David Byrne: Getting the I Out of Design

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When David Byrne moved to New York City in the 1970s, the art that excited him most was work done in the theatre by the makers of experimental performances: Robert Wilson, the Wooster Group, Mabou Mines and others. Their influences can be seen in Byrne’s work with his band Talking Heads, for example in the stage design and choreography of their 1983 concert film Stop Making Sense.

Like so many laboratory experiments, the performances of these theatre makers are made to demonstrate how people’s conscious intentions are but a small part of a larger forcefield, made up of the unconscious, the body, mass media, diverse cultural frames, and so on. Robert Wilson, for example, uses slow motion on stage over extended periods of time to experiment with his audience’s perception. He believes that we experience sensations of the world around us on what he calls an ‘exterior screen’, but that we also become aware of things on an ‘interior screen’, for instance in dreams and daydreams. He found that during his long theatrical performances, people in the audience tend to slip into a state of reduced consciousness, where interior and exterior images mingle so that they become indistinguishable. Wilson uses this situation to offer his audience a chance to become aware of the rigid frames and perceptive barriers that we need to define our perceptions.

While European theatre is traditionally based on a fixed text, to which music, movement, architecture and scenography may be added, in performance theatre, any element may be used as the basis of a production, to generate radically different productions in which different performance ‘languages’ are interwoven. With this in mind, it is worth considering the role of graphic design in the work of David Byrne. After all, Byrne has now published four books of photography, always in combination with writing: True Stories (1986), Strange Ritual (1995), Your Action World (1998), and The New Sins (2001). He also has some of the qualifications of the professional graphic designer. He spent two years at art schools, one of them the Rhode Island School of Design; and in the course of his career, after the Talking Heads had become too famous and too busy to stick to the practice of doing their own design work, he worked with a number of high-profile maverick designers: Tibor Kalman/M&Co., David Carson, Stefan Sagmeister, and recently Dave Eggers.

Beyond words

Design is more than graphic design: it is doorknobs, our underwear, all buildings, even entire landscapes. And it is not just what we see, but also what we hear, read, and think, the way we do business, our religious beliefs. We are saturated by designs and intentions; like fish in the water, we accept without reservations the stuff that we swim in and breathe. What would it be like to notice the water as if for the first time? We would perhaps notice all kinds of surprising connections between forms. Clouds that are shaped like doorknobs, suits imitating car upholstery, factories that sound like musical performances, financial conventions resembling an unseemly joke, sacred icons that reproduce the window of an out-of-fashion furniture shop. In short, David Byrne’s design philosophy.


But how to evade the narrowing limitations of intentional style and logic, whether in songwriting or in design? The sleeve design for the Talking Heads’ album Speaking In Tongues contains some useful clues. The expression that Byrne chose for the title of this album, ‘speaking in tongues’ (from the Biblical story of Pentecost), indicates the ‘divinely inspired’ jabbering by people in religious trance. Anthropological research has shown that the utterances of people who are speaking in tongues are not, as conventional wisdom holds, related to their native language or even to their religious convictions. People are not made to speak in tongues by their religion, but the opposite is true: the speaking in tongues is caused by specific bodily changes, which in turn drive religious belief.

What kind of graphic design can illustrate these concepts? At Byrne’s request, Robert Rauschenberg designed a cover: a circular collage of colour photos, separated out into the process colours cyan-blue, magenta-red and yellow. The blue separation is printed on the back of a transparent plastic sleeve, the yellow on the front, and the magenta on a circle which has been added to the front and can be turned. The record itself is made of transparent vinyl. This creates a ‘dial-a-picture’ system, since the photos on the red component have been shuffled, which means that a spectator has to turn this part of the sleeve in order to get a clear, full-colour picture of a part of the collage. The photos Rauschenberg used for his collage are a jumble of arbitrary objects like a bicycle or a garden hose, and of photos from magazines, advertising and the like.

Rauschenberg is famous not only for his collage paintings, but also for his work with composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham from 1952 to 1964. Their collaborative performances did not simply submit music, dance, and set design to a common plot or synthesising plan. The arts coexist in the same time and space, but are independent of each other, and rely (to use a term that was coined by Cage) on the ‘polyattentiveness’ of the audience. This new ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ refused to stamp a single overall style on a work, something Cage associated with authoritarianism, and aimed instead to keep art open for radically heterogeneous elements. This openness allows equal attention to any aspect of the making of art; it also facilitates shifting one’s attention to formerly hidden aspects and combinations. Aesthetic as well as ethical in nature, ‘not making the ego the subject’, but attuning to ‘some function outside the individual, isolated self’, this attitude was of crucial importance to the avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s.


