The Observer JANUARY 17, 1988 - by Peter Nasmyth


For those who only know Brian Eno as a musician, there's a surprise in store. The former art student has taken up video painting.

There has to be a reason why a successful rock performer abandons a rock band at its peak and retreats into a studio to take up an entirely new line of music. In most cases one might suspect the reason to be financial, an attempt to eclipse the group with a dazzling solo career. But when Brian Eno left Roxy Music in 1973 he dropped out of the public eye, re-emerging in a quiet way a few years later when he began turning out his haunting 'ambient' records. Most of those still stuck in the biz quietly doffed their hats in admiration. Not only had he ceased to be a threat in the pop charts, he had also achieved what most of them longed for but never dared attempt: an escape from the security of being a rock star and a change of direction.

Although he's still best known as a musician, Eno's major artistic concern for the last seven years has in fact been video. Recently his videos became available at some British retail outlets. Like his records, they will present a challenge for those thumbing through the racks - for these cassettes are not, strictly speaking, videos, but 'paintings'.

The idea came about by accident. At the beginning of the '80s, Eno, who had been trained at art school, remained unimpressed by what he had seen of the new video art of the '70s; in fact he "studiously avoided" the area. But then came a chance encounter. A faulty camera left in his Manhattan apartment provoked his curiosity. Why did this medium only produce mediocre results - was it intrinsically limited? With no tripod for the camera he leant it on its side, only to discover that the TV also had to be turned on its side to view the resultant picture. However, this lopsided picture was to produce what he described as "...the most interesting image I'd ever seen on a television". Perched upright on his floor was a silent, catho-tube portrait of the West Village below. A kind of passive TV from which all narration, all sensation of stage management, had been stripped: "The image seemed pure... at last."

Eno experimented by leaving a video camera in various locations in New York, recording hundreds of local scenes and then editing the results. Many hundreds of viewing hours later, the first two of these 'video paintings' are to be made publicly available: Mistaken Memories Of Medieval Manhattan, a forty-seven-minute portrait of the New York skyline, and Thursday Afternoon, a quasi-impressionistic rendering of the female nude.

The idea behind Eno's video painting is simple: rather than hang a static picture on a wall, one of his minutely changing videos works as a moving painting. In Mistaken Memories, the water-towers, clouds and architectural canyons of Manhattan slowly transmute through many layers of colour to the accompaniment of one of Eno's ambient soundtracks (if required). By standing the TV on its right-hand side - which is safe for limited periods according to manufacturers such as Sony (who commissioned one of the paintings) - the vertical format attempts to dissuade the viewer from the norrnal expectations of television. The overall result is an entrancing blend of sound and light.

With the tapes priced at £30 each, may some quite unartistic ambitions lurk in this idea? "Yes, they are expensive," Eno admits, "but actually I won't be making any money on this project. It's merely because we're working on a small scale that the copying expenses are still very high." He pauses. "The whole point at this time is to establish the idea of a new kind of relationship with TV."

Certainly the notion of vertical format video painting may appear a little esoteric now, but it only takes a quick scan of current TV research to reveal why it may well be worth the investment. Recent LCD colour screen technology has already produced a TV set about six inches in depth, or wall-hanging size. Furthermore, manufacturers of the giant big-brother-type screens are now thinking along similar 'art' lines to deal with the 'off' problem - the permanent presence of an ugly forty-inch blank grey screen on the wall. Already there has been talk of digital frame storage of popular paintings or photographs, to be inserted on the screen during the day and turned off at bedtime.

Brian Eno has always been quick to realise that art can neither afford to ignore technology, nor be a slave to its intended design. "I see TV as a picture medium rather than a narrative medium. Video for me is a way of configuring light, just as painting is a way of configuring paint. What you see is simply light patterned in various ways. For an artist, video is the best light organ that anyone has ever invented. People are only just discovering this. And the frame of this canvas must be seen as part of that process."

It appears that Eno intends to reframe more than the theories of painting. His latest and most ambitious project to date is to redesign the setting for this electronic art, creating what he calls Quiet Clubs. Ostensibly galleries for video paintings and light sculptures, the Quiet Clubs aim to go further by establishing a permanent quiet location, dedicated to the mood of contemplation; a carefully designed light- and sound-balanced environment along the lines of Eno's extremely popular exhibitions.

"So many people have said to me that they wish cities always had a permanent location like these exhibitions. It would replace so many aspects of the city that you don't find any more - like quiet parks, gentlemen's clubs, even quiet libraries. I want something a little more than a cafe/art gallery that will wrap up all these elements under one roof." A location has just been found at Chelsea Harbour, and three others around the world await the green light.

Meanwhile, back in the living room, those about to be converted to this new angle on TV viewing should heed one piece of advice. Do not forget to turn the television back; for with only a few exceptions, modern broadcasting still looks better the right way up.