Wired MARCH 7, 2009 - by Bruce Sterling


Actually, I'm not sure there are any other people like Brian Eno, but on the plus side, at least there's one person.

"The first art school I went to was a very, very unique and interesting one. It was run by a man called Roy Ascott, who had previously started another art school in London which Pete Townshend studied at, and quite a number of other interesting people.

"He'd gathered together the staff, and they'd quite effectively tried to work out a new policy of art education, with the idea that art had an important cultural role and wasn't just to do with people making pictures. It was a centre for creative behaviour really; that's what they tried to think of it as. Of course, they were always in this bind that the education committee demanded to see lots of paintings, and the fact that students were doing interesting music and theatre and dance and so on didn't really interest them. They only wanted what was expected. So Ascott got sacked from the place that Townshend was at, and then he found a little old art school that was just sort of going to pot, and he started the same thing again there with the same staff. It only lasted two years, again he was sacked, he just keeps getting sacked all the time. He's a brilliant guy. He was... well, I suppose you could say he's a behaviourist, which usually has bad connotations to it, but in an art school context that's just dynamite news. He was hated by the liberal arts teachers of England like nobody else. They used to publish all sorts of articles against him because the kinds of things he did, to anyone who wasn't involved in them, must have looked very fascist. But they weren't. They were really exciting.

"I'll tell you the projects we had the first semester. You must realise that this is a real naïve bunch of students, all fifteen or sixteen, that come in with paint boxes thinking that they were gonna do Renoirs or something like that. I was involved by pure accident: it was the nearest art school. In fact, if I could have done, I would have gone to another one that I couldn't get a grant for. This was just a crummy little place in a little country town, and this bunch of students all from the country, and all with ideas about the nice paintings they'd be doing.

"On our second day there, our first drawing exercise was to make a visual comparison between a venetian blind and a hot water tap. It was meant to be in terms of how they functioned, not in terms of how they looked. And this boggled everyone.

"And then the first main project was that the students were put in pairs, and each pair of students had to invent a game, the function of which was to make some kind of psychological behavioural evaluation of people who played it. So they weren't necessarily competitive games, they were games that involved making a decision rather than a number of others, and then extrapolating things about people's personalities on the basis of those decisions. I think there were thirty students altogether, so there were fifteen games made. They varied through all sorts of things: mine was a kind of board game, others were whole rooms that you went through and did various things in. Anyway, all the students went through this, and consequently each student ended up with fifteen so-called character profiles. From those character profiles you had to make what was called a Mind Map, which was a kind of diagrammatic scheme of how you tended to behave in lots of different situations, and then the next part of the project was that you had to then assume a character who was as far as possible opposite to that one, and that was who you were to be for the rest of the semester, which was like eight more weeks. This was very, very interesting.

"And then we were put into groups of five on the basis of these new assumed characters. The meekest person would be like the group policy-maker, and the one who tended to talk most would be who got to do all the dirty work, like buying things from the shops. He would be the dogsbody; that was my job, actually. And so you had people working with characters who were quite alien to them.

"And each group of five had another project that was a very complicated one that I can't explain, but we had to make the projects using those characters.

"There were some funny things (that) happened. There was one girl who was very timid, so part of her Mind Map stipulated that she had to walk this tightrope in front of the whole group every morning. This was her own stipulation, you know, these things weren't imposed; having designed your own Mind Map you then worked out a number of behaviour patterns that you carried out.

"Another interesting thing was that the whole accent of the course was on working with other people; you could act alone if you wanted, but the accent was on group dynamics and how people worked together. In fact, we went into that in quite considerable depth, about how you got things done in groups and what sort of behaviour tended to be counterproductive and so on. It was all very useful. I'm happiest working with other people anyway.

"It was really like early training in Oblique Strategising, collaborating, all the techniques I use now, and it was certainly the most important thing that could have happened to me at the time. That lasted only two years and then everyone got sacked again, and I went to another art school: one of the staff whom I got on with particularly well got a job in another school and said would I come along and be a student there.

"The first was Ipswich, the second was Winchester. And while at the two I studied under some wonderful people. Tom Phillips is I suppose the most famous now, isn't he, quite a well-known painter. He wasn't then; he was a very tough teacher, and we got on extremely well. That is, until I became a rock musician, and then he thought I was throwing my talents away. That was a very painful experience, for me and probably for him too actually. I also studied under Christian Wolff, an American composer who wrote a series of pieces for non-musicians which were very important to me at the time, generally using untrained voice, or non-instruments like sticks and stones and so on; in fact, one of them was called 'Sticks and Stones.'

"See, when I was at Winchester I got myself elected head of the student union, so that I could hire interesting staff. So I started getting people to come down and give lectures. We used to have a lot of composers coming down, like Cornelius Cardew and Christian Wolff and Morton Feldman.

"I didn't know that I wanted to do music until I'd been at art school for about three years, although I'd been fooling with electronics and tape recorders since I was about fifteen... "

"It appears, in fact, that the great and true love of his creative life is the tape recorder, and all of the things it can do. He is neither superstitious nor by-the-book about his little electronic implements, but instead regards them with a certain bemusement.

"I'm very good with technology, I always have been, and machines in general. They seem to me not threatening like other people find them but a source of great fun and amusement, like grown up toys really. You can either take the attitude that it has a function and you can learn how to do it, or you can take the attitude that it's just a black box that you can manipulate any way you want. And that's always been the attitude I've taken, which is why I had a lot of trouble with engineers, because their whole background is learning it from a functional point of view, and then learning how to perform that function. So I made a rule very early on, which I've kept to, which was that I would never write down any setting that I got on the synthesizer, no matter how fabulous a sound I got. And the reason for that is that I know myself well enough that if I had a stock of fabulous sounds I would just always use them. I wouldn't bother to find new ones. So it was a way of trying to keep the instrument fresh. Also I let it decay, it keeps breaking down and changes all the time. There are a lot of things I've done before that I couldn't even do again if I wanted to."