Friday, 6 August 2010

BRIAN ENO – RESTORING THE BALANCE


Grevious and prostrate apologies for the untimeliness of this posting. Going back to events in May is a new level of lateness, even for me. Whenever I had time to work on this blog, there always seemed something more time-specific just about to slip over the horizon, so this piece kept getting shunted back and back. But it’s not every day that Brian Eno guest-curates the Brighton Festival. (It can only happen once a year, for one thing.) So just go with it, okay?

Though his Illustrated Talk took place last, it was the event I was looking forward to the most – so shall give it first place here. Much of Eno’s art is conceptual, which is to say the most important aspect of it is the idea within it. (Or, in a more poetic analogy, the crucial part of the fruit is the seed.) Some people seem to see this as a criticism, for reasons I’ve never fully understood. If the man was a bongo player, the event I’d look forward to the most would be his evening of bongo playing. As things stand, it was his talk.

He made for a great communicator and a witty raconteur, which made it enjoyable to hear him break free of the sound-bite constraints of TV. He would probably make the world’s finest drinking buddy! (He even managed to sound affable to the berk who thought it appropriate to ask a question about his own marital difficulties, surely no easy task!) Without merely repeating what he said (much of which I agreed with), here’s a few random observations... (Direct quotes come from this contemporaneous Guardian interview.)


His definition of art as “anything you don’t have to do” was reminiscent of Scott McCloud’s infamous passage in ’Understanding Comics’ (above). He gave the example of a screwdriver, where the ‘useful’ screw head is married to an ‘aesthetic’ handle. This suggests aesthetics and function are linked but only at the hip - two separate entities conjoined. I’m not sure this easy separation exists, I regard function and aesthetics more as things intertwined. (This is probably even true in the case of a screwdriver, where the handle has to fit the human hand.)

Marc Bolan regarded pop songs as like little spells, Alan Moore has seen writing as an act of magic... I don’t think its necessary to take these comparisons literally to see art as something which has a social impact. (It’s perhaps notable that Eno was dismisssive of didactic art, seeing it as merely propagandist.)

I was more in accord with his view of the arts as an ecology rather than a hierarchy. Pop songs do not exist beneath operas or symphonies, but in some overall symbiosis with them. Some might regard them as ticks beside mighty elephants, but the elephant needs those tiny ticks. This strikes me as unarguable, but also rather redundant - reminiscent of a General fighting the last war instead of the current one.

Art is no longer trapped in a hierarchy but reduced to a commodity, something which is measured by units shipped or bums placed on seats. Even visual art, one of the last reserves of high art, became part of celebrity culture with the arrival of Brit Art. To get to grips with where art stands today, we need a critique of contemporary capitalism - not Victorian classification systems.

But pretty soon he had moved onto the core of his talk – his valuation of surrender. He claimed we currently had the balance struck wrong between control and surrender, something he was keen to rectify. “I set up situations that involve abandoning control and finding out what happens... I want to rethink surrender as an active verb.” He illustrated this with an anecdote about being the only atheist in a gospel choir, and the others expecting him to “come out”. His point was, of course, that in one sense the others were right. The choir did allow him to access something bigger than himself, even if that ‘something’ was just the choir itself. He also said of an a cappella group he’d set up, “when it’s going really well, we don’t know what we’re singing or who’s singing what.” Though often presented as the preserve of individual genius, art is at root a collectivising force – a way of getting you out of yourself.

This not only drew together most of Eno’s other concepts, but to my mind made his concerns more contemporary. The push to control is clearly a feature of propertarian societies; when we buy into a piece of art we require a return on our investment, rather than having to embark upon a process. This is perhaps underlined by our two key uses for the verb ‘get’, as in “only when I got all their CDs did I get what they were singing about.”

Many react against such notions, with hostility so vehement that it becomes interesting in itself. Some claim to find the whole idea de-individualising, as if the individual could ever have any meaning without reference to the collective. Generally, however, I find this reaction comes from wanna-be creators; people who are clasping their one or two (normally quite average) ideas, hoarding them like a lottery ticket which they hope will one day win.

