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

Variant WINTER/SPRING 1993 - by Mark Prendergast


Brian Eno's recent re-emergence into the British limelight (via a mainstream deal with Warner Brothers) led to much press coverage and little or no insight. Most writers trawled through the back catalogue, glutted themselves on post-modernist babble and threw the word Ambient around like a cliché.

The Independent perched him on a chair in nouveau designer chic and begged the readers to wonder 'Oh, how clever you are!'. Paul Morley played with ideas of uncertainty in The Guardian, or should I say play-acted? The Wire, striking a ridiculous pose, pulled itself down into semiotic mire giving Eno himself little or no room to breathe.

One might say that Eno invited this. His illustrated lecture at the Sadler's Wells theatre (July '92) careered around thoughts on defence, perfume and map readings of people's movements at David Bowie's wedding. It brought the press out in droves. Any objective cultural observer will admit that the British press can only relate to ideas in two ways - knock them down as pretentious or pigeon-hole them in terms of a 'what-we-know philosophy'. Hence in Britain at any rate Eno is constantly pulled back into the post-Roxy Music, studio-dabbling egg-headed influence of a thousand bands stereotype. Much of this has to do with keeping up with ephemeral trends. House ufologists The Orb (including ex-EG/Eno label man Alex Patterson) scored a freak UK No.1 hit with an Ambient House album. So now in England, Eno is definitely in, while before he was definitely out.

Little was, or has been said of his years spent at Ipswich and Winchester Art Schools from 1964 to 1969, where he absorbed ideas of art as structural organisation from Roy Ascott and art as experimental music from Tom Phillips. The latter pushed Eno in his fascination with tape recorders after the fashion of Steve Reich. It wasn't long before the youthful Eno was making art pieces like 1967's Two Scores For Painting or doing performance works like La Monte Young's X For Henry Flynt. The latter saw him bang his arms down on a piano for an hour.

Of course Eno's various dalliances with serious music (Scratch Orchestra, Obscure, Michael Nyman), through Roxy to early solo records (Here Come The Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World and Before And After Science), Ambient music and Bowie/Talking Heads productions, have all been fashioned out of his early fine art discoveries. Only an artist could see video in terms of turning a TV on its side (Mistaken Memories Of Medieval Manhattan/Thursday Afternoon). Only an artist could reject mainstream recording (seven years divides Thursday Afternoon and his latest Warners CDs) in favour of pan-global installation works involving video paintings/rainforest re-creations and Stockhausen-like park events. In fact, since the late '70s Eno has comfortably exhibited his ideas in 'gallery situations', or made places like La Guardia Airport or the Botanical Gardens in Rome thematic for his ideas. It was in 1986 that his 'art works' seriously took on the status quo. The his Places #11-16 re-directed our attention back at the image and its location. Within spaces in London, Dublin, France and Italy, Eno's looping tapes imbued a darkened atmosphere with the hush of a chapel. Darkness developed the silent congregations of visitors contemplating moving colours on light-boxes varied in shape but close enough to the 'painting-on-a-wall ideal' to cause wonder.

After that, in-house and out-house concoctions came thick and fast as Eno pushed deeper into 'art'. His latest music/video work celebrates these 'art movements'. The Shutov Assembly, a collection of ten installation soundtracks assembled originally for a Muscovite painter (Sergei Shutov) is complemented by the video Neuroclips which adapts some of the more 'psychedelicised' images seen at this year's exhibition at The Academy of Fine Art in Charlottenburg, Denmark. The titles of the instrumental The Shutov Assembly - Triennale, Alhondiga, Riverside, Innocenti, Cavallino, Stedelijk, and more - are mostly gallery or site names: Pieces from aroving '80s art career that is still moving faster than anyone can keep up. Eno admits that all his instrumental music from 1975's Discreet Music to The Shutov Assembly - "has everything to do with visual and tactile experiences. Sound in terms of brightness, hotness, sharpness, clarity, murkiness, iridescence, angularity, coarseness, haziness, flatness. I want the listener to enter this space the same way that you might enter the space of a painting: finding a way around, seeing what's there, relating things to one another, leaving when you want to".

