Mail & Guardian FEBRUARY 23, 2007 - by Nadine Botha


Nadine Botha explores the ideas that inform the visual art of musician and painter with light Brian Eno.

Brian Eno is well known for his contribution to music, through his association with Roxy Music and his pioneering work in ambient and generative music. However, for as long as he has been making music, he has also had a lesser-known career in art, using the medium of light.

Eno's 77 Million Paintings project consists of a computer program that merges four slides, drawn from a database of three hundred and eighty slides, into a composite image. It is named after the number of combinations of four that can be made from three hundred and eighty slides. But this is a minimum number.

In the Cape Town installation, there are three sets of four screens each combined to create the artwork. Thus the number of permutations for this exhibition is 77-million3. Yet when you add the fact that each slide can vary from zero to one hundred percent in luminance, and then add the permutations of the generative soundtrack playing along, the permutations actually approach infinity. Two bigger exhibitions, with thirty and forty screens respectively, are exhibiting in London, with even more permutations. "By the way, you shouldn't miss that moment there, because you'll never see it again," Eno quips.

The charm of the work is that no two persons will see the same combination - at least in this lifetime. What thrills Eno even more, however, is that he is "using technologies that were entirely built for replication" to generate the opposite, an infinite number of unique experiences.

The project evolved over twenty years and stems from installations using seven or eight projectors projecting on to the same surface to create composite images from hand-painted slides. Eno has sifted these down to the three hundred and eighty slides used in 77 Million Paintings, which work well in most combinations.

Replacing the projectors with a computer to create 77 Million Paintings was initially a move to convert these projector installations into a "domestic product". That is, a moving painting that you could run on your plasma screen while, for instance, having a dinner party - the visual version of Eno's seminal album Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978). He has already sold the ten thousand copies he made last year.

The work, Eno agrees, draws a number of parallels with his work in generative music - here art emulates music and vice versa. Since he started making ambient music, Eno has wanted to "make music that occupies the same place in your life that a painting would occupy.

"What I want is for you to hear something which sounds like a world and, because it's a world, it has a horizon. And I want the implication that there are some things at the edge of that horizon, some things that you almost can't hear and some things that you actually can't hear at all."

Eno is currently working on the soundtrack for the highly anticipated computer game Spore, from the creators of The Sims. Spore is a strategic life simulation computer game, but offers players the opportunity to create their own creature from a number of body parts. This is itself generative, explains Eno, as the computer then uniquely animates the creatures based on algorithms written by biologists and physicists. "So, as the creature lives in the game, the computer is constantly generating its movement, which will, by definition, be new, original movement for that particular creature." Eno has linked his music to be uniquely generated by each creature.

Eno is appropriately scornful of distinguishing between art and design. He complains about the art world's snobbery towards anything popular, successful or seductive to the general public, and elucidates on the layers of style and function that go into creating an object, wondering at this unnecessary human obsession with style - "the intellectual question that I spend more time thinking about than anything else".

Laughing, he explains: "I should be extremely famous for being the first person to piss in Marchel Duchamp's Urinal. I did it about fifteen years ago. And then that Italian guy did it five years ago and got all the credit because he was a proper artist; I was just a vandal."

77 Million Paintings shows at the Michaelis Gallery until February 28.

Brian Eno is speaking at the Design Indaba on Friday February 23 at 3.45pm.