquated cultural artifact? Or is the digitalized version just a trailer you can watch on your television?

Also disconcerting is the project's unwieldy title. For insiders, it's a tongue-in-cheek reference to "Envisioning Information," Edward Tufte's celebrated book about the various ways that people through the ages have visually displayed quantitative data. But it's also a preview of the strange, decontextualized language that pervades the book and DVD, something between impenetrable academic discourse and self-important trade jargon, with a bit of official government study thrown in for good measure. Mr. Byrne uses it as a joke, perhaps, but also as a kind of meta-commentary on how language can alienate us from our emotions. One poignant photograph bears the legend "The Beginning of Identity," dry words that seem like the title of a graduate dissertation. Below that, two take-out soup containers are labeled, by hand, ME and YOU. The two containers sit side by side, separated by a few, seemingly unbridgeable inches.

One of Mr. Tufte's more recent publications is a critical pamphlet titled "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint." He is among the most eloquent critics of the technology, but over the 16 years in use, even some technicians have joined the chorus. "It's very reductionist," says Nancy Halpern, a PowerPoint specialist at the Strickland Group, an executive development firm in New York. "There is a crude linearity to the way the program works. Unlike a book or a Web site, you can't flip around the pages. It's more like a teleprompter."

So what inspired Mr. Byrne to reroute a corporate tool into an avant-garde project? To take something designed to simplify meaning, and turn it into an elusive, playful cipher? To transform a project synonymous with bland corporatespeak into a challenging, entertaining surprise? It started as a parody. "I was doing mock sell presentations, using mock PowerPoint slides as visual aids," he says. "That's how I learned the program originally. But then it evolved into something else. It was no longer enough to make fun of the corporate stuff. I realized that PowerPoint was a limited but a valid medium."

To view the medium creatively, he says, "You have to try to think like the guy in Redmond or Silicon Valley. You feel that your mind is suddenly molded by the thinking of some unknown programmer. It's a collaboration, but it's not reciprocal."

Starting with parody, he adds, even incompetent imitations, is a legitimate first step. Eventually, if you persevere, the obsessive nature of the process yields unexpectedly beautiful results. For him, then, the challenge became "taking a form that's purportedly logic and rational and making it poetic."

Yet one suspects that there is another agenda behind his attempt to subvert the global uniformity of PowerPoint. "Corporate culture," he says wistfully. "What if I could set it free?"

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