Sydney Opera House, Australia

Luminous media conference

MAY 26, 2009: The media gathered in the foyer of The Studio this morning for the launch of the Luminous festival. Sydney Opera House CEO Richard Evans and Virginia Judge, Minister Assisting the Premier of NSW on the Arts, made introductory speeches. Evans then introduced the festival's curator, Brian Eno.

RICHARD EVANS: So now it's time to meet the man himself. Composer, producer, keyboardist, singer, multimedia visual artist, thinker and writer. Is there anything this man can't do? Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce you to Mr. Brian Eno.

BRIAN ENO: Thank you Richard, thank you Minister, thank you all for coming. There's a very bright light in my eyes but I'm sure you're out there somewhere.

This is my first visit to Australia. I've been here since Friday and I really like it. They tell me that it's winter here but actually it's better than an English summer, so it's really a pleasure to be here.

I have a lot of Australian friends in London, so I wasn't completely unprepared for how wonderfully strange you people are. In fact my next door neighbour is Jason Donovan - he lives next door to my studio in London. He, in fact, belongs to my amateur a capella group. It's true! It's true - though he's currently doing Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert in the theatre so I don't see him so much lately, 'cause that's a big success.

But anyway - thank you very much for coming in, thank you so much for inviting me. It's really been a pleasure working with Richard and his staff, who've been absolutely helpful and efficient. There are so many of them - I can't remember all their names - but they've all been popping in to make sure I was comfortable and enjoying what I was doing.

And what I am doing here, I guess, is trying to... state some kind of new cultural position - which is a position I think is developing globally - where quite a lot of the barriers that used to separate the art forms from one another have withered away. And a lot of the people you'll be seeing in this festival are people who work in a sort of cross-disciplinary way, who work in forms of music that don't really have a name or that have six or seven different names - there's a little bit of this and a bit of that and something of that, as well.

And these are sort of a new kind of interdisciplinary artist that I think is very particular to this early twenty-first century. I hope you'll enjoy these people. They're people who've all inspired me a great deal, from whom I've stolen a large number of ideas, and some of whom have stolen ideas from me as well. So I hope you'll see a lot more of this exchange idea going on during this festival.

So shall I open the floor to questions? Or should you do that?

RICHARD EVANS: You can do whatever you like, Brian. That's what we said when we engaged him: "You can do whatever you like." And he did! So I might kick off...

So, Brian, you've often been quoted as saying you're a non-musician and that your response to music is more a visual one than a musical one. How has this response informed your choice of performers and performances for Luminous?

BRIAN ENO: OK, well, the non-musician thing came from the fact that as with a lot of people who joined bands in England in the '60s and '70s and even up till now, my education was at an art school. I did a degree in Fine Art in painting and sculpture. And then, of course, like all good art students, I left and joined a band. And what I think was important about that period of music, and probably unique to that period of music, was that it was possible for someone with no musical background to start using these new instruments - in particular the recording studio, the most powerful, new instrument of the twentieth century - equivalent in impact to what the orchestra did in the eighteenth century. The recording studio really changed how we thought about music and who could make music, and I was one of the early users of the recording studio in this new way.

So what I felt I was doing and what I think one is doing in a recording studio is painting with sound in a way that composers couldn't really do until that... that's a very annoying mic, isn't it? - that's the mic technique, I've never mastered it. So I felt that what I was doing, and what I think a lot of other people are doing, is using recording as a sort of painting technique - painting in the sense that you're working with a non-ephemeral medium. Music, traditionally, is something that exists now and then disappears. Well it's not like that with recording. Recording holds it in place and turns music into a malleable, plastic medium. So it absolutely suits painters. It's the medium made for painting, actually - painting with sound.

A lot of the people in this festival are really sound-painters as far as I'm concerned. They're people who've understood this new sonic universe and tried to do something with it. Jon Hassell is a particularly good example of that. His show will be very interesting, I think.

Did I answer your question?

RICHARD EVANS: Perfectly. Ladies and gentlemen, we'll now open questions from the floor.

MEDIA: Brian, some people who go down and look at your work might not get it. What's your advice on how to enjoy it?

BRIAN ENO: Would it help for the rest of you if I repeat the questions? OK. She asked, she said, she is certain, she claimed - that some people didn't get my work. I've never met any of those.

