David Byrne’s Unusual Forms of Visual Art: Bike Racks, Corporate Signs & Powerpoint Presentations

A decade ago, I vol­un­tar­i­ly watched a Pow­er­point pre­sen­ta­tion. That may sound unre­mark­able, but under nor­mal cir­cum­stances I go to almost any length to avoid Pow­er­point pre­sen­ta­tions. I throw my lot in with The Visu­al Dis­play of Quan­ti­ta­tive Infor­ma­tion author Edward Tufte, known for his indict­ment of the “Pow­er­point cog­ni­tive style” that “rou­tine­ly dis­rupts, dom­i­nates, and triv­i­al­izes con­tent.” But this par­tic­u­lar Pow­er­point pre­sen­ta­tion did­n’t hap­pen under nor­mal cir­cum­stances: it came from none oth­er than artist, writer, and for­mer Talk­ing Head David Byrne.

Byrne 1

Byrne may have done a num­ber of such pre­sen­ta­tions under the ban­ner of “I Love Pow­er­point,” but he and Tufte regard that omnipresent Microsoft slideshow appli­ca­tion more sim­i­lar­ly than you might think. “Hav­ing nev­er used the pro­gram before, I found it lim­it­ing, inflex­i­ble, and biased, like most soft­ware,” Byrne wrote of his user expe­ri­ence in Wired. “On top of that, Pow­er­Point makes hilar­i­ous­ly bad-look­ing visu­als.” And yet, “although I began by mak­ing fun of the medi­um, I soon real­ized I could actu­al­ly cre­ate things that were beau­ti­ful. I could bend the pro­gram to my own whim and use it as an artis­tic agent.”

Byrne 2

The fruits of Byrne’s exper­i­men­ta­tion, apart from those talks in the 2000s, include the book Envi­sion­ing Epis­te­mo­log­i­cal Emo­tion­al Infor­ma­tion, a col­lec­tion of his Pow­er­point “pieces that were mov­ing, despite the lim­i­ta­tions of the ‘medi­um.’ ” You can find more infor­ma­tion on davidbyrne.com’s art page, which doc­u­ments the host of non-musi­cal projects Byrne has pulled off in his post-Heads career, includ­ing whim­si­cal urban bike racks installed in Man­hat­tan and Brook­lyn. The short Wall Street Jour­nal video at the top of the post doc­u­ments the project, which fits right in the wheel­house of a such a design-mind­ed, New York-based, bicy­cle-lov­ing kind of guy.

Byrne 3

Byrne, as his musi­cal out­put might have you expect, tends to stray from too-estab­lished forms when­ev­er pos­si­ble. Just above, we have one exam­ple of his works in the form of the cor­po­rate sign, each image of which shows the name of a big, bland com­pa­ny when viewed from one angle, and a world like “TRUST,” “GRACE,” or “COURAGE” when viewed from anoth­er. “Multi­na­tion­al tomb­stones nes­tled in the (land­scaped) pas­toral glade,” Byrne’s site calls these enhanced pho­tographs tak­en in North Car­oli­na’s office park-inten­sive Research Tri­an­gle. “A utopi­an vision in the Amer­i­can coun­try­side.”

Byrne 4

How­ev­er wit­ty, amus­ing, and even friv­o­lous it may look on its face, Byrne’s infra­struc­tur­al, cor­po­rate, and Pow­er­point-ified art also accom­plish­es what all the best art must: mak­ing us see things dif­fer­ent­ly. He may not have made me love Pow­er­point, but I’ve nev­er quite looked at any slideshow cre­at­ed in the pro­gram in quite the same way since — not that any­one else has since cre­at­ed one that I could sit through whol­ly with­out objec­tion. Still, all the best art also gives us some­thing to aspire to.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Byrne: From Talk­ing Heads Front­man to Lead­ing Urban Cyclist

David Byrne: How Archi­tec­ture Helped Music Evolve

Hear the Ear­li­est Known Talk­ing Heads Record­ings (1975)

Radio David Byrne: Stream Free Music Playlists Cre­at­ed Every Month by the Front­man of Talk­ing Heads

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­maFol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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