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Modern Painters

David Byrne and Jeremy Deller: Audio Games
Modern Painters
, March 1, 2010 [Link]
Photos by Antony Crook [More photos]


It took about two weeks to reach the artist-musician David Byrne, who was touring with his book Bicycle Diaries. But when we finally got hold of him and explained our "Meeting of Minds" column (expanded for this issue), which would involve his speaking with another artist of his choice, the former Talking Heads front man didnít miss a beat. Within moments, he had replied on e-mail: "I want to talk to Jeremy Deller" ó the Conceptual, video, and installation artist who won the 2004 Turner Prize. The connections between the two were evident: Both are avid cyclists, Byrne in New York and Deller in London; both believe strongly in art being accessible; both often explore the creative process in performative approaches; both are influenced by politics, pop culture, and music; and both participate enthusiastically in socioanthropological studies of cultural landscapes, particularly of quirky-meets-cerebral subjects like parades, nursing homes, and dilapidated buildings. Although for scheduling reasons the two remained on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Google Docs enabled this real-time conversation to take place online.

Jeremy Deller: First, Iíd like to talk about your love of cycling. I cycle in London every day, more or less. A few simple questions: Do you jump red lights? Do you wear a helmet? These arenít trick questions. Iím just interested. Iím a no to both, by the way.

David Byrne: I cycle here in New York as a way of getting around, not as a racer or for sport. Itís getting easier here. There are more secure lanes, and drivers are more used to seeing cyclists than in the past. Do I jump red lights? I used to do it more, but now, as there are more cyclists, I feel we have to obey the rules of the road if we expect to be taken seriously ó and we are, a bit. Sometimes I feel pretty foolish standing there waiting for the light to change while other cyclists whiz by, but then last week I watched as someone ignored a red light only to be completely knocked over by a car. I thought for a minute I might mention to this poor idiot lying on the ground (but not seriously injured) that heíd run a red light, but it didnít seem like the right time for scolding.

Do I wear a helmet? Ugh. I do when Iím riding through a precarious part of town, meaning midtown traffic. But when Iím riding on secure protected lanes or on the paths that run along the Hudson or through Central Park ó no, I donít wear the dreaded helmet then. Iíve noticed that in places where cycling is accepted and common ó Berlin, Copenhagen, and so on ó most folks donít wear helmets. I havenít had a serious accident, so maybe Iím naive. Cycling is a joy and faster than many other modes of transport, depending on the time of day. It clears the head.

Modern Painters: Redirecting the conversation to art, not that cycling isnít an interesting topic: You were both involved in the exhibition "Shhh . . . Sounds in Spaces" at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London in 2004. Can you talk a bit about your roles in the show and what the experience was like? How did you explore the idea of sound in space? Was that your first meeting, if you in fact did meet? Or if it wasnít, when and where did you first meet?

DB: Iím pretty sure we didnít meet, though we have mutual friends, most notably Michael Morris, of Artangel, who worked with Jeremy on the Battle of Orgreave [2001] reenactment. Jeremy also did a short film that beautifully used the Talking Heads song "Heaven." It was of old folks dancing ó senior citizens, we call them here [in the United States]. Itís both hilarious and very touching.

The V&A "Shhh . . . Sounds in Spaces" seemed so obvious. I wonder why more museums havenít messed around more with their Acoustiguides. Very few have. As far as I know, they usually stick with the "Let some expert explain it all for you" approach. The V&A instead invited a group of artists and musicians to "do something" for their Acoustiguides. It wasnít for a specific show, so in a sense it was a show. The technology used was invisible infrared sensors to activate audio files in the players that visitors wore. Because these players were private, only the person wearing the headphones could hear the pieces ó there was no cacophony in the galleries ó so sometimes a voice would begin talking as you entered a specific room or gallery, sometimes a sound would begin playing for no reason, and sometimes one would hear music when one entered a space. All the participants picked different spaces, so there wasnít audio chaos. I decided to concentrate on the nonspaces in the V&A ó the hallways between galleries, the cafeteria ramp, the lovely old stairways, and the pristine bathrooms. I did one for the ceramics gallery that began with footsteps and heavy breathing, as if someone were following a little too close; another, for the Cast Court ramp, began with a cell phone ringing and ringing (I hoped that folks would turn around to see which obnoxious person was not picking up their phone), and then it turned into a little chaotic musical mixture of various cell-phone rings.

