No Backing Band, Just David Byrne and PowerPoint

Via The Seattle Times

By Thaddeus Hanscom

• No singing.
• Lots of bullet points.
• You may ask yourself — how did he get here?
• An $80 book.

You wouldn't expect this kind of packed house for a normal PowerPoint presentation. Chalk it up to the presenter. Sporting a black suit, two-toned shoes and a matching belt buckle — he began his lecture, "My name is David Byrne. This is going to be an introduction to PowerPoint."

The lecture:

Rocking back and forth in front of the podium, Byrne walked the rapt house through a history of presentation software, how it's used today and whether or not software from Redmond can be a proper medium for art.

For Byrne, PowerPoint is a form of theater, like Bunraku or a Brecht play. Salespeople put on a show. Professors put on a show. Managers put on a show. Anyone who walks through a series of slides in front of an audience is, in some sense, performing.

Byrne has a leg up on the average PowerPoint user. Utilizing lighting, props (an old overhead projector) and easy one-liners, he wooed the audience with the skills of a rock star. From his first "slide," a roadmap for his presentation displayed on a tacky brown background, Byrne entertained.

In one moment, he detailed PowerPoint absurdities on the World Wide Web: Shakespeare explained in five bullet points! Moral and spiritual instruction given in four!

In the next, he gracefully shifted gears, challenging a Yale professor's criticism of PowerPoint for its failure to appreciate slides in the larger context of audience and speaker. Byrne argued that these three dimensions make slides, themselves, much more than just words on the screen. Invoking the late media critic Marshall McLuhan, he pointed out that you should not forget the presenter when discussing a presentation.

The art:

Unfortunately, Byrne was in the audience when his own work hit the screen. He is currently on a national book tour for "EEEI (Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information)," an $80 book/DVD on his PowerPoint art.

The audience got a glimpse of Byrne's foray into multimedia 10 minutes before the lecture began. In "Physiogenies," a series of faces, eyes and mouths showed up and dissolved to oboe bleats and blats. "Architectures of Comparison" gave us boxes, print icons and arrows — straight and curvy — joining and dissolving. "The End of Reason" flashed words like "um" and "hmm" on the screen over a bongo beat.

Many slides relied on the audience's familiarity with PowerPoint's atrocious "WordArt," whereby simple words bloat into multi-hued monsters. When the word "overwhelmed" stretched and filled the screen, collapsing on top of words like "sensitive" and "delighted," students and professionals alike nodded appreciatively.

But, while novel, the art wasn't especially interesting. Without Byrne headlining, the slides were just images moving back and forth on a screen to a synthesized beat, like MTV for people who are visually and aurally challenged.

In the end, the flatness of Byrne's art only highlighted his ability as a performer. Same as he ever was, the man knows how to put on a show.

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