Metropolis MARCH 2006 - by Jeff Michael Hammond


Brian Eno turns the TV upside down.

Is television merely a mirror on the world or a maker and shaper of reality? A harmless diversion or a drug to pacify the masses? Brian Eno comes at these questions from another angle: before looking at television’s content, he has taken a step back to look at the mechanics of the medium. According to Eno a television is, first and foremost, a box that emits light - a simple fact everyone seemed to overlook during the first half-century of its history. For nearly as long as he has been producing music (his own and that of bands such as Talking Heads and U2), Eno has been working on a variety of projects using this premise, involving videos, TVs and self-made light machines and light boxes.

In a Japan English-media exclusive, Metropolis talked by phone with Eno in London on the eve of the Japanese launch in April of his multimedia art software, 77 Million Paintings, preceded by an exhibition (called simply 77 Million) this week at Laforet Museum in Harajuku.

Eno sees a connection between his experiments with televisions and the revolution that took place with modern art, when people started to think that painting wasn’t necessarily about depicting things, it was about manipulating paint, it was about playing with the idea of what painting is. I think it really happened to me with television and with the idea of using light not as a figurative medium but as an abstract, sensual medium.

Eno’s latest project, unlike his gallery-based installations, is primarily designed for the home and aims to change the way we perceive the role of the TV screen, and for that matter the computer screen, in our immediate visual environment.

77 Million Paintings is a piece of generative audiovisual art software that selects and mixes, according to whatever internal logarithmic magic it possesses, from a bank of almost three hundred images created or selected by Eno over the last two decades. This visual data, which the software may overlap up to four layers at a time, creates ever-shifting patterns of imagery and texture. With all these variations, the number of unique images that can potentially be created approaches the staggering seventy-seven million mark of the software's title. This basically means that if you leave the living room to make a cup of tea you will be welcomed back with a new piece of art on the screen. Or at least a new piece of art will be in the process of formation - even on the program’s fastest speed (the only control over the pictures the viewer has), the images transform themselves at a leisurely, almost imperceptible pace.

I thought that this is really a niche that needs addressing, he explains.

I imagine people will put these things on… and just leave them playing as an element in the room. This basic idea echoes Eno’s pioneering ambient, or environmental, music of the ’70s on albums such as Music For Airports (1978) - music designed not to be listened to in the usual sense but to simply be part of an environment. These things are mental places to which you can surrender or in which you can be immersed.

From what this reviewer saw of the software, and what Eno says of it, the images center on abstract and geometric designs, with few, if any, immediately striking images. The effect is one of texture, quietness and reflection - familiar Eno trademarks, rather than of exciting new art. The flip side of this is a scenario in which the software is used simply as a kind of visual muzak, appearing on the box but not much noticed. It’s a possible reaction to the work, but one that doesn’t faze him. Muzak got a bad reputation, but the idea isn’t bad, he laughs.

One of the most interesting effects of the software is that, because it is generative, the artist relinquishes control over the end result. As each new image is formed, out go conventional choices by the artist such as composition, texture and color combination, as well as a traditional sense of narrative in the flow of images.

My feeling is that I want to make places for people to go and then to have whatever mental adventures they have. Those mental adventures are where the narrative happens; if it does happen, it’s not really imposed dogmatically from the work…

In this way, 77 Million Paintings is mainly of interest as a new way of conceiving of a flow of images, freed from the guiding hand of its creator. One of the points of these things is to not start and to not finish, continues Eno. I want them to kind of feel like they were always going on and that they could always carry on… that they are just conditions of things, like an eddy in a river is a condition, it’s not really a thing. If there is a narrative, it’s in what happens to you as a viewer.