Kurt Schwitters, Peter Schmidt, Russell Mills, Andrew Logan, Kadinsky and Marcel Duchamp are some of the names which had an impact directly or indirectly on Eno's mind. Whether it be designing vases for Milan's Alessi (a limited edition using an I Ching-like application system) or decorating Trabants (and providing stage ideas/video images) for U2's luridly arty Zoo TV tour, the idea that Eno is anything but an artist seems facile. Yet Eno, ever the maverick, rails against the idea of art or artists. In lectures (most famously at New York's Museum of Modern Art in October 1990) Eno has dissected the perceived differences between High Art (masterpieces) and Low Art (popular culture) to the delight of audiences. More famously art critic Robert Hughes has ruminated quite intelligently about the crazy values that art is forced to hold.

"The glittering and exorbitant surface of the art market does not conceal an immense sourness: the death of the old belief that great (and not-so-great) works of art are, in some sense, the common property of mankind. Locked in its frame of preposterous value, the Masterpiece becomes an instrument for striking people blind" (Robert Hughes, The Shock Of The New 1991)

Tucked into a window chair at his airy North West London work space I come to him with no intention to speak of music. Art is on my mind. What does he think? Is there a real difference, when you get down to it, between High Art and Low Art?

Yes! There are commercial differences and those differences are very carefully defended by their practitioners. First of all you have to look at this not as two things, high art and low art, but as a continuum along which all cultural events will somewhere fall. A lot of interesting things are not going to be either of those extremes. Now the biggest problem that high art has is separating itself from low art. It's very important for its economic clout to be different, to be exclusive. It has to say 'we are the centre of culture in the way that those other things are not. This is where the value is, what we're doing'. They have to be like that because otherwise how could you persuade someone to part with half-a-million quid for a contemporary painting? How could you persuade them, particularly when there are other people doing paintings that are almost indistinguishable and they are getting four-hundred dollars for them? You have to somehow say that this particular thing is invested with value in a special way.

Now two machines are at work - one is the currency machine. It is quite possible to trade cowry sheels with one another, or large blocks of granite as items of currency without having to claim that they in some way represent the centre of culture. We can trade ten-pound notes with one another and we don't pretend that they are beautifully designed. We can make a separation between the currency value of something and the cultural value of something. We can, but the fine art people can't. You see what underwrites the currency value of what they are doing is their claim to cultural value.

Referring to Robert Hughes I talk about the essay in Nothing If Not Critical (a collection of blistering articles covering the whole history of art), where the Australian analyses art prices from the quattrocento to now in terms of inflation and real value, the manic disorder of New York in the '70s, the ever upped prices. I suggest that whatever the result with Cobi, a Madonna album, Leonardo's Madonna Of The Rocks, there has been in each case a deliberate effort based on skill, ability, learning etc to create something tangible. I don't think that's a relevant consideration. I don't think it matters how long it took or how accomplished the people doing it are. I've really got to re-define artists to answer this question. The old definition of an artist is someone who creates objects which have value in them... and that's done because of the artist's experience, vision or technical skills. All the things we traditionally believe. The residue of this process is these objects that have value in them, whether it be the Madonna, the Mona Lisa or whether it be a painting by Van Gogh. Somehow or other people believe that these objects contain value, they contain Art, this thing with a capital A. I think a lot of confusion comes out of that idea. All the speculation about whether there's enough skill in it, or has the person paid their dues, is irrelevant...

If you define the artist in a different way, you don't have any of those problems. That is, the artist is someone who creates the occasion for an art experience. Now this this can be done in all sorts of ways. The artist can be a good trickster, a conman and that doesn't devalue the art experience you have, if you have one. On the other hand, the artist can be the most accomplished, skilled, intelligent, well-meaning person on earth but you don't get an art experience. He or she hasn't succeeded with you. So the concept of the artist really has to be shifted a bit. If you accept the definition I gave you a minute ago you don't have any problems accepting the idea that somebody who just gets a sampler and sticks together lots of other people's ideas can be called an artist

The problem with the whole art object theory, the idea that art somehow resides inside objects because artists have put it there or discovered it, creates a picture of an independent entity, a substance in the world called Art. And then the job of art historians is to decide which ones have it and which ones have more or less of it. I'm a great fan of Robert Hughes (aforementioned Australian art critic in excelsis, and author of the brilliant, groundbreaking and still not bettered The Shock Of The New) but I think he's completely off the mark on this. But it causes no end of problems. For instance I could walk up Kilburn High Street and could find people who had art experiences listening to Michael Bolton records. And is there any way that you could think of that allows you to say that was not a real art experience? There isn't! There's no measure! All you can say is that Michael Bolton makes art experiences for some people, maybe a lot of people. I make them for some others. Miles Davis makes them for some more. The guy down the pub who plays spoons makes them for a small number of people, just for an evening. Rembrandt made them for a large number of people for several hundred years. As soon as you get away from the idea that art is this kind of nugget of material that sits...

