Byrning Down the House of Cards

A new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that the average American kid between 8 and 18 spends six hours and 43 minutes per day “consuming media.” I'm not going to touch the word “consuming” here, but I do want to break down what the good Kaiserians mean by media: TV, video, radio, CDs and audiotapes, computer and Internet use “for fun” (as opposed to “for learning”), video games, and non-school-related recreational reading (which figures to mean 10 minutes beta-waving over Stephen King, Seventeen and Skateboarder for every minute puzzling over Nietzsche or The Nation). If kids in this age range sleep, say, nine hours per night, that means that 45 percent of the average child's 15-hour-per-day waking life is literally mediated. In America, this means almost half of his or her conscious existence is prepackaged and sold in advance, structured not only to satisfy present desire but also to create future desires that only media can palliate. It's experience “brought to you by” late American capitalism. Only eight and one-quarter hours per day is, by this reckoning, “immediate,” which is to say lived the way human beings experienced things prior to about 1920, and even some of that gets eaten up by going to school on Ritalin, shopping at the mall on Prozac, going to parties on Ecstasy, and trading Pokmon cards on, well, the powerful new drug Pokmon.

Oh, would that America's youth spend just a little bit more of its media-consumption time with David Byrne.

Like Laurie Anderson, Barbara Kruger and Don DeLillo, Byrne—throughout a long career as new-wave bandleader, solo artist, video and filmmaker, scorer of ballets and operas, photographer, writer, and other genre-busting occupations—has made the transformations of consumer culture and mass media a formal as well as a thematic linchpin to his work. Since he's not nostalgic for the good old days before the mass media moved in—see 1978's “The Big Country,” a Talking Heads song about all-American farm life that includes the refrain “I wouldn't live there if you paid me,” or his deceptively nasty take on Texan rubes in the 1986 film True Stories—he's been creating a body of work that bounces between amused, defanged homages to media/consumer culture and penetrating critiques of it.

Your Action World is Byrne's latest bit of postmodern cultural commentary. It's a coffee-table-sized book wrapped in a bright-yellow, industrial-strength plastic cover that features a little picture of Byrne's head done up as a smiling Ken doll (shades here of the faux-naif-squared dodginess of artist Jeff Koons). Framing the text are six simple single-color pages at the beginning and six more at the end, looking like paint-store color samples until you read the tiny upside-down print in the corners of the pages: on a red-and-yellow two-page spread, for instance, it says, “Red and Yellow = McDonald's.” Another page is tagged with “Orange and Purple = FedEx.” And so on, with colors whose meanings, Byrne is suggesting, have been usurped by the conglomerates: green by Benetton, green and blue by Bell Atlantic, blue and orange by Visa. What he's saying is that the building blocks of the photographs and designs we'll find in his pages—their colors—have already been spoken for, copyrighted, as it were, if not in law then by the compelling arithmetic of saturation marketing.

An early section of the book is composed of stock photographs of billboard-style clarity and simplicity, all presenting dreamy vistas that suggest American-style bigness, sweep, power and imperialistic vision: a Monument Valley rock formation, the blue ball of the Earth seen from the moon, the Statue of Liberty. Superimposed over the pictures, in the manner of advertising copy, are the sort of banal platitudes you find in greeting cards or self-help books, or that you might hear at salesman seminars (“You can't touch the stars and still remain at home” or “The past is dead. The future belongs to those who believe in their own imagination”). And then, centered in each photograph, floating in a cloud of white space, is a pristine piece of drug paraphernalia or a drug itself (a gold roach clip, a rolled-up $100 bill, some blotter acid stamped with pictures of Mickey Mouse). The drug images overdetermine things (“Look, the rhetoric of the American Dream is an opiate!”) and don't yield much in the way of complex content analysis, but they sure would be cool to see on a billboard along the freeway, a subversive blip during the rush-hour ride from the computer at work to the home-entertainment center. Which is how I figure Byrne means for them to be construed.

