Parts of it Didn't Happen
An Interview with David Byrne
To coincide with the opening of the David Byrne show at the Ormeau Baths Gallery the editors of Source visited the gallery and interviewed the artist. His personal assistant provided various reviews among which was a sheet entitled 'David Byrne Photo Bio'. The reason for this title is evident in the first line of the text, it reads: 'David Byrne is primarily known as a musician who co-founded the group Talking Heads'; presumably there are other similar sheets entitled 'David Byrne Composer Bio' and 'David Byrne Film-maker Bio' which perhaps also begin with the same disclaimer. The artist was tall, spare and dressed elegantly in black. His manner was open and alert, and he spoke freely, despite the fact he had been answering questions all day. The interview was conducted to the hum of a polishing machine that has been edited out of the transcript for ease of reading.
Source: Do you cherish the things you're taking pictures of, are you collecting them?
David Byrne: I usually think there's something beautiful about it when I'm taking a picture of it... beautiful in a kind of strange way sometimes, whether it's the light or just the strange quality of the place or the peculiar way that something relatively ordinary is being done that I hadn't looked twice at before but because it's being done in a slightly different maybe slightly peculiar way I'll take a picture of it.
Source: So would your photographs describe your concept of beauty?
David Byrne: In a sense yeah, I think real beauty is something that knocks you a little bit off kilter rather than something that is... confirms things you already know.
Source: If you are in a landscape that would have appealed to a 19th century artist how would you feel about that space, is there a kind of redundant beauty?
David Byrne: I've been in beautiful landscapes where one is tempted to whip out a camera and take a picture and I've usually learned to resist that temptation (laughter) except for the kind of work that I've done on the billboards, those use stock photos; but if I would have been able to take my own photos that would have looked like stock photos of beautiful sunsets and mountain scenery I would certainly have used my own, because it would have been cheaper! Occasionally I'll take a picture of a pretty landscape if I happen to be somewhere and thinking in the back of my mind well, if I ever need a stock landscape like this, maybe this'll work now, but you know something eludes me; there is a real skill to getting those kind of pictures to look as clichéd as they do, and I don't have it!
Source: Do we have to be cynical when we look at pictures?
David Byrne: No I don't think we do, that's the thing about pictures they seduce you; they work on that level, being beautiful in various ways and at the same time you can know that intellectually that some parts of it are just not true, that it's manufactured... parts of it didn't happen...the intellect might tell you not to believe it but your senses keep telling you to keep seducing you, and its kindof interesting because you can feel that it's beautiful at the same time that you can know that it's a lie, bit like falling in love or something, or falling out of love, having bad love affairs. Whatever.
Source: When you're taking a picture... would you like the people that are looking at the picture to feel the same way about what you see as you do, is it like a celebration of what you find?
David Byrne: I guess I would like them to see it the same way I do, but I also know that I'm guided by instinct, intuition and so to some extent I happily don't know what I'm doing. I feel that it's almost it's kindof an artists responsibility to trust that and to not know what they're doing and to follow that instinct. When they start thinking that they do know what they're doing then they're in big trouble.
Source: Do you know what you've done when you've done it?
David Byrne: Some things I think, years later, I think well now that seems pretty clear to me what I've done, but other things no. And so often a viewer's reaction is maybe truer than mine, they can see it quicker and easier than I can.
Source: A lot of these pictures are taken around the world in different places but you can't actually tell, well I can't looking at them, where they are or where they might be. Do they have a definite feel of place to you?
David Byrne: Some of them do. I'm mixing them all together rather than say, doing a photo essay about a particular place like you would see in a travel or some anthropology magazine; so it's a bit like, well someone else said 'it's a bit like falling down the rabbit hole' and it's about a sometimes not incredibly logical jumble but it does have an underlying order to it in the same way that Wonderland has an order to it, but on the surface it seems nonsensical.
Source: Do you think that order is indiscernible?
David Byrne: No I think people sense it. I think they sense it but it's not articulated.
Source: And the fact that all of these different places around the world look the same is that important to you? I mean that you could have a Coca-Cola sign in Tokyo?
David Byrne: I think I'm kind of fascinated by this global culture mixing with local culture and producing something that's neither.
Source: When I was asking you about landscape I thought, what would you do in an Irish Landscape that was recognisably an Irish Landscape, or in the tradition of an Irish landscape, or an American Landscape, say if you were in Arizona, would it be difficult to take photographs of it?
David Byrne: I found it difficult to take pictures here. I took some here a couple of years ago; I would need to rethink things because nothing I took was any good. Maybe one or two things; there were a couple of pictures of shop windows that came out pretty great and some pictures of surveillance cameras on nice sunny shiny days so they looked kind of beautiful and other than that no. I couldn't take pictures of green rolling hills. But if I did go out I would ooh and aaah but wouldn't take pictures.
Source: The stuff you do with the manipulated images that must be a very different way of working it must be very much more formulated?
David Byrne: Yeah everything's intentional it's really just filling in the dots. I mean obviously there's some creativity that goes into how you fill in the dots but basically the whole thing was drawn out as a sketch first. There is a text highlighted in the photograph and drug paraphernalia in the middle of the stock landscape. That was just conceived and then it was just a matter of finding each generic type of stock landscape: sunset, night view, the city, mountain lake, which sometimes wasn't easy but really it's just filling in the blanks.
Source: Would you like your conventional photographs to be as seductive as advertising?
David Byrne: No not necessarily, they are about me discovering how to look at the world, something about myself the other ones are more about social stuff, media, dealing with all that.
Source: Do you produce images with a mind to them going in a book or on a wall?
David Byrne: A lot of these I felt worked better in a book where you can see hundreds of them in a series and get saturated by them rather than looking at them singly so when I show them I try and clump them together in groups rather than showing them as isolated photographs
Source: When you put them in the new book the way they are set on a page with a band of colour, it's much more like a magazine, rather than an attempt to make it a gallery on a page.
David Byrne: Sometimes the band of colour intrudes on the photograph, it's a little kind of irrelevance or irreverence for the framing, the reference the designer and I had was corporate brochures and inspirational books, we got a little bit away from it but that was at least our starting point.
Source: Who would you say has been the most influential for you?
David Byrne: William Egglestone he's pretty extraordinary. I did a book when I did this film 'True Stories' I invited him to come down to Dallas to not document this shooting but to get his viewpoint of the same landscape the same people, but he stayed in his hotel room, took a few pictures, so I had to go to his house in Memphis, basically his house is just like boxes of pictures stacked up everywhere, so he was just bringing out the boxes and going through them.
Source: Do you know the photography of John Hinde?
David Byrne: Yes I saw that in London, I read about it, it just sounds fascinating, the before and afters him travelling around with a red pullover and "here, you put on this red pullover and stand there!" it was great.
Source: It was immensely popular when it was shown in Dublin, the images, mythical mystical Ireland still have resonances for people here.
David Byrne: So people simultaneously enjoying it for its nostalgia but despite the debunking of that myth it was also reinforcing it at the same time in a way?
Source: It's not debunked it's a bath that people go and lie in.
David Byrne: Even with all this stuff, the nonsense with the pullover?
Source: I don't know how much people want to know about the people pulling the strings behind the pictures.
David Byrne: That's like Curtis who took all the American Indian pictures, of course when he went, when he was travelling around, they were already wearing trousers and cowboy hats and had paraphernalia from the West and so he'd carefully remove all this stuff, get them to dress back up in their gear, whether it was their gear or stuff that he'd brought along: "so wear this!"