...Monolithic in art galleries or comes at you like the Ark beside Hammersmith flyover? What you're saying really is: 'What Is Art?

But you can't answer the question. That's the whole point. It's a redundant question. Because it asks you to describe something that doesn't exist. It's one of those capital letter words like Liberty, Justice and Freedom - all those kind of words that create so much confusion in the world. If you get away from the idea that there is something there... and please let's get away from it because it has caused so much confusion.

Do you really think that will happen with all these people still writing these heavy monographs?

Oh, well it is happening. The weight of the books shouldn't make you think that anything is there, you know. The Middle Ages saw the most intelligent people of the age writing very heavy books about whether Adam had a navel. The assumption they started off from was that Adam wasn't born of a man or woman. Then they wondered, if he didn't have a navel, was he a real person and was he in the image of God, etc. etc. If you accept the first premise that God made Adam then all the other complications follow. What I'm saying is, just chuck out the first premise. If you find yourself with a premise that leads you to build a more and more improbable world which you've got to shore up with more and more intellectual gadgets, you might as well go back to the beginning and say, hold on, is the first stage in the right place? This is what I think has happened with the art discussion - that we keep getting this question coming up. The question is really different camps trying to defend the value of what they consider to be the place where this fundamental thing called art presides.

This is a really interesting thing to say because in the rock world there is a correct rockist perspective, particularly in the UK. Certain bands are hip, certain stances are cool while others are uncool. Then there's the kind of snobbery which separates, say, heavy metal from middle-of-the-road.

Well there are good reasons for people arguing strongly or making strong commitments to the things that they like. But there are not good reasons for them making claims that those things are in any ultimate sense better. That's what always underwrites their discussions. You know the whole justification for the arts council spending so much money on Opera is because there's an assumption that in the end Opera is a great and better form than all the other things we could spend money on. And I just don't accept it, and I'm sure I could argue convincingly for a different point of view. It takes a mind-change on people's part, it takes a letting go of something, of the certainty of a value-structure. And value structures are very consoling because they tell you that you are on the right side.

Eno talks at length about a review he wrote in the November 1991 edition of Art Forum concerning Jay David Bolter's book, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext And The History Of Writing. Given that Borges, Beckett, James Joyce and Burroughs among others have done their damndest to break down the linearity of narrative, this new electronic book idea seemed to inspire Eno. Within it an author would pass on a structure of his or her book highlighted by windows so that the text is accessible from all kinds of angles. Moreover, the 'hypertext' is interactive, allowing anybody with a computer to add or delete bits if necessary. Bolter himself added a diskette of his book within the covers for this very purpose. Eno wrote: "Bolter's book may turn out to be primarily about the move away from old concepts of originality."

It is really a new form of writing. And any new form of writing is a new form of thinking. 'Hypertext' is the first revolution in writing as a technology for a very long time. And though it's horrible reading stuff off a computer screen the important part of the revolution is that the idea exists. And this idea has really entered culture in a big way, the idea of distributed authorship. And it's a mortal blow to the fine art world. It cannot sustain it. And that's because the fine art world depends for its credibility and consequently its high prices on the concept of single gifted authorship. That's how you support those kinds of prices.

Arthur C. Clarke talked of his work as preventing the future from happening like it was something horrible to be avoided at all costs. In contrast you seem to want to make it happen more quickly?

Well, the future isn't just one thing. There are a lot of futures. Starting from this point where we are now, there are a number of possible places we could get to and some of them I would certainly prevent. The really big problem in the future is that between people who are sure they are right and people who are not prepared to defend their actions on the basis that they are right. Between fundamentalists and pragmatists if you like. Pragmatism is saying all I can do is make the best guess for now and I'll probably change my strategy next year. I cannot define or defend a single strategy and say this is how I'm going to always behave from now on. To fundamentalists this is absolutely anathema, they think it shows weakness of will, a lack of principle. And that attitude is what you get from political parties, a language of absolutism. The Tories spent most of the '80s crowing about monetarism whilst pouring more and more money into the biggest socialist economy that has ever existed, which is the defence system. That's a command economy, a way of hosing money to places you want it to go. There's absolutely no difference between that and a socialist economy. But it's necessary because you can't map absolutist language (the language which speaks in terms of simple ideas like monetarism and free enterprise) onto the demands of the world. We are not (no matter what the Tories say) prepared to accept the circumstances of pure unrestrained capitalism, which include people lying around in the streets, the creation of a criminal class, private armies, private police etc. Nobody in all honesty is prepared to accept that. I don't mind at all if a Government said to me 'Well, essentially we lean towards this way of doing things but we realise we're going to have to improvise and lean back towards the other way to make the thing work'. But there's no political language in which to put that - you're called weak, indecisive, insincere. Look what happened to Jimmy Carter. He was the best president America had in years because he was prepared to admit to the fact that he was uncertain.

