"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno

Edge NOVEMBER 22, 2011 - by Brian Eno & Jennifer Jacquet



Composer/artist Brian Eno and Jennifer Jacquet, a postdoctoral researcher who studies "shame", were brought together for the Edge-Serpentine Gallery collaboration for Hans Ulrich Obrist's Garden Marathon, where Jacquet talked about on the role of shame in the original garden, the Garden of Eden, while Eno characterised Composers As Gardeners.

"The act of making art is something we share", Eno says, and he embraces articulating his artistic process. Two-thirds of his voluminous life's work has been done in collaboration, and here in his London music studio he sits with Jacquet to discuss the inspiration and creative process in their collaboration over Jacquet's project: a "Shame Totem".

As her research of shame, Jacquet has focused on the role of totem poles in native communities as a way of using public scorn and shame to instill societal cooperation. She points out that one feels shame, as learned through the story of Eden, only when one is being watched. She is in the process of creating a 3-D shame totem taking on the behaviours of many of today's largest corporations.

For Eno, the purpose of adding music to an instillation such as a shame totem, is so that a viewer can understand how to experience the piece in time. In Eno's work, music often serves an ergonomic function, it helps dictate the amount of time one should spend viewing a work of art. Absent knowing where the totem-pole will end up, Eno discusses the factors he considers in reaping a mix, a rough mix.

- John Brockman


ENO: What I'm working on at the moment is a rough mix of a piece of music for a totem pole. Usually one is asked to do music for films, but this is for a totem poll, and it's Jennifer's totem pole. It's a shame totem, in fact, Jennifer should tell you about it.

JACQUET: I'm interested in how we make six billion people get along. And one way that we can do that is through shame, which is a really traditional way of getting people to adhere to social norms. So in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, there was no shame, right? And it didn't take long before shame really took over, and gardens and shame became quickly intertwined, the notion that they sort of travel thing.

Adam and Eve, who were naked and felt exposed, had to cover themselves. In fact, you don't feel shame unless you believe someone else is watching what you're doing. So maybe shame is the reason that we need a God.

The idea of nakedness, which you can't really see in this, but the idea of being naked is central to the notion of shame, the idea of being exposed. And so this is almost certainly the reason why Alexander Baranov, who was the Chief Manager for the Russian American Company, was carved naked into the top of this totem pole, which you can see better on these smaller screens.

This was a pole raised in Sitka, Alaska in 1940. The town had decided to honour a number of entities for their historical peace treaty, but the Native Americans, as part of their plan, historians believe, carved Baranov naked as a way of shaming him in this totem pole.

Shame poles were actually one of many type of totem poles, which were very important to the gardens of native communities along Northwest Coast. In fact, we know this technology began in the 1700s sometime.

This is the first drawing that we have on record of a totem pole done by John Bartlett, a fur trader from Boston in 1791. The origins of these poles are pretty interesting. They started inside as interior poles, interior totem poles, and then they moved outside into the gardens. And if you go through archival records and you see, we sort of have this notion that totem poles are a tourist event. But they were everywhere. They covered the landscape of native communities, really from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries along the Northwest Coast. Almost every community, every native culture had them, except for the Salish Nation.

And again, the shame pole was one of these type of poles. To me it's the most interesting because they created these poles to make the shame sort of indelible, right? The whole community would realise that somebody had done something wrong, and they would refuse to cooperate, or they would suffer sort of the reputational consequences of that action.

So here's a really famous Tlinget Nation shame pole. It's called the 'Three Frogs Pole'. The three frogs represent three women from the Kiks.adi Nation, the Kiks.adi tribe. Their totem is a frog, and these three women were living with Chief Shakes. They weren't paying their dues, essentially. No one was paying for them to stay with the other clan. And so they raised this pole to try to convince the Kiks.adi clan to kick in some money.

So sometimes the shame poles are also referred to as 'debtor totems' or 'ridicule poles.' And so here, again, these are hard to see, but here's a classic debtor totem.

At the top, basically if you see a white man in a totem pole, you can guarantee it's a shaming element. With a few exceptions, like these really beautiful, magnificent, if you get a chance, just Google them, the Lincoln Totem Pole. Abraham Lincoln was carved into a series of poles, and it's not clear whether or not really that was honour or shame. There's a lot of debate over the end of slavery, whether or not the native communities viewed it as a positive or negative element.

