David Byrne Talking Back

Via Rain Taxi

By Eric Lorberer

"In the future TV will be so good that the printed word will function as an art form only." — from "Music for the Knee Plays"

You are one of our era's most gifted lyricists, and you integrate text into your artwork in unusual ways. Have you derived any inspiration from other writers? What do you like to read?

Loads of inspiration...as a teen and during art school days I was reading Burroughs, Zap comix, Zen...you know the story...by the time I moved to NYC and was writing songs and making artworks I was reading a lot of systems theory and cybernetics -- Norbert Weiner, Stafford Beer, Gregory Bateson and others. I had hopes of integrating this bizarrely analytical approach to the creation of music and art. I believe, and hope, that some of this intention was ironic -- that by assuming a cool approach to hot subjects the absurdity of the whole situation would be obvious. But, to be honest, I loved the vibe and surface impression of academic texts...I was enthralled by the Art&Language group's publication for a while, partly I believe for their cool surface and the "poetry", if one can call it that, of extremely obtuse and sometimes poorly written academic essays. I didn't get stuck reading only this stuff. I've read Borges, Kafka, Phillip K. Dick, Ballard, and even quite a few contemporary fiction writers...but mostly I read non-fiction, most recently history. I recently read a tome by a French historian, the late F. Braudel, called The Structure of Everyday Life -- another cool academic title for something slippery and elusive.

Songwriters from Dylan to Lou Reed have published books of their lyrics; others from Leonard Cohen to Eno have published everything from novels to diaries. Aside from the text elements woven into your photography books, do you ever feel the impulse to publish outside of the musical setting?

No, I feel that, maybe some of the above writers aside, most lyric writing shouldn't be separated from the rhythm and melody that informs it. The strengths and beauty in great lyric writing is in its relationship to these other elements, in contradiction with them, or riding them like a wave. It's reviewer's bias to emphasize the words, which, while they're often good, are only a part of the whole -- and are often weak and stupid when left alone.

"Crossed Wires" from Strange Ritual is one of the most personal things you've ever written, and in fact most of the writing in that book is relatively intimate. I'm interested in whether these texts did come out of any "private" writings (such as diaries) and whether this atypical writing was difficult.

Yeah, I keep a kind of journal of ideas, thoughts, reactions, lyric beginnings, remembered phrases and utterances...some of which get elaborated later...and some of them can maybe stand alone.

Much of your artwork employs irony, kitsch, and pan-cultural elements -- three hallmarks of postmodernism -- but in the essay that accompanies The Forest you write "we're a lot less modern than we think we are." Do you consider yourself a postmodernist?

I guess so, if the other choice is to ally myself with the makers of all that beautiful but uncomfortable furniture, that brutal inhuman architecture and those big painting that decorate corporate lobbies. However, any movement like postmodernism that defines itself in relationship to another is kind of pathetic. A lot of modernist ideas I still hold dear -- the love affair with engineering structures -- grain silos, steel mills, dams and bridges....the aesthetic of no aesthetic, I guess, which is still very attractive, but maybe now we've become more open, more inclusive, allowing Club Flyers, Kustom Kars, Asian theater and films, Outsider artists and others into the fold.

Both Strange Ritual and Your Action World are lavishly and complexly designed books. Did you play a large role in creating these books as objects -- and did they satisfy your vision as such?

My ambition with these books was to create some kind of entity, or thing, that was both an artist's book (i.e. a work in itself) and a book of photos. I see lots of other, more ordinary publications that are also "things". Telephone books, instruction manuals, corporate reports, gift books, collections of inspirational slogans, advertising supplements, catalogues with attitude. These are literature too, but literature with a purpose, as a tool. Maybe I see my books that way too. With Strange Ritual I was confronted with the "problem" of showing lots of images, but not as individual works of art. I desperately didn't want these to look like standard photo books, one picture to a page and white borders around each one. I also didn't feel many of the picture stood alone, some yes, but many needed to be seen in series. That, and letting many of them bleed off the pages made them seem less precious, maybe less arty...and would, I hoped, allow the casual viewer to see what they were pictures of, rather than seeing my impressive composition and technique, or sometimes lack of it. Another way of making the images less precious was to mix the text in with them....as much as possible given the possibility of future foreign editions, for which the text elements would have to be changed. Gary Kupke, the designer, instigated may of these graphic directions, which pleased me immensely. I also attempted to ape the look of Bibles or other tomes in the cover and binding, but this was only partly successful, it looks more like a sketchbook.

