A book and a public art piece. Originally done as a book placed anonymously in hotel rooms during the 2001 Valencia Biennial, these were reconfigured and added to for the 2002 Sydney Festival, where 24 of them were displayed on lightboxes around the central harbor. In 2005 they were also installed in bus shelter lightbox kiosks in Toronto. The new sins are what we often mistakenly consider virtues, and this is explained at length and with diagrams in the book.
"Why I Had To Make This Book"
By DB, June 2001
PART I: But Why?
When I look at this book (I'm in Oslo today, on a music tour), I ask myself "What came over me?" and sometimes "What sort of madman wrote this?"
The answer to those questions is that the writer (and let's not forget the guy who took the pictures) is me — me unchained, letting it all hang out, being real 'til it hurts. It's you too, if you'll admit it, but you probably won't. You'll probably say "That David Byrne is some kinda nut!" and never ask yourself if you too want to scream out loud that Charity is a fucking sin, and so is Hope, for that matter.
Well, let me do it for you. You can thank me later. This book is real. It's insane, yes, but crazy like a fox. It felt so good to say these things, to hide behind the barricade of humor and throw rocks at sacred cows. It's truer than even I would care to admit.
About a year ago I was approached by some people who were organizing an art Biennial in Valencia, a city on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. I had recently been to Valencia on what turned out to be a wild goose chase of an art project for their new arts and sciences complex, so I was familiar with the city. It's a medium-sized city, but someone in the administration is hell-bent on raising their cultural profile. The arts and science center was designed by the acclaimed architect Santiago Calatrava, and it looks like the skeleton of a monstrously huge sea beast, truly immense and spectacular -- and a completely inappropriate space for hanging shows of pictures.
The word I got from Valencia this time, regarding their proposed Biennial, was that it was to include commissioned projects from cross-media artists like Robert Wilson, Peter Greenaway and the Catalan theater group Fura del Baus…and that invitations had been extended to many more artists. It was all very vague and grand, as only European art events in the planning stages can be. And it had a theme, as all European arts events must have. This one was "The Passions -- Vices and Virtues." Or maybe it was "The Body and Sin." Or maybe, in true curatorial theme fashion, it was both. (It was!)
By email I then made a series of written proposals for projects. Here's the first:
1. A series of civic sculptures based on local delicacies. Using recent computer technology, which allows a relatively small 3-D object to be scanned and then enlarged: computerized lathes or something follow the exact details of the scan as they carve away at some large piece of material- which can then be cast and molded in a more permanent material.
I suggest, to begin with, a 14-foot-high rendition in plastic of a raw mussel interior. A giant hard copy of something ephemeral soft and viscous. To be set in one of the towns many plazas. [Valencia is known throughout Spain as the home of Paella, a dish that is filled with shellfish, of course.]
Another Plaza would contain other blown up objects—a 5-month-old baby… sufficiently old enough to sit and crawl, but still very much an infant. Accurate in every detail and at least 20 ft high.
A 3rd plaza would contain an enlarged TV remote. [I also suggested that the Big Baby be holding the TV remote.]
My second proposal was that they produce a book. Here are my exact words:
2. A book—a book that explores, through text and image, imaginary passions, sins and desires. This book should be like a Bible, easy to hold, with the appearance of a book of dogma or a schoolbook... except with more pictures. The book would be published by the Biennial—and offered free to visitors to the city... placed in hotel rooms alongside the New Testament. Given away free on the street in public plazas and mercados.
The book would describe, in words, pictures, photos and schematic diagrams the New Temptations, many of which are often mistaken today for virtues. Many of them, in fact, may actually be virtues—but I will present these virtuous qualities and passions as being full of danger and dread. The aim of the book will be to present an illogical proposition in a completely rational didactic form. The book should appear as if it was issued by the church or a government organization... my authorship will be acknowledged, but very low-key—almost hidden.
To produce a book will not be cheap, but neither will be the projects by the other artists mentioned in the prospectus. My proposal has been conceived exclusively with the theme and context of the Valencia Biennial. As you know, I have recently been to Valencia, so I am at least a little familiar with the city and its situation (and its cultural institutions).
A gallerist who has been showing my work in Italy, and who introduced me to the Biennial people, preferred the book idea. They felt that the other idea was "too Charles Ray, or even Oldenberg," and I could see their point.
