Salon JUNE 10, 1996 - by Scott Rosenberg


Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson and Spike Lee share a stage - and not much else.

Now that software companies have adopted the strategy of releasing new products in unfinished, still-working-the-bugs-out beta versions, why can't artists do the same?

That seemed to be the idea behind Imagination: A Creative Convergence, an odd, intermittently absorbing one-shot event that brought together Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno and Spike Lee on stage at San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium Saturday night. (Hotwired offered a netcast of the evening.) Part performance-art variety show and part trade-show panel talk, Imagination was supposed to give each artist a chance to sneak preview their new work and talk about the nature of creativity and the relationship between art and technology.

Only Eno stayed anywhere in the vicinity of this agenda: He lectured on the notion of generative music and introduced a software device that produces new pieces of music once you set its rules and conditions. All his musical experiments,Eno declared, have been efforts to get a huge amount of material from a very simple start. Inspired by the work of Terry Riley and Steve Reich, the nature of moire patterns (visual interference created by layering simple designs of lines and curves), the one-blob-begets-another computer program known as Life and the more creative variety of regenerating screen savers, Eno started playing around with an approach that employs computers not to crunch or store data but to grow little seeds of sound into lengthy, pleasing pieces.

Eno's principle - that very simple rules clustering together can produce very complex and beautiful results - is not without its side effects. Now that he's used to the no-two-versions-are-identical products of the new program, Eno said, it's very difficult for me to listen to records any more. Fixed recordings seem irksome and Victorian. After all, he argued, people never heard the exact same piece of music twice until the advent of the recording era about a century ago. Perhaps our children will find it odd that we ever listened to the same thing over and over again.

Maybe that will mean we've become more discriminating and less numb to what's boring. Or maybe it will be a sign that we've grown irritable and restless and our attention spans have shrunk - a conclusion one might also have drawn from the compendium of Industrial Light and Magic's special effects greatest hits that was sandwiched into the Imagination program. Ten minutes of quick-cut explosions, morphs, dinosaur-chomps, ghost attacks, virtual voyages and Gumpish historical footage forgeries told us little about the nature of creativity - but plenty about the desensitizing of our sense of wonder in an era of media saturation.

Fears of such technological byproducts have always been one of the motivations of Laurie Anderson's work. Technology is really big and really powerful and most people don't understand it, she said. So what do you do with something that's really big and really powerful that you don't understand? You worship it. Our techno-culture, she said, has become global, corporate, monolithic and impossible to escape, and artists, like everyone else, find themselves spending most of their time sequestered in control rooms. The Internet allows us to link up with other people in their control rooms - whom we discover, more often than not, are isolated and lonely there.

Anderson proposed Star Trek and Moby Dick as emblematic American tales with superficial parallels but profound differences: the former always ends with the captain reasserting his control, whereas in the latter the captain's a madman and the ship goes down. We're designing our own personal control rooms, she said, and the stories we're telling ourselves are all about how to achieve more and more perfect control.

She pointed out how impossible it is to imagine a Star Trek episode with a Moby Dick-like ending, a lone survivor floating in an outer-space whirlpool. Then, in her classic piece The Language Of The Future, she told her own version of such a story through the archetypal techno-disaster narrative, the plane crash: Your captain says, place your head between your knees - we're all going down together.

In this kind of control-obsessed cultural environment, artists can serve us by fighting for the chance to tell different sorts of stories. Maybe that was the thinking behind including Spike Lee on the Imagination program; certainly there was a relevant lesson in Lee's tale of going mano-a-mano with Warner Brothers to get Malcolm X released at the three-hours'-plus length he wanted.

But otherwise, Lee's humdrum career recap and reel of TV commercials and music videos didn't connect much with the rest of the program; at this event, the director was like a brother from another planet. In his one observation about creativity, Lee suggested, either you've got it or you don't. That's a debatable proposition when it comes to creating art, but it unquestionably holds true for talking about creativity - and, whatever his merits and limitations as a filmmaker, in this area Lee evidently hasn't got it.

With its awkward hosting by techno-pundit Paul Saffo and its grotesque stage design festooned with wire-frame sculptures, Imagination made it plain that we are still struggling to figure out how to create live events in the age of multimedia. Here are some rules that might generate better results: Only involve idiosyncratic artists with strong points of view. Don't put a desultory interactive panel discussion at the end of the evening. Let art speak for itself. And use machines in ways their designers never intended.

Anderson, who has been doing this kind of show for decades now, understands these principles. In Imagination's most extraordinary act, she took a pillow speaker, designed for the nocturnal indoctrinations of our self improvementobsessed lives, and turned it into an eerily powerful microphone for her wordless warblings. If artists, as Eno proposed, are metaphor explorers, Anderson - transmuting a mass-media input device into a broadcaster of her private emotions - found one that's definitely worth chewing on.