However, Rauschenberg’s sleeve design for Speaking In Tongues turned out to be too complicated to be produced in the numbers that were needed for the entire edition of the million-selling album. Byrne designed a substitute cover that could be produced conventionally: a painted circle, surrounded by four images of a chair in the corners of the cover. If Rauschenberg’s sleeve design points to one source of Byrne’s conceptual approach, this design indicates another: the psychoanalytic theories of Carl Gustav Jung, with their distinctive interest in the archetypal forms of the collective unconscious and in comparative mythology.

In Jungian terms, Byrne’s design is a ‘mandala’: mandala being a Sanskrit word that means circle. According to Jung, its symbolism includes all concentrically arranged figures, round or square patterns with a centre, and radial or spherical arrangements. As Jung wrote, mandalas symbolise ‘nothing less than a psychic centre of the personality not to be identified with the ego’, they are ‘concerned with the images that refer directly and exclusively to the new centre as it comes into consciousness.’ Jung even described a mandala, as seen in a dream, that corresponds closely to Byrne’s cover design: ‘A circular table with four chairs round it. Table and chairs are empty.’ Jung’s own comment on this was: ‘The mandala is not yet “in use”.’ What could be more fitting for Byrne’s intention to make popular songs that are not direct expressions of the private emotions of the singer-songwriter, but rather performances of archetypal experiences?

The combination of Cage’s aesthetics with Jung’s psychoanalytic theory gives an indication of Byrne’s ambitious artistic programme. It can be outlined by the concepts of heterogeneity, polyattentiveness, comparison of different mythologies and archetypes. Again, how can this be manifest in graphic design? Two other examples from Byrne’s own work may provide some clarification.

Juxtaposition and process

Byrne designed the cover for the Talking Heads’ second album, More Songs about Buildings and Food. The front consists of a grid of 23×23 Polaroid photos of the band members, each photo rendering a small detail. As these snaps almost, but not quite, fit their neighbours, due to minute changes in perspective, pose and lighting, their combination produces a recognizable but uneasy group portrait: a high-tech cubist grid. The back cover reproduces Portrait USA, the first colour photo-mosaic of the USA, produced by General Electric with the assistance of the National Geographic Society and NASA. This computer-processed synthesis of satellite photos represents the entire landmass of the USA in a single smooth image.The juxtaposition – the image of four ordinary persons made problematic, the image of an entire country processed to be taken in in a single glance – raises doubts about the intentions, standpoints and strategies of these two photographs, until front and back cover begin to oscillate between icon and riddle.

Another example is a simple collage, reproduced in the theatre programme for The Forest, a music-theatre piece that Byrne developed in collaboration with Robert Wilson on the occasion of West-Berlin’s celebration of the city’s 750th anniversary. The play concerned itself with the unresolved questions of romanticism, and with the contemporary relevance of romantic mythology.

His collage illustrates what he means by this. It combines a contemporary magazine ad with an almost similar image in the style of the German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. Both images present people silhouetted by backlighting, in a heroic juxtaposition of man and nature. The text in the ad for Nike shoes spells out the romantic sublime experience: ‘surpassing yourself…running ahead of a threatening thunderstorm.’ High-tech running shoes, marketed by addressing a long-standing desire for romantic myths.

Self-reflexive company

Byrne’s work speaks of a strong preference for design that is about design, that is reflexive insofar as it raises questions about the many conventional languages of design.Where needed, he does this with emphatic questions about the nature of design, or with statements meant to tilt the reader’s habitual glance.

Byrne prefers to collaborate with designers whose work also demonstrates reflexive and performative qualities. David Carson experiments with making typefaces more exciting by adding distortion and chaos, often hovering on the border of illegibility. Stefan Sagmeister stubbornly questions whether even the most lavish graphic design manages to touch people’s hearts, even going so far as to have all the type for a design conference poster cut into his own skin, then taking a photograph to use as the poster. Tibor Kalman employed visual parodies, and built a hugely successful career by ironically exploiting the contradictions that underlie the design profession, musing that ‘A designer is a professional liar because he’s hired not to make the properties of a product clear but to enhance the product beyond its truth.’ To complete this list of collaborators, Dave Eggers published an incessantly self-reflexive autobiographical novel, and named it A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

New testament

Byrne’s most recent book, The New Sins, is best read with an open mind for the simultaneity of ironic and serious intentions.

