Always Returning: Brian Eno In Conversation

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Brian Eno’s voice asks profound questions about the nature of art, and the role it can play in our lives. His new exhibition encourages us to slow down, to absorb our surroundings, and cherish beauty’s increments.

Using the self-descriptor ‘non-musician’, Brian Eno is a cultural instigator, someone who seems able to break down obstacles in the way of creativity. A singular figure in modern arts, he’s worked on multi-platinum records by U2 and Coldplay, encouraged the growth of ambient music in its modern iteration, and expanded the lexicon of sound across multiple decades. Whether it’s his famed Oblique Strategies cards – a series of prompts designed to assist creative solutions – or his seminal solo catalogue, Brian Eno’s inspired methodologies have encouraged countless musicians to shake off the shackles of expectations.

Recently collaborating with Fred again.. on new album ‘Secret Life’, Brian Eno remains an unstoppable force of cultural awareness. A new exhibition in London’s Paul Stolper Gallery taps into some of his oldest areas of intrigue within visual arts, a series of light boxes which gradually shift in colour. The patterns fade at an almost imperceptible pace, producing results that are surprising and thought-provoking. Presented alongside works from seminal American visual artist Dan Flavin, the exhibition seems to encourage slow-thinking, eye-catching generative art that feels completely open, and endlessly inviting.

Clash attended the launch of this fascinating exhibition, before helming a conversation between Brian Eno and gallery figure Paul Stolper.

PS: I thought we could walk around the exhibition and talk through your works. How did these lightbox designs come about, this first group for example, where each is square shaped, within which are two different sized circles. Do you draw them first?

BE: I do, yes. But the thing really starts when I begin to make things, and see what happens to the light when I move the border for example, so I can move the light into a tighter space, or a broader one. For instance, what if the dividers – the things that make the shapes, in this case the circles – don’t come right up to the front panel.  If the dividers come right to the front panel you get sharp edges. If you leave a space between the top of the divider and the front panel then you get a soft edge. Not only that, but you get a sort of halo of light at the edge, because that’s getting the light from two sides mixing it. 

The thing that’s counter-intuitive about light, is that if you mix any light with any other it will always be a lighter colour that results. Most of us are used to mixing pigments, and if you mix pigments they always go darker. And people don’t have a grasp of that. They don’t have a grasp that you make yellow, by combining green and red. If you combine green and red pigment in paint you get a brown… not a very nice colour. In light, you get a yellow – which is still surprising to me! And of course if you combine all three primary light colours – red, green, and blue – you get white, which is also quite unintuitive. I think one of the surprises about this is that we’re used to looking at things on walls that are rectilinear, as paintings. So therefore we’re bringing our understanding of the rules of colour mixing and colour combinations from paintings to the lightboxes, which look like paintings but actually don’t behave like paintings. It sounds like a very technical point, but I think that’s one of the things we’re interested in. We see these things change, and they change in a way that pigment wouldn’t.

PS: And your lightboxes change how we behave. Normally in front of paintings we stop, look, and shuffle along to the next.  But with these, people look at them for ages because they want to know how they change and at what speed. It’s interesting when you talk about painting because you have said that “when I was at school, I was studying painting, but I found that I wanted to create a kind of painting that was more like music, in the sense that it changed in time”.

BE: I’m interested in what people do, particularly if you watch people in galleries. The way of looking at paintings has become: quick glimpse at the painting, read the label – for longer than you looked at the painting – another quick glimpse at the painting and you move on to the next one. I do the same thing, a lot of the time. So my way of visiting galleries now is to quickly look around at everything, and if something is so interesting that I can’t quickly look at it, I sit down, and I keep looking at it. And then I leave the gallery. I don’t want to see everything in the gallery.

PS: It’s like when you visit the Louvre, and you pick one painting to visit. On your journey, you’ll discover something else …

BE: …you’ll have to stop and look at it.  That’s what I like. I like it to be engaging enough to make me want to stop. But what happens with the lightboxes is that first of all, it’s just that thing there, sitting on its own. And then when you notice that it’s changing you think, ‘oh it is changing … I wonder what will happen next?’ And it’s very very slow. I always try to pitch them so it’s just below the speed at which you notice something has happened. It rewards the slow visitor.  I noticed this very early on. I had some pieces at the Venice Biennale in 1986 and some people would come in, look behind the curtain, and that would be it. In fact, I read a review, once, of one of my shows, where the reviewer described it and I realised he had had one quick look at the thing… and he thought that was it. He thought, that’s what it will always be. He wrote this whole review, and it was clear he spent 40 seconds there at the most, because you definitely would have noticed the colours changing otherwise.

