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Published: 2005/03/09
by Jesse Jarnow

David Byrne, Eisner and Lubin Auditorium, NYC- 3/2

NYC ROLL-TOP: Same As It Ever Was
Same as it ever was, only different, I guess.

At the behest of the Canadian consulate (ah, those sensible Canadians), David Byrne delivered their annual Marshall McLuhan lecture at New York University on March 2nd — the opening night of Byrne’s own I PowerPoint tour. ‘Oh, it’s his new medium,’ an evened-out post-collegiate from Central Casting explained to her friend just behind me. Something like that. The Talking Heads’ co-founder has been working with the ubiquitous business presentation tool for a few years, issuing a too-expensive $80 art book/DVD titled Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information in 2003.
Selections with wonderfully vague titles like "Sea of Possibilities," "End of Reason," and "Architectures of Comparison" screened as the audience filed in. Simple geometric variations primitively dissolved between circles, arrows, and the other elegant abstractions of corporate shorthand. Accompanied by music (presumably composed by Byrne), the films often circled Byrne’s conceptual art back to more traditional terrain: straight-up animation. It was no less beautiful for it. PowerPoint is perfect for Byrne — a medium inherently suited to his love of the naive, its limited range often instilling it with a folk-art finesse.
In his lecture, Byrne himself spoke little of his own work, instead delivering an overview of his observations about the application. Aided by PowerPoint (duh!), he detailed its history, presented specimens from his own collection of documents culled from the web (including bullet-pointed breakdowns of Hamlet’s "to be or not to be" soliloquy, Nabokov’s Lolita, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg address), and pondered its structural impact on the way its users think. As a tool, PowerPoint requires both an audience and presenter, Byrne suggests — therefore, it is a form of theater.
Within that form, Byrne delivered a fusion of spot-on art-geek academia (PowerPoint is closer to Asian theater than Western theater, etc.) and stand-up comedy. His demeanor was genial, his shock of white hair more resembling a mad Russian scientest than a transplanted 50something Scotsman. "This is an early 21st century depiction of a man climbing the ladder to success…" Byrne said with haltingly nervous dryness. "...with a pencil," he added, all wry charming timing. It was the closest Byrne has gotten in many moons to True Stories, his 1986 film about Texas’s then-burgeoning micro-computer culture.
Like Tom Wolfe’s Painted Word drained paintings of color and shape, leaving only their concepts, I PowerPoint was Byrne’s music drained of music — but somehow retaining the same wide-eyed giddiness that has informed his best songs over the past 30 years. With a packed room filled with aging got-their-shit-together geeks up front and an equal amount of younger geeks straggling into the back rows (I landed, appropriately/metaphorically, about halfway back), not to mention a full docket of college campuses for the lecture tour, Byrne’s allure has endured. It is also safe to say that most of the crowd knew something of what they were getting into. Unlike, say, Paul McCartney fans, who might weather Sir Macca’s classical pretensions, it is clear that (most of) Byrne’s fans weren’t just humoring the former head Head.
Indeed, as Byrne opened the floor to questions, one particularly eager audience member attempted to engage him in an extended (and not entirely inappropriate) discussion about Marshall McLuhan. He is the perfect example of an artist who has remained committed. His tour journal — a blog, basically, brimming with incredible Byrnesian observations about culture — is evidence enough of that. Byrne’s work (his music as much as art) has remained incredibly connected to the machinations of modernity — which, in part, allows his older music to retain its currency (think about how often a band puts out a shitty album and their earlier work somehow seem bunk, a pathway to half-assed conclusion).
When one audience member added a sour post-script to the performance by half-accusingly asking Byrne why didn’t he play any songs during his performance, many in the crowd bristled uncomfortably (especially because it stifled an earlier, far more interesting request for Byrne to flex his PowerPoint skills on-screen in real-time). It is the same as it ever was in that Byrne isn’t just parading around in the Big Suit, playing ‘Burning Down the House’ at the Super Bowl with a band of anonymously silent heads, or merely retreading past creative relationships. He is still impeccably hip, informed, and makes you feel smarter, fitter, happier just for following his career. Same as it ever was.

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