So I became interested in the shame pole because I studied shame and am interested in it more broadly, and I was wondering could we utilize this in a way that's effective today.

ENO: Here we are in my studio, its October 2011 and I'm working on a piece of music, which I call Jennifer Financial Talk 3. In fact it's a soundtrack for a project Jennifer is working on, and its called "Shame Totem".

We don't know exactly yet in what form this Shame Totem will be presented in, which gives me a few problems as a composer because obviously I would compose differently for different scenarios. So if it were for television I would think one way. If it were for an instillation in a museum or a gallery I would think another way. If it were intended to be seen unaware as on the street that would be another thing to think about.

So really the question is, how hard do you have to work to grab people's attention? If it's in a gallery you don't have to work very hard because people are there to see something like that so you don't have to sort of distract them, they have come to look at it. So that is the point I wanted to make earlier, is knowing where it is due to go makes a difference to how you approach writing for it.

What I'm now going to do is run a rough mix of this. This will take three minutes and fifty-two seconds. This will give us a chance to listen to it to make sure its what we hoped.

JACQUET: So what would you do if it were on the street?

ENO: If it were on the street, if it were intended for people who are passers-by, who aren't expecting to see anything, then I think you would have to make it more active. First of all, you would have street noise to deal with so you would have a threshold you'd have to work above. Of course it would depend on what street. If it was a quiet street at night that wouldn't be an issue, but in general you probably have to think, "OK how do you let somebody know as they walk past that they ought to turn their head and look at this thing?"

JACQUET: Have you had to do that before?

ENO: Well in my instillations I always have music in them. The main point of having the music, I think, is sort of ergonomic because it says to people, people know music is something that happens in time, so therefore they understand you stay around for a little while. They don't know that with paintings.

If you look at people in a gallery they do snapshots of paintings. They don't think of a painting as something that exists in time so as soon you put music there you are saying to them "you are experiencing something in time." It immediately slows people down. They are given the cue to say, "Oh I better hang around a bit, there is music."

Another thing that music does, which is very important, is it shuts people up. If you have music that is fairly quiet people coming into a place will briefly stop chattering to each other. Because that's another thing people do when they come into a gallery, they talk. People in galleries mostly talk and read, more than they look at paintings. By reading I mean they look at the labels.

I made some films of people in galleries once. It's very interesting. There is the painting, there is the label. They look at the painting, then they read, then they take another look at the painting and move on. So the reading time exceeds the looking time, generally. And of course its got worse now because museums think its nice to explains things to people so they put much more to read there. So they have these long diatribes about what the picture is about, and its historical period and other things the artists did. So you can go to a gallery now and its a lot like reading a book with big illustrations.

JACQUET: But do you think paintings were meant to be looked at for a long period of time?

ENO: Yes I think so. Certainly some paintings were. If you think of renaissance paintings where there is so much complicated information encoded in the paintings, all sorts of cross-references and jokes and undertones and digs at people and characters appearing who were often local characters (like you know, the virgin that appears... oh, that's the bakers wife, or not usually the baker's wife actually, the noble's wife.)

JACQUET: So now that so many people view paintings online only do you think every painting will have a soundtrack?

ENO: That's an interesting idea.

JACQUET: You will get a lot more work.

ENO: As important as looking at a painting is, its the cues the situation around it gives you as to what you are doing. So what an art gallery used to do is to say, "you are going into a place where your eyes become your dominant sense." Which is a very nice feeling if you like using your eyes. But now it seems to me that what's happened is you go into a place where reading becomes the dominant sense, which is sort of your oral sense. You are looking at lots and lots of words.

There was a very good show at the Serpentine a couple years back where they had absolutely no labels underneath the pictures. That's quiet unusual these days. That was by a lot of different artists and they had maybe thirty works and none of them were labeled and it drove some people scatty. It really did. They were very uncomfortable not knowing what they were looking at. Because if you are not given a date it can be very confusing. Is it an ironic 1940s picture you are looking at? Is it a 1940s style picture? Or is it really a pictures from the 1940s. That's three different things, three different levels of detachment you can have. So I thought that was a very clever idea and I feel that all shows should be like that.

There is a beautiful art gallery in Edinburgh which kind of does that slightly by having one gallery which is called the history of Scottish painting and they just have a number beside each one and then somewhere else they have a tablet with the numbers. But it's not by the pictures so you tend to look at the pictures nicely.

JACQUET: Why are the placards a distraction from the art but the sound is not?

ENO: Well I wouldn't use sound in most art galleries. It works for my work because the sound and the image are done in the same way, so they are a result of the same generative process. So I think both of them together helps people get what is going on. The first thing people notice after a little while is "oh it's changing". The visual image is changing all the time, but very slowly. So the first task is to keep people there long enough for them to realise that. Some people don't even stay that long. If you stay for less than twenty seconds you don't realise that it's changing. It takes about that long to notice something has changed. And so some people just look in and leave. So one of the ideas of the music is to say this is about time so settle down a bit. And I always have comfortable chairs so people can actually stay for a long time if they want to. And indeed they often do, they stay two, five, seven hours.

JACQUET: So this is a corporate shame totem. We surveyed five hundred Americans, gave them the fifty biggest corporations over the last ten years and asked them, which ten most negatively affected society in your mind? Then we aggregated the data and then in working with an artist in Seattle have developed a 3-D totem pole featuring the logos and mascots of these corporations. At the top, BP, not a huge surprise.

ENO: I tell you why. They are not American! They are foreigners.

JACQUET: I think the oil spill may have played into it a little bit as well.

ENO: But I think that's somehow very American to identify the foreigner as the biggest villain.

JACQUET: Well I was just impressed AIG was up there in the top three because that's American and really has affected...

ENO: So you're fifty corporations how did you choose those?

JACQUET: Based on size because I thought the bigger the more impact sort of thing.

ENO: So which came out the best?

JACQUET: Google, Amazon, IBM, Apple viewed almost entirely benevolently, relatively. I think its not a big surprise.

ENO: You should do an honour totem as well. Wouldn't it be nice? Because if you want to reform the corporations on the shame totem you should make them envious of those on the honour totem. So they should look over and say, "how do I get over to that one?"

JACQUET: And then they realise they have to give you things for free. So far we will start with shame because it was more prevalent in native cultures. And then maybe honour next if the shame thing works.

ENO: Who were the people you surveyed?

JACQUET: Five hundred Americans who use Amazon Mechanical Turk online. The pole has been more or less constructed and now we are looking to add sound to the totem.

ENO: Fancy that I have got some here. In fact, what I have been doing for the past couple days, well not for much of the last couple days, is working on a piece of music that will accompany this shame totem. So that's what I am going to do, a little rough mix. I am just going to play this to make sure it does actually record when I press play.

[Eno plays music]

I had this idea that one way you can start this is if you imagine the first thing you see is just lines of financial data running across, all out of sync the way they do it. And then these voices come in. So it starts with one line of financial data, and then pans back a little bit, then there's two lines, then three lines, then four lines. And as the choir comes in pan back to realise you are at the bottom of this totem pole and all the way through you are just panning back and it gets taller and taller. I thought it would be a nice way if it just kept going up and up. And then maybe your camera moves up, but I realise you aren't making a film of this. I am more used to making music for films than for totem poles.

I suppose that probably three-quarters of my working life has been in collaboration. I spend time in the evenings in this room on my own, and really what I am doing then is building up sets of tools for sometimes my own work but actually very often for working with other people. So I have a huge backlist of things that might come in handy at some time, instruments that do particular things or noises. For instance, I came up with one this afternoon that sounded like bass pit staccato you know on an upright bass where just that sound I thought, ah, that's bass pit staccato. I don't have any use for that at the moment but I now know that I have a very interesting version of that sound. So sometime in the next few years I'll think, what I need now is bass pit staccato, and I'll know I have it.

I keep a lot of things like that in the toolkit and when I am working with people I tend to pull them out. Very often a situation can be set on fire, set to light by an ingredient being thrown into the mix. Something that nobody has ever heard before, and suddenly everyone is excited about it and suddenly it comes to life. Because I work with producing quiet a lot I am often working with musicians who have been months in the studio and who are getting bored rigid with everything. Sometimes it really helps to throw something that changes the perspective on everything.

Collaboration I like for myself as well because it means that I do things that I wouldn't have tried otherwise. Because when you are working with somebody else they are pulling you in another direction and you sort of reluctantly have to change your habits to follow them and that's very useful. I must have made fifty collaborative albums, far more than solo.

My last three albums have all been collaborative. There's been the David Byrne one, then there was one with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams, that was Small Craft On A Milk Sea, and the last one was the poetry project with the poet, Rick Holland. So I haven't done an album of my own for five years or so. Next one will be me.

For me, producing and collaborating has sort of become the same thing. In fact, I usually say to people now if they ask me to produce I say, "I don't really produce actually, I interfere." The idea of a producer is someone who gets your ideas onto record. But I really want to get my ideas onto record as well. So what I explain to people is my only interest is in making the best music I can imagine and I want to do that with them and I hope they want to do that with me.

I most like being involved in the earliest stages of the record when people are thinking what kind of record is this going to be? Where are we going with it? What kind of music is it going to be? Which ideas from the past are we going to carry with us? Which ones are we going to drop? I like that strategic phase of recording, and I'm not at all interested in the details, the nuts and bolts. That can take forever in studio. I like doing that for myself but not in a room with a lot of other people, its tedious.

One of the things I said thirteen years ago is no theory is worth its salt if it didn't cover the whole of culture. If it just dealt with jazz, or music, or things that people currently call art, then it didn't really make much sense to me. It had to cover everything people do that they didn't have to do. Every area where they expressed stylistic preferences and make ascetic choices where they didn't have to do that. As I said at the time, it has to cover cake decoration as well as Cézanne. It has to talk about all the things people do in the name of style: how they wear their hair, what classical composers they like, what clothes they put on their dogs. All of those things people do which are essentially aesthetic and stylistic decisions should be part of a theory of culture.

Since I last talked to you I've been more inclined to believe that I was right all along. Is that what happens to people when they get older? That's to say I'm more and more disenchanted with all the other theories I see out there because they say, "ok we are going to talk about culture" and then they take a tiny little area of it and come up with a theory that works perfectly for that little area and leaves out everything else that people are doing.

Most of the art theory books that I have read are guilty of that. They, for a start, make a qualitative distinction between popular arts and fine arts, or mass arts and individual arts as if that's a given.

So the first thing is to heal that problem and to see this not as two camps but as a continuum of some kind. And to say yes you can be an artist at any point on that continuum. Its not just artists there or just there, you could be anywhere along there and you could be a working, functioning artist.

The second thing is rather what we started talking about earlier. To recognise that it's no longer the case that there are the artists and there are the passive people, the audience. You cant live with that model any more because we know now that the experience of art is one that is being confecting in our heads. It's not something that's made out there. Art doesn't exist outside of our selves. Art is a name we give to an experience that we have with things and if we think it's a quality it's a quality that we have conferred on. It's not something that is intrinsic to them. This is a difficult thing to say, nothing is intrinsic, because people then automatically say, "oh its just relativism isn't it?"

But it isn't just relativism, its trying to say that this machine up here is very good at confecting experiences. It's very creative actually. And one of the things an artist does is prepare a context within which an experience can be confected. The whole history of 20th century art in a way, that's been one of the subplots from Duchamp onwards, is saying if I call this a piece of art and put it in a gallery you will experience it as such. And its been proven right again and again.

So obviously if you do that, what you are saying is "the act of making art is something that we share" me the artist, and you the observer are actually conspirators in this. The famous counter example is in the nineteenth century in an attempt to civilise the natives, British missionaries used to take record players into the Congo, gramophones, (actually it must have been in the early twentieth century, thinking about it) and play them Bach thinking that would automatically make them better, civilize them.

That idea, that something in the music that is like vitamins, something that you could give to someone to make them better is an idea I think that is largely lost now. Partly because it turned out that Hitler, for example, was a great art lover and very discriminatory as well. As far as anyone knows he had as good taste as any curator working in the world today.

When I started working in music and I started doing interviews people were always slightly nervous about the fact that I liked to talk about what I did. Because there used to be, and to some extent there still is, an admiration for the inarticulate, passionate artist. The person who has got so much in there that they couldn't possibly put it into words and it blurts out as art in some way.