PS: The lightbox titles are very succinct and purely descriptive, for example ‘Soft Sharp’, and ‘Sharp Soft’, strict almost, and yet the works themselves are so ethereal, so delicate and light, in a way that seems to be not of this world.  And yet the titles are so removed, you haven’t succumbed to titles that could be romantic.

BE: I could imagine them with different titles. These are obviously not figurative, they’re like Mondrian or something, and because they change all the time…. I could give it a title for that one moment, but it wouldn’t work for the colours it becomes next! 

PS: The next lightbox is ‘Solids I’, diamond shaped work, which changes colours seamlessly at the front and which also has colour emanating like a halo from the back. Like all your light-based work, you want to be as much the viewer as anyone else, would you call that generosity where the program is generative?

BE: I’ve never thought of the connection between generative and generosity, that’s quite good.  Generative is an idea that runs through a lot of the things that I do. I want to make works that are never finished. So it’s the opposite of what a lot of people understand what a work of art is, that it’s a finished thing. It sits there, and it’s finished, and you come and look at this thing that is going to stay like that forever, and I think, wouldn’t it be nice to make things that keeps becomingsomething?  It’s lovely to have a piece of work that you know you will never see all the versions of it, no matter how long you look at it you won’t exhaust the experience of it.

PS: It’s always in the process of making itself.

BE: Exactly. And at the moment these are making themselves through a number of deterministic processes. Which is to say that each element of the process is doing something quite easy to understand. The combination of all of them, and all of them interacting, is doing something that is very, very hard to predict. It’s a little like the double pendulum. That’s why I like the double pendulum so much, because it shows that so clearly. It’s very easy to see what a pendulum does, very easy to understand and everyone is familiar with it. And then you’d think that putting two of them together – that is to say, hanging a pendulum on top of another pendulum – couldn’t be much different… but it is! It’s completely different, every time. It’s like a change of phase – they talk about phase states in chemistry… the point at which water becomes ice is a distinct moment. It doesn’t take any time. Water suddenly changes state. And it suddenly is a different material. All the rules are different for it. And this to me is very interesting, because our training makes us believe processes are linear, right? You add a bit more energy, and that happens, so you add a little bit more and something else happens. But what really happens in most natural processes is that there are unexpected jumps into different states… and we don’t have an intuition for that. We have an intuition for linear change…

But nature often doesn’t actually work like that. Weird things will happen. This is what interests me about the whole idea of complexity theory, that we have to educate ourselves to understand non-linear processes. The supreme non-linear process is the environment, the world. All these ridiculous things like predicting the temperature of the world in 2050. We just don’t know that, because there are all these interactive points along the way where the system might collapse into a new condition that nobody ever saw before, and couldn’t predict. We just don’t know. If you look at the graphs of temperature change, there can’t be a simpler chaotic system. So you end up with a double pendulum! But even that, if you start to make a graph of any element of it it would be – at least conceptually – completely random.

PS: And what does that tell you?

BE: It tells you that our ways of thinking about processes are inadequate. We don’t have the intuition for thinking that linear change can produce a result like that. Because the change is linear, it’s losing energy at a certain speed. You watch the pendulum and it keeps going until there is zero kinetic energy left, and what it does to get there is fairly simple. But if you like two pendulums together, they’re still losing energy at the same rate but their behaviour is wildly chaotic.

PS: It’s violent almost, you can’t make sense of it.

BE: In 100 years time it will seem completely trivial to everybody. Everybody will just get this idea sooner or later… and wonder why we ever thought linearly! It doesn’t make any sense.  But it’s our history with machinery that makes us think in a linear fashion.

PS: A lot of people look at the light boxes, and think that the programming much be incredibly complex – but it goes back to this idea which is key for you, that simplicity produces complex results.

