Artist Presentation
David Byrne: Super Low Tech virtual Reality

 

 

Synopsis by Carol Golemboski

 

 

David Byrne prefaced his slide presentation by mentioning how much he enjoys hearing photographers and artists tell stories about their work. Separating himself from artists that begin with ordinary subject matter and later transform it into something meaningful, Byrne stated how he starts with an interesting situation, photographs it, and enjoys the experience of encountering something new.

Byrne shared a collection of hundreds of images that ranged from outhouses, to rotating Zen gardens, to Barbie advertisements. While projecting two slides at a time, he discussed his creation process and questioned the nature of what we call ‘art’. He photographs, he explained, as a ‘way of taking notes.’ His images were not designed for individual examination, but rather, intended to emphasize a larger theme.

Byrne showed several categories of slides. He frequently used images taken in Japan (his own photographs and photographs borrowed from various texts) to highlight certain ideas. For example, he contrasted images of Japanese religious shrines with Eastern European window displays as a commentary on consumerism and culture. He maintained that window displays, like shrines, now dictate cultural identity and value in our society. The display designs borrow the same tactics that are employed in religious shrines as a way to seduce the viewer and convince us of what is acceptable, believable and culturally significant.

Byrne returned to several groups of images to express a fascination with odd or peculiar found objects and situations. These included kitchy photographs of Japanese bus stops shaped like melons, artifacts like the arm of John the Baptist, inspirational type faces on Taco stands and Pentecostal churches, outlawed South African radios, sex advertisements in a British phone booth, and images taken from a Japanese alien museum. In one such series, he showed dozens of photographs of various surveillance cameras. He noted how our society has become so accustomed to them that they seem to merge into the scenery. He noticed that although there seem to be countless different models of these cameras, one never sees them advertised. Finally, he added how he never got in trouble for photographing the cameras and questioned if anybody was really watching.

Byrne also discussed finding anonymous art. Images of bubble gum artfully arranged on a tree trunk, tire sculptures, the plastic covering of the Brooklyn Museum while under construction, and anonymous poetry written in concrete emphasized Byrne’s questions about the nature of what we call ‘art.’ He claimed that there is something attractive about artwork that doesn’t announce itself. Rather than focusing on a narrow audience in a gallery setting, this work is directed to the public at large. He finds art in simple creations such as hotel wash cloths folded in a deliberate manner (naming this ‘wash cloth origami’) or in the sculpture someone created to control a rain leak in an airport. This work, he claimed, is more generous and democratic. In his opinion, it offers something to everyone, and in that way becomes more of an ideal of what art is supposed to be.

Byrne also showed various advertisements, noting how they communicate meanings, how they entice, and how they often masquerade as art. He emphasized this point by showing ad campaigns for Barbie, Continental Airlines, Apple, Nike and other major corporations. These images he termed ‘advertising that seeps in when you don’t know you’re being sold something.’ He proceeded to show fashion advertisements that play on fine art photography by using models that deliberately look bad.

In a questions and answer period, Byrne mentioned how there is a sense that meaning is being removed from photographs because everything is being purely accepted. In discussing photography in general, he stated that images should speak for themselves. Whereas some are solely designed for documentation, he is more fascinated with photographs that offer something that is slightly askew. Drawn to imagery that makes one feel and think, he views photography as a way that recreates the original sensation of encountering a slightly confusing but delightful situation. When questioned about combining text with imagery, Byrne stated that the two should be equal--neither one dominating the other. In this way, the two function together and the piece of art becomes informed by their relationship.

Finally, Byrne spoke about how photography can become a tool for prodding oneself to get to another place. He explained that the slight confusion in his photographs gives way to a transcendental experience and that his process of creation is based on spontaneity and intuition. As a summary, he described his photography as ‘cosmic images of nothing at all.’

 

 

Analysis by Ellen Shershow

 

When David Byrne spoke, he showed us a huge variety of works. He introduced his work in a way that is unusual for artists: by explaining that he feels many artists take the mundane or the boring, and through their art, make it interesting. Byrne simply photographs what is already interesting. Along these lines, Byrne included in his slide lecture photographs he had taken directly out of books, because they were images he found interesting, not always letting us the viewer know that this was what he was doing.

Over all, Byrne's work feels quirky, funny, intellectually sideways. Byrne seems to very deliberately avoid theoretical ideas, or concepts that would too directly connect his work to that of high art. We were shown images that could be categorized as high art, low art, commercial store window displays, religious icons, commercial work, fashion, star wars, travel photos, toilets, outhouses, surveillance cameras, cockroaches, shrines, magazines, etc,. Byrne deliberately and consistently mixes all these areas together, so that if one were not paying careful attention, it would become a guessing game of what context these images originated in. I believe that this mixing of ideas could easily be misread as naiveté, that David Byrne is a person who is unaware of the extent to which he is mixing such a multitude of concepts. However, after seeing him talk, I feel that Byrne is very aware of his place in the art world, and of how art in general functions in the West. Byrne talks of Americans as having a puritanical view of art, a view that does not want the lines of things to be blurred.

Of his own work, Byrne says he wants a sense of slight confusion, being derailed, on uncertain ground-so you have to sort of rethink everything-it becomes a tool to prod yourself.

Many of Byrne's photos involved text primarily. For instance, there were photographs of graffiti on brick or concrete walls. The question comes up then, of this combination of text and image, of whether or not this very direct combination works. In answer to this, Byrne stated that he sees text and image as synonymous with music and lyrics working in a song. Within a given song, the music and the lyrics should go together, they should balance each other out.

The question then arises of photographs of found graffiti, and how this very specific kind of image gets it interest, its power. Foremost in my mind is this question: Aren't these kinds of images very directly about class? Don’t they gain their intrigue from the fact that graffiti is the signifier of a bad‚ or dangerous‚ neighborhood? I feel that the upper class is both intrigued and repelled by this notion of danger. Photographic images become a way that a certain upper class‚ can see into these lower class‚ neighborhoods, without the supposed danger that would be encountered if one entered them. When I posed this question Byrne responded that ideally, he would like to just show the graffiti covered wall itself, without the intervention of the camera.

Lastly, I cannot resist touching on Byrne's own undeniable celebrity status. David Byrne was the only presenter at this seminar who was flooded at the end of his talk with fellows wanting their picture taken with him. Considering such, I personally was impressed with the humble manner in which he presented his work.

Byrne's music was so intensely wound up within my own adolescent experience, that I found myself thrilled to spend time with Byrne's photographs, caught in the fantasy that through such, I might somehow get closer to Byrne, and hence, to understanding my own confusing Adolescence. However, I cannot help but question whether Byrne's photographs would be anywhere near the public eye were it not for his success in the music business. We all know that we live in a celebrity obsessed culture. When Andy Warhol created the cliché everybody in the world is famous for fifteen minutes‚ wasn't he really touching on a sort of collective fantasy about fame? A fantasy wherein we all might imagine ourselves, neck and neck with celebrities such as David Byrne?