Weltschmerz in Chelsea: David Byrne on Squishing the Whole World Under the High Line

Weltschmerz in Chelsea: David Byrne on Squishing the Whole World Under the High Line
David Byrne's new installation, "Tight Spot," is on a lot owned by the Pace Gallery under the High Line.
(Photo by G.R. Christmas / © David Byrne / Courtesy of The Pace Gallery and Pace/MacGill)

This month, for his latest improbable feat, music-icon-turned-artist David Byrne is squeezing the entire world beneath the High Line. Called "Tight Spot," his installation is composed of an inflatable globe wedged into empty alley on 508 West 25th Street that Pace Gallery recently bought up to make into a gallery. The result is monumental and comic — or tragicomic? — and accompanied by a curious soundtrack: Byrne's own voice, altered beyond recognition into a series of inhuman, basso moans.



The renowned Talking Heads frontman (and cycling advocate) is also part of Pace's "Social Media" show at the 510 West 25th Street gallery, where he's displaying fake iPhone apps alongside works by Miranda July, Robert Heineken, and others. (Pace is also opening an Agnes Martin show at their 534 West 25th Street space, rounding out a triple threat intended to create a sort of "block party," according to the gallery.) ARTINFO spoke with Byrne about the value of creative constraints and the importance of smell-to-smell interactions.

How did you determine which sides of the large globe balloon would be visible, and which would be obscured by the walls of the space itself? Because of course this means that certain aspects of the globe — whole countries even, or chunks of continents — are hidden.

I based it on the Mercator projections we had in grade school. They always had the Atlantic in the center, with Europe, Africa, and the Americas facing one another, and the Far East was often split in two, with parts appearing on the left and right extremes of the map. Obviously these maps had their priorities, and while I may not agree with those, it was important for me to make a connection to that innocent view of the world.

That said, we made some adjustments. Though it's supposed to look like a ball that's been squished, the inflatable is actually oval in shape to better fill the space under the High Line. We also digitally enlarged the North and South, so that more landmasses would show up in the middle (otherwise they would mostly be hidden under the highline ceiling and on the ground). This has the happy side effect of making the landmasses look more squished and distorted, as well.

There's something about "Tight Spot" that reminds me of Erin Wurm's "Fat Car," for instance — a normal thing grown over-sized, bloated, and obese. Your globe could almost be a "Fat Earth!" Were you thinking of Wurm's work at all in this regard? Or in a more general sense about a planet grown oversize, overextended, and a bit fat itself?

I see it as confined and squished, more than fat — but I love Wurm's work!

The audio for "Tight Spot" is composed of your own voice, "filtered and processed," as you've explained. Were you originally speaking actual words or lyrics, or was it a series of sounds, noises, and guttural utterances?

No words. I was trying to make my voice sound like a machine, or like wind buffeting a big sail.

What specific meaning does the audio add to "Tight Spot," other than a curious and intriguing background ambiance?

My hope is that it draws folks to the thing. Even if you're out of viewing range, you should be able to hear this deep throbbing sound and folks might wonder where it's coming from — so it's a lure, in some ways. It also adds, I think, a little bit of a dark side to the playful innocence of the giant beach ball.

In your statement for this piece with Pace you note that you "like being given restrictions to work with," as was the case here. What other sorts of restrictions in the past have proven especially fruitful for your artistic practice?

A pop song format is basically a set of restrictions. You can push against them, but you still have to respect the rules somewhat. Same with pretty much all musical work for film, dance, whatever — it has set parameters that it has to work within.


With "Playing the Building" [a previous musical art installation of Byrne's] the initial location in Stockholm (like the one used in Manhattan) was an abandoned industrial building. Now, with unlimited funds, one could transform those kinds of spaces into pristine environments, but then where's the challenge? They were visually complex, busy, messy — only certain things would work in those kinds of spaces. Hanging pictures wouldn't work, for example.

"Tight Spot" is situated beneath the High Line. You're known as an avid biker, and of course one can't ride (or even walk) bicycles up on the High Line, so I was curious as to your own experiences and thoughts on that unique, landscaped space above street level. Do you enjoy being there?

It's wonderful. In Barcelona people take early evening strolls along Ramblas, here we now have the High Line. It's a little crowded — hence the comparison with Ramblas, rather than an Olmstead-type park.

What do you think of all those new condos and apartments looming right next to the pedestrian thoroughfare — so close that their all-glass facades make it possible to see into future tenant's kitchens, or even bathrooms?

I live in one of them — but high enough no one can see in.

Speaking of bikes, you've designed a series of popular bike racks around Manhattan, including one that's in Chelsea. Might we ever expect an actual David Byrne-designed bicycle. What might it look like?

It would be an urban bike — upright, mudguards, et cetera — but super lightweight. Carbon or bamboo maybe? And though full size, it should be collapsible for storage or travel.
Let's talk about the work you have in "Social Media." Your fake app 'Invisible Me" — which "responds to your emails and texts, even if you’re not home!" — is credited to Puravida Inc., which translates from Spanish as "Pure Life Inc." Would our lives be purer without the influence of technology and social media?

Whoa, kind of a big question! We're tool-making animals, so technology is part of what we are, though one can fall in love with it a little too easily. Social media can't replace real face-to-face, smell-to-smell, body-to-body interaction — we are social animals as well, and the physical part of that can't be replaced by data.

Are tools like that a sign of progress for human civilization, if it's possible to speak in terms so general that we can say "progress for human civilization" with a straight face?

No — you can't say progress with a straight face anymore. There are folks who are working on some sort of happiness scale, which is how "progress" should be measured.

You've just finished acting as a juror for the 68th Venice International Film Festival. Short of sharing any specific titles that most excited for — though certainly feel free to do so, if you can.

The results are in. Putin called during the party to congratulate the winner [Aleksandr Sokurov for "Faust"]. The director didn't pick up the first time, so Putin called again! I heard secondhand that the director then proceeded to read the Prime Minister a statement regarding state support for the arts and humanities! A man on a mission.

What did this experience as a judge demonstrate to you about the current state of international cinema?

That it's in good shape. What impressed all of us jurors was how many good films we saw. It's tough out there — tough for emerging musicians, designers, writers, you name it — but the level of amazing work keeps coming, and often from unlikely places.