The Wire AUGUST 2006 - by Louise Gray


Slow art for a fast world: that's Brian Eno's latest generative tele-visual 'paintings'. How long is now, asks Louise Gray.

"I had though of calling it 77 Million Paintings By Brian Eno And Not All Of Them Good," jokes Brian Eno. He's speaking in the west London studio he's occupied for years on the occasion of the imminent release of 77 Million Paintings, a ridiculously affordable DVD-ROM that does for visual art what Generative Music, his 1995 software release, did for music. When I meet him, the piece is mutating slowly on a large, flat-panel screen on one of the walls in an otherwise Spartan space that's furnished with two or three keyboards, a similar number of computers and - oddly - one garden shed. Accompanied by a gradual Ambient soundtrack, aspects of the screen image change slowly: lines, patterns, masked-off blocks of colour fade in and out. Glowing gently on the wall, the constantly shifting image is as compelling or ignorable as one wants it to be. In other words, exactly how Eno defined Ambient in the first place.

"77 Million Paintings is two things in one," explains Eno. "It's firstly a software engine that allows things to be configured and shuffled, and secondly, it's a stack of images that I've made that are then manipulated by that engine. In the future, I hope to make just the engine, so people could put their own images into it. That would be interesting. You could load in a whole canon of someone else's work and have the pictures reconfigured." The program began with three hundred slide images the Eno made, etched and then arranged in four layers. The number of possible combinations of all the images' elements gives the program - an unfixed artwork - its title. Today, Eno's playing the paintings at the program's fastest speed, and it would take us nine thousand years to watch in its entirety. At its slowest speed, we would be sitting in a room for several million years. Slow art for a fast world: it's no coincidence that another of Eno's activities is as co-founder, with British artist Jem Finer, of the Long Now Foundation, an organisation that encourages people to think in the very long term. (Currently, they're busy making ten-thousand-year clocks.)

It's difficult to locate a word that is capable of carrying the multifaceted nature of Eno's work with any degree of economy. From an early involvement with The Scratch Orchestra (an early indication of his interest in the part that process plays in music), to synth and tape work for Roxy Music (the vehicle that brought him, a self-declared non-musician, to a mass public), to creating and theorising Ambient music (and even these categories are a vast oversimplification), Eno has the kind of over-arching presence in the artistic avant garde that's hard to find parallels for. To call him simply an artist or facilitator somehow falls short. He's often thought of as an ideas machine, a thinker who can be relied on to produce an idiosyncratic discursive exploration of subjects ranging from cybernetics to theories of time to art in its widest definition. What is clear, however, is that there is a unified direction to his work that points towards an interest in the relationships of people - and things - to each other. It would not misrepresent him to say that music has social consequences, just as politics, computer theory and wars have social consequences. One can make a link from his ideas about art to recent broadsides fired against the war in Iraq or Tony Blair for prosecuting it.

Those who have followed Eno's progress since the early '70s will recall that 77 Million Paintings is not his first foray into generative art. That came with Generative Music, a koan-based program that, in its self-generating capacity, upped the ante of how Ambient music was understood. "Years ago, I started thinking about what I called generative music and I coined the phrase in 1995 when I launched the concept to global silence," he says. "Just this morning, I looked on Google and there were over a million citations of generative music, but at the time it wasn't an idea that made a lot of sense to people. Essentially the idea of generative music is to think of the role of the composer differently: not as someone who specifies and builds a whole piece of music but as someone who designs a few seeds which flower and fruit in different ways, including ways that the composer couldn't have anticipated. It's not an original idea. It certainly stretches back to Steve Reich, the California school of composers and beyond that, to Cage and others. I like very much the idea of being someone who started a process, who built the machine and inputs into the machine and lets the thing come into its own. A lot of the music I did, all my Ambient music, for example, was made in that way."

The actual process of making art is an interest that dates back to Eno's art school experiences in the late '60s, a period in which he was working between painting and music. The paintings were scored, and often several people would make several paintings from the same set of instructions. "I was very into ideas of instructions, scoring and processes that didn't repeat," he says. "What was happening musically during that time was that people were just starting to understand what electronics could do. It started to produce something entirely new; a music that was based around rather than structure or melody or rhythm; it became possible for people to start thinking in terms of sonic space in a way you really couldn't do before... there was suddenly an incredible liberation, and this was coupled with what was going on in the recording studios, which made it possible for someone like me, who can't play any musical instruments, to make music by putting things together and pulling them apart and working in the same way as I had as a painter."

If Eno describes the pictures on screens as visual music, it's no conceptual jump to see his music as a series of musical pictures. Like an earlier video work, Mistaken Memories Of Mediaeval Manhattan, 77 Million Paintings was a response to a question: What else can I do with a television? For Eno, this meant making a TV part of something more natural (such as lying it on its side, so that lines became vertical like rain) or using it as a light source. "Light design has not been thought of musically," he says. "It has only been thought of theatrically. I wanted to bring something of the freedoms and malleability of working with music into light," a statement that suggests an affinity to director Robert Wilson's innovative stagings.

Evolving quietly on his monitors, these generative pictures also offer a more prosaic association. "Screensavers. No, not flying toasters and the like," he cautions. "I have been working with screensavers and in particular a program called Bliss, which allows you to specify sets of rules by which the image is built. I thought, wouldn't it be nice if you could make something that could be on while you're having a dinner party. Then about two years ago, I was walking down the road near here, all these posh houses, and I looked through a window where there was a dinner party. There was a big screen on the wall, and it was black of course, and the thing was inert. A big black hole sitting on the wall. I thought the time is right for this: people have screens of a high enough quality and they are flat, they are pictorial - and computers are capable of handling the amount of data these programs require."

This long-term, intangible nature of the work is something that interests Eno. There's no dedicated environment for the program. It's something that raises questions about human agency. It is, he says, "a new place between TV, painting, cinema." He's curious about its capacity to influence future work by other people. As an example of earlier seeds still bearing fruit, he cites one of his album productions from 1979: "I get lots of CDs sent to me by people who want me to work with them and all I hear is Talking Heads. Everything I put on I think, oh, that's another Talking Heads record. It seems to me that they have been the single most important seeds... Sometimes I talk to these people on the phone and I ask, so what brought you to me? And they say, 'Fear Of Music. We love that record. That's the one we listen to all the time'."

Does his heart sink at this point? "Slightly, yeah. It would be nice if someone said 'computational algebra' or something instead of Talking Heads."

But 77 Million Paintings is an enterprise that touches on an objectless art, in the same way that performance leaves no tangible object behind. Intriguingly, it is also an example of an artist relinquishing control of any final product. Eno can't anticipate the images it will make and neither can anyone else. ("I have had it running for days and days on end, and not only do I see new combinations all the time, but also individual images that I have never seen before. Because of the randomness of the process, it's possible that one image might not be seen for several months.") Anyone running the program could take images off their own computer and claim them as their own. (There's an equivalence here in an argument that Eno and David Byrne, his collaborator on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, have just won against EMI, whereby the musicians have released tracks from the album on an interactive web-site and made them available for remixing.) So where's the copyright? "In the cover text [to the program], it says you can take any picture you like, but I'd be very grateful if you mentioned the source."

Brian Eno's 77 Million Paintings DVD-ROM + DVD will be released in September on All Saints/Wordsalad