Well, not really, but the book sounded like a lot of fun to do, and equally challenging.
PART II: I Began Writing, Feverishly
I began writing, feverishly, whenever I had a spare moment. I knew I had to write more than I would need, as I like to edit things from abundance down to their essence, if possible. Kara and Kate, who work with me at Todo Mundo, helped me scan pictures, resize and crop and print them out on our little office printer. There were lots of images I thought might be appropriate. The wall was filled with pinned-up pages of text and pictures, in clumps and sometimes in alternating sequences. The whole book was on the wall, both Spanish and English versions—Valencia had insisted the book be in Spanish, too—and every day we'd add, remove and rearrange the sequence. It was a bit like storyboarding a film.
I bought some religious texts on LaGuardia Place as examples of the kind of printing and the size of book I had in mind. One was called The Imitation Of Christ and the other What Jesus Means, or something like that. Both featured colored type, and some lovely pictures. I was also reading Faulkner at the time, which had a definite influence on some sections—there's a quote from a character in As I Lay Dying in one section of the book.
Round about this time I determined that I would need a designer, a collaborator who would also know how much something like this would cost (the Valencia folks were getting itchy to know). I am a fan of McSweeney's but didn't see anyone listed in the legal page as designer, so I emailed them directly and described my project and said I wanted to employ their designer, whoever it might be.
Turns out the McSweeney's Representative (M.R.) does the design, and, in a weird coincidence, he also has a collection of 19th-century Bibles, which he counts as among his primary design inspirations. This was getting to be too good to be true.
We met after I had assembled a collection of pictures for possible inclusion and had written some more pages for the book. He seemed to like the project, and I could see that the old Bibles, a few of which he brought by, were indeed a font of typographic and design inspiration.
Lastly, while on a field trip to see my record label artist Jim White perform at a club in Mobile Alabama, I picked up some religious tracts. One of them even had a website, www.mountzion.org, which was a source of lots of fevered and twisted language from many English-speaking countries including some essays dating back hundreds of years. Pure poetry, and some of it I couldn't make heads or tails of… which was even better.
PART III: An Ominous Lack Of Information
During this time Danielle and I repeatedly requested more information from Valencia. What was their budget for this? Who was their shipper and how long would it take to get there? Had they contacted hotels about placing books in the drawers during the Biennial?
There were no answers to any of the above. We sent more messages in desperate tones, but were told the decision-makers were not in at the moment. It was sort of maddening.
Despite this ominous lack of information, I decided to continue to work on the book. It was starting to take shape. It also began to get longer. So I edited the text severely, then I asked friends and family to suggest cuts as well, as a longer book would drive it way over the budget estimate we had just sent to Valencia (failing receipt of a budget from them we decided we would just tell them how much it would cost.) Kara and Adelle, my wife, both made valuable suggestions of places to cut, so I edited it down once more.
I cut the text down to a length that would only raise the budget slightly. Then the M.R. brought in his designed page layouts. Oh shit. They looked beautiful. Perfect. But the lovely little frames he added around the pages and other design elements made the book even longer. And of course he had nice suggestions, such as including a foldout page and a dedication page, both of which further added to the length.
I was worried about the cost of the book, given that Valencia had hinted at a fairly frugal overall budget for my project. I had also thought that this book would be printed in Spain, assuming that this would save money for the Biennial.
Luckily, McSweeney's was now publishing books! We talked at this point about distributing the book in the United States, in addition to the motel rooms of greater Valencia. It seemed to be a good fit, this book and McSweeney's, and we decided to print a bunch of copies for readers in America.
And at this point, having heard only silence from Valencia regarding printing the book, I was informed Oddi, the Icelandic printer of McSweeney's, also printed Bibles, and thus would know all the techniques. So it was agreed: the New Sins, an updated version of elements of the New Testament, to be published in a half-English, half-Spanish edition, would be printed in Iceland.
Better yet, I had given an early sample of pages to Walter Donohue at Faber and Faber, in London Towne, while we both went to see an exhibit of Botticceli drawings for Dante's inferno. (I was obviously still doing research*). Now Faber and Faber, publishers of T.S. Eliot, and McSweeney's, publishers of, well, some writers whose work hasn't yet been the source of popular Broadway musicals, were joined in disseminating this important work.
