Blueprint APRIL 1995 - by Rick Poynor


Designer, artist, musician, writer, Brian Eno is either a dabbler or a man of ideas. He talks to Rick Poyner about CD-ROMS, perfume and bringing art to Wembley

Brian Eno wears so many hats that even he seems uncertain how best to describe himself. Musician, record producer, video artist and installation maker are the easy ones. Then there is the consultancy for a Parisian perfume company, the vase for Alessi, the lecture to EC businessmen on "The Future of Culture", the study he sponsored on central African pygmies, and his visiting professorship at the Royal College of Art. On Desert Island Discs Sue Lawley suggested Eno was a bit of a dabbler and the accusation of dilettantism has dogged him since his earliest days as Roxy Music's befeathered synth man. Eno prefers to call it "inter-disciplinary research". He is "someone who deals in ideas", a "frame-maker" who looks at the artificial boundaries we draw round an activity and suggests ways of enlarging the frame to take in new things. "My whole career can be seen as a continual redesigning of various accepted formats," he said recently. "I think about design all the time, in that I think about the form of things and of their other possibilities."

We meet at his London studio to discuss Self Storage, the installation that Eno, fellow artist-musician Laurie Anderson and eighteen of Eno's RCA students are devising in association with Artangel for a 650-unit storage depot next to Wembley Stadium. "It's a very neutral, strange space and mysterious because you are always wondering what's behind all these doors," says Eno. The team has thirty or so empty units, varying from 50 to 4,500 square feet in size, to fill with unexpected diversions, sonic interludes and art stunts. A series of spoken stories by Anderson - "some of them abstracted so they become almost pure sound" - are the starting points for these environments, but with one month to go Eno is candid about how much remains to be done. "I've got thirty-five or forty ideas of my own. I'll just go there, try them, think 'oh, that one looks good' and it might suggest another idea I hadn't thought of before."

For British visitors it will provide a rare opportunity to take the measure of Eno as an audiovisual artist. Since 1979, he has exhibited "vertical format" videos (Mistaken Memories Of Mediaeval Manhattan was one title), light paintings, light sculptures and more recent slide-based work in New York, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Toronto, Tokyo, Sydney, Berlin, Milan and Venice. But there has been only one substantial British show, Place #11 at the Riverside Studios in 1986. While most gallery art is consumed at a far from contemplative clip, the darkened Riverside installation lives in the memory as a remarkable fusion of ambient washes of sound and soothing prismatic light which hijacked the metabolism and slowed the body to an almost involuntary stop (armchairs and sitting areas were provided). Its effect was both calmative and invigorating.

For Eno, it is the nature of the viewer's perceptual experience, rather than the formal qualities of these pieces, that counts. The object is no longer the principal aim of the design process. "The classical idea is that the artist has an idea in their mind, this vision. They put it into the art work and you come along and look at it and that vision is then in your mind. This idea that there's a transmission process is the old idea, as far as I'm concerned, of how art works. Of course, if that's the model you are using, all your attention goes into getting the object exactly right. Another way you can think of an artist is as someone who wants to make something happen inside the viewer. What I make is a generator; the output of it is intrinsically uninteresting unless it has some effect, whereas classical art always says the object is intrinsically interesting - the value is embedded in the thing. If you are lucky you will apprehend the value and some of it will communicate to you. But what I'm saying is that the value is in the interaction."

These preoccupations have taken a new turn in the 1990s. The interactive promise of hypertext and CD-ROMs made Eno a natural convert. There are two computers in his studio and we spend the afternoon moving back and forth between them as Eno demonstrates new software, calls up a file for reference, or stares as if mesmerised at the swirling patterns created by the screen-savers he cobbles together and modifies in his spare time. For Eno, writing in a recent New Scientist, the most interesting consequence of interactivity will be the "blurring of the distinctions between artist and audience... the diffusion of authorship".

A studio wall is covered with cards inscribed with phrases such as "role blur", "acceptance of uncertainty" and "making the medium fail", working notes for a book to be published, if he ever finishes it, by Faber & Faber. For a while it was going to be a hypertext, but, as Eno discovered, the technology has yet to live up to the theory. In the 1970s, he made a virtue of malfunctioning synthesizers and shunned the latest upgrades. His attitude to new media, confronted by the reality, is equally critical and subversive: "All this stuff is crap." He puts in a hypertext disk, a barrage of text boxes and crisscrossing lines. "Whatever the literary content of this, I maintain that the experience of reading off here is so off-putting that you would never do serious reading like this." What is missing, he says, is sensory seduction and narrative pull.

Heel-dragging CD-ROMs get equally short shrift. "People doing CD-ROMs are trying to occupy the space currently occupied by film or video, CD music and text. And it's a very unsuccessful medium in all those three respects. Interactivity only makes sense if it's happening at the speed you are happening at. You just don't want to be stuck waiting for days for the next silly decision to come up."

