6 April 02004

David Byrne and the (bogus) PowerPoint art debate

Last autumn there was a flurry of comment spurred by Wired pitching Information Design guru Edward Tufte against artist and musician David Byrne on the pros and cons of Microsoft's PowerPoint software. Tufte argued that PowerPoint is Evil for "elevating format over content", while, in Learning to Love PowerPoint, Byrne said "I soon realized I could actually create things that were beautiful... and use [PowerPoint] as an artistic agent."

The gist of Tufte's argument is easy to grasp for anyone who's sat through interminable slides of bullet points. But David Byrne's brief essay is more oblique, and the examples of his slides available on the web — links below — don't make much of a case themselves. thumbnail of one of David Byrne's PowerPoint slidesAs a consequence much of the commentary declared Tufte the 'winner' — here's a typical example. Intrigued by the difficulty of pinning down Byrne's use of PowerPoint, I shelled out the £50 for his Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information (EEEI) book/DVD package to take a closer look. It's clear from looking at this that there never was a real 'debate' of any kind between the Byrne and Tufte positions, as Byrne's purpose is in many ways orthogonal to Tufte's.

There are interviews with Byrne, plus samples of a few of his PowerPoint slides, from NPR (including 5 minute streaming audio feature) and Wired. Here are some editorial reviews of EEEI from the publisher and from Amazon.

None of these give you much of a feel for what to expect from the book, and more especially the DVD, however. One thing is certain: Byrne's slides are nothing like any PowerPoint presentation you have seen, or are likely to see, in a business or learning context. They are radically more abstract than even a presentation from the likes of fellow musician and artist DJ Spooky: Spooky's intent is to convey perspective and information rather than Byrne's abstract collage of text, image and iconography (and, anyway, Spooky uses the upmarket Keynote instead of PowerPoint).

frame from Norman McLaren's Hoppity Pop, with link to film detailsframe from Norman McLaren's Rythmetic, with link to film detailsWatching the DVD is more like seeing a Norman McLaren abstract animation — click the thumbnails for details of a couple of his films — using cheesy clip art instead of hand-drawn figures. His approach to PowerPoints icons, text styles and slide transitions mirrors his one-time collaborator Bruce Conner's approach to 'found footage' in film making. At one point as the full-screen text reads 'OVERWHELMED' Byrne's music evokes Philip Glass's score for the doom-laden documentary montage of Koyaanisqatsi.

By now I hope it's clear that Byrne's work is hard to position as a counter-argument to Tufte's criticisms of PowerPoint mentality. So what is Byrne doing? I think EEEI makes most sense in the context not of Information Design but of — surprise, surprise — his previous work, including his photography and his books, Strange Ritual, The New Sins and Your Action World. In this light, you can see EEEI as a continuation of the pop-culture post-modernist pre-occupations that Byrne helped to define. These include a concern with surfaces and depth, cliché and profundity. Thus as Byrne says in the NPR interview EEEI "uses clichéd phrases... as free-floating poetic elements that I can rearrange as if they're blocks, and make them mean something completely different or reveal them to be as absurd as they actually are." Your Action World in particular includes many glib exhortations (in a kind of Anthony Robbins parody) combined in 'slide' form with collaged visuals. Mass-production images recur in Byrne's work and PowerPoint clip art is another extension of this. PowerPoint also allows Byrne to indulge an ambivalent and playful approach to lists and classifications (fellow travellers in this regard being artists like Tom Phillips and Peter Greenaway).

EEEI continues David Byrne's dialogue with his faux-naif alter-ego. He played this part himself as Narrator of his film True Stories, described by one reviewer as "a thin, quiet, withdrawn figure with a voice so flat that you have to listen to the pauses to figure out when the sentences end." Later Byrne rehabilitated Bob Dylan's Mr Jones ("something is happening and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?") in a song that proposes that maybe the straight business types who don't know what's happening are the ones who can most easily find happiness ("Mr Jones, put a wiggle in your stride...I believe you'll be all right").

David Byrne seems obsessed by anonymous business-people; or more particularly by the anxiety that they might be happier than him, the highly-wrought [mops brow] artist. At the start of the EEEI book, Byrne writes, "using PowerPoint is fun and relatively easy. The pleasurable rewards come quickly and often. Your amateur presentation looks at least as good as any professional's. Unfortunately, you have become a pod person, and smug pseudo-bohemians like myself look down their noses at you. This does not matter, because being a pod person has its own rewards. Happiness, for starters." So Byrne feigns a desire to transform himself into a happy office worker: "rather than give in to my smarmy boho tendencies, I decided that I must surrender and learn to use this software myself, for, like everyone, I long to belong. I have a long way to go. I'm resistant. My presentations are sometimes unclear and confusing." Let's all sob boo-hoo for the boho who's slumming it with dumb software from the evil empire, safe in the knowledge he can return to arty towers any time it suits.

