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

The War On Mediocrity SEPTEMBER 27, 2009 - by Colin Marshall


Last Sunday, I saw "The Domed One", "Brain One", "God" - or, if you prefer, Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno - speak at the Carpenter Center. The lecture came in association with 77 Million Paintings, a visual art installation at CSU Long Beach's museum. The core of the show is a dark room with a set of randomly generated "paintings," made from a bank of Eno-composed images from the last three or four decades, projected on one wall while sparse generative music plays in the background. (Unifying the space and the work, the room also contains piles of faux rocks illuminated with a random patterns of slowly-shifting coloured light.)

I plopped down on one of the couches and spent a good forty-five minutes watching the images shift so gradually that I couldn't catch them in the act (no matter how hard I tried), knowing that the exact configuration of music, sound and space I experienced would never, ever arise again. Of all Eno's ideas, I've always found find his concept of art as the creation of spaces the most compelling. Whether you're making music, paintings, films, novels or whatever, he might well argue, you're actually creating places for your audience to be, think and experience. This installation, of course, takes the notion more literally than metaphorically, as it really is a place you can hang out in, a place you can be, think, experience, etc.

The points of Eno's talk that I remember most clearly follow:

1. The broad thrust of the talk had to do with a bunch of ideas that appeared, in less developed form, in Eno's book, A Year (With Swollen Appendices). (Some of the ideas go as far back as his first magazine interviews in the early 1970s.) These included his definition of art as "everything you don't have to do," the importance of cultural creation as risk-free simulation of possible worlds, axis thinking, the line between style and utility, the inseparability of artworks from their context, the modern irrelevance of many hierarchical structures (his bête noire the orchestra included), and haircuts.

2. One of the new illustrative devices he brought to this suite of concepts was the lowly screwdriver. He set a series of them on his video projector, each with an identical flat metal head but a completely different plastic handle. He presented these as an elegant illustration of how utility meets style: the "utility" bits of the screwdrivers are the same, but the "style" bits vary. One part you have to do a certain way, and the other, like art in general, you don't. (He also showed a few pictures of "women's screwdrivers," all of which had feathers attached to their handles. "On the assumption," Eno said, "that a women can't use a tool unless it's got feathers on it. By the same token, I've devised a new line of male knitting needles. They've got rifle sights.")

3. By way of tracing the lineage of 77 Million Paintings, he described his very first piece of electronic visual art, crafted by his own fair hand in 1965-ish. He divided a box into nine compartments, each containing a blinking light and covered by a different-coloured gel. Looked at directly, the box's face presented what appeared to be shifting patterns of color due to the imperfectly-constructed lights' tendency to fall out of phase. Eno thought this might make a fine piece of bar entertainment, and thus filed a patent about which he received not a single inquiry in its seventeen years.

4. He made fun of David Pagel's lukewarm review of 77 Million Paintings in the L.A. Times, which goes a little something like this:

The biggest surprise of Brian Eno's light-and-sound installation is its modesty, both in terms of size and ambition. In other words, Brian Eno: 77 Million Paintings is a small show. Despite the playful overstatement of its title, the mellow exhibition requires very little of visitors and repays their attentiveness with a perfectly pleasant (and perfectly ordinary) experience of tasteful relaxation.


Rather than sticking with a consistent line of inquiry to see how far it can be pushed, like filmmaker Pat O'Neill, abstract painter David Reed or sound sculptor Michael Brewster, Eno is a visual dabbler, a little-of-this and a little-of-that sampler who skims the surface of media without diving into their philosophical underpinnings or wrestling with the consequences (and difficulties) of sustained inquiry.

Though he disagreed, he did admit that the writeup made him think about the show's nature and purpose. (Not shying away from the "why" has, perhaps more than anything else, kept me strongly interested in whatever Eno says and does.) And it gave him some lecturing mileage!

5. He told his current favorite joke, concerning a Texas rancher who decides to return to old Blighty to rediscover his English heritage. He visits his great uncle, a yard farmer, and asks him how far his land extends. "All the way down there to the street," replies the yard farmer, gesturing proudly. The Texan chuckles. "I could drive all day long and not reach the end of my property." His uncle replies, "I used to have a car like that."

Eno meant this not just to get a laugh but to illustrate his point about works of art. To wit, that works don't contain any objective, universally perceivable substance - "art" - that always and everywhere has an impact but are utterly dependent on their position in the greater cultural conversation. Oft-misunderstood pieces like Duchamp's Fountain and Malevich's White On White aren't standalone entities - they're punchlines. Presented by themselves, they make about as much sense as just saying "I used to have a car like that" in expectation of guffaws.

6. He described much of what he does as an attempt to answer the double-barrelled question posed by avant-garde trumpeter Jon Hassell: "What do I like, and why do I like it?" (This, to my mind as well, may be the question.)

7. Perhaps as a bid for chance and randomness, the evening included a longer-than-usual Q&A, at the end of which a near-forest of hands remained raised. Before opening the floor to the audience, Eno laid down two caveats: questions must be concise (because he'd have to repeat them for everyone to hear), and questions must be interesting to at least someone else in the world. Despite the rules, he had to shoot down a number of askers, especially the ones who asked "What's the snake guitar?" ("A way of playing guitar I invented ninety-seven years ago. Next.") and "Can you talk about The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway?" (he just wrote "ZZZ" on the overhead projector).

8. Madelaine asked Eno whether he considered 77 Million Paintings more of the realm of visual art or video art. Calling it a good question, he thought for a moment and said that he doesn't much care what category it falls into. He added that he doesn't even think it belongs to the realm of fine art at all. As long as it functions as a bridge from one cultural point to another, he explained, it doesn't matter what specific points those are.

9. Something, possibly a question, got him talking about a series of panic attacks he experienced a few years back, which felt so much like heart attacks that they landed him in the emergency room at least once. Though he ultimately determined a probable cause of caffeine overconsumption - his then-new assistant was an exotic coffee buff - he saw a psychiatrist who told him to just roll with the panic attacks, to just accept his next panic attack as a panic attack. Surprisingly, this worked. Eno then segued into a discussion on how the psychiatrist was provided by the NHS, and how the NHS' incentive is to have you cured quickly so you cost less instead of selling you all sorts of expensive treatments for a profit [1], and how Americans need to boost Obama in order to furnish the political will to do whatever he wants. I'm no Sarah Palin death panel-invoker, but the sudden rush of political tribalism I felt around me, which made me very, very uncomfortable.

10. He said he's working on a book about all this stuff, but that it's damn slow going since he develops his ideas not by writing, but by talking.


1 I might add that the NHS' operative incentive isn't exactly to cure you - though that indeed gets you off their financial back - but to simply stop you from being an expense. There are many ways to accomplish that besides curing you.