So she was wondering how I would suggest they approach it.

With this piece that we've just opened this morning - which I think you've all seen - I try with all of these shows to make them as seductive as possible, actually. I'm very much into seduction. I don't believe - at least I, personally, am not interested in the idea of art being a sort of existential challenge to you. What I want to do is to make something that is irresistible in a way, where you think "Oh, I'd really love to stay here for a while and look at this." And I notice something very interesting when I watch people go into my shows - which is that they enter the show like most people enter galleries, which is in a hurry, quite a lot to see, and they look for the label and they can't see one - which is almost disorientating for people who visit art galleries a lot. And then I see their body sort of relax a little bit and they put their weight on one leg and then, if they see a seat, they find one, they sit in the seat, and then they gradually slump back in the seat - and that's my definition of "success", actually. Because what I think I'm most interested in with this work is trying to create a situation within which you can experience some kind of surrender where you stop being "you" for a little while. You stop thinking about you and your particular life and existence and the laundry you didn't pick up and the coffee you want to get - and, for a little while, you surrender to something - you become immersed in it. I think it's the most important thing you can do, sometimes.

So I try to make these things seductive enough and inviting enough for people to want to surrender to them.

MEDIA: Brian, there was some criticism at the time - it caused a little bit of a political storm when this festival was announced - because Victoria's government secured Tiger Woods on the same day. Is this festival something that can be enjoyed by the entire community or is it fairly narrow?

BRIAN ENO: She said that there was some controversy - which I actually didn't know about. Was the controversy about Tiger Woods or about me?

MEDIA: Just that people are saying that Tiger Woods is something that a lot of people will see.

BRIAN ENO: Oh, I see. I see. So Tiger Woods was... popular... whereas I was elitist. Though I have to say that golf is a form of human enterprise that is so completely opaque to me that I would actually put it the other way 'round, really, and say that - compared to golf - Jon Hassell is easy going. But, good old Tiger, you know - let him roar on. I don't think this is an elitist festival. I think it is cutting-edge to some extent, you know. It does show people who are very contemporary and very new - Battles, for example, this amazing new band who are tying up a lot of threads that have been around for the last few decades of music.

But the whole attitude of the festival and the attitude of the Opera House is not to shake the bourgeois by the lapels. It's not like that - it's like, "Here are some interesting new things, here's some really fascinating new cultural phenomena. You might like to see them." It's an invitation, not an assault on anybody, I think.

RICHARD EVANS: If I could just jump in there, Brian. Seven-and-a-half million people a year visit Sydney Opera House...

BRIAN ENO: And how many people go to a golf tournament?

RICHARD EVANS: ...But we are a performing arts centre, so most of the time, venues like The Studio - where 77 Million Paintings is being shown - you can only go to if you buy a ticket to the show. So for the seven-and-a-half million people or the three weeks' worth of seven-and-a-half million people, they'll be able able to access 77 Million Paintings absolutely free - which will just give them a deeper experience of the Opera House. And, of course, the lighting of the sails - which people in Sydney and around the world will be able to enjoy either online or in person.

More questions?

MORE DARK THAN SHARK: Brian, could you reiterate your word "scenius" and perhaps tell us how, in times to come, we might evaluate that seed you're trying to plant?

BRIAN ENO: So he's asking about the word "scenius" - and I'll expand a little bit on that word.

So, as I told you, I was an art student and, like all art students, I was encouraged to believe that there were a few great figures like Picasso and Kandinsky, Rembrandt and Giotto and so on who sort-of appeared out of nowhere and produced artistic revolution.

As I looked at art more and more, I discovered that that wasn't really a true picture. What really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people - some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were - all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work. The period that I was particularly interested in, 'round about the Russian revolution, shows this extremely well. So I thought that originally those few individuals who'd survived in history - in the sort-of "Great Man" theory of history - they were called "geniuses". But what I thought was interesting was the fact that they all came out of a scene that was very fertile and very intelligent. So I came up with this word "scenius" - and scenius is the intelligence of a whole... operation or group of people. And I think that's a more useful way to think about culture, actually. I think that - let's forget the idea of "genius" for a little while, let's think about the whole ecology of ideas that give rise to good new thoughts and good new work.