For the second one, Your Action World, I limited the selection of work more severely. When I approached the designer, Stephan Sagmeister, I mentioned corporate reports and motivational materials as possible visual references, since many, but not all, of my recent work has been obsessed with the worlds of persuasion, media and advertising. Stephan loved the idea and took it even further than I had originally imagined. The border between what is design and what are, or were, my original pieces is blurred to invisibility. My photos and texts became the raw materials for another work. The book. We created a thing that could almost, at a stretch, be mistaken for a super glossy promotional item, issued by some huge corporation. Which is exactly what I wanted. That area of confused identify and intention allows for more unusual connections to be made than in a form where the work is clearly "art".

Just as your lyrics moved from persona-based narratives to more collage-oriented combinations of language, the text in Strange Ritual feels almost documentary next to the slippery aphorisms that make up Your Action World. Is this progression something that you strive for or think about?

I feel that Your Action World has a narrower focus, so the text was, yes, created and found to fit the visual context.

One of the fun things about Your Action World is that it has "chapters" -- titles which ask the reader to reflect on the photographic groupings thematically. Did you work with these themes in mind or did they come later?

The "chapters" were added by Stefan, partly as a way to incorporate some of the techno surreal mood of the materials we were allowing to influence us -- the calendars, self-help manuals and the copywriting in current advertising, and partly they were slipped in as a way to separate the various series of photos and images we wanted to include.

At the heart of this book is the "title track"; a fotonovela which you've verbally "scored" with everything from corporate utopia-speak to violent rap passages. How did you come to write this?

You're right, this text was originally a collage of texts created for a acoustic guide piece which accompanied exhibitions of some of these images. It was like those walkman-like things you get in museums, but instead of telling you what internal and personal struggles the artist was going through at a particular time, it was an audio equivalent to the images. The texts are mixtures of inspirational materials, travel advertising, my own writing, and some gangsta rap lyrics. On the tape they were read by actors, and were accompanied by "stock" music, as many of the scenic backgrounds on these photo pieces were also from stock houses. So, it seemed natural, incorporating this text into the book, to also use stock images, but his time of people.

Some of the aphoristic sayings in this book reminded me of Eno's "oblique strategies." Do you ever use chance techniques in your writing?

Well, yes, but I guess I do it intuitively. Brian's cards, which are funny and sometimes useful, are, to me, an outward manifestation of an internal process. They make the invisible visible.

One of the ideas that recurs in your work is the unreality of people's faces -- in "Seen And Not Seen" a man tries to make his face resemble mediated images; in "Crossed Wires" you write about how all our facial expressions try but fail to truly communicate our emotional states, and now this doll of your own image takes up the theme in Your Action World. Where do you think this obsession comes from? "12 Moral Questions" is a particularly vivid and disturbing text/image combination in this book. Is morality no longer an option in our mediated culture?

Sure moral behavior is an option. But we're still mainly animal, and big fish eat the little fish etc. etc...although there's often lots of animal behavior that seems to us altruistic, most of it is beyond good and bad, moral or immoral. One hopes for less suffering and more compassion...but without sentimentality or denial. By putting moral options in the form of a Cosmopolitan-type personality quiz I can laugh at our puny attempts at correctness.

If Strange Ritual was a travel diary in search of the spiritual or its residue, Your Action World is an indictment of the corporate takeover of our consciousness that makes such a search difficult; you write that you desire "to stem the tide of images and bullying texts that assault all of us, by building dikes and dams of my own images and texts." How do you think art helps stem the tide?

Well, art speaks, sometimes, in the language of the unconscious. When it's not bullshit. As do songs and stories. So it's not always easy to say what it means, but it's sometimes obvious what it feels and wants. And art is a way of talking back...of one person, or a small group of people, giving voice, or image, to something that concerns many people. They can "say" what is on their minds, and often other people recognize it as something they've been feeling, but haven't been able to iterate or verbalize. So the art, even if it's gruesome, disgusting or bizarre is a positive force -- a small effort against the weight of the crowd, which always, by its nature, speaks to our lowest, basest instincts.

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