Commissioned in 2001 by the Valencia Biennial, it is a bilingual English/Spanish book of text and photos, designed by Dave Eggers to resemble religious literature, especially the catechisms that are often presented at graduations and religious ceremonies. Pocket-sized, bound in wine-red imitation leather and lettered in gold, it is the kind of book one might find on a hotel room bedside table, or get offered in the street by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hare Krishnas, or followers of Scientology, trying to make converts. As such, it follows logically from Byrne’s long-standing interest in unorthodox religious literature, those fascinating books (photographed in Strange Ritual) that according to Byrne ‘promise the world and in most cases deliver disappointment.’

The visual and literary qualities of such literature have been imitated carefully.The front cover carries the legend ‘translated out of the original tongues with the former translations diligently compared and revised.’ The Old Testament is mimicked, in sentences such as ‘The Heart is like the Sea, wherein dwells the Leviathan, and creeping things innumerable.’ And apart from the graphic features, the juxtaposition of photos and text undermines any projection of symbolic meanings. The text is rife with ‘key words’ printed in red, in capitals or underlined; many words and phrases begin with capitals; and ample use is made of rhetorical questions, non-sequitur arguments, bewildering admonitions and wild metaphors. The general drift of the text, however, is an appeal to the reader (especially the art-conscious, culturally aware, contemporary reader) to find and consider the structures of belief in unsuspected locations, outside the traditional framework of religion.

Byrne enumerates ten new sins: charity, sense of humour, beauty, thrift, ambition, hope, intelligence/knowledge, contentment, sweetness, honesty, and cleanliness. Each is characterised by a brief explanation and a photograph, mixing humour, religious metaphor, exaggeration and irony. A fold-out page at the centre of the book adds more categories of sin in a hierarchical structure (after Dante’s inferno): sins of extreme self-control, sins of self-denial, sins of extreme logic, and sins of ideological adherence.

All in all, it seems safe to conclude that Byrne’s new sins spring from neglect: neglect of the accidental, the juxtaposed, the unintended, the allegorical, the heterogeneous, the reflexive. Aren’t those also the sins that are most often committed by design?

Quotes references a. See Byrne’s Introduction in Lewis Blackwell, The End of Print: The Graphic Design of David Carson, (London, Lawrence King Publishing, 1995) b. Byrne, ‘The Holy Grail of No Style’, in Hall and Bierut (ed.), Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist (New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), p.87. c. Byrne, interviewed by Herman van der Horst and Bart van de Kamp, Muziekkrant Oor nr.1, 1986), p.12. d. Byrne, text in the booklet of his CD The Forest, February, 1991. e. Byrne, insert in Parkett nr.23, 1990, p.120/126. f. Hall and Bierut (ed.), Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist (New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), p.87. g. Byrne, ‘End Notes’, in Strange Ritual: Pictures and Words, (London, Faber and Faber, 1995). h. Byrne, interviewed by Elisabetta d’Erme in Alias, weekly insert with Il Manifesto, 1998. 18. Byrne, interviewed by Marco Puntin, Il Progetto nr. 4, 1998. i. Byrne, leaflet published by Aktionsforum Praterinsel, Munich, Germany, to accompany his show Glory! Success! Ecstasy! 3 Animations, 1998. j. Byrne, The New Sins, (New York, McSweeney’s Books, and London, Faber and Faber, 2001, pp.13–15. k. Byrne, The New Sins, (New York, McSweeney’s Books, and London, Faber and Faber, 2001) p.39. Text references 1. See Theodore Shank, American Alternative Theatre (Macmillan, London, 1982), pp.125–7. 2. Byrne collaborated with Wilson on two of the latter’s major productions: the CIVIL warS in 1984, and The Forest in 1988. 3. See Richard Schechner, The End of Humanism: Writings on Performance (New York, Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1982), pp.20–21; and his Between Theater & Anthropology (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), p.221. 4. Richard Schechner, The Future of Ritual: Writings on culture and performance (London: Routledge, 1993), p.241. 5. Rauschenberg had already made similar work in the sixties, Revolvers, consisting of a series of large transparent disks full of photographically reproduced images, mounted in special holders. These pieces were made for art collections, whereas the album cover was intended for mass production; some 25,000 copies were printed. 6. C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy (second edition). Collected Works, vol. 12, (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), p.41. 7. C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy (second edition). Collected Works, vol. 12, (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968) p.186. 8. Tibor Kalman, quoted in Liz Farelly, Tibor Kalman: Design and Undesign (London, Thames and Hudson, 1998). 9. Byrne, The New Sins (New York, McSweeney’s Books, and London, Faber and Faber, 2001), p.47.

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