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Plazm is a magazine of design, art, and culture with worldwide distribution. Founded by artists as a creative resource, the magazine is now published by the nonprofit New Oregon Arts & Letters. Order Plazm #30 now.
What it is He Does: an Interview with David Byrne
by Beth Urdang
I happened, last summer, upon David Byrne's "Desire" exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, an old and barely-renovated industrial compound in the Berkshires. The show was comprised of huge back-lit pieces that coupled glossy travel-brochure-worthy scenic vistas with symbols of drug culture—paraphernalia, weapons, money. An unguided audio tour funneled a barrage of self-help platitudes and rap lyrics (as recited by little old ladies) into the museum-goers' ears. And at the very center of the show, amidst towering screens, glowing aphorisms and slick images, sat an odd piece: a large graying industrial model—constructed by the man who sweeps out the local church—that Byrne had stumbled upon while exploring the grounds.
Byrne stole away from the opening to give a small group an impromptu tour of the museum. As he worked his way from the exhibit into the cavernous underground, an authoritative voice boomed from the distance, "Who's down there?"
"It's just David, from the show," Byrne responded.
I remember thinking how absurd "just David" sounded. Like the placement of someone else's industrial model at the center of the gallery, I felt this little phrase distance the artist from total ownership of his work.
It was not surprising, then, to hear Byrne's new album "Feelings." It's a melange of different styles and influences, each track composed of a unique set of musicians whose ideas both subtly nudge and aggressively push the songs in different directions.
Speaking with Byrne recently about "Feelings," "Desire," and his music label ??, has illustrated that it's not distance so much as openness that allows him to slide seamlessly between his roles as musician, artist, curator and commentator.
He's just doing, he thinks, what it is he does.
What was compelling to me about the images in
"Desire" was that, if you didn't look very carefully at them,
you could mistake them for real, even generic ads. There is, I think, a
fine-tuned irony in the imagery that commands the viewer to suspend
reality long enough to get sucked in conceptually, to understand the
ubiquity of advertising and its power to deliver a message. Did you
consider taking that concept even further, by using real ad space like
billboards or bus malls?
I did put a couple of them on billboards in Toronto; some of the weapons and money ones I did as bus shelter light boxes at public toilets in San Francisco. It's kind of a struggle, though, because of the nature of the stuff: it has to do with drugs or street weapons, and they're just like, "Get out of here! We don't want that in our subway system."Probably because they've already reserved the spot for Lethal Weapon V. That sounds like typical American sanctimony; everyone's always worried about the graphic depiction of violence, and here you're using these idyllic scenes to comment on the very same thing, and suddenly everyone's worried that people might misread it as, what, pro-drug? anti-advertising?
America has a kind of really enthusiastic craziness, but it also has the flip side of being really desperate. I think a lot of that imagery—the beautiful images, inspirational texts and speeches, the new age platitudes, and then the drugs, aggressiveness and gritty reality, the feeling-like-I-have-nothing-to-live-for attitude in some of the gangster rap lyrics—as different as they seem, are actually really similar. The artificial bliss of one creates the horror of the other, and one is as fake or as real as the other. You can't judge one as being good or bad, because they're two sides of the same thing.You are unusual in being acclaimed for your work in many media: You've released albums, scored for theater and dance, published a book, made a film, and shown your photography. Do you favor one medium over another as your primary art form, or do you see each as a piece of your total expression, and "your art" as the overall combination?
I guess I never saw a rule book that said you couldn't do that, so why not? I do think some parts occasionally make more money than the others, but you never know, those waves go up and down and that could all change, the balance could shift from time to time, but that's not really what concerns me or what motivates someone to write something or to put something together.