Brian Eno On Art, Music And Inspiration

The pioneering artist talks about his latest creation, an audio-video installation called '77 Million Paintings'

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Michiko Nakao

Brian Eno may be many things—musician, composer, producer, artist —but he is not impatient. His latest piece, an audio-video installation as part of the Red Bull Music Academy called “77 Million Paintings,” represents more than 30 years of work – and it’s not done yet. The focal point of the work, which made its East Coast debut in New York City this past weekend, is an ever-changing light painting made up of Eno’s many drawings.  Every few minutes, specially designed software randomly selects those drawings, layering them in new combinations to create entirely new works of art — hence the title “77 Million Paintings.” Eno designed the slow pace of the self-generating work and outfitted the space with couches so his audience could sit and contemplate the  gradually changing work, while listening to the ambient soundscape he composed to accompany the piece. The work is a meditation on stillness, that challenges city-dwelling audiences to abandon their schedules and immerse themselves in a different, more peaceful world.

We spoke with the pioneering musician and artist about his work, the restorative power of art and music and why he hates the word “vision”:

I saw your “77 Million Paintings” — it was a very Alice in Wonderland-like feel to walk in off a dismal NYC street into your exhibit. What did you want people to feel?

Exactly that. I really liked the idea of someone walking in from a New York City street into this completely calm place where there will not be any surprises. After a very short time in there. you realize that nothing else is going to happen. It’s going to carry on like that for as long as you stay there. Nothing is going to jump out and startle you. I think a place where you can switch your tension to a different setting, to remove yourself from: Is that a car coming? Is someone going to bump into me? Switching off that sort of constant worrying liberates your mind. Suddenly, you become kind of open — even vulnerable to things that you might not have been noticing.

So you wanted an immersive experience for the viewer?

I wanted to make something that was so seductive that you couldn’t leave. Where you come in and find yourself saying, ‘Oh I’ll stay a bit longer.’ ‘I can stay a bit longer,’ ‘oh I’ll stay.’ I just wanted something that would keep you still for quite a long time. When I make these pieces I’m just interested in gorgeousness. I want to make something that is breathtaking. Of course, you can’t make something that is always breathtaking, or you would never be able to breathe. You would collapse.

There was something about the piece that really reminded me of the Rothko Chapel.

I went there last year. He was a fabulous painter, an amazing painter, and, I must say, a big influence. The idea of reduction. The idea of making something by taking away as much as you can, instead of adding as much as you can. He was one of the first minimalists.

You did a similar piece at the Montefiore Hospital in Brighton, England. Was this an inspiration for that piece — or a continuation of it?

It’s the other way around really. This piece – or an early version of it – was seen by the doctor who was involved with designing the hospital. He took his mother-in-law along with him to see the piece. His mother-in-law is a very hyperactive …he describes her as a ‘hair on fire’ type woman. Always talking, always into something, always busy. He took her to the show and she sat still for two hours, which has never been known before. And so he thought, ‘Oh this is what we need in a hospital, something that takes people down like that.

Had you ever done a piece like that before?

Not specifically. Well, that’s not quite true. I also did a piece for a hospital in Haiti. It’s a hospital that is run by the Partners in Health organization. They have a piece in their waiting room. It’s a little bit different from the Brighton situation in that, in Brighton, I designed the room. In Haiti, what they have is a waiting room where people sometime have to wait for a long long time. It’s a free hospital and very oversubscribed. They wanted something that would keep people calm for what would be a multi-hour wait. They knew daytime television wouldn’t be the answer.

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So you believe in the restorative power of art and music?

What I believe, is that people have many modes in which they can be. When we live in cities, the one we are in most of the time is the alert mode. The “take control of things” mode, the “be careful, watch out” mode, the “speed” mode — the “Red Bull” mode, actually. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s all part of what we are. We need to have that modality, but the mode we would like to be in a bit more of the time, is the “surrender” mode. The mode that says, I just want to go along or I just want things to carry me along for awhile or I want to be part of something or I don’t want to have to make decisions all the time or I want to make the decision to abdicate decision making for a bit. That’s why we go to the country. When we go out to the country and just sit there, what we’re really doing is just switching off various kinds of alertness that we don’t have to use. When we do that, we are stopping being defensive. We are no longer shutting ourselves off from different types of experiences, we are welcoming them in.

It sounds very Buddhist.

