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Live from New York, Playing the Building: Summer Arts Students Meet David Byrne

Some kids go to the park or the aquarium, others to the beach or an amusement park. For 30-plus students in the Brooklyn Friends School (BFS) Summer Arts program, field trips mean getting up close and personal with some of the world’s most acclaimed artists, such as Christo and Jean Claude, William Wegman, Tom Otterness, and this year, David Byrne of Talking Heads fame.

byrne1BFS Summer Arts students were treated to a unique field trip last month when they paid a visit to Byrne’s art installation, “Playing the Building” on view this summer at the Battery Maritime Building next to the Staten Island Ferry in Lower Manhattan.

Summer Arts founder and director Rachel Webber arranged for Byrne, best known as the cofounder of the rock band Talking Heads, to meet the kids in person and explain the exhibit. “Our program views the New York art scene as our classroom and New York artists as our teachers,” explained Webber.  “Whenever I’ve reached out to these artists, they’ve always said ‘Yes.’ We’ve been incredibly blessed.”

Upon entering the vast, empty space that was once the former ferry terminal’s waiting area, the students and their teachers saw an old wooden organ at one end of the room, modified with blue and yellow air hoses that snaked from the back of it and up across the room to various columns and corners throughout the space on which were attached a variety of instruments that made hoots, honks, clacks, slams and whistles upon pressing the organ keys.  They were not arranged in octaves, so no matter how one played the keys the result was a resonating cacophony.

byrne3As the kids spread out to hear the sounds and trace the hoses to their destinations, Byrne seemed delighted by their profound interest and strolled among them.  This room on the second floor of the old ferry building was stark and seemed to be slowly decaying, or at least held barely in stasis.  It was flooded with daylight from the ceiling windows running the length of the room. Gold paint was still visible on portions of the ornate columns of this once grand hall.

As he waited to answer the kids’ questions Byrne chatted a bit about the Maritime Building’s history:  “When the subways were elevated, a train stopped right outside on the second floor and people entered directly into this room, then out the other side and down ramps to the ferries.  Downstairs directly beneath the room is where, once upon a time, horse drawn carriages pulled in to drop off passengers.”

The students asked him how he came up with the name of the exhibit, Playing the Building.  “I wanted to emphasize that it was about people coming in and playing it,” said the affable Byrne.  “It turns the building into a kind of musical instrument,” he said.  He smiled when recalling his early years living in New York City:  “I lived a lot of my life in New York apartments and lofts with radiators that made a lot of noise. I knew that a lot of parts of old buildings could make sounds.”

He also recalled his Baltimore childhood and his beginnings as an artist. “I remember when I was in school I used to come home and I’d have a piece of carrot cake with icing and a glass of milk, and I’d put on some music and draw until dinner time,” he said.

Soon it was time for the children to give their reactions to the exhibit.

“When I walked in, I thought it was just an old organ but the wires made it something different, and made it art,” said one inspired student.

“Art and music fused together,” said another.

“All the wires were really interesting, at first I thought they were going be all tangled, but they were so organized.” said another student.

This line of thought invariably led the Summer Arts students to ask Byrne about his own music and his years in Talking Heads.  He was humble and boyish with an infectious smile, and seemed happy to indulge any of their questions.

“What do you like better, art or music?” one student asked.

“For a long time I got very busy with music and didn’t have as much time to devote to art and other kinds of things I was interested in, but I would manage to get them in there somehow. For instance, I would maybe put some photographs on the stage or I would design some ideas for a music video, so I managed to get some art in there, but now its more balanced.”

“How did you form Talking Heads?” another student asked, speaking for many in the group.

“I was already writing songs but it was for fun.  I had no plans to start a band.”  Byrne, who had attended Rhode Island School of Design for a year before dropping out, said a friend encouraged him to form a group and audition at a small club downtown. There was even a chance they’d make a little money.  It became a steady gig that lasted nearly 20 years.

“What was the very first art piece that you did?” ventured one student.

“Probably wasn’t anything like this; I think maybe some of the very first things were photographs because I could carry a camera around with me everywhere, and just take pictures of things that interested me; I still do.”

And finally, what’s next for this multitalented artist?

“I just finished recording some songs. I’m writing some songs, and we’re going to go on tour in September doing them and some old stuff,” he said.  “I ride a bicycle a lot, and I was asked to design some bike racks for the city.”  He explained that the whimsical designs include a dollar sign for the financial district, a dog for the West Village because of all the dog walkers, a coffee cup for the latte culture.  “The racks have been made. We’re just deciding on exactly where to place all of them.”

During their visit, students also made sketches of the installation.  Summer Arts Director Rachel Webber sent the sketches to Byrne as a show of their gratitude.