Culture Vulture: Frbruary 23, 2005
David Byrne ponders the popularity of PowerPoint
Creating cool out of pop culture junk is an American birthright.
One era's crap is another era's art project or eBay lust object, from Lite Brites and Pixelvision Fisher Price cameras to vinyl records and eight-track tapes.
Just as Americans get ready to throw something onto the garbage heap, cuddly nostalgia jumps up on its hindquarters and begs for its life. Suddenly, even the dopiest inventions seem worth a revival.
Perhaps the definition of an artist, then, is someone who gets nostalgic ahead of his or her time, and senses the importance of the pop culture right in front of our eyes that everyone else is sauntering merrily past.
David Byrne has made a career out of scrutinizing elements of our culture most of us would overlook at life's swap meet.
Artist, author, film director, musician, zeitgeist prospector and Renaissance man, Byrne is probably best known for his work with the seminal art-rock band the Talking Heads. But ever since he was booted out of the Rhode Island School of Design, Byrne has had an equally interesting run as an artist exhibiting in museums and galleries around the world.
And now, Byrne has brought another slice of American flotsam to the artsy fore.
PowerPoint, the ubiquitous Microsoft software, is at the center of his upcoming performance, I PowerPoint, at the Woodruff Arts Center.
I PowerPoint, Byrne cryptically explains, is essentially a deconstruction of PowerPoint that uses PowerPoint.
"Part of it is just explaining what PowerPoint is, who invented it, where it came from, how it ended up being the way it is. And then I talk about what its limits are as a medium and what it does. How I use it a little bit."
Not to steal Byrne's expository thunder, but Microsoft claims 30 million people use PowerPoint software every day. A simple business tool launched in 1984 has exploded into a cultural phenomenon with myriad unseen consequences.
Part of what Byrne says attracted him to the modern era's answer to the overhead projector was its simplicity and its ubiquity.
"I think that I started off basically satirizing it, making fun of it," says Byrne, via telephone from his room at Sydney's Intercontinental Hotel where he is currently traveling under the alias "Buddy Goodman."
His assistant's idea, not his.
"But I soon discovered that that was maybe an easy, cheap shot. That I could actually have fun with it and treat it as a semi-serious creative medium."
In his art projects, Byrne often expresses a soft spot for life's mundane, entrapping rituals and especially America's business culture.
Byrne's artworks have centered on trade shows and the kind of corporate signage you find outside of industrial parks. What Byrne often reveals is a human race enslaved to corporate bottom lines, in which every human need and desire is replaced with a formula, a pitch, a marketing strategy.
And so what better nefarious corporate invention to mock than PowerPoint, a computer program that replaces human spontaneity and interaction with a highly formulaic script?
PowerPoint pundits like Yale University's Professor Emeritus Edward Tufte have seen it as the technological Antichrist for reducing complex thoughts to lame brain bullet points and transforming human communication into marketing.
For Byrne, PowerPoint is just another expression of an America that has made business its national religion.
"When you say, 'What's American culture?' nobody would say, 'It's trade shows,'" observes Byrne.
"But a big part of it is. A big part of America is about business, about salesmanship and all that kind of stuff. But the worst thing is to pretend it doesn't exist. That culture's only what happens in the symphony hall."