Most existing CD-ROMs are archival: they are ways of navigating through big chunks of pre-formed data which have to be loaded into the computer's ROM. Eno's experiments with screen-savers suggested a different model. "A screen-saver is a very small program that constantly generates material. It's not a playback of an existing block of data. It's a system for making new material using the computer as a generator. The future of CD-ROMs doesn't lie in stuffing them with huge blocks of data that you clumsily shovel around, which to me seems like trying to move huge forests. The future lies in using the CD-ROM as a system for carrying thousands of seeds. All you do is plant those seeds in your computer, which takes a fraction of a second because they are two or five kilobytes, and they tell the computer what to make."

The next generation of CD-ROMs, suggests Eno, will be a combination of data carrier and seed carrier. The data part of the disk would, for instance, store a foreground figure in a representational scene, while the seed part would generate the less complicated background against which the figure moved. Eno hopes to use these ideas in collaboration with David Bowie on a CD-ROM that will function as a "visual machine" for generating "paintings-in-motion". The user could either sit back and let the disk run without the tedious, point-and-click imperative to "interact", or cause reactions in the program just by moving the mouse, or touching the keyboard, or even by making sounds. Either way, you would never see exactly the same thing twice on screen. There would be two or three different mixes for each piece of music.

This idea of the self-generating system, capable in theory of an infinity of permutations, is the central idea in Eno's work. As he himself once observed, "a very small number of ideas can be permutated in a very large number of ways". The ambient loops that form the soundtrack to his installations will eventually turn full circle (even the one that lasts 168 weeks) but they will never coincide with exactly the same visual events generated by the concealed video monitors and desynchronised slide projectors Eno uses as light sources. His Alessi vase was manufactured according to a complicated system, involving the throwing of dice, which meant no two designs were the same. "What excites me," he once said, "is seeing the same few things reclustering and thrown together in different perspectives in relation to each other." While the process might sound random, or soullessly automatic, the quality of the musical and visual "inputs" is carefully controlled. Eno has learned from the Cageian-process art and music of the 1960s that inspired his first experiments as a student. Such work failed because it placed all the emphasis on the conceptual dimension, overlooking the sensory factors that make us return to it.

Watching Eno playing with his screensavers, his capacity for an unselfconscious and almost childlike absorption is clear. For Eno, the sensory level is the hook. He can lose himself in colour, go into a kind of dream. "I often sit here like this." He leans in towards the screen. "I try to make it fill my field of vision. What I would love is to be able to make wallpaper like this." When I ask him what effect his own slide shows have on him, he says "I'm totally hypnotised by them. I just sit there thinking 'God, that is so amazing. I've never seen anything like that in my life.'" Eno can spin an effortless web of words and theory around almost anything - art, music, technology, politics, perfume, defence - but in the throes of the art experience there is only a kind of wonder to be expressed.

Eno is best thought of, perhaps, as an environmental artist. He conceived ambient music in the 1970s as a darker-hued muzak for the artistically inclined. Ambient 1: Music For Airports was installed - to disquieting effect - at La Guardia Airport and, in 1989, Tropical Rainforest Sound Installation brought a jungle ambience to the World Financial Center's Winter Garden (and subsequently to the Barbican). But if Eno's interests once seemed to incline towards landscape, with vinyl "sound paintings" such as On Land, his concerns are more urban now. Since the early 1990s, he has been in discussion with Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel and the Barcelona authorities about the possibility of building a Real World Theme Park in the city. Recently the idea has been reactivated. Another theme park project, in collaboration with the Austrian artist André Heller, is for the depressed industrial city of Bochum in the Ruhr. (Heller has also commissioned Eno to create a permanent "quiet room" installation for a museum he has designed for the glass-maker Swarowski near Innsbruck.) The Bochum and Barcelona teams will participate in each other's projects.

"I'm always keen on things that are cheap and therefore disposable," says Eno. "If you build a $10 million ride and no one likes it very much, what are you going to do? A lot of theme parks have made this mistake. But if you have an idea for a singing tree and you hang it with twenty-five $5 speakers you can leave it up for two weeks and if nobody likes it you just get rid of it, no problem. But if people do like it, then you might do it with better quality speakers and people might start writing music for it. For me, these things must evolve, they must start from quite simple, improvisable routes."

And Britain? Eno is scathing about Tory shortsightedness and a government view of culture that seems to stop at the opera. "They are incapable of making the connection, of seeing that this is actually the life you live in. The life of economics and the law - of course, we all live within that. But our perception of life is actually the life of culture, the life of the style that's around, the sense of how people work with one another, and what makes us happy and sad. My contribution, I suppose, is putting my money where my mouth is by teaching - saying it really behoves British artists to get involved in making a scene happen. And I think the Royal College is one of the places where you could start. This project. Self Storage, is a little laboratory for that."

Self Storage is at Acorn Storage, First Way, Wembley from April 4 to May 7. Take the Chiltern Line from Marylebone Station to Wembley Stadium.