David Byrne's new attitude

Burned all my notebooks

What good are notebooks?

They won't help me survive

TALKING HEADS, "LIFE DURING WARTIME"

The above lyric always makes me bristle because notebooks do help me survive. For 17 years, I've haphazardly recorded my experiences, dreams, ideas, and observations in black-and-white composition books. Baptizing them with lighter fluid and striking a match is a scenario that fills me with horror, like having whole chunks of my memory eradicated by Alzheimer's.

Art books, on the other hand, vex me. Occasionally I'll purchase the catalog to a particularly inspiring exhibit, only to discover upon returning home ($30 to $40 poorer) that, when flattened on the page, Magritte's surrealist paintings or Charles and Ray Eames' designs no longer resonate with the same intensity. Even tomes engineered to be works of art unto themselves, with precise attention given to the typeface, paper stock, and integration of text and images, rarely move me.

Yet Your Action World: Winners Are Losers with a New Attitude (Chronicle Books), crafted by former Talking Heads leader David Byrne, slipped through the firewall surrounding my psyche. Perhaps that's because Your Action World isn't an art book at all, but rather (according to the press materials) "a potent tool designed to jolt users out of an ordinary mindset and introduce them to a radical new paradigm."

The triumph of Your Action World is that it appeals despite my feelings about its author. I find David Byrne profoundly irritating. Something in his manner provokes my inner playground bully: a lingering suspicion that the only punctuation he likes are quotation and question marks; the way he uses his spindly frame and jerky movements to remind audiences that the human body is a fragile vessel, waiting to betray us. Byrne's like a new acquaintance at a party whose persistent line of naﶥ inquiries into the particulars of your job can't be deflected with polite, drunken bullshit and thus calls into question your competence.

This man and his creations frighten me: Therefore I must disparage them. It's the American way.

But Your Action World isn't scary at all—on the surface. Instead, it traffics in language and visuals that are aggressively familiar. Twenty years of photos distinguished by Byrne's eye for the banal are framed by diagrams and patterns straight out of USA Today. Sections entitled "Winners Never Quit/Quitters Never Win" (an inspirational photo-comic) and so on juxtapose these images with catch phrases lifted from corporate jargon, advertising slogans, and self-help texts. Notions of who is being manipulated by whom dissolve into a captivating, kaleidoscopic blur.

One of my close friends is an award-winning product designer. His acute awareness of color's impact on consumers makes it impossible for us to stroll through a supermarket or drugstore without him singling out poorly thought-out packaging. The very notion of a garish hue like fire-engine red influencing someone subliminally, that the slightest variation of shade could make a pack of Marlboros whisper "you need more iron in your diet" instead of "I am a premium cigarette," used to perplex me. My pal the insider taught me how design and advertising mavens had broken every band of the spectrum down to a meticulously codified language of dependable cues.

Byrne gleefully cracks this code wide open in Your Action World, and his use of color throughout illustrates a sly knack for recasting signifiers ingrained in our consciousness by the mass media and big business. The book comes wrapped in a durable PVC cover— ࠬa the binders distributed at business seminars—of sunshine yellow. The chapter "Regular Achievement/ Maximum Achievement" composes snaps of mundane meeting halls, hotel rooms, and institutional cafeterias into an unnerving symphony of hospital-food colors: canned-peas green, butterscotch-pudding gold. Vast expanses of Federal Express orange and purple, Coca-Cola crimson, and IBM blue fill the end pages, their respective affiliations noted discreetly in the corners.

By exposing images and phrases that typically hide in the light, and stacking them in perverse combinations, Byrne subverts their ingrained associations; "dreams are only dreams until we awake and make them come true" ceases to be a cheery aphorism when punctuated by a gleaming crack pipe hovering over a postcard landscape of London by night. Simultaneously amusing and upsetting, Your Action World genuinely succeeds as a motivational text because it shocks the reader into thinking in refreshing ways. This is one art book that won't sit contentedly on the coffee table waiting to be leafed through by after-dinner company. And though it won't make you burn all your notebooks, don't be alarmed if you're overwhelmed with an urge to hurl a Molotov cocktail through the front window of the local Old Navy emporium. Suppress it at your discretion.

 
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