By Penelope Debelle
In the subversive music/art world of David Byrne, it is perfectly sensible to give a (sell-out) Adelaide Festival of Arts presentation on the history and flaws of the ubiquitous PowerPoint, using PowerPoint, and a cabaret show based on the life of the former Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos omitting all reference to her shoes.
Byrne, 53, most famous as the former lead singer and guitarist with offbeat pop and bop band Talking Heads, has been working on solo projects since the early 1990s. The breadth and creativity of this work never seems anything less than astounding.
He has recently begun showing his photography and design work and has had solo exhibitions in Europe, the United States and Asia, while the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has placed one of his pieces in its permanent collection. He won an Academy Award for co-writing the score for the Bertolucci epic The Last Emperor, and he directed a documentary on African religion. He explored Latin music during his Luaka Bop phase in the early to mid-1990s and wrote a full-length ballet score for the dance pioneer Twyla Tharp.
Byrne, who is modest and pleasant in conversation and runs a generous and informative arts-oriented blog, brings to everything he touches an uncanny knack for oddball coolness. It took Byrne's Burning Down the House, to give Tom Jones (with the Cardigans) a temporary return to pop icon status in 1999.
Even Byrne's physical appearance has remained the last word in art-school modern, with a twist.
Like most people outside the business world, he regarded the computer projection software known as PowerPoint with some cynicism. But after studying the PowerPoint ads in in-flight magazines, he embraced the medium with the intention of discovering just what PowerPoint was and what it did to people.
He learnt the software and began making small films and sequences that used the words and letters of business subverted to new purposes, with pictures and sounds. In 2003 he played around with the idea in a book and DVD set to original music called Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information and went on a speaking tour to talk about PowerPoint and how it limited expression and understanding.
"I discovered there is a lot you can do with it because I am not using it, of course, for what it is intended to be used for," Byrne says in a phone interview from New York. "You can stick music onto it and I ended up creating almost these little films that would run themselves using stuff that I would attach to the slides."
His first impulse was to send up business culture, which was a cheap shot, and he did it. Then he decided PowerPoint could be used to do and say new things that were genuinely interesting, if restricted in scope. Its language of dot-point one-liners and aphorisms omitted context and understanding, the medium determining the message.
His most splendid example of this was a seemingly innocuous PowerPoint presentation sent to NASA about the space shuttle that buried the crucial information that the O-rings in the booster rockets were potentially problematic. "PowerPoint in some ways actually determines what you can talk about in PowerPoint; certain subjects and kinds of ideas are inappropriate for PowerPoint not because they are scandalous or pornographic," Byrne says. "It is difficult to communicate complex ideas in that form and yet in academia or business culture most presentations take place using it."
All this experience and perspective will be contained in I ♥ PowerPoint, which is entirely devoid of David Byrne music and exists as a PowerPoint presentation about PowerPoint with slides about the history of PowerPoint. For his music, Byrne says, you will have to catch his other Adelaide Festival show.
In Here Lies Loves - A Song Cycle Byrne has again subverted the rational and the obvious. Instead of mocking the avaricious, corrupt and deeply foolish wife of the former Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Byrne presents her in a cabaret collaboration with Norman Cook (the dance artist also known as Fatboy Slim) as a sympathetic figure who never recovered from the poverty of her beginnings. He was touched by the discovery in her former palace (along with the shoes) of a shed filled with countless tins of Heinz sandwich spread. To a child, Heinz spread represented luxury and plenty and as an adult Imelda was determined she would not go without.
Byrne has ignored the kitsch excess of Imelda's court, the Studio 54 replicas in her New York townhouse and on the top floor of the palace in Manila with C-grade actors in attendance, and examined instead what motivates people in power to behave as they do.
He also ignores the 1200 pairs of high-end fashion shoes that spilled out of the cupboards in February 1986, when thousands of Filipinos swarmed into the Malacanang Palace in Manila after the Marcoses fled to Hawaii. They never appear, even in the accompanying video, because, Byrne says, that would immediately turn Imelda into a joke and lose the resonance the piece has. Instead, he wanted to explore the theatrical bubble that is the court of a dictator and discover how a person like her justified actions that to outsiders were gross, reprehensible and ridiculous.
"I thought, well, there is a question that has eternal relevance, you can apply it an any given moment," says Byrne.
"I don't know if I came up with an answer but I think that by empathising with her life, where she came from and how she felt, you start to realise there are very universal human feelings, instincts and drives that when they are given free rein can lead to a bit of excess."
Using Studio 54-style disco as the musical base, Byrne has constructed a cabaret piece featuring archival video footage with two Asian singers, one as Imelda and the other as Estrella Cumpas, who raised her. Byrne sings as Marcos and opposition leader Benigno Aquino and Fatboy Slim provides the dance groove with a live band.
Byrne says he is slightly terrified about how Adelaide Festival audiences will receive such an ambitious project about a woman who has only ever been seen as a corrupt figure of fun. "To be immodest, I think the songs are catchy and even if you don't get everything, that part will carry it to a certain extent," he says after returning this week from Fatboy Slim's home in Britain, where they put finishing touches to the music. "But I am kind of anxious how some of the other levels of it are going to work."