By Jack Becker
Editor’s note: PAR publisher Jack Becker talked with David Byrne during his fall ['97] tour. Born in Scotland, Byrne moved to Baltimore a an early age, studied in Rhode Island, and later moved to New York City. Widely known for cofounding the group Talking Heads (1976–88), he also publishes books of his photographs, produces films, runs the world music record label Luaka Bop, and exhibits internationally. His leap into the public art realm began last year with two new series of colorful backlit signs: Stairway to Heaven and Better Living Through Chemistry.
Jack Becker: There’s a certain tongue-in-cheek aspect to your public art. You can almost pretend you’re like a big corporation designing your ads, but you’re not trying to promote a product or service.
David Byrne: Yeah. In a way I feel like I’m not making any critical or judgmental comments on the content, say on drug paraphernalia or drug use or weapons or money or whatever. Not in a really direct, overt way, anyway. But I’m trying to subvert the whole stylistic approach of advertising.
JB: You want to make people more aware of what other advertisers are doing to them, subconsciously or consciously. In what way would you say that’s subverting?
DB: In the sense that I guess advertisers would like you not to be aware. Nobody said that to me, but I just imagine that they would like you not to be aware of all the little tricks that push your buttons and just sucker you in. I’m calling them tricks, but a lot of them are just things like using super bright, slightly unreal colors that are like eye candy. You just go, “Oooh, aaah.”
JB: Right. Well, when you think about creating these works, you have the venue in mind. At least for this series for the bus shelters you know the format exactly.
DB: Yeah. Before I got to the stage of putting the images together, I wanted to know, What are the standard dimensions of light boxes for bus shelters? So I made them specifically to that ratio without having a venue to show them in, but I was hoping that’s where they would end up.
Going back to what we were saying earlier—the subverting idea. In one way you could read that impulse of mine to subvert advertisers’ intentions like I’m trying to teach or warn others. But I don’t see it that way. I’m trying to understand for myself what these things are that are prodding me, affecting me, and pulling me this way and that. I don’t want to be just a helpless plaything. I want to have a control or at least understand in some way what’s being done to me. So, for me it’s a way of surviving in this world we live in.
JB: Teaching yourself, perhaps.
DB: Yeah, that’s what I mean. I’m teaching myself, at least trying to understand in my own way. And one way to understand is to make your own versions of the thing so you understand it. And when it starts to affect you in the same way that the original things do, yeah, okay man, you see now how it’s done.
JB: It seems like more and more people are gaining access to these kinds of tools.
DB: Like [Adobe] Photoshop. I guess it is a brand name, but it’s pretty ubiquitous.
JB: And more people now have access to treating their home photos with advertising glitz and halos. In a sense, you’re democratizing the concept.
DB: Yeah. Which has happened a lot in the nineties, I guess. The alternative gallery, or space, in New York called Exit Art had a show about poster art from the fifties or sixties up to the present. And the thing about alternative publications and flyers and leaflets and all that kind of stuff that you notice is that for a long time these alternative people or institutions didn’t have access to typesetters and all that. So there was a really obvious visual difference between the work of advertisers and official texts and the work of, for lack of a better word, self-produced, artist-generated, subversive, or underground text. They looked different.
Now, however, they look the same—graphically and as far as the quality of the layout and the color and all the little graphic designs, all those kind of things, are concerned. There’s no difference between the official line and the revolutionary line, the voice of dissent. I think that’s an interesting development, because I think it works both ways. In some ways it make an alternative voice more easy to be heard, because it doesn’t immediately scream. It can look official, it has that veneer of official truth. On the other hand, it works the other way when advertisers can immediately pull up any design or graphic or text or whatever innovation is happening in the arts or wherever and use it in ads.
JB: I’m curious with these series—Stairway and Better Living—what venues do you envision for them? How do you find venues, or pursue methods of delivery?
DB: Well, usually I approach people like the Public Art Fund or Creative Time or people who do public art of one kind or another in various places. Or if I’m doing a gallery show, I make it known that this other stuff is really designed to be shown outside. And you only have to have it happened once for it to seem like, well, then it can happen again.
JB: And then you have the evidence for people who can’t quite picture it themselves. Do you think about places that would be ideal venues for these new series in terms of either the particular city or type of audience? I could see a law enforcement audience or a drug rehabilitation audience having a different response than, say, the businessperson trying to catch a commuter flight. Do you ever think about reaching specific audiences?
DB: No, I don’t. No, I really don’t. I think about venues.
JB: Like airports and bus shelters?