I've never really been particularly impressed by that picture partly because most of the good artists I know are thoughtful and articulate. There is a suspicion of articulate artists, or of artists who like thinking about what they are doing.

The big example for me was about nearly twenty years ago now. There was an exhibition in London by a really great artist, I think, named Ron Kitaj. He was American or Canadian, I can't remember which, but he lived in London for many, many years and I think he is an amazing painter. Anyway there was a retrospective of his work at the Tate, and they wanted to write about him and make a catalogue and put labels. And he said, "actually I would like to write about it." And beside each piece of work he had a piece of writing about how he made it and what he thought it was about, which by the way was a lot more interesting than hearing other peoples opinions.

But he was utterly slaughtered for this. The critics really hated it. They hated the fact an artist would have the temerity to I think to write about his own work, to use up their position and the reviews were so terrible. They were so cruel, they were like what right does this guy have to have opinions about his work? And I think it was because they thought he had risen above his station. It's a big sin in England to rise above your station. You can do anything else, murder old ladies or molest children but rising above your station is the real crime, doing something you're not suppose to do. And there's a little bit of that in being a talkative pop star, it was a little bit of rising above the station because you know this guy is suppose to be smacked out and incoherent and yet he forms complete sentences, that cant be right there has got to be something wrong with his music in that case.

I was interested in science for a long time. I became particularly interested when the music I was interested in, there wasn't a good account of it, among art writers, nobody was writing well about it from the musical or the art side. The people who were writing well about it were the cyberneticians. They didn't know they were writing about music but in reading Stafford Beer and Warren McCulloch and a few other people I started to realise, oh, this is the language in which you can talk about these things. And so I started to try to learn the language basically, to try to learn more.

And Stafford Beer was very important for me. He was writing at a time when the words "bottom-up" and "top-down" didn't exist, the word "emergence" didn't exist.

There wasn't any idea very current in the culture about how to talk about this process where things assembled them selves, things came into being from simplicity to complexity. It was counter-intuitive as well. It is counter-intuitive to think that something very complex arises from something very simple. Nothing in your day-to-day experience quite prepares you for that. So it doesn't surprise me that people find evolution theory hard to understand. It's not intuitive. I think it becomes more intuitive as you think about it but its not at first glace. Just as, by the way, that the earth circles the sun. It looks to me and everybody else that the sun circles the earth and we still say the sunset when it didn't. So I think its easy to point fingers at people for not understanding that kind of thing, but why should they?

Anyway. What Stafford was talking about was cybernetics at the time it was called, but it finally morphed through various stages, through catastrophe theory, through chaos theory, through complexity, emergence, whatever we call it now a days I don't know what we are calling it now. But it became the realisation that complexity in itself is an active property of things and that complexity can arise from simplicity, and intelligent complexity. In fact, further than that, complexity becomes intelligence, that's another aspect of it.

I followed that story as it's gone through and I keep appropriating bits of it in order to explain to myself what I'm interested in. I think the intrigue you have if you are an artist is finding yourself doing things and fascinated by them and then thinking afterwards I wonder why I got there? I wonder what was going on that made me make that connection to this thing? Why did I want to make that?

You don't have to ask that question to be a successful and good artist. You don't have to at all. I'm sure there are a lot of good artists who aren't interested in knowing that. I am because of sort of following the story like that, how did I get there? I like that but I don't know how I made it? I don't know exactly what was going on to make that. I was following a hunch. And then I think, "so what is a hunch?" what was I actually doing? What was I responding to?

There are really only four things you can do. You can repeat something. You can re-evaluate something that used to be there and you've now put a different value on it. You can leave something out, and you can put something new in. And putting something new, which is always considered to be the defining act of being an artist, is only one of four, I think. All those other four decisions are just as important.

Of course, folk music and pop music apparently don't do very much of the latter one, of the innovation one. They are doing a lot of the other ones; they are reevaluating things that were around. They are choosing to leave something out, which can be a very important decision. They are looking again at what already exists; that's the definition of traditional and folk music.

But because of our sort of enlightenment history of wanting to reward novelty we tend to favor, or dignify, or elevate the forms of art that specialise in novelty. And I think we tend to over-reward them actually, or rather we over-value them at the expense at those other conversational forms of art that are going around all the time around people or between people, like hairstyles, there is a popular art form that nobody talks about except me and a few hairdressers.

