By James Adams
David Byrne is a really handsome guy, not least for having a wonderful shock of feathery platinum hair, a lean physique and probably the most piercing pupils and brownest irises of anyone who claims to have been born in Dumbarton, Scotland.
Blessedly, he's a rather lousy public speaker: twitchy, nervous, prone to pauses and stuttery shifts in direction and a tendency to laugh at his own (admittedly funny) observations. "Blessedly" because in the last quarter-century or so, Byrne has established himself as a brilliant songwriter, a mesmerizing stage performer, a clever multimedia artist, a pioneering record-label executive and an intriguing filmmaker and video director. It just wouldn't be fair if the guy who created Talking Heads and Luaka Bop Records could also claim the oratorical skills of a John Diefenbaker or Bruce Springsteen.
Still, delivery problems aside, the 53-year-old Byrne has many interesting things to say, some of which he said at a glorified slide show he presented one recent Sunday afternoon in a swank Toronto restaurant to kick off the city's month-long Contact festival of photography.
Among much else, Byrne has become a connoisseur of sorts of the grotesqueries and inadvertent beauty of our cluttered consumer culture. One of the ways he cultivates that connoisseurship is by taking photographs, lots and lots of photographs, or what Byrne likes to call "visual notes." At the Contact event, the audience was barraged, Power Point style, by Byrnean images for more than an hour — of a tree in Mexico City covered entirely in pieces of masticated chewing gum, of an improvised spout directing a leak into a bucket at the Frankfurt airport, of a sidewalk "repaired" with duct tape, an outhouse perched on the edge of a stream, 10-storey-tall billboards of nearly nude models selling Calvin Klein underwear, a New York bar with a post-9/11 window display reading: "From Celebrations to Tragedy, We Serve."
Twelve other Byrne photos are currently on view in six Toronto Transit Commission shelters strung along the city's rapidly gentrifying Queen Street West strip, between Strachan and Gladstone Avenues. One of four public installations at this year's Contact, the photos are affixed to a series of illuminated posters dealing with what Byrne calls "the new sins" — Humour, Contentment, Thrift, Cleanliness, Intelligence/Knowledge and Ambition among them.
In its original incarnation, The New Sins was a pocket-sized book, in English and Spanish, designed to look like one of those Bibles you come across in the drawer of an out-of-the-way motel. In fact, slipping The New Sins — what Byrne calls "a laptop for the soul" — anonymously into hotel rooms is precisely what its author did in the summer of 2001 at the second Valencia Biennale, as one of 150 projects the art fair commissioned on the theme of "the passions."
Of course, there's satire aplenty in Byrne's elucidation of the new sins which, he says, "are usually mistaken for virtues" but which, "upon closer examination, are revealed to be vices. Sins of the most insidious kind, for they pretend to be good for you — nice, sweet and cuddly." Thus, the poster for "Contentment" features a banal but faintly menacing colour photograph of two empty porch chairs outside a clapboard house, accompanied by a text warning that feeling content is "not only an illusion," it's more often the result "of a lack of oxygen to the brain" after one finishes a good meal — "a kind of mental dizziness…a disruption, a false euphoria."
While it would be fair to call Byrne an ironist, it would also be misleading, in that his sense of the ironic is often used to raise serious questions and probe "unresolved issues." As a husband and father of a teenaged daughter, he's someone as much bothered and bewildered by the postmodern universe as he is bemused. "That's a real problem these days, I think," he acknowledged during an interview. "To get beyond the irony and the parody, the smart-ass, quirky kind of communicating and reacting and really get to the point and say what's valuable, what do I mean and what are your values."
"Values," of course, is a loaded word in the contemporary lexicon, especially in the United States and especially among the Christian right who believe Dubya owes his second term in the White House to their beating the bushes on his behalf. As devotees of Byrne know (and The New Sins attests), the man has long had an interest in religion and spirituality. But as the culture wars intensify, he seems content to remain a foxhole atheist. "I'm of the generation or part of a generation that doesn't feel a connection to any religion or, more precisely, any established religion." He understands the temptation of religion, especially now "when people are kind of morally adrift, and they're looking for answers.
"Maybe," he laughed, "those guys really did figure it all out thousands of years ago…but I'm one of those big-ego people who thinks I can figure it out for myself, or at least try to."
As wary as Byrne is of religion, he seems even more worried by the insidiousness and ubiquity of contemporary advertising that can turn "a simple walk down the street into a really disorienting experience." Byrne is especially irked by those ads that contain "two completely contradictory ideas, or a non sequitur, or where it sounds like it means something but doesn't, or where there's almost this sort of moral exhortation to spend."
One of his recent "favourites" is the $80-million ad campaign for Reeboks sneakers hooked around the dare-we-call-it-a-theme of "I Am What I Am." One of its ads features a picture of 50 Cent, the popular gangsta rapper from Queens, N.Y., who's been shot nine times, alongside an image of his fingerprints and the text: "Where I come from, there is no Plan B. So take advantage of today because tomorrow is not promised." (At the Contact event, Byrne lampooned the campaign's absurdity by flashing a portrait of Adolf Hitler accompanied by the words, "I Am What I Am.") Something like that "drives me around the bend at the same time as it's amazingly creative, in its way," Byrne said with a laugh. Of course, who isn't bugged and occasionally impressed by an ad on TV or in a magazine? Why does Byrne feel he has to go around taking pictures of the stuff, or play around with advertising protocols?
"Well, I'm too aware that I'm being spoken to," he replied. "And I think I might have the hubris or a large enough ego or whatever that I need to understand this language. Because if not too many people are doing it, then I think I should be doing it. I admit it takes a certain extreme ego to imagine that your opinions might matter. But then a lot of artists have asked themselves, 'Who am I to comment on what I see around me?' "
Taking photographs is a way of thinking visually, he continued, of creating an ecology of the mind. "If something astounds you or captivates you or angers you, you can kind of take it down in the camera and capture it. You don't have to translate it into text."