BE: What a lot of the stuff I do depends on – is you the viewer wants to find causality, wants to find sequence and connections. In the installations I do, I have music playing, and I have artworks ‘playing’, and most people think they’re connected. And that’s to do with a feature of our brains that wants to know how things are connected. And if it sees things in the same frame it thinks they must be connected to each other, and they’ll find a way to make that happen. This is my theory about dreams – when you dream, the part of you that connects experiences together is active; for example if you’re sitting in a chair that makes you uncomfortable, you know that has nothing to do with this pen on the table laying at that angle. In a dream, the rational part of you that keeps those experiences, the chair and the pen separate but the storytelling part doesn’t. It sees everything in the same frame, “it’s because of that pen that I’m uncomfortable in this chair”.  It makes connections. And it’s a sign of a kind of liberation we allow our mind to have, which is to say we’re creating a situation where it can build the world it wants, and the world it wants is one where, in my installations that ‘whooshing’ sound in the music, is connected to that colour in the light piece.   And it doesn’t at all, it’s an accident. And I think so much of the world is quasi-accidental like that, it’s always in our nature to give something teleological meaning. To apply goals, or a trajectory. And it might not happen like that.

PS: We always want answers. We’re not happy to not know.

BE: We’re not happy with chaos. Our mind wants everything to fit together for a particular reason. What I hope with my works is they make people comfortable with slowness. Getting into the idea that something very slowly changes and you have to sit down and wait for it to do so. And to find that experience nice, rather than getting impatient.

PS: You have a great quote that follows from what you just said “I try to make my work seductive enough for people to want to surrender to it. I like the idea that art can be there to comfort you, to warm you and surround you”. So a work that reflects that concept and does combine a music composition, as well as a sculptural element is ‘Filopendula’, a ceramic vase, into which are placed two steel rods that you bent and shaped, like flower stems and at the end of each sits a flower, the flower made from the innards of a speaker.  It’s a beautiful sounds piece, how do you go about writing music?

BE: I’m trying to get away from the idea that music is a lot of sounds that are bolted together in particular ways.  My music is based on what happens if I set a few processes in motion and then let them permutate, in the way that they’re going to, it’s nothing to do with me after I’ve started, of course I keep tweaking it until it starts producing results that are both surprising and within a certain envelope, they’re not completely random.   

PS: I’m interested in the architecture of space and ‘Filopendula’ fills the gallery sonically in the way Flavin’s work fills the space with light, how did the piece come about, the idea of the vase with the speakers? 

BE: I’ve always loved loudspeakers, just as things. Before I joined Roxy Music and when I was in the band in the beginning I used to buy up old loudspeakers and make new cabinets out of them. I loved seeing how I could change the sound by making the cabinet a different shape. I thought why don’t we make speakers like a little event, they’re like flowers. And the sound in ‘Filpendula’ like early versions I made is very distant.  

PS: Well with the vase on the plinth and the stems that rise above, and sound from the ‘flower’ speakers above head height follows the parameters of ambient music in as much as it doesn’t interfere with your conversation. It fills the gallery space, it becomes part of the gallery space.

BE: I had ‘Filopendula’ sitting in the corner at my studio, and I would sit here and work on my own at night, it seemed to open up the room to the outside world, it gives that feeling that you’re no longer in a box separated from everything else.  

PS: ‘Ovation’ and ‘Still’ sit next to each other separated by a corner in the gallery. 

BE: They came out of seeing a piece of aluminium trunking and wondering how it would look if you put a strip of light inside, what would it do, so I did it, and thought it would look so beautiful. It’s one of the few times I’ve had a completely clear visual idea of something and just made it.  I imagined there would be this stripe of light down the wall, cut by a line of metal.  I thought “I bet that will look good”, it was the easiest thing I ever did. 

PS: It’s a two-person exhibition with Dan Flavin.

BE: Yes! So of course part of the message of his work is: ‘take something you can get from any hardware store…’

PS: Real materials in real space.

BE: In a sense, you could connect him to Pop Art, in the sense of saying “just take the stuff that’s there, it doesn’t have to be special”.  I think that’s such a nice thing about him.

Brian Eno / Dan Flavin is open at the Paul Stolper Gallery until August 25th. Brian Eno’s Top Boy score will be released digitally on September 1st.

Introduction: Robin Murray
Conversation: Brian Eno, Paul Stolper
Photography: Baud Postma
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers