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

Index FEBRUARY 2002 - by Peter Halley


Legendary musician, producer, and artist Brian Eno would much rather talk about urbanism, new computer applications, or emergence theory than something as pedestrian as EQ levels or his own brilliant musical history. And while he might mention the classic albums he's made, like My Life In The Bush of Ghosts, or the seminal records he's produced, like U2's Achtung Baby, it would only be to underline a point that he'd like to make. Eno has a passion for dialogue and knowledge, and the wide-ranging intellect to support it.

Index publisher Peter Halley met up with Brian on a recent trip to London. Leeta Harding photographed his orderly studio, filled with CDs, computer equipment, musical instruments, books, and current visual art projects.

PETER: I'm such a workaholic that the only way I can even make friends with people is by interviewing them. [laughs]

BRIAN: I make most of my friends through working situations as well.

PETER: I had a hunch.

BRIAN: It's how you get to know somebody on the level that you might really be interested in knowing them. Even my visits to foreign countries usually happen just because I have to do something there, an exhibition or a show.

PETER: I'm the same.

BRIAN: It's a nice way to meet people. You're there with your work so they know what you're up to. They have some reason to talk to you other than just to make idle conversation, and there's a task to be done. You can understand a lot about the texture of a country by working in it and seeing how people arrive at decisions. You see which things are available to them and which things aren't.

PETER: This might be a very male point of view, but I have the idea that, even though friendship is often defined as a leisure activity, it's really about alliance - people who believe in the same things and therefore want to talk to each other.

BRIAN: I think that's a very good definition. But it actually seems like quite a female idea of friendship.

PETER: How so?

BRIAN: When I watch my two little girls play, the thing that interests me about their games is the very laborious sets of relationships they'll construct between the characters. You know, You're the auntie, but the mother doesn't like you because you did this. It's terribly complicated, and there's never any game at the end of it. The building of the network of relationships is just about all that ever happens.

PETER: That's said to be a skill that's prominent in women.

BRIAN: Yes. It led me to my theory that cities are places built for women.


BRIAN: In cities, you have the opportunity to do all the things that women are really specialized at: intense social relationships and interactions, attention to lots of simultaneous details. And of course in cities you can do very few of the things that men are good at.

PETER: Like what?

BRIAN: You can't break anything in a city. Everything is valuable, so you're limited in how much you can test the physical nature of things - which I think is a big part of a man's make up.

PETER: Many urbanists say that public life in the eighteenth century - which is when the modern city began to take shape - was available only to men. Do you think a female city was always there under the surface?

BRIAN: I do. One of the peaks of civilization in the west was the salon. They were nearly always the invention and ongoing project of women.

PETER: I'm a real devotee of the German sociologist, Norbert Elias. He would say that the first female-oriented societies were the aristocratic courts, and that the salon would be an outgrowth of that.

BRIAN: Don't you think the court is in a way the original city? It's a congregation of people who aren't related, so it's not a clan, and they're in very close proximity, which always gives rise to manners.

PETER: Elias also gives the court credit for the invention of psychology.

BRIAN: Oh that's interesting.

PETER: What have you been reading lately?

BRIAN: I recently read Richard Sennett's book The Uses of Disorder. It's a very intelligent anti-planning book, and I thought, This is fantastic, but nobody's ever going to read it. So I decided to condense it. I wanted to present the argument of the book in three thousand words. I went through it with a yellow highlighter, marking the bits that really got the germ of the idea. Then I photocopied all the parts I'd marked and collaged them together. After that, I had this idea that every serious book should be published in two forms. There should be the full version, but preceding it by a month or so should be the filtered version.

PETER: It would be even better to ask ten different people to do that and put all the versions into one volume.

BRIAN: It took me about a week to do the Sennett book. I had it all pasted up on a huge sheet of cardboard, which I gave to several people who would never have read the book otherwise. And they all got the idea. One of them went on to read a lot of other Sennett books.

PETER: Have you read his The Fall of Public Man? He was only about thirty when he wrote it.

BRIAN: That's a very good book.

PETER: I think that a lot of radical American writers who were operating in the '60s were edited out of American cultural history. If Sennett were on the other side of the Atlantic, I think he'd be hailed as a genius.

BRIAN: Sennett's gathered steam over here during the last ten years. There's been a slowly building feeling that he is one of the important American writers. Somebody else who might be better known here than in America is the philosopher Richard Rorty.

PETER: He's actually quite widely followed in the art world here. I haven't read his work.

BRIAN: Rorty tries to imagine how we can deal with a world in which we've abandoned the concept of absolute values - the idea that there's some greater wisdom to which we can appeal. He's asking, Suppose that it's the case that we designed our own mental universe, suppose that all the things we call good and evil are our own projections, that they aren't givens...

PETER: That sounds so much like Heidegger or Sartre. I don't understand what makes Rorty different.

BRIAN: He's an optimist. It's not, We made it all up? Oh shit, so there's nothing at the bottom of it all? To me, Rorty's work is a celebration of what humans do best of all, which is to imagine.

PETER: Is there one thing you would recommend I read by Rorty?

BRIAN: I would say the introduction to his book Contingency, Irony, And Solidarity. It's only a few pages long and it's so good. The book is about Nabakov and Orwell, and about writing and the idea that works of imagination are the way that we arrive at new social concepts, rather than works of so-called rational deduction. In the end, what Rorty turns out to be saying is that philosophy is just another kind of writing. It doesn't have any special grasp on the truth.

PETER: I think that philosophy is a codification of what's already going on more widely in the culture. If you think of Barthes' Mythologies, for example, it's such a summary of what people were thinking about in the late '50s.

BRIAN: My problem with twentieth century philosophy is that so much of it was entirely reactive to other philosophy. It became hard for me to follow what anyone was saying - or why they would bother saying it. I responded to Rorty because I could see how his ideas made some difference to the way I think about my life.

PETER: That's such a great feeling. The same happened for me with Barthes and Foucalt.

BRIAN: To tell you the truth, I never found Foucalt very easy to read. Barthes was a very entertaining writer. With his work I thought, Yeah. That's right. I knew that. [laughs] It rang very true to me.

PETER: I'd like to bring up Norbert Elias again. In one of his books, he kind of refutes the idea of individual consciousness. He says consciousness only resides in the group. That seemed enormously important to me.

BRIAN: I recently read a book about the CIA's experiments in the '60s and '70s using psychedelic drugs as interrogation tools. In the end, they found that what worked best was old-fashioned solitary confinement. It drove the subjects completely mad.

PETER: It seems that almost the biggest pain humans can feel is total aloneness.

BRIAN: Occasionally I go off for a few days just to sit somewhere on my own. I refer to it as going into the abyss. I don't even take books because they're another way of engaging in the group consciousness. The idea is that I'll spend some time in a quite boring place where I don't know anybody and I don't speak the language.

PETER: What's that like?

BRIAN: It's actually very traumatic. The first two days are especially disturbing. I lose sense of the value of anything I've been doing - it all starts to look completely meaningless. If I were actually depressed, I would never do this because I could very quickly end up topping myself. [laughs]

PETER: Does it eventually become a positive experience?

BRIAN: Yes. It's a fantastic moment. Suddenly I'm no longer desperate. All these things that I had thought were wonderful suddenly look like shit, but there's still something great about being alive. It kind of reaffirms everything.

PETER: Do you still feel connected to the world of mainstream music?

BRIAN: One often used to hear high art people saying that pop music was so boring and formulaic. I never thought that was true. All that formula and repetition is like a great big vehicle for carrying the moment of difference - the tiny point where something happens that didn't happen before. As a listener, the first question I ask myself is, Why am I moved by that? Why does that difference matter to me?

PETER: The best thing about music today is that it's available to a large audience at a low price.

BRIAN: What I value more than anything else about the music business is its distribution system. Records, record shops, and concerts are ways of distributing things to a lot of people. I like the idea of saying, Here's this incredibly well organized, powerful and pervasive machine - I want to be part of it. If something I do gets criticized, I would never say, They didn't understand me, or What I did was too good for them. I would assume there was something wrong with what I was doing.

PETER: Well not necessarily wrong. There's nothing wrong with appealing to a very small audience.

BRIAN: I do a lot of things that I know won't interest thousands of people, but I release them for the hundreds that will be interested. Sometimes I'm wrong, and it turns out that quite a lot of people actually do like them. Or, on the other hand, nobody does. [laughs]

PETER: I really don't think the artist can tell.