MEDIA: Brian, were you trying to reflect the concept of "scenius" in this festival?

BRIAN ENO: He's asking if I'm trying to reflect that concept in this festival... Yes, indeed. So that the festival - my keynote on Friday is called Scenius - and the final performance is called Pure Scenius. So I'm sort of book-ending this with - in the first place - a sort of explanation of the idea in greater depth and, in the end, I hope a demonstration of that idea in action, on stage.

MEDIA: If I can ask two questions, please. What are you going to do with the Opera House sails? What will it look like? And was Utzon aware of your plans before he died?

BRIAN ENO: He asked what I'm going to do with the sails and was the architect aware of my plans before he died... So that the answer to the second question is, I think, almost certainly not. I don't know. I don't think so.

The answer to the first question is that what I'm going to do is a sort of three-dimensional version of what you see downstairs [in The Studio]. So... we're still... finalising the details. I believe that's the official way of saying it.

MEDIA: The same dimensions? The same images? Or a similar concept?

BRIAN ENO: A similar concept, yes. So it's not going to look exactly the same, obviously, because it's a curved surface and there are several surfaces - but it's the same sort of material.

MEDIA: Involving light?

BRIAN ENO: Yeah. Yeah.

MEDIA: Brian, when you were selecting the local acts for the festival, you set yourself an agenda never having been here before. How did you go about scoping out the scene and deciding which acts from Australia?

BRIAN ENO: She's asking how I selected local bands.

Well, I owe a great debt of thanks to my friend, Ray Hearn, who is Australian - lived in Tokyo for many years. But Ray was the person who kept sending me things and saying, "You should check these ones out." And he'd just send me links and emails. So I was checking out people like that. So I didn't do any on-the-spot physical auditioning because, as I said, I've never been to Australia before.

RICHARD EVANS: He's pretty rigourous, though, let me tell you... Down the back...

MEDIA: I guess the festival kicks off this evening with the lighting of the sails and you're saying you're still finalising all the technical details...

BRIAN ENO: I'm only saying that to worry you, really...

MEDIA: How's it done? How on earth do you get your images onto the sails? Just in very basic, nutshell form.

BRIAN ENO: She's asking how I project onto the sails. Well, enormous projectors, basically - some of the biggest projectors in the world, which are situated around the edges of the Harbour and projecting across the Harbour onto the sails. So these projectors exist. They get very hot.

MORE DARK THAN SHARK: Brian, you didn't answer the second part of my question where I asked you how, in years to come, we will be able to evaluate this seed that you're planting - this "scenius" that you're planting.

BRIAN ENO: Oh, OK. Sorry. Yes. The second part of his question was how, in years to come, will we be able to evaluate the seed that I'm planting.

Well, that depends on whether the seed falls on stony ground... or moist. I think this seems like quite moist soil here. But, you know, it's very hard to ever make good predictions about the future of things - especially when they're very complicated, ecological things, such as culture. But there are a number of different seeds being planted and one of them, I think interestingly, is to do with environmentalism. Aside from what I do in my artistic life, I am convinced - like a number of other people - that there's only one serious problem, which is global warming. And so part of my interest is in trying to think how I can do what I still want to do as an artist and somehow serve that cause, to try to work in that direction. So I have coming down a friend I've worked a lot with in London called James Thornton, who's a lawyer. He's also a Zen monk, actually, funnily enough. And he started an organisation called Client Earth in London and Brussels, which attempts to influence government policy and to provide an arm for other environmental groups - a legal arm for them - and has been very successful so far. So, I think... I would like it to be the case that the festival pushes forward in those directions as well - in sort of intellectual and environmental directions as well as artistic ones. And you'll see, if there's a Client Earth in Australia in a year's time - which I hope there will be - that will be a result of this.

RICHARD EVANS: Ladies and gentlemen, the sails will be lit from tonight. As you've heard, it's a very, very rich festival - ideas, music, visual art - and I hope that you all enjoy it. We couldn't do it, of course, without the support of Sony, the Keir Foundation and the enormous support of Events New South Wales and Vivid. So, Virginia, thank you very much to the New South Wales government for making this possible. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.

Transcript by radiocitizen

Sydney Opera House