We continued to email and call Valencia, in hopes of receiving some information regarding placement in hotel rooms. We were told to speak to a woman named Sally Jo, who was English, but with what seemed like a Texas name. She told us she was in charge of the placement of the books in hotels. Now we were getting somewhere. I figured, what with the Biennial run by both Spaniards and Italians, they decided they needed some good Anglo-Saxon organizational skills to pull things together, hotel-wise.
But somehow, that elusive information we sought from Valencia was always just one step, one meeting, away. The book was already at the publisher in Reykjavik and Danielle was there supervising the color corrections with the printer. I advised her to check out Sigur Rós and meet up with Einar, ex-Sugarcube and head of Bad Taste records. Rekyavik, and Iceland in general, is a fun and extraordinary place, and Danielle can tell you all about it if you ask her.
PART IV: Valencia Ho
An initial small shipment of books went to Valencia immediately after printing, and arrived the day after the Biennial opened. Not bad, for all the confusion. I arrived the next day, after my concert in Barcelona. I missed the opening in Valencia the previous night, so I didn't meet the Queen of Spain. Her reactions to the opening were duly reported in the Spanish press. "Interesting" and "quite nice" were some of her comments. There was also mention of a scandal at the performance during the opening festivities.
It seemed the Catalan avant performance group Fura del Baus, as part of their show, invited the public to send text messages on their mobile phones, which would then be projected onto the side of a building, during the opening festivities. The resulting deluge of short bits of text was outrageous, profane and unprintable in the local paper. Most were simply obscenities, but many many more were scandalous comments regarding the attending dignitaries: "Señora so and so, where is your husband tonight?" was one message, reflecting the common knowledge of an affair that had not been reported in the press. Many red faces and a moment of national shame ensued, as the beastly nature of the Valencia public showed itself.
Not to mention the eerie overlap with the Biennel's theme: "The Passions — Vices and Virtues."
The morning I arrived I was met by Sally Jo, the Anglo-Saxon organizational expert. But instead of a sparkling and efficient businesswoman, she was a disheveled looking English girl, with the appearance of someone who just rolled out of a sleeping bag at a British rock festival. She did not have a copy of the book. She had not seen it. Copies were rumored to be at Dolores' office – who was a contact person there — but, as everywhere in Spain, Dolores and her officemates are on their 4-hour (2-6PM!) lunch break, and everything is closed. Sally Jo tells me where they are having lunch, I trot on over, but no one in that neighborhood has ever heard of the place.
When the exhibition re-opens I meet some of the curators and organizers. I finally see the book. I look at it quickly while someone is talking in my ear. They love the book — as do I, to be honest — and they are giving every copy they have away to visitors to the main exhibition.
On my earlier trip to Valencia I had been taken to a restaurant next to a nude beach. It was an outdoor seafood place on the outskirts of town, and a row of huge boulders separates the naked bathers from those having lunch. Every now and then a curious older man would get up and peek over the tops of the boulders, as if to assess the progress.
On that same trip I was invited to partake in a local specialty — rat paella. I wasn't sure if I was hearing right, but the guy said, "Yes, my uncle makes it on his farm, it's delicious, and the rats are not city rats, you know, they're country rats, they eat only vegetables."
This time Antonio, a local artist whose work was also in the Biennial, took some others and me to a small joint where the owner claimed to be the King Of Anchovies. It was just a little bar, but the anchovies were good — but not as good as their dried grilled Octopus. Antonio also took us to another place that has the best horchata in town....which is thicker and richer than the Mexican variety.
The curator, Achille, as in Achilles' heel, seemed to like the book. I was pleased. I was also informed that Achille "invented" a couple of art movements. I think something might have gotten lost in the translation, but he's a major guy in any case.
So, now that it's over, what do I think?
Having done this book, I can say that I have met my inner madman, and he is us.
For my whole life I have attempted to make works that hover in a zone between the high and the low, the known and the unknown, the quotidian and the extraordinary. I love to make art that doesn't announce itself as art — and that, of course, includes pop music. I somehow feel the lack of mediation, when work is out of the artworld, literaryworld or any similar fancified context, allows the work to be more affecting, more engaged. And more confusing, vexing and beautiful. And, although God don't like a bragger, I think this book does it better than almost anything I've ever done.
That is the happy ending. And seeing people cross themselves when they meet me.