I think there’s a lot of similarity between what people try to do with religion with what they want from art. In fact, I very specifically think that they are same thing. Not that religion and art are the same, but that they both tap into the same need we have for surrender. That’s what happens when we take drugs. That’s what happens when we have sex. We stop being ‘just me’ and we become part of something else. If you join a singing group, the thrill of it is not hearing yourself singing, the thrill of it is being part of a big sound. Quite often, if you’re singing in a group, if you’re improvising, that is to say, you’re not reading music, someone will say to you, ‘Oh that was good, what did you just sing?’ — and you don’t know. You don’t know, because you sang it entirely in relation to everything else that was going on, and if you can’t hear everything else, you don’t know what it was. It didn’t exist outside of that mesh that was going on at that time.

When you create these pieces, do you create the music first and the visuals later — or vice versa?

They’ve grown together. This piece has a long history. Before it was on plasma screens. I was doing it with projectors. The first projector-based show was in Tokyo in 1988. So that’s what ….25 years ago? That was the first version of this — and even that version grew from earlier experiments that I was making with screens, but it was projectors for awhile. I would have a few projectors pointing at one place on the wall, so the images would build up, layer by layer. Then I digitized i,t and it became scree- based. It’s been screen-based like this for eight years or so.

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So is the project technology-driven?

Technology is very important to it because …well, little changes in technology mean that I can do new things. For example, it’s only very recently that screens have appeared that can have a true black on them. It used to be a kind of feeble grey. So now I ‘ve re-done many of the images here to include much more black, because I know that I can get black and that means that I can get away from the shape of the screen always being dominant. Did you just watch it? Did you see cases where the screen shape actually disappeared and there was another figure? It may not have happened while you were there.

Brian Eno - installation

I don’t think I saw that.

It’s an occasional magnificent moment when that happens and, suddenly, you lose those rectangles.

If the piece is always evolving, how do you know when it is ready to show?

I just show it all the time. I keep adding things to it and taking things out from it. I only know when something is finished when the deadline appears. That’s when I know it’s finished.

Is that how you make music?

Yep. I think I’m always looking for certain feelings. There are certain feelings that I’m hooked on and I always try to find them again. It’s like being hooked, because the same drug doesn’t work over and over. Something that gave you the feeling two years ago is starting to wear out a little bit and you have to find another way of getting the feeling. You have to take more. This happens with other peoples’ records too. I could be a great fan of something for years and years, and then think, ‘Oh it doesn’t really work any more.’

What’s on your iPod now?

I don’t have an iPod. I have a very specific way of listening to music. I have a friend who listens to a lot of music – actually I have two friends who do this for me – they both listen to a lot of music. One is a designer, and the other has a job where he can listen to a lot of music as well. They make me CDs every so often and they don’t identify what’s on the CD. They send me the CDs to listen to, and then a month later, they send me a list of what it was I heard. The reason I like that is because I don’t have any prejudices about what I’ve heard. Mostly, I don’t recognize the stuff they send me and I’ll hear something and think, ‘Wow, that’s really fantastic,’ and then discover that it’s something I really would not have guessed I would like. That has often happened.

Does external music influence the music you create?

I suppose so. I’m not that conscious of it, I guess. Or at least, when I think that happens it’s more in sort of structural terms and I’ll think, ‘Ah, I see.’ That idea of a having a build up, and then a hiatus, then the bomb hits, rather then build up and bomb hits. Instead, it’s: build up, breath, bomb hits. That’s an example of something structural that I like, and I might make something with an idea like that, one that sounds nothing like the idea where I heard it before. In fact, that particular example came from a gospel song. It was a gospel song where that idea happened. I always thought how brilliant it was to put the pause in when you expected the bomb to hit and, in fact, it hits even harder when it hits later.

What is it about ambient music that most reflects your vision as opposed to music with words, for example?

[Long pause] I am not sure about the word vision, actually. The idea of the word vision suggests that you are designing a future in a way, but what I think I want to do is make pieces of work that belong to the future I would like to live in. I would love to live in a future where that room was something that was commonplace in cities. You would walk in to places like that – and they would be made by all different artists, they wouldn’t look like that, that’s my version of it – but that kind of space. I would love it if they existed. They don’t really exist. There are art galleries, but they aren’t like that at all. For instance, they would never give you comfortable seats in an art gallery. Stupid! The assumption is that people want to take a quick look at the picture and leave. What if you want to sit and look at the art for an hour?

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