JD: The audio guide I made was with a child rushing around her favorite parts of the museum explaining why she liked certain things rather breathlessly. I was in a show in 2000 in France concerned with childhood, and I was going to get some children to make an audio guide for the show, but it became too complicated. Regarding the Heaven film [2003], it was a brief pop video of sorts for the song "Heaven," which I have always loved. The dancers were filmed at a modernist building on the south coast of England, which on a sunny day is heavenly. The town it is in is known for its elderly population, who presumably are looking forward to going to heaven fairly soon.

DB: The words of the song fit so perfectly. The oldies look like theyíre in heaven already, and the "place where nothing ever happens" line could equally apply to their hangout on the south coast. The oldies seem both blissfully unaware of their circumstances and completely aware at the same time, if thatís possible.

MP: Classical Greek philosophers debated whether color, like pitch, could be considered a quality of music. There have also been various mystical explorations of musical scales and the colors of the rainbow, such as the French Jesuit scientist Louis-Bertrand Castelís color-organ (clavecin oculaire, or ocular harpsichord) experiments in the early 18th century. That being said, do you hear colors or see music? And do you visualize your music as a particular work, or works, of art? If so, which works specifically?

JD: I see images when I hear music and colors. Iíve been especially interested in how concerts are lit. The use of shadows in Stop Making Sense [the 1984 Talking Heads concert movie] really impressed me. Iíd like to see a live concert that just used shadows. I think that the ease of using these big screens now behind bands will turn every gig into a Rolling Stones-style experience. It seems de rigueur now for any band above a certain level to have one of these screens. I have a fantasy of lighting a concert with some tropical plants on turntables and a few lights.

DB: Synesthesia ó isnít that it? When input to one sense stimulates another? I donít have it, though I do imagine music as having texture: rough, smooth, smooth with occasional bumps. I have a friend who conjures smells upon hearing someoneís name ó some names are unpleasant and stinky, and in some cases introductions can be awkward.

I agree, Jeremy. Iíve rarely seen video screens used well in a music concert. I saw a Super Furry Animals show that had different videos in sync with every single song. It was extremely impressive; I wondered how it was done. But as those things do, it took away from the band, who were only too happy to be taken away from. The same thing applies to TVs in bars ó they take away from the social places that I thought bars were meant be. I did see a Sufjan Stevens show that used video nicely ó a variety of montages of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway [The BQE, 2009], a really ugly highway in New York. Girls with hula hoops out front, very inspiring.

JD: That reminds me of a live-concert film I saw of Can that had an old guy in a tuxedo juggling onstage throughout the show. He was really good; it was spellbinding and complemented the music really well.

DB: I believe you. But if someone told me I needed a juggler or a mime in my act to really lift it to another level, Iíd write them off as a serious person. But, yes, it can work.

JD: You should check it out. The contrast between the jugglerís appearance and these long-haired commune-dwelling Germans has an impact, and Canís music is pretty magical ó itís musical juggling.

DB: I worked with [the stage director] Bob Wilson on two pieces. Talk about lighting ó just amazing! But he spends a week, minimum, on just the lighting of a show, which most of us canít afford to do. Sometimes I see other nonperformance things ó like the [Olafur] Eliasson sun at the Tate or a James Turrell piece, for example ó and wonder, "Could I do that on stage, something that immersive? Would an audience stand for being led into a dark room? Or into a hot, steamy room?"

On another note, thereís no money, or not much, in many of these projects. I make money touring ó not much on record sales ó and licensing songs to films and TV shows, but that allows me to do things purely for enjoyment and, because it throws me into an unfamiliar zone, stimulating and exciting sometimes. That said, I know that parades arenít exactly making the big bucks at Sothebyís and Christieís. How does an artist who doesnít lean toward making luxury baubles make a living?

JD: A very good question. I do sell a few things here and there, and you donít have to sell much to be OK. I have low overhead, too. I get fees for doing things, but often they bear no relation to the amount of work put in ó in a detrimental way, that is. Things add up. Iím being cryptic maybe, but itís like riding a bike: If you think about what you are doing too much, you might fall off. The way performers are now earning their living from live performance is actually more like the Victorian era. Itís as if recorded music did not exist anymore. I always spent more on going to concerts than on recorded music. Itís a question of priorities.