BRIAN: I've often thought that there are two varieties of artists. There's the fussy type, which I tend to be, who always censor themselves, and then there are people like Miles Davis and Prince who just say, Look, if it came from me, it's probably good. There's a certain generosity in that. Which category of artist do you fall into?

PETER: I'd say I'm half-and-half. [laughs]

BRIAN: I'm trying to get myself more into the latter camp, but it's not natural. I tend to be nervous about everything.

PETER: But you have such a huge body of work.

BRIAN: I'd probably have about four times more if I hadn't censored so much.

PETER: Jasper Johns is famous for holding on to his work.

BRIAN: A few years ago I was interested in what was happening to the act of curating. I'd seen a few shows in Europe, particularly in France and Germany, where the name of the curator was bigger on the poster than the names of the artists. It's like saying, Here's somebody who can draw an interesting line through our culture. He can connect a few things which you'll probably find worth taking seriously.

PETER: As an artist, I'm not sure how much I like that trend. In Europe, most of the exhibitions tend to be poetic in their conception. I get a big kick out of all the titles, like The Cooked And The Raw. It seems like, especially in Belgium, the exhibitions all have very poetic titles. And the way the exhibitions are curated is not systematic at all.

BRIAN: It's very much a creative act rather than an academic act. We've dropped the pretense that what these people are doing is assembling the most important things on some previously agreed-upon scale. We accept the idea that they're telling a story using the available materials of culture. I think this is the way that ordinary people make their own culture. You own these records, you like those films, you've got these reproductions on your wall. You believe in a bit of this religion and a bit of that one, but at the same time you have candelabra that belong to yet another.

PETER: I also think that to a lot of people, culture has become like tourism. Instead of visiting London, you put on an Oasis record, or you go see Sensation at the Brooklyn Museum.

BRIAN: Cuban music is a good example of that. How many people, Americans especially, have been to Cuba? Very few. But somehow that culture has come to represent sexy, sophisticated life. And it's all based on four records!

PETER: This gets us into the idea of importing the exotic while ignoring the reality.

BRIAN: When David Byrne and I released My Life In The Bush of Ghosts, I felt that there were so many things wrong with it. I had just started to get what rhythm was about. I had just become aware that there were people who did it a whole lot better than I did. The Village Voice reviewed it, and the only other review on the page was of a record by a black punk group from Harlem. They had appropriated all of the clichés of punk music and were praised roundly, while we were condemned as being neocolonialists.

PETER: My Life In The Bush of Ghosts struck me as being the opposite of neocolonial. There were things like Islamic Maqam singing on it, but it was right after the Iran Hostage crisis and it was like, There are all these people out there, and their worldview is not the same as ours in the west. And we should listen. At the same time, the album referenced this new American landscape that not only included technology, but also right wing preachers.

BRIAN: As an English person living in America in the early-'80s, I was much more receptive than a native would have been. I didn't have many friends there, so I would just listen to the radio. There were complete lunatics on the airwaves - people whose views seemed so objectionable. I started recording them just because I wanted to show my friends in England what people in America were listening to.

PETER: I also used to tape things off the radio at that time. Maybe that's why I responded to that record so immediately. We probably weren't the only ones recording off the radio, but you were able to make a work of art out of it.

BRIAN: I already saw it as art, so I only needed to put a little context around it and it was dynamite. It was like discovering a totally exotic culture where I never expected one. I'd just been to Thailand before moving to America, and it was far less foreign to me than New York turned out to be.

PETER: Your trajectory from the early '70s to the mid-'80s seemed to encompass all the things that would become postmodernism in the '80s. You went from an exploration of sexual personae, to skepticism about the emotional authenticity of pop music, to experiments that later became known as ambient music, and then an involvement with world music. You covered it all.

BRIAN: Things always look much more calculated in retrospect. I agree that you can draw a line through the things that I did, but at the time they all seemed chaotic to me. I just kept thinking, When am I going to find out what I actually do? I still think that actually.

PETER: Isn't that a rather old-fashioned thing to worry about? [laughs]

BRIAN: I know. But it's interesting that within one head there can be this child-like fascination with doing everything and the adult saying, Why don't you ever tidy up in here?