By Adam Sweeting
It was always a big mistake to regard David Byrne as merely the guy with the staring eyes who wore funny suits in Talking Heads.
An alumnus of the Rhode Island School of Design, Byrne has expanded his repertoire to encompass lecture tours, photography, art installations, internet innovations and movie soundtracks. His new book, Bicycle Diaries, is a set of philosophical reflections stemming from his long-held passion for cycling. Meanwhile, he has managed to find the time to come to London’s Roundhouse with his “Playing the Building” concept, festooning the old engine shed’s innards with tubes and electric motors to create whale noises and subterranean grumbling sounds at the touch of an organ keyboard.
“It’s a really beautiful building,” says Byrne, gazing up into the Roundhouse’s elegantly-proportioned rotunda and recalling how he first visited it with Talking Heads in 1976. “But the success of the installation is all up to the public. I’m hoping they’ll love the experience of sitting at the organ and making this space come alive.”
Even if they don’t, Byrne can relax in the knowledge that his multi-layered career will always generate fresh options. Like his friend and collaborator Brian Eno, Byrne has turned himself into a paradigm of how to run an artistic career in our era of cultural disintegration, where traditional certainties are dissolving by the day.
'My sort of approach is more common than it used to be,” he says. “I’ve noticed a lot of younger artists have less fear of doing different sorts of things, whether it’s various types of music, or gallery artists moving between video and sculpture and drawing. There was a Bauhaus dictum that said you should use the materials appropriate to the idea – that there is a best medium for each kind of idea you have.”
He first experimented with "Playing the Building" in response to a commission from the Fargfabriken gallery in Stockholm in 2005. The Swedes presumed he’d devise a conventional art exhibition, but he was so enraptured by the building’s cast-iron columns and steel girders that he decided the structure itself should form the exhibit. It was so well received that he repeated it at an old ferry terminal in Brooklyn last year.
All the buildings represent a vanished age of Victorian workmanship. Has Byrne created a new genre of industrial nostalgia?
“Yeah, I think so,” he says. “These are our Roman ruins, and we can look at them and marvel at the grandeur of ages past. It seemed to me like an idea that was just in the air. Maybe the next step is to sample sounds from different buildings and create a virtual online version.”