Paper MAY 10, 2013 - by Maxime Robillard


If you attended Brian Eno's talk this past Tuesday, hosted by the Red Bull Music Academy, you might have re-considered your idea of Eno as a musician. Eno is credited as the Godfather of ambient music (second generation if you count Erik Satie's furniture music), but his career in visual art precedes his exhaustive work reinventing pop music as a member of Roxy Music, a producer of Bowie, Talking Heads and U2, and an inventor of a whole new genre.

Eno's experiments with light began in art school. Only after hearing Steve Reich's tape loop piece It's Gonna Rain did he begin to combine his interest in evolution with his artistic pursuits. "What I liked is the idea of making something that would grow into something, like a gardener," Eno told the audience at Cooper Union's Great Hall. "A gardener doesn't specify the garden exactly, they put some seeds in... and how the garden develops depends on a lot of other contingencies that happen in the lifetime. In a sense the gardener loses control of the situation."

That interest in chance led to Eno's pursuit of "generative art," wherein a set of parameters coagulate - like genetics - into nearly endless possible combinations. The first examples, manipulated slide projectors set to timers, appeared in the late 1970s. These have since evolved into the more sophisticated work currently exhibited here in New York, 77 Million Paintings.

The installation is situated in a huge disused storefront, a place of respite in the heart of Midtown. In a dark room are standing trees with the bark still clinging, a few white cones, and couches. Panels of colorful images dominate the wall, slowly and subtly changing over time. The visual and aural ambiance is based on generative software Eno's been developing since 1996. The images and music are constantly evolving and will never look the same.

Eno, unsurprisingly, has a lot great stories of stories to tell. He got his first taste of color and art from an eight-millimetre projection of a Disney movie at his uncle's house in "brown, grey and sort of slushy green" Woodbridge, England. At seventeen, he was inducted into the Cambridge Humanists Group by his then-girlfriend's mother, the anarchist Joan Harvey, who famously said to him, "What I don't understand now is why would somebody with a brain like yours would waste it being an artist." When taken as a whole, these stories made it clear just how easily Eno can be seen as a scientist. They also revealed the underlying question at the heart of his work: Why do we like art and why do people "do" culture?

In describing 77 Million Paintings as a "surrender space," he may very well have offered up an answer:

Think of somebody surfing. When someone surfs... they are using control to get themselves into position and then they're surrendering to be taken by the wave. They take control again, and surrender. This is what I think we do. The only thing is we know a lot more about that [control] end and we respect that end a lot more than we do this [surrender] end. Yet on the other hand, everything we do for fun actually seems to fall into that [surrender] category.

77 Million Paintings is located at 145 W 32nd Street. in Koreatown. It runs through June 2, 12PM to 8PM, and is closed Mondays. Admission is free.