By James Verini
For a prolific Renaissance man, David Byrne has always seemed a little removed. Not difficult, but removed. As a polymath musician and the onetime frontman of Talking Heads (the band's 1983 album "Speaking in Tongues," regarded by many as its best, lists Byrne on vocals, keyboards, guitars, bass and percussion, and as lyrics writer, on every song), a film director and composer (he won an Oscar for his score of "The Last Emperor"), and, in his newest incarnation, as a visual artist, Byrne has always stood a bit back from the microphone, a little left of center stage.
His lyrics affect a mindless happiness when they're not abstractly poetic; he is fascinated by motivational speakers and corporate jargon; he wears plain, boxy shirts and keeps his hair, which is now a sheeny platinum-silver, very short.
True, Byrne, who runs his own record label, Luaka Bop, has difficulty "relating to other human beings," as he once put it to a British journalist. True too, Byrne is one of the originators of New Age, at least according to the people who use that term (he is not one of them), and distance is, so those people say, part of New Age's modus operandi.
But Byrne's proximity issues will probably not find remedy this evening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Byrne will be presenting his new book of artwork, "David Byrne: E.E.E.I. (Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information)." If the title were not already enough to scare one off, consider this: The book is composed entirely of images Byrne made on the Microsoft Office presentation program PowerPoint.
His talk, in fact, is titled "I (love) PowerPoint." Why?
"That's where a lot of people live these days — in software programs," Byrne said, sounding like one of his songs, over the phone from New York. "There's a whole world of salesmen and motivational speakers and consultants and everything else out there. It's not my world, but I understand that it's the world outside my door. Or so I read."
The title, Byrne said, is a parody of and homage to the books of Edward R. Tufte, a Yale professor and information theorist whose better-known titles include "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information" and "Visual & Statistical Thinking: Displays of Evidence for Decision Making." (Would it be any surprise to find either of those sitting on Byrne's bedside table?)
The contents are varied: Simple line designs are interspersed with close-ups of sausage, an image of a sheep with icons for eyes, and a smiling woman with the words "Out of Touch" neatly printed atop her forehead. There are a lot of arrows and squares and directives.
A typical chapter introduction (there are six chapters and two appendices, though appendices to what is not exactly clear) begins, "If business is poetry, then numbers are words and sales presentations, marketing meetings and conferences are the salons and literary collaborations of our time." If the book were taken up by a very literal librarian, which one hopes it won't be, it might be filed under "Coercive Digital Self-Help," or something like that.
One is reminded of the scene in Byrne's 1986 film "True Stories" in which a Texas microchip executive, played by Spalding Gray, treats his family to a dinner-table presentation of his vision of computerized society, using nothing but a lobster and asparagus spears.
Byrne became interested in PowerPoint when he was promoting his book "The New Sins," another tongue-in-cheek foray into preaching with concept and image (he's also written "Your Action World: Winners Are Losers With a New Attitude").
"It seemed appropriate to talk like a motivational speaker or preacher," he said. "In order to complete the illusion I had to appropriate it as part of my act." Byrne took the experiment so far that he stopped showing up at presentations, and let them run on their own. He set one up at a Tokyo conference center, and a group of Japanese businessmen began taking notes. "I don't know what those notes could have been about," he said.
Byrne considered trying to sell "E.E.E.I." in PowerPoint form on a diskette or CD-ROM, but he found that the presentation appeared differently on different computers. So he has included with the book a DVD, which, he seems to think, has become more important.
"The book is really just an elaborate DVD case," he said. "The work I created is basically worthless. But what you can do is put it in a nice package." So the packaging is more important than the art? "If you like," he said.
One thinks of the first verse from the Talking Heads song "Girlfriend Is Better": "It's always show time," Byrne sang, "here at the edge of the stage."