The title of Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information directly references Edward Tufte's Envisioning Information, but, apart from registering an aesthete's homage to another beautiful book and evoking, archly, the intent of this latter book to encourage clarity and transparency in communication, EEEI has little to do with Tufte's arguments about PowerPoint. If anything, Byrne would support Tufte: as he says of his PowerPoint slides, again in the NPR interview, "The form immediately makes you think that it's conveying information and that it makes rational sense..." but "none of the content is telling you anything whatsoever; if anything it's just confusing you further."

Following in the steps of several reviewers, it's hard to resist the observation that Byrne has taken the PowerPoint presentation to the point where it 'stops making sense.' The Byrne vs Tufte debate may have been a useful hook on which to hang some press coverage to promote sales of both (possibly even more artificial than the old Oasis vs Blur rivalry), but where so many reviewers have been willing to take this at face value — just because they don't get the thrust of Byrne's intervention — I wonder if this tactic has backfired?

On a side note, until 10 April you can hear David Byrne talking and playing records with Charlie Gillett online for an hour or so as part of Charlie's BBC London programme. Here's Charlie's account of the programme and playlist.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Human-Computer Interaction, Music and Multimedia, Reviews on 6 April 02004 | TrackBack

Byrne's PowerPoint work interests me professionally is in it’s delivery of the creative subversion of every day technologies. Most of the staff here have heard of Byrne, and this work particularly appeals to our Art & Design department. Talking about the work has been effective in generating enthusiasm amongst Art & Design to think again about 'corporate' (Microsoft) applications.

I'm also running workshops on PowerPoint soon, aimed at the staff that have little or no experience with presentation software. As well as covering the basics, in terms of the applications, accessibility issues and aesthetics, it's fantastic to be able to give them examples of breadth of use for the technology.

Now, when is John Cage going to take a look at Excel...

Posted by: Josie Fraser on 6 April 02004 at 10:50 AM

Another example of PowerPoint Art: a leaked PP presentation from a consulting firm that works for the Pentagon.

Posted by: Roger Eniac on 21 May 02004 at 4:30 AM

Well, I'm not David Byrne, but I've been "subverting" PowerPoint as a design tool for a decade or so. I can honestly say that in that time I've created perhaps three or four presentations; but I've gone through uncounted revisions of my business cards, and used it to design print graphics for newsletter articles and web graphics. I know a guy who uses it to do web page wireframes (and I wish he'd stop, but that's a different story).

And I have to say, I had the same initial reaction to the Tufte-Byrne "debate". It was clear to me that they weren't talking about the same thing at all.

Tufte's case on PowerPoint is really intriguing to me, not least because I don't think most people really understand how far it goes. They think he's being cute; they think he's just talking about good and bad ways to do presentations. He's really talking about something much grander in scope, encompassing corporate cultures of ideas.

Posted by: eric on 16 January 02005 at 4:45 PM

I "live" in PowerPoint everyday, and it was clearly a reach to even imply a debate between Tufte and Byrne. I believe eric's observations of Tufte's "grander scope" is on the right track…

There is a bigger problem at work here, and it starts with speakers and presenter's who don't actually write a speech before they go to PowerPoint and start filling in slides with content.
Plus we see these images of CEO standing between two 50'x 50' screens bathed in "rockstar-like" lighting announcing the new product or business strategy. Business people want to emulate these business leaders, and if you want anyone in the corporate halls to respect your presentation at all you must have a PowerPoint deck accompanying you when you present. The difference is the CEO has a staff of speech writers, a speaker coach, and team of graphic designers making sure that all the elements fit together. "Joe sales guy" still has quotas to meet and no staff to help with his presentation. (poor Joe) So he just starts filling up slides with no well crafted message and no expert graphic designers to help him pull it off.

I think this is the paradigm that Tufte is trying to change. Nelson Mandela did not use PowerPoint to inspire people, there is no PowerPoint required to get your message across, but in this world of high quality images coming at you via Mtv, HDTV, advertising, and all the digital mediums you can think of, it will be hard to convince people to give up visualizing some parts of there message, and PowerPoint as David Byrne points out, is just to darn convenient.

I think somewhere in between what Tufte and Byrne offer is a viable solution.
1. write the damn speech before you touch PowerPoint.
2. hire a graphic designer to help you visualize piece of you message.
3. You are the presenter not you visuals, whether it be PowerPoint, Keynote or some other presentation software.
4. Just because PowerPoint has crazy animations doesn't mean you should use them. unless of course you are David Byrne.

Posted by: cory on 25 February 02005 at 1:06 AM

Here's a report of a David Byrne talk on PowerPoint last month — thanks to Josie for the link.

Posted by: David Jennings on 5 April 02005 at 8:52 PM