David Byrne @ Elder Hall
7:00pm, Sun 5 Mar 2006
This one-off performance was sold-out; Elder Hall is packed to the gills with an expectant throng. Quite what everyone was expecting is beyond me; I was there to see if David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, had any deep or witty insights into the use of PowerPoint.
Short answer: no.
Byrne took to the stage and was immediately off-putting; his stumbling, bumbling presence at the podium, constantly fidgeting with his glasses, made him difficult to watch or listen to. He was aided by his prepared PowerPoint presentation – likewise, a cacophony of presentation wrongness.
Byrne loosely covers the history of PowerPoint, pokes fun at the included Clip Art (like that’s never been done before), and drops in some interesting factiods: 30 million PowerPoint presentations daily. Information revealing problems with the space shuttle’s O-Rings was buried – and ignored – deep in a PowerPoint presentation. Demonstrations of various laughable presentations. And that “crazy people make charts too”.
In truth, interest was only raised when he mentions the criticisms of PowerPoint by Edward R Tufte – how such presentations are, by necessity, low-resolution; charts presented using PowerPoint tend to lose much of the detail that could be embedded within them. And this is where I think Byrne starts losing his remaining credibility: Tufte’s comments were borne of an age of business presentation that is only now catching up with mainstream technology; crappy projection technology has made way for much better displays, capable of imaging information with much higher density. The dynamics of personal reaction to different aspects of presentations have themselves become a subject of scientific study, rather than inferred through a collection of premises. Tufte’s remarks, placed in an appropriate context, merely infer that PowerPoint is a presentation tool, not a content generator; the deliverable content is only as good as that which the presenter is prepared to create.
There’s comparison between a common business presentation and asian theatre – both performed front-on to the audience. This leads to the concept of “communication by PowerPoint”, using “presentational theatre”. Which is odd – I had always thought that PowerPoint was a business presentation tool which, by necessity, infers that it must aid in the communication of information to an audience. Byrne ups the “Duh!”-Factor by then advocating that PowerPoint be used for… gasp… presentations. No shit, Dave, you’re a fucking genius.
Another gem of information was that “facts are becoming the cornerstone of the presentation”… isn’t that the point? It seems that Byrne approached PowerPoint as an artistic tool, and is now coming to realise that it lacks the ability to make immediate emotional connections with the audience; that it maybe isn’t the ideal communications device. Byrne then goes on to label PowerPoint a meta-program, because you’re able to store media – video, music – within your PowerPoint presentations… and he’s lost an ally in me; he’s exposed himself as a technophobe. Or n00b, at least. Meta-program, my arse.
In short, whilst there were a few (and only a few) giggles to be had, no new information was imparted here. I don’t really know who the audience was supposed to be here – PowerPoint neophytes? Budding PowerPoint artists? It certainly couldn’t be anyone who’s ever used the tool – there was little, if anything, here that those people wouldn’t know. And the premise that PowerPoint could be used for populist art is absurd; sure, there will be the odd avant garde experiment with the form, but it will never become a mainstream “canvas” because it isn’t meant to be – it’s a business tool used to impart information. This presentation reeked of a technophobe encountering a new toy for the first time, of an artist looking forlornly for an abstract connection with a business tool.
Below-average content, poorly presented… but maybe that was the point.
At JavaOne in 2001, I was lucky enough to see a presentation by “amusement engineer” Don McMillan on the (unintentional) comedic use of PowerPoint. That was of far greater interest – and, by virtue of the finger-pointing nature of comedy, a far greater source of information – than this presentation. Check out Don’s website for more info; I’ll be ordering one of his DVDs soon.