It should have been Squeak...NYTimes.com Article: David Byrne's
Alternate PowerPoint Universe
voiklis at redfigure.org
Mon Aug 18 14:36:22 PDT 2003
This article from NYTimes.com
has been sent to you by voiklis at redfigure.org.
Squeak (even Squeakland Squeak) could really have used this kind of
promotion. Who among us has the cultural connections to make such a thing
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David Byrne's Alternate PowerPoint Universe
August 17, 2003
By VERONIQUE VIENNE
POWERPOINT, the ubiquitous Microsoft business application,
is not meant to be looked at too closely. People aren't
supposed to notice its simplified graphics, ready-made
templates, pie charts, arrows and icons; they're only
supposed to notice the ideas that these features help
organize. What's not hard to notice, however, is that in
addition to organizing ideas, the software has a tendency
to homogenize them, translating a Babel of voices into a
single, droning voice of corporate culture. The experience
of watching a PowerPoint presentation is meant to be the
same in a San Francisco conference room as it is in a Chang
Mai Internet cafe. And in either setting, PowerPoint's
graphic identity might not literally be invisible, but like
the buzzing fluorescent light that office workers
eventually tune out, after a while you just don't see it.
With his newest project, David Byrne has tried not only to
see it anew, but also to use it in the least likely of all
applications: a medium for creative expression.
"Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information" (Steidl
and PaceMcGill Gallery, 2003) is a boxed set containing a
96-page book and a DVD featuring 20 minutes of animation.
In both mediums, Mr. Byrne, who is best known as a musician
but who was trained as an artist, subjects PowerPoint's
characterless graphic templates to a radical metamorphosis.
Arrows that curve out of their trajectory and into
psychedelic rainbow-colored curlicues, surreal charts that
satirize postmodern posturing, typographical compositions
that present absurd abstractions with straight-faced
conviction and deadpan photographs of the most humdrum of
everyday objects all morph into one another with the steady
pacing of a corporate sales conference.
You can feel the medium resisting the invisible hand of the
artist. Designed for easy digestion when projected on a
screen, PowerPoint reveals its true identity when forced to
perform without its well-rehearsed scripts. On the pages of
the book, what you see is brute force, elemental verve,
joyful savagery. Viewed on DVD, however, with the addition
of music and movement, the same layouts become less
threatening, less ruthless, even soothing at times.
The juxtaposition of book and disc, then, produces a kind
of cognitive dissonance: is the slip-cased volume just a
deluxe package for a short art film, or is it the other way
around? Is the book an antiquated cultural artifact? Or is
the digitalized version just a trailer you can watch on
Also disconcerting is the project's unwieldy title. For
insiders, it's a tongue-in-cheek reference to "Envisioning
Information," Edward Tufte's celebrated book about the
various ways that people through the ages have visually
displayed quantitative data. But it's also a preview of the
strange, decontextualized language that pervades the book
and DVD, something between impenetrable academic discourse
and self-important trade jargon, with a bit of official
government study thrown in for good measure. Mr. Byrne uses
it as a joke, perhaps, but also as a kind of
meta-commentary on how language can alienate us from our
emotions. One poignant photograph bears the legend "The
Beginning of Identity," dry words that seem like the title
of a graduate dissertation. Below that, two take-out soup
containers are labeled, by hand, ME and YOU. The two
containers sit side by side, separated by a few, seemingly
One of Mr. Tufte's more recent publications is a critical
pamphlet titled "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint." He is
among the most eloquent critics of the technology, but over
the 16 years in use, even some technicians have joined the
chorus. "It's very reductionist," says Nancy Halpern, a
PowerPoint specialist at the Strickland Group, an executive
development firm in New York. "There is a crude linearity
to the way the program works. Unlike a book or a Web site,
you can't flip around the pages. It's more like a
So what inspired Mr. Byrne to reroute a corporate tool into
an avant-garde project? To take something designed to
simplify meaning, and turn it into an elusive, playful
cipher? To transform a project synonymous with bland
corporatespeak into a challenging, entertaining surprise?
It started as a parody. "I was doing mock sell
presentations, using mock PowerPoint slides as visual
aids," he says. "That's how I learned the program
originally. But then it evolved into something else. It was
no longer enough to make fun of the corporate stuff. I
realized that PowerPoint was a limited but a valid medium."
To view the medium creatively, he says, "You have to try to
think like the guy in Redmond or Silicon Valley. You feel
that your mind is suddenly molded by the thinking of some
unknown programmer. It's a collaboration, but it's not
Starting with parody, he adds, even incompetent imitations,
is a legitimate first step. Eventually, if you persevere,
the obsessive nature of the process yields unexpectedly
beautiful results. For him, then, the challenge became
"taking a form that's purportedly logic and rational and
making it poetic."
Yet one suspects that there is another agenda behind his
attempt to subvert the global uniformity of PowerPoint.
"Corporate culture," he says wistfully. "What if I could
set it free?"
"The End of Reason," a four-minute, continuous PowerPoint
presentation with original music by David Byrne, will be on
display at 4 Times Square from Sept. 10 through Sept. 17.
Vernique Vienne is the author of several books about
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