DB: That sounds pretty ideal. I see the retail chain Borders has just gone belly-up in the U.K. U.S. branches will follow, I imagine. So the old idea of events, performances ó unique occurrences ó seems to be gaining interest. As everything becomes digitized, thereís the idea that things that canít be digitized become more valuable.

JD: Thatís a good opportunity for us to talk about working with Creative Time.

Jeremy Deller

MP: Good idea. Can you talk about the It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq project?

JD: I worked with Creative Time last year. We toured a car that was destroyed in Iraq across the U.S. We also took an Iraqi civilian and a serving soldier who is a psychological-operations specialist with us. I think organizations like Creative Time and Artangel are essential for artists who donít have a natural home in the commercial sector. Having said that, I do have galleries, but we can never work out what to do with each other.

DB: Creative Time is a bit like Artangel on this side of the pond. Iíve worked with CT twice. The first time they invited a bunch of us to do audio installations in some hidden speakers in the World Financial Center after it reopened. It is an office complex that faced the twin towers and was damaged and closed for a while. Itís a bit of a tourist destination now, not because the tourists love world finance, but because its atrium windows overlook the hole where the towers were. I made an audio montage called "I Love This Crowd!" [2002] that would come from hidden speakers near the palm trees in the atrium. It involved borscht-belt comedian one-liners ó quips from Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett, Mort Sahl, and a bunch of others. I thought the foreigners who visit this site should hear the glories of New York Jewish comedy, an approach to humor that has spread the world over. Hugely influential. It may have its roots in Germany and Eastern Europe, but it flourished like crazy in the U.S.

MP: And what about your Playing the Building installation in New York in 2008, which then traveled to London last summer?

DB: Playing the Building was first done in New York and then also restaged this past summer at the Roundhouse in London; the Roundhouse itself organized and funded the London one. It used mechanical devices to turn an old industrial space into a kind of instrument. The public was invited to play the organ that would trigger the various machines strapped to girders and iron columns. The idea seemed incredibly obvious to me, borderline dumb, but what was nice was how it democratized the experience. Because no one ó no musician or composer or artist ó was any better at playing this thing than a 10-year-old kid. Everyone lost a bit of his inhibitions about jumping in and having a go at it. In New York it was in a long-abandoned ferry building right at the foot of Manhattan. Who knew that there would be, in this day and age, massive and beautiful architectural space, completely vacant, in the heart of Manhattanís financial district?

The Roundhouse certainly wasnít abandoned in that way, but to have it be empty and to just sense the massive, old industrial space with no performance in it was pretty special by itself.

JD: The Roundhouse is an amazing building ó itís round for a good reason. Do you remember playing there in í77?

DB: It was my first experience of gobbing! I was jealous of the Ramonesí leather jackets that night.

JD: That gig with the Ramones is seen as key for the U.K. music scene. There were many famous gigs there: Bowie, Pink Floyd, the Doors, and so on.

DB: Do some of the people in the Folk Archive project you worked on think of themselves as fine artists? Or are they, as you describe, very specific about what and where their work is directed, which usually doesnít include galleries and museums? Given the range of work shown in galleries and museums, do some feel they might cross the line?

I saw videos that Cameron Jamie did of Kranky Klaus and backyard wrestling. They were great; they blur the line between cultural anthropology and art, I guess. Though thereís another doc on backyard wrestling that I have to say is better made and more horrific. This is all so fuzzy and confusing. Can you sort us out?

JD: For the readersí benefit, Folk Archive was an exhibition and book that Alan Kane and I made in 2005. It looked at traditional folk-art forms in the U.K. and what might be considered the future of folk objects and behavior, so there were ancient traditions documented alongside certain Web sites, contemporary trade-union banners, cake decorating, political protest, model making, and so on. I have never been involved in anything before or since that was so popular but so divisive critically, as some critics couldnít recognize it as art or even as creative. The art world has always had a conservative streak, however much it likes to think of itself as being a liberal haven, and this show drew out a lot of prejudice, both aesthetic and class-based. I could go on, but I would probably be a bit too rude about some people.