Eno has always had a difficult reading list. Carrett Hardin's Filters Against Folly, Donella Meadows' Beyond The Limits and Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, And Solidarity are some of the 'heavy' books he has snuggled up in bed with over the years. The first two look at population growth, life-cycles, economic expansion and capitalist ideology in terms of their negative fall-out, books designed to push western decision makers into a new awareness. The latter is more dense philosophically and hinges on the 'contingency' principle, an idea obviously dear to Eno's heart.

That's the concept that's the concept that's important, the contingency concept. And fundamentalists don't accept contingency at all. They believe that the world has become the way it is because of a detectable, traceable sequence of events and they therefore think that it is possible to plan a world in that same way as well. And Rorty is saying it isn't. All of fundamentalism is based on creating cause or structures and ignoring the fact that everything in the world interacts. It's a bit like that metaphor for chaos theory, it's a bit of a flippant idea, but it is that a butterfly beats its wings in Peking and a major hurricane occurs on the East Coast some six months later. It's stupid but it's a good image to keep in mind. It implies that most complex organic systems and most of the ones we live in, including City Hall and the Government, are very sensitive to initial conditions.

For instance I'll give you an example from my own life. I was twenty-three. I was getting on a subway train. I had to get home from somewhere. I just walked down to the station, got my ticket, walked up and down the platform a bit and got on the carriage that happened to be there when the train stopped. In the carriage was Andy Mackay who I'd met years before when he was at Reading University. We recognised each other and started talking. As a result of that I joined Roxy Music. Now for this tiny moment you either get mystical about it, 'oh, it was fate, it was meant to happen' (and I don't have a lot of time for that idea), or you say it was chance, pure chance. How many other things in my life were decided by things as minute as that. What didn't happen!

Yet for all his 'pragmatism' there's a strong streak of spirituality which runs through everything Eno does. Many of his installations have a church-like familiarity. Much of his instrumental music can have a transcendent effect, particularly works like Discreet Music, Music For Airports, Thursday Afternoon and now The Shutov Assembly. Primarily educated by, and even named after the nuns and brothers of the de la Salle Order, Ipswich, Eno has an interesting Catholic background.

I believe that Catholics are more inclined to argue about these kind of questions. Catholicism is a very active religion. It kind of trains you, even if you become non-Catholic, atheistic or whatever, the level of activity you expect to expend on spiritual matters doesn't decrease. You still expect to be working at that level but now it gets applied somewhere else.

All the teachers I preferred at College were not the ones who I thought were necessarily right, whatever that means, but the ones who took a strong position; because when you are faced with a very strong position it forces you to articulate. It forces you to find out where you stand in relation to it. A weak position - which is what I think the Church of England type religion is (it's a terribly weak religion, it's a feeble pathetic religion. It's too vague; how can one take a stance against such pusillanimous vagueness) - doesn't demand any action on your part. In contrast Catholicism is 'positive' - it takes positive positions on things. I don't agree with most of them - the 'positive', or should I say negative, position on abortion, on contraception, on divorce. When you are faced with that, you really have to decide where you stand. You think, well there's just no ambiguity about the way this is being said. It isn't sometimes you can do it and sometimes you can't. It's no you fucking can't.

For the Olympics, he joined up with Peter Gabriel and Laurie Anderson to conceive The Real World Theme Park, a place in Barcelona where 'people could become artists'. Their ambitious plans missed the deadline and are still under inspection. A two year work time is expected on a space which involves the interaction between man (sic) and culture, nature and culture and man (sic) and nature so that a creative learning experience is generated.

We've done a lot of planning and thinking. It'll be in Barcelona and for everyone. I would like it to be free but a lot of the things that excite people about it are expensive - so there's a disparity there that has to be covered somehow. My solution to this is to make a great free park which as within it some things which you pay to use and not to make it this walled off area which you can't get into especially since it's in the city and not in a field outside. Imagine all the theme parks you've ever seen, imagine the best bits of them and put them together, and then imagine getting the best artists and scientists and technologists, and see what they do to it.