Another intriguing section takes the form of a comic-book-style narrative titled “Winners Never Quit. Quitters Never Win.” The panels aren't drawn but composed of, again, instantly recognizable stock photographs—of can-do businesspeople power-striding toward their next sale or talking importantly on phones or in meetings, as well as other iconic American representations of potential or actual success: a beaming white kid mowing a lawn, a fresh-faced college graduate in cap and gown, a smiling senior citizen doing aerobics. The dialogue floating above their heads is at first similarly “stock”: “There is no need to put any limitation on what is possible,” says one businesswoman to a colleague. This is depleted Emersonianism, wide spiritual vision tyrannically telescoped to the sphere of material profit. But soon the limitlessness of this decimated vision gets woozy, then disembodied, and finally terrifying. “Live your life around your dreams and you live life like the movie it was meant to be,” says a businessman who looks very much like Governor Gray Davis. Says—chants—a businesswoman: “The multicolored, energetic, inspired you, at peace with the world and free of conflicts, floating into new possibilities, new realms, drifting free from all constraints, all limitations, into a field of lapis lazuli orchids . . .”

Soon, these Willy Lomans of the millennium are envisioning a Disneyland-like utopia called the “1996 Discovery of Golden Civilizations.” Finally, the split between this smiling-faced sputtering of clichs turned surreal, and what we all know is behind such dizzy horse shit spills out into horror: out of the mouth of a glowing senior citizen speaking on her cell phone comes hip-hop nihilism: “I'm ready to die. Nobody can save me. Fuck the world. Fuck my moms and my girl, my life is played out like a jerry curl. I'm ready to die.”

This is trenchant stuff, appropriating the grammar of advertising to critique advertising's own appropriative practices, bringing language and image back to some fundamental awareness of death, and it's my favorite part of the book. (A set of photographs at the end of the book, which juxtaposes weapons with pictures of the paper currencies of different nations, is similarly themed but way too obvious.)

In most of the rest of the book, Byrne avoids the stark bass chords that usually accompany the artist trying to look death in the face. He prefers a lighter, slightly wienier touch, in an emotional range that veers from affectionate to fey to bemused. One section presents us with relatively straight-faced, non-ironic photos of empty seminar rooms, cafeterias and hotel bedrooms—shabby, depressing, who-thought-this-color-scheme-up environments, exactly the kinds of places where marketing people think up the advertising strategies parodied in the rest of the book. Such photos don't excuse the abuse of people's dreams that constitutes modern advertising, but they humanize it and direct the critique toward larger social targets than Madison Avenue executives (toward something like Foucault's notions of “power”*). Other sections are either in their own way platitudinous (and overdone)—pages filled with the “poetry” of the Commercial Code (“Breaking Seal Constitutes Acceptance of Agreement. For Off-Road Use Only. As Seen on TV”)—or allusive/elusive/weird, as fun but as nonsensical to me as the last 45 minutes of Being John Malkovich.

But Byrne has always worked at the edge of his own and our culture's ideological suppositions, as the critic Raymond Williams put it, “at the very edge of semantic availability.” Your Action World is a cool, playful deconstruction of consumer/mass-media ideology, provocative and even occasionally uncanny, a tactical piece of aesthetic terrorism, like the Counterforce in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. The media junkies we're raising—and the ones we ourselves are—can't afford not to know what Byrne has to tell them.

Your Action World by David Byrne; Chronicle Books. $29.95.

* What Foucault meant by “power” was that it wasn't something which people or institutions “possess” (e.g. “Bill Gates has power”) but is sort of a background grid to all social relations and gets “activated” whenever there is a situation of inequality in a social relationship. Therefore, power “emerges” when a landlord asks a tenant for the rent or when an older guy presses a young girl to have sex. Power is what “happens” in such situations. It's therefore a kind of omnipresent background condition to all human activity—something like Bruno's notion of the universe, which “has neither center nor circumference, is disseminated everywhere and is therefore difficult to target.”

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