Filter DECEMBER 2006 - by Ken Scrudato


Many otherwise sophisticated human beings would likely feel comfier naked and unarmed in Northern Afghanistan than present in a room when the critical daggers start flying between those who believe themselves at liberty to define art. When Sigur Rós tunes are described as "aural paintings," when fashion photographers are exalted with solo exhibitions, when visual artists the likes of Damien Hirst and Julian Schnabel are dubbed "rock stars," and when some over-educated twat's dirty underwear somehow becomes celebrated "installation art" (thank you, oh glorious Turner Prize judges), good luck getting it all sorted without having a cultural meltdown. So, perhaps Duchamp was right, then? Is it, indeed, all just a big piss-take?

Well, no, not all. But the visual arts unquestionably and desperately need the occasional non-aligned interloper as, if for nothing else, a sort of stabilizer in a world dominated by hyperbole and utter randomness. Now, of course, it would have been hard to imagine that the same gloriously flamboyant space-age glam-boy who graced the original early '70s Roxy Music line-up would some day go on to become a voice of sanity. But after more than three decades as the most peripatetically prolific cultural figure of our time - birthing ambient music, collaborating with David Bowie, producing U2, and ever challenging the way we view the relationship between sound and vision - Brian Eno seems, most astonishingly, to be carrying it all out in earnest. In other words, he's doing it for only the right reasons.

His newest masterstroke, the grandiosely titled 77 Million Paintings by Brian Eno (only seventy-seven million, Brian?), enlists the services of technology in a humanistic journey to liberate art while forcing it to be bound by the limits of that very same technology.

A piece of "generative software," 77 Million allows the user to experience seventy-seven million combinations of visuals, drawn from Eno's own hand-made slides and affected by patterns of music. Conceptually rife with populism and tinged with Situationist ideology (the part about art being integrated into daily life), it removes the gallerists, curators and speculators from the exhibition equation, allowing anyone who can afford the software (which is numbered and packaged with a hard-bound book and interview DVD) to explore the scope of Eno's aesthetic vision within the comforts of home.

It's tricky, of course. The mind can dream in unfathomable ways, but a computer does only what it's told. It could also be argued decisively, however, that those trained in the rarefied classrooms of, say, the School of Visual Arts or Central Saint Martins can never truly create art without the weight of history upon their shoulders.

In the wake of recent and questionable Dada retrospectives in New York and Paris (exhibiting Dada historically is like having a tea party about punk), Brian Eno, our great modernist maestro, unsurprisingly, has much to say about a subject that continues to confound us each and all.

At its core, pop art was the recognition of art's place within the evolving consumer culture. Is art's relationship to computer technology simply the next step in that evolution?

Art arises out of fascination, out of the excitement of being able to provoke feelings and thoughts that are new and different. Artists use whatever tools are around, and find new uses for them while they're at it. I've always liked endlessness, light and paintings. I realized that the combination of computer technology and large screens created the possibility of endless light paintings. It seems to me a natural extension of the installations I've been making over the years. And unlike pop art, 77 Million Paintings does not directly reference reference consumer culture or make it the subject of the piece. In its content 77 Million is subjectless; and if a preoccupation of pop art was mass production and repetition, 77 Million is the antithesis, rejecting the whole idea of duplication.

Post-modern philosophy unleashed a torrent of contemporary art, especially installation art, based on the idea that truths are individual rather than universal. But an artistic snap-shot of one moment on one person's life, for instance, Tracey Emin's dubious My Bed, would seem to suggest disposability. Is 77 Million Paintings specifically addressing the new ephemeral nature of art?

I do not recognize as meaningful several of the words in the question. I don't know whether art has anything to do with truth - in fact, I rather agree with Richard Rorty that truth is a property of sentences. I also find myself puzzled by the words "individual" and "universal". Aren't these just points on a scale, the extremes of which, individuality and universality, are actually vanishingly rare?

Anyway, these pieces, like most of the work I do, have no conscious autobiographical content. I don't feel that the presentation of my life as art is a very good investment of time either for me or for a potential viewer. 77 Million plays with the word "paintings". I know that paintings are meant to be still, and I know that films are meant to move a lot faster than this. So these exist somewhere in the unexplored zone between those two. They're non-narrative, not-films, which are also not-paintings. I suppose I could have called it 77 Million Non-narrative Not-paintings, but that seems a little cumbersome.

The question is unavoidable: If anyone's computer can generate it, is it really art? In contemporary art, how much does intent matter, and how much does craft matter?

If your lowly CD player can generate Beethoven, is that then really art? The computer carries out a process which I have specified, permutating images which I have made. All that's indeterminate in this is the precise sequence of permutations. If you replaced my images with some that you made, then the work would look different and you would have every right to regard it as yours.

But if a computer runs on logic, how can it be left responsible for artistic spontaneity?

Computer logic cannot in itself produce artistic spontaneity; it has to be told how to do it. So the responsibility lies solely with the artist, not with the tool. Specifically with 77 Million, we programmed a set of very precise parameters for the computer to work with and it can't operate outside these. It is controlled, or at least contained spontaneity. The programming language used to give the computer instructions is linear and logic, the resultant paintings are not.

The MTV music video experiment was largely a failure, artistically, save for a few visionary individuals like Björk. What continues to drive your curiosity about the relationship between the aural and the visual?

I remain interested in the relationship between the aural and the visual, but tagging an uninteresting promotional video over music is not the answer for me. I think of 77 Million Paintings as visual music, and the generative principles that created it are exactly the same as those that drove many of my ambient musical pieces. It creates an experience poised midway between painting and music. We are used to the idea of paintings being still and music moving. When I started making ambient music, I was trying to make a type of music that approached the condition of painting - that approached a sort of stillness. Now I am doing the obverse of that: trying to make paintings that behave a little like music.