Connoisseurs of the rhetorical, pop singers are often measured by their ability to pass off ritual gestures or poses as spontaneity. Their struts, slumps and stagey twitches can be infinitely more complex - and more immediate - than any guitar riff or lyric. Body language being symbolic, gesture depends upon a slippery social contract between performer and audience for its meaning. Sometimes it's gimmicky, sometimes it's magic. In rare moments, however, a performer can bring the artificiality of his gestures right to the fore, and so short-circuit the contractual space between the stage and the seats. From his earliest appearances at CBGB in New York in 1976 with his band Talking Heads, David Byrne has been such a performer: robotic, affectless, and knowing - a manic straight man who has never been generous to our group illusions.
It's only a mild surprise then to find Byrne curating an exhibition entitled 'Gesture, Posture and Bad Attitude in Contemporary News Photography'. The show consisted of 20 black and white photographs originally taken by photo-journalists and culled by Byrne from newspapers and wire services. Enlarged, printed on newsprint (the medium for which they were initially intended), and hung side by side, the images appear at once topical and timeless - CNN frozen as semiology. The images' content is varied, but could be broken down into two rough categories: pictures of politicians caught in mid-gesture, often on stage or at a podium, and (no less political) pictures of individuals, photographed in crisis locations such as Palestine, the Brazilian rainforest or Burma. The photos each bore captions: dry, factual reminders of their erstwhile function as 'news'. One caption, for a picture of Bill Clinton half-looming, half-whispering into the confidence of a hunched and beatific-looking Pope, reads: 'Pope John Paul and President Bill Clinton came to St. Louis and got together for a meeting on the eve of the Pontiff's visit to the USA. Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News (January 25, 1999).'
Let's back up. Why would a Pop star, (although admittedly an art-rock pop star) organize an exhibition of other people's news photographs? Byrne's intentions seem more conceptual than cross-over - 'working with images' rather than curating art. He writes in his catalogue essay: 'The photos I have chosen represent a documentation of a choreographed performance. A dance of politics. The photos reveal a grammar of movement determined by an unseen choreographer.' One gets the sense that Byrne sympathizes with his unseen photographers, that he is drawn to what they do because he too, as a Pop singer, 'choreographs performances' (it is not incidental that he has also exhibited his photographs). Like photojournalists, Byrne the performer has always treated the movements, styles and images of his profession with a high degree of prop-like objectivity. Gestures are signifying tools. It's the job of the Pop performer, like the photographer, to recognize this and put it to use.
Among Byrne's chosen photographs, however, one can and should make distinctions between the kinds of visual rhetoric at work, in order to determine from where and whom their power comes. The pictures of politicians giving speeches with funny faces, or casting stray glances at each other's watches, offer their meanings fortuitously, as if the camera has 'caught' their gestures. In such cases the presence of the photographer is less felt than the meaningful happenstance of the image content - one reads the language of the newsmaker instead of the news image. In Byrne's other type of photograph, however, a telling snapshot gives way to confining portraiture. Among this group young Palestinian boys are shown crouching from gunfire, and Indians from Brazil's Xingu National Park are pictured 'stoically' inspecting the remains of a burnt-out rainforest. These images are marked by sentimentality and the aestheticization of misery and, contrary to the photos of politicians, they pander, in time-worn fashion, to a liberal audience's vision of illiberal situations. To put it differently, their gestures and poses are cultural rather than textual, ideological rather than inter-personal. Ultimately, they remind us that news photography's 'dance of politics' is as much of the image as in it - something that Byrne, the Pop star, should understand intuitively.