The Boston Phoenix SEPTEMBER 29, 2009 - by Gustavo Turner



Two weekends ago, Brian Eno - who burst into public consciousness as the ostrich-feather-bedecked "non-musician" with the band Roxy Music - descended on Long Beach, California, to inaugurate his audiovisual installation 77 Million Paintings, with a packed auditorium of Enophiles at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Center (yes, "those" Carpenters) at the local Cal State university.

Eno, often described as "professorial," comes off like a convincing cheeky hustler of the art world with more than a hint of stand-up comedian (this is a compliment). He obviously loves to lecture; his talk is a mix of grandiose statements, occasional disarming self-effacement, and truly inspiring notions-and it somehow all works, and has been for the last four decades of his charmed life.

His artwork, installed within the small University Art Museum, consumes the entire display room. Filled with the strains of a new piece of ambient music, the dark and narrow space is furnished with a few soft love-seats, some earthy mounds of a strange material called vermiculite ("Go, touch it!" encourages the sensorial-junkie Eno), and, against the back wall, the titular 77 Million Paintings, held in twelve frames.

This is not the first unveiling of the 77 Million Paintings, a digital "constantly evolving sound- and image-scape" (description courtesy Eno's art partners Lumen London) that's been showcased in galleries all over the world. For twenty-two years, Eno created about a hundred images - mostly abstract - that were later fed into a computer program (what he calls the "engine" of the piece) that phases them in and out of four monitors in randomly generated, aleatory combinations. The Long Beach exhibit boasts twelve flat-screen monitors arranged in a vague cruciform shape, potentially yielding - if the engine were to run for a long enough time - seventy-seven million cubed distinct combinations.

There's something in these shifting abstractions that unmistakably reminds one of the post-World War II stained-glass windows, much inflected by pre-war modernism, that replaced ancient windows shattered during the Blitzkrieg. The effect of this environment is similar to those multi-denominational chapels so common to airports during the 1970s and 1980s.

"I'm sure my early experiences as a Catholic, prior to becoming a militant atheist, have left their mark on me," says Eno before considering, for him, the far more compelling airport connection, linking his current work with his revered 1978 project, Music For Airports. Flight and temporary detachment loom large in his personal mythology.

"The thing about airports that's interesting is that they are a weird transitory state," Eno explains. When he's on a plane, he confesses, he's shocked by how "incredibly open to being moved" he is by even the stupidest, most sentimental in-flight movies, attributing it to "the fact that you're unrooted, you're in the air, you're not in touch with the world, and there's the slight possibility in the back of your mind that you might die." He adds: "I think all of those things make you emotionally open in a different way; and so I think the reason I was attracted to the Music For Airports project was because I thought, 'This is a place where people are already in a different frame of mind.' I was imagining, of course, that it would be played at airports, and it has been played at a few, not many [times]. I'm thinking of trying to make that frame of mind. I always thought that the problem with the music you hear on airplanes and in airports is that the secret message is, 'Don't worry, you're not gonna die; it's all gonna be fine.' The music was sort of relentlessly cheerful, and I thought it would be nice to make music that sort of said to people, 'Would it really matter if you died?'" (This gets big laughs.)

Eno recalls that when Music For Airports originally came out, one of the reviews said, "There's no melody, there's no beat, there's no story." Thought Eno: "Okay, that's quite a success!" But the artist confides to having a complicated relationship with professional criticism of his work, as he's often lambasted as a celebrity dilettante. At the Long Beach talk, Eno's still smarting from a very recent "snotty" review of 77 Million Paintings by an LA Times critic who called him "a visual dabbler."

"I have been visually dabbling for the past forty-five years!" the former Winchester School of Art student protests to the converted, who laugh at the hapless critic and shout back "We love you, Brian!" and "You are an artist!"

"The popular acclaim, of course, it's fantastic, and I love it, and I get my endorphin high from it," he says. "But it's when people say something that slightly needles you that you start thinking... Criticism is completely painful. I hate it. I don't see why I deserve it, but at the same time, I'm grateful for it in the long term."

Still, in music, visual art, or even perfume-making, Eno has always been much more interested in processes, systems, and engines than in final results. "Suppose somebody builds a bridge, and it connects the mainland to a kind of little island that everyone loves going to," he muses. "So, suddenly everyone can go to this island, have a lovely time, and go back and forth over the bridge, and everybody's happy. And then an architecture critic comes along, and he looks at the bridge and says, 'This isn't a very original bridge. I've seen much better bridges than this.' And he misses the point that actually what matters is what's happening, what it's doing in its time and place. And I think this is something that very often happens with criticism, because of this misunderstanding about what art is."

He mentions a little light machine, "endlessly self-generating, never repeating," that he had devised and patented when he was nineteen - the original ancestor to 77 Million Paintings, as well as his popular iPhone apps, Bloom and the just-released Trope.

"Very early on, I became fascinated by complex experiences that had arisen from very simple initial materials, and this was an example of that. Not long after I made that, I heard a piece of music that changed my life, which was Steve Reich's piece It's Gonna Rain." A piece as minimal and elegant as Reich's pioneering 1965 experiment in process music with tape loops, "was absolutely what I needed to hear." Along with other forward-thinking British popsters with an art-school background (e.g. John Cale or Pete Townshend, who decades later dragged avant-garde sounds into the mainstream through CSI), Eno also fell under the sway of Terry Riley. The composer's "extremely economical" In C was another example of something that could be both "ludicrously simple, but a very beautiful piece, too."

Systems and machines are what allow Eno to rethink the idea of "The Artist." Inspired by Copernicus, Darwin, and his friend Richard Dawkins, his idea of an artist "is someone who starts things, not someone who finishes things."

"It's a different role for the artist," he explains. "It's an idea of the artist not as the kind of über-being that the Romantics saw, as a person who's kind of next in line from God, who somehow channeled the divine through their work. It's quite a different idea. It's more humble than that. It's the idea of the artist as someone who plants a seed somewhere, and then lets it grow. So I often think that I'm thinking of my work as a gardener more than as an architect."

By design, temperament, and luck (which is to say aesthetics, ethics, and randomness - all Eno mainstays), he's cultivated a position that allows him to tend his art garden freely: "Luckily, I've remained sort of slightly under the radar," Eno says. "I'm not very popular. A lot of the people I work with are very popular, and I don't think I would trade places with them because, you know, they can't walk into a porno store."