I always have this objection to Hollywood composers because they underline the emotion that is already there and I always think that is so obvious, why do you do that? It's a sad scene so we have that little high clinky piano and you think alright I know it is fucking sad give me a break. So the film composers I like nearly always set something a funny angle to the feeling that is there.

Like Rota who did the Fellini films soundtracks. They are not contradictory or contrasting they are just an angel and it really makes you feel quite differently about a scene. So I always enjoy mixed emotions, in anything actually. If I hear a piece of music that is just mono-emotional I'm not into it. I always know something is going on when I cant put a name to the emotion I am feeling. When I think, oh I like that and I don't really know what it is, its bitter but its sweet, it's melancholy but joyful. Those kind of funny emotions I like, sort of moves and browns of the emotional world.

I was teaching once in an art school in Wales and I was actually an external examiner, which is one of the people who walks around the college and says to the staff this student isn't probably going to get a pass and this person looks fine. You are supposed to ratify the grades that are given; I think all universities do it.

We were walking around the second year students and there was a young women there who had done some very nice drawings and one of my co-examiners said, "what are these drawing about?" And so the girl started giving a typical art student spiel, which obviously had been carefully rehearsed and had no intellectual content what so ever but she felt that she ought to shuffle together a few of the right types of names and so on. And I thought this is so sort of awful that people have to be able to talk about what they are doing in that way. Sure, talk about it in any way you want. Say, "I just really love this colour green". That's fine. You don't have to say anything else. You don't have to say, well, I had been reading Lacan and Lyotard and I was concerned really with the disassociation of the object and de-modification and all this crap that was coming out.

We then went on to another student and she had written a text and one of my co-examiners said "can you read some of that?" She read out this quote from Alberto Giacometti and Giacometti had said something like "when any artist is... he is this and he is that". Giacometti was a male artist and it was written in 1946 or something like that. The examiner, who was female and feminist as well said, "carry on" and so the girl then carries on with her own words and says "so as Giacometti says, the artist is... and he is..." and the women says, "he?!" And the girl bursts into tears. She had realised she had made a major ideological error. It was like being in a bloody communist meeting in Russia in 1937, she said the wrong thing! I thought Jesus Christ do we really have to get to this level of ideological acceptability, of toeing the line this way.

What this is a consequence of is the education system in England wanting to justify art education by turning art into an academic subject. Wanting to say, look it is a real subject. They answer real questions and use long words, its not just people pissing around with paints and clay and so on, it's a real subject. And this is because we have a government here for many years that has been increasingly unable to understand why people would want to be artists or what difference it makes to anything. Which is why this question that is never answered must be answered. The question being, why do people make art? Why do people want it? What does it do for us?

Everyone talks about art as though that question has already been answered and it hasn't actually. If you ask 20 artists that question they will give you twenty different answers or tell you to piss off. But if you ask twenty scientists why does science exist you'll get a fairly good agreement that it is something to do with finding out about the world in some way or another. They might have different ideas about why you would want to do that but in general they do agree that the pursuit is to find something out, to discover something. But there is no agreement about that or about any other idea of what art is about.

It's not a duty but it would be a fine thing if artists decided to take their job seriously. That's what I think is the problem, the artists don't take themselves seriously. They've swallowed the poison chalice. They've been told this is a luxury it's not important.

JACQUET: But isn't that art school as well? My impression is more that art school has to be that way because that means talentless people can go to art school, if it's all about the rhetoric. So you can market degrees now you can sell the education more than the talent.

ENO: That's probably true but the unfortunate effect is therefore probably a lot of talented people cant go to art school because they are not academic. When I was in college I had two great friends who were very very good artists. One of them one incredibly clever, he had exam results coming out of his ears. The other had only ever passed one exam, and that was art. He was no good at anything else. He was actually a very intelligent person but he wasn't an academic person. He would never get into an art school now. He wouldn't get near it he wouldn't get interviewed even because the filter immediately says all of those kind of people we wont talk to and its as arbitrary as saying we wont talk to people who's name comes before S in the alphabet.

With artists it's not the right criteria and it's a little bit like interviewing mathematicians on the basis of their haircuts. You wouldn't do it would you? It wouldn't make sense.

You see haircuts I think are the un-discussed topic of our time.