To answer your question, if they saw themselves as artists: Iím not sure. Some do but most see themselves as creative and probably resourceful. Certainly to my knowledge no one who took part in the exhibition had had a traditional art education, but then neither did I or Alan. They were all happy to have their work put in a book and shown in galleries and museums.

DB: The book is lovely, an optimistic and inspiring portrait of Britain. We can bypass the "Is it art or not?" question. Which reminds me ó I just saw an old documentary that Karel Reisz did in 1958 called We Are the Lambeth Boys. Itís beautiful. The voice-over is slightly bizarre against the images. Sometimes, with their pompadours, accents, and cigarettes, the kids look like hooligans, but the voice-over treats them as if they are just doing what all adolescents do, which is true: Theyíre typical adolescents in many ways. Itís generous without being sentimental.

JD: We Are the Lambeth Boys is something of a classic. I love that film. It was the first serious look at the phenomenon of teenagers in the U.K., made by a Jewish ťmigrť from Czechoslovakia who obviously had an outsiderís eye for what was interesting in British society. There is a huge class event going on in the film, too, as they all go off and play a cricket match at a private school. Morrissey sampled the dialogue for a song in [his 1994 album] Vauxhall and I. "Spring-heeled Jim," I think the song is called.

Also, the idea of the artist as a journeyman figure in a traditional sense ó touring the world or country, learning new skills, and adapting to changes. For example, you are not just a musician. Jarvis Cocker, in the U.K., inhabits a similar space to you, a space with a lot more freedom than most people are allowed ó in the music business, at least, if I may call it that.

DB: Itís a bit tricky at times. Sometimes one runs up against the "Stick to your own side of the sandlot" attitude, but artists using a variety of mediums are more accepted now than they used to be. The old Bauhaus idea that certain ideas and impulses each have a medium best suited for their expression also has a grip on me. It seems a bit mystical, but I can tell it lingers. The idea of work being shaped by the available context or opportunity ó be that a white box, a public space, a book, or a stage ó is exactly the opposite of the "appropriate medium for the expression" idea, in that I tend to believe that an opportunity in a medium ó often presented via an arts organization like the V&A, Creative Time, or Artangel ó in effect spurs the creation of the work.

What I do is also shaped by my abilities, and finances. I have trouble even imagining projects that I perceive as being beyond my reach. I wouldnít have thought of having those waterfalls all around Manhattan [as Eliasson did]. Iím a little jealous of folks who have no trouble thinking big ó like "My work demands that you move that building" or "I need everything covered in brown fur." I think I embrace a bit of the punk aesthetic that one can express oneself with two chords if thatís all you know, and likewise one can make a great film with limited means or skills or clothes or furniture. Itís just as moving and serious as works that employ great skill and craft sometimes. Granted, when you learn that third chord, or more, you donít have to continue making "simple" things, unless you want to. Sometimes thatís a problem.

JD: You made a film early on in your career.

DB: I did ó a fiction one with music set in Texas, a place you know well, called True Stories [1986]. I had a great time. I saw it as this great collaboration. It had a lot of music in it ó too much, I think. Later I did a documentary [Ilť Aiyť, 1989] about Candomblť, the African religion in Brazil.

JD: I should see it again. A few years back I made a feature documentary about Depeche Mode fans [the as-yet-unreleased Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode, co-directed by Nicholas Abrahams]. I only say this as an excuse to show an image from it. I loved making the film, but working with the music industry is always a bit of a pain. Rock documentaries are my favorite genre of anything. I think.

MP: Letís close the conversation with this final question: What or who is currently motivating your art or its subject matter?

JD: Same as ever ó my interests. Iíve just made a recording with a steel band. Iím always surprised by the opportunities that come my way, and I try to take as many of them as I can. Iím an opportunist, and art is about opportunity and seeing what you can get away with.

DB: I just did a little talk here where I proposed that music is written according to the venue in which it will be presented. Very similar idea to JDís above ó the venue is the opportunity, and we jump in partly just because we can. The guy that booked me mentioned that Orson Welles only made Citizen Kane because he found himself with a contract that gave him the opportunity and was hands-off. He hadnít spent years pitching the idea; he fell into it.