The Epistemology of David Byrne

Via Newsweek

By Brian Braiker

Best known, for better or worse, as the frontman of the seminal post-punk band the Talking Heads, David Byrne started out as an art student. Although he dropped out of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design after just one year, he’s been getting back to his roots lately. In the 12 years since his New Wave troupe disbanded, Byrne has embarked on a solo career, run his own record label, directed movies and scored films (winning an Oscar for his work on Bernardo Bertolucci's epic "The Last Emperor"). But Byrne isn’t as interested in talking about his new score for "Young Adam," the Talking Heads box set or his forthcoming solo album. He wants to talk about his coffee table art book, because now he’s got a whole new persona to explore: PowerPoint provocateur.

The book, "E.E.E.I. (Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information)" (Steidl Publishing & Pace/McGill Gallery), comes equipped with a DVD of five lectures produced with Microsoft’s ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation software. To mark the release of the book, Byrne delivered lectures in New York and Los Angeles on his exploration of using the software as a creative tool. Byrne has developed what must be the most surreal PowerPoint lectures of all time. The DVD contains seemingly unrelated images, dancing, interacting and playing off each other in an apparent stream of consciousness; the book, co-designed with Danielle Spencer, contains many stills from the DVD, complemented by text exploring "the beginning of identity," "the Goddess Nature" and "digital physiognomy" (a pseudo-science that determines a person’s psychological makeup based on a digital scan on his facial features). Think Dilbert on acid.

Byrne recently spoke with Newsweek’s Brian Braiker about the logic behind the DVD, the inherent challenges of using a business application to create art and his own efforts to become less smarmy. Excerpts:

David Byrne: I am here to answer your every question.

Newsweek: I appreciate that. How about just every question about your book?

[Laughs] That’d be much better.

It’s been interesting reading critics try to describe the book and DVD — everybody seems to get a kick out of it, yet nobody really seems to know what to make of it.

[Laughs] And what category does it fall in? When it first was for sale on Amazon, I went on to see what the reviews were, what people thought of it. You know how they have this thing that says, "well, if you like this book, you should try this?" It had all these scientific books about information theory and chaos, which I thought was interesting because some of those were books that I might be interested in. But I thought a lot of people who go for my book are not going to be interested in these other things at all.

So you seem to have an audience in mind. Who would read this and what do you think they would get out of it?

I think there’s a lot of people in the IT community who actually will get this, not only because they work with PowerPoint, but because the whole idea that you work with programs and applications and software and it guides you in a certain kind of thinking. There’s a certain kind of lingo and grammar, and assumptions are made about what you’re going to do with it. All of that stuff they’re totally familiar with and to some extent that’s how they make their money. To another extent it’s a bias and it’s a kind of little in-world unto its own. I’m kind of playing with that lingo and those assumptions. I think they might enjoy that.

So it’s PowerPoint more from an IT perspective that a business culture side?

I think so. I think on the business culture side, some people will have fun with it. My prejudice is that in business cultures they may be taking themselves a little too seriously for them to really enjoy this. I think that IT people might be a little looser about it because they’re not immersed completely in that culture.

You mention in the book that, for as much as it looks like an inanimate neutral thing, the PowerPoint software is not a neutral tool. How is it biased?

Well, neither is any piece of software or operating system. They all make assumptions about what you want to do with them and what kind of use you’re going to put them to, and therefore how you lead you’re life and what’s important to you. And it comes down to really simple things. Like in address books, it has a slot for your parents and your house and your spouse. That makes assumptions about how you live--and most of them are absolutely true--but what I’m talking about is stuff that’s not visible. It’s about how the architecture of the software makes assumptions about how you do things. This is going to sound high-falutin’, but it’s in the same way that Wittgenstein would say that the limits of our thought are the limits of our language. What we can say, what we can verbalize or write, determines what we can think.

This reminds me of when you write that people don’t make organizations smarter, but organizations are affecting and guiding people.

Yeah, and of course I’m being provocative there. I don’t think I believe that 100 percent, but it’s kind of fun to say it and see what happens — give that sore spot a poke.

Has anything happened?

[Laughs] No, but as you know, I’ve been doing these talks and that’s kind of where I go with it. Not that I’m an expert on programming or anything, but like everyone else, it’s part of our lives now. I’ve realized what it’s doing. At the same time, I’m not just complaining and being critical of it. I find that I can leapfrog over that and use it as an artistic medium, so I can go, "hey, I love this for all its faults." In fact, I love it because of its faults and all of its biases. If I can allow myself not to get upset about that, I can actually enjoy that and make that into an attribute, rather than a negative.

You say in the book it’s folly to use a piece of software as part of a creative process, but you seem to have pulled it off with at least interesting results.

[Laughs] I’m trying, yeah. And I have to be careful because I know that at first when I started doing this, I was kind of making fun of the software and having a cheap shot at business culture. But I think eventually I got beyond that and I realized, "oh, I’m using it as an art medium." I’m making things that are not, really, all that self-referential. They’re not all referring to business culture — I can make stuff that deals with all kinds of subjects and just use this as the medium.

Right, and there is some pretty heavy stuff in there, a lot ethical issues, ponderings on identity. Have you had a PowerPoint epiphany? Do you have a new appreciation for it?

I certainly do. But I wouldn’t say "new" because I only started using it a couple of years ago. I’m incredibly new to it. I didn’t grow up with it the way a lot of people have now. A lot of people grew up using it in schools and their homes and every presentation they’ve had to make they had to make in PowerPoint. I’m coming at it from another point of view and it was pretty easy for me not to get stuck in that.

You touch on this really freaky concept of digital physiognomy, which I had never heard of before.

That’s a real thing!

I know, I did some looking into it today. It’s essentially digital phrenology. How did you hear about this and what attracted you to it?

I was just Googling around and I came across it because I knew phrenology and genetic typing and profiling. I knew that’s where that one piece was going. I thought, "let me see what else is going on there," because I was kind of interested in doing other arts stuff that had to do with genetic profiling and facial recognition. It’s certainly a hot topic now and I turned up some pretty surprising results. One wonders how fuzzy the line is between phrenology and genetic profiling, which seems in the not too distant future.

Was that Patrick Stewart as one of the faces in the physiognomy lecture?

Yeah, the back of his head. It’s from Madame Toussaud’s. They let you take pictures of celebrities as much as you like.

Beyond the book, you’ve been very busy lately. You scored a movie, you’ve had art shows, you have a new solo album coming out. When do you sleep?

To be honest, I get plenty of sleep, thank you. I do have to admit that there are periods when my social life suffers. Since I just finished this record, I think I am able to get out and about and hang with friends a little bit more.

What can we expect from this new album?

It’s very personal and very operatic. In fact I do a couple arias on it. From "Psycho Killer" to opera. [Laughs] There’s "Un di Felice," which is from La Traviata. There’s another one called "Au Fond Du Temple Saint," which is from the Pearl Fishers. I don’t do the opera voice. I just sing them as songs, but they’re very emotional songs, so it’s a lot of fun.

Do you ever worry about the Talking Heads as overshadowing the rest of your career?

Oh, sure. I can say that it’s an albatross I carry with pride. It is an albatross, but a very good one.

The boxed set just came out.

Yeah, and I think that came out really well.

So in the book, you say you’re in the middle of a process of overcoming your "smarmy boho tendencies." How’s that working out for you?

[Laughs] Yes. Well, I guess the fact that I’m aware of them is a big start.

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