By Xeni Jardin
LOS ANGELES -- From televised presidential aircraft carrier visits to the glut of unreal reality TV shows, "American culture is becoming a culture of pageants," says David Byrne.
"We're surrounded by show, just as the Roman Empire turned to bread and circuses to hide other things that were taking place."
To examine how the medium shapes the message, the former Talking Head uses Microsoft PowerPoint — the ubiquitous presentation software — as a creative tool.
His art presentations make babble of business-speak, and question whether the form of what we communicate can affect its truth: Rebellious flow charts stream backward, screens overflow with clip art gone wild, deliverables and leave-behinds assume surreal new roles, and renegade bullet points assault the viewer in a rapid-fire barrage.
Wired News recently spoke with Byrne in Los Angeles, where he was attending a series of events promoting the release of his new book and DVD set Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, which chronicles the artist's PowerPoint peregrinations.
Wired News: What inspired you to explore how PowerPoint could be used to make art?
David Byrne: I'm not someone who used PowerPoint in my professional life, but a couple of years ago I'd finished this pseudo-religious book and wanted my live readings to feel like the sort of presentation that a motivational speaker might deliver. I knew this was something they might use, so I thought -- OK, to complete the illusion, I'll do these readings accompanied by PowerPoint. I decided to learn how to use it for that purpose, but discovered along the way -- wow, this is really easy. I don't have to stop here, I can do other things with this tool.
WN: What kinds of other things?
Byrne: I realized pretty quickly that the software could run by itself, to present autonomously. You can remove the person from the equation, and use PowerPoint as an art medium. It can loop interminably and do all the transitions by itself. There doesn't need to be a guy in a suit clicking buttons onstage; it can progress on its own.
At first, the presentations I made poked fun at it — using business-y clip art, making light of sales pitches. But then I started to wander beyond that, making things that weren't self-reflective and weren't about the medium itself. I found that you could make these independently progressing things that said something else. They really began to take on a life of their own.
WN: When you began creating these art presentations, did you incorporate music?
Byrne: I placed music beneath the presentation, quietly, to establish a sort of mood. There was no synchronization — it's completely different than the process of creating a music video — but the sound created an emotional setting. And I began to think I should either write music for these pieces or plug in "found" musical pieces that fit, and tailor each aspect of this audiovisual thing to the other.
Along the way, I figured out that I seemed to be the only person working in this medium, in this way.
WN: Was that a surprise?
Byrne: Yes, because people make art out of all kinds of crappy things — Lite Brites, or Pixelvision cameras. For every odd little tool, there's someone out there who's chosen that as a medium. And in spite of the limitations of a given technology, they turn it around so that each defect becomes a positive quality.
I was doing the same thing, turning the faults of PowerPoint into virtues. There are things it doesn't do well — but I liked the way it tried to do them and failed. I've since learned that there are newer versions of the software that fix those things — but I'm sticking with the old version.
WN: What would you say if the people at Microsoft were so taken by your work that they decided to re-market the software as a tool for artists?
Byrne: I don't think they will, but you never know. They did fly my assistant out to Redmond to talk about it. I have no idea what they thought of it.
WN: What insight do you hope people find in these performances?
Byrne: I'd like for people to feel less timid about taking things into their own hands. This is exactly what was intended by the people who developed this program. They hoped that this tool would allow people to bypass the middleman, to communicate without having to work through a gauntlet of graphic designers or AV professionals. Do it yourself. After all, I learned how to do it in only a couple of hours.
The fact that I'm kind of jumping into this with complete freedom and disregard for any kind of rules or strictures is, I imagine, exactly what its makers were hoping.
WN: What's next for you, more PowerPoint?
Byrne: Perhaps. I just completed a new solo album, which is due out in March 2004. I'll be touring and performing in the spring, and I'm also working on a new book — this one will be a collection of drawings.
WN: As tech tools for creative expression — digital cameras, image-editing software and the like — become simpler, cheaper and more accessible, does art become democratized?
Byrne: It's true, but then again, it's not. Even before the advent of digital imaging, when large videotape cameras became small handhelds, the idea was that now everyone will become a filmmaker. And as technology progressed, this has become so easy that now you really can make a film on your laptop.
New people do become creators; they jump in where they might not have before. Within the last few years, for instance, all of a sudden we have a glut of artists who do video installations — perhaps too many. But some of this new work is really great; the simplicity and affordability makes it happen.
I think this trend will continue. But just like the Internet itself, the fact that everybody now has access opens up this possibility for broader participation, but most of the time the potential isn't realized.
Just because it's there doesn't mean people will use it.