DB: Yeah, that kind of place, although I haven’t gotten any work in an airport yet. I would like it, because I think it would blend in. It wouldn’t be immediately noticeable as art with a capital A.
JB: Has this work led to some other thoughts or a next step in terms of your public projects?
DB: Yeah, it has in a way. Nothing specific, but I know that I have been surprised when I take this work to Europe or show Europeans images of them displayed publicly. I was trying to instigate getting them on the streets in various European cities, if possible, which I haven’t been able to do. From some people I’ve gotten the reaction that, "Oh, we like them, but they’re too American."
Which maybe was an excuse, but I took it seriously and I thought, What does that mean? Does that mean that this work represents the exclusive concern of our media culture and media environment and advertising—that visual environment? Is it only an American concern, and other places don’t feel the weight of it in their societies? It’s a little hard for me to believe, but I thought, I wonder if that’s true? Maybe I myself have a narrower, more American perspective than I thought I did.
JB: Are you interested in graffiti at all? It seems to me it might fit into your interest area.
DB: I’m not so interested in tagging, people who do the elaborate Islamic-type scripts of their names. I’m more interested in people who write elaborate messages—visionary graffiti. In the different towns you’ll find people doing it. In Washington DC, there’s a guy who makes these messages that he feels strongly about and imbeds them in concrete and puts them in the sidewalk. I don’t know how the hell he does it, but they’re there. That kind of graffiti really touches me and fascinates me.
JB: Do you see any parallels or comparisons between graffiti and your bus shelter concepts? They both involve some air brush or slick imagery.
DB: The only connection I see is that they’re both public. I think my stuff that I’ve done so far intentionally looks so slick that it has to pass for advertising. No matter how good somebody is with a spray can, it’s never going to pass for a Gap ad.
JB: Do you have any thought on what’s going on in public art as more and more artists get out of traditional venues and want to take over public spaces?
DB: Yeah, I do have some thoughts. It’s not an original idea of mine, but it gets reinforced all the time. I think that art that’s made to be seen in galleries has a specific place in mind. The art is developed to work in that space, and often it does. But I think if you take something like that out and stick it in front of a building—because some real estate developer has to put in their percent-for-art or whatever—it doesn’t work there, at least in my opinion. If that artist wants to do something in that context, they should really rethink what they’re doing. They should totally go back to square one. This not a showcase for something that actually belongs in a museum. This is a completely different venue, a different audience, a different way that people are approaching things. And you have to completely rework what you’re doing accordingly. I find that a lot of artists are too conservative in that respect. They aren’t willing to change their style or alter what it is they do to fit the venue, the context.
JB: Do you think there’s a problem with the schools bringing artist into this field? Is that something artist can be thought—how to start from square one and rethink using new venues? Mostly they’re still teaching about galleries and museums.
DB: Yeah. That’s the nature of institutions. Institutions breed institutions, whether it’s an art school or a police academy. But there are always a few teachers in them that actually inspire people to really think for themselves and to question situations. That’s all it takes to keep things alive. I think it’s too much to expect a whole institution to support radically free thinking. That would be dangerous.
JB: Has fatherhood changed your thinking about education or opportunities for people coming into this world?
DB: Yeah, in some ways it reactivates my fear of the dangers of the media environment—the media glut in advertising and the consumer mentality that’s out there especially in this county. I console myself by thinking, I, my friends, and a lot of people I meet, we survived it. We’re not a bunch of zombies marching off to the nearest mall to consume what we’re told to buy.
But on the other hand, the volume’s been cranked up since then. Every five or ten years it just gets louder and louder, so that the sheer amount that young people these days have to resist in order to think for themselves is phenomenal. They have to exert a tremendous will to resist that influence if they’re going to survive to be people who can think for themselves. And that’s not an effort that people can make when they’re trying to put food on the table or pay the rent or do whatever it is people have to do to survive.
JB: Have you ever thought about directing any of your work toward that generation—young kids?
DB: No. But I do feel that, just in general, our educators, whether they are elementary school teachers or whatever, are very undervalued and underpaid, and for that reason it’s not a profession that people are drawn to. Whereas other professions—doctors and lawyers and people who cheat people all the time—are very low on the moral totem pole, and yet those people get paid extraordinary amounts of money. Our values are totally backwards. I’m hoping that will someday change. It’s got to happen. On a real national policy level, on the level of national thinking.
Jack Becker is Executive Director of FORECAST Public Artworks, publisher of Public Art Review, based in St. Paul, Minnesota.