However, its not just that those with more ideas are more happy to surrender them. The process of surrender, by offering up ideas like dishes at a potlatch dinner, creates new combinations which generates more ideas – sharing makes more.

Of course as soon as art becomes unpredetermined it becomes ‘unbottleable’, and some start to worry about audience tolerance. (Both the Guardian interview and an audience question broached this subject.) But Eno clearly intends the concept to apply to the audience as well as the artists – the audience needs to surrender too.

Think of the ritual of clapping live performances, and its unstated but different rules for different people. Some see it as a reflex response, like returning a greeting. Others, such as myself, will only clap when moved to do so. (Sometimes causing irritation among the first type, who see only illmanneredness in unresponsiveness.) In the second, of course, the audience is actually surrendering. This difference is underlined by looking at the apparantly similar words ‘audience’ and ‘crowd’. While both can be used as verbs, ‘audience’ is passive and permissive (‘to give audience’) while ‘crowd’ is active (‘to gather together’).


This concept was chiefly in action for Pure Scenius, a neologism coined as the plural form of genius. Eno was joined by Karl Hyde of Underworld, all three of the Necks, plus Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins for a six-hour improvisation. (Split into three sittings of which, alas, I could only afford to attend the last of.) Eno cheerily parodied his own egghead persona, presenting the gig as a lecture and even attempting to set homework!

The conceit was that all the recent years of music had been forgotten, swept away in some great meta hard disc crash which had left nothing but doo-wop to work with. (Of course a metaphor for the necessity for artists to picture a blank slate.) As you might imagine from such a line-up, the gig was actually a storming one - far too varied and inventive to attempt to capture in a short description... try this short snippet instead.



It could of course be argued that ‘scenius’ is just a more polysllabic term for the more regular ‘group’. Indeed, the weaker numbers tended to be those most connected to one of Eno’s concepts, and the stronger ones where the esemble just let rip beyond any conceptualisation. Perhaps we shouldn’t get too hung up on the concept of surrender, lest it get in the way of actually doing it!


I probably wouldn’t have gone to Tales of the Afterlives if not for the Eno connection, fearing New Ageyness. Thankfully, such fears were groundless. The best science fiction doesn’t concern itself with trying to second-guess the future, but acts as a prism to shine a different light on the present. This series of vignettes by David Eagleman did a similar thing for the afterlives. Please note the plural form there.The more scenarios we get, the more they combine into a stimulant for speculation. You don’t respond by wondering which one might be the closest to the truth, but trying to think up something so clever and novel. (The inverse of when fundamentalists label the Bible as ’the book’ or it’s message as ’the word.’)

This was underlined by the simple but effective staging, in which all the readers were on stage at once, picked out in turn by a spotlight. Though their workings may have been mutually exclusive, this arrangement encouraged you to keep all their hypotheses in your head at one time. The readers entered and left by a backlit door, as if the stage was some ante-chamber to the afterlife, from which they’d emerged to tell us about it.

The one New Agey element was, ironically, Eno’s own musical accompaniment. While of course this was only intended as backing music, it did feel generically ‘spiritual,’ with all the connotations of the afterlife the piece was unconcerned with. (It also seemed to klunk on and off at various points. Perhaps conceptual artists don’t make for great DJs!)


Eno spoke often and proudly of his Seventy Seven Million Paintings art instillation, put on in the Fabrica gallery. Yet for me it fitted far too readily the venue’s previous life as a Church, it was quite reminiscent of watching the play of light over strained glass windows. With all the shape-shifting confined inside neat geometrical shapes, it seemed rather tame and ordered. Perhaps I was spoilt by recently seeing Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment, which felt much more like a systematic derangement of the senses. (See my ravings about it here.)


The Speaker Flower Sound Instillation, not featured in the Festival guide, did come across as a somewhat impromptu addition – and was all the better for it. It worked largely from the space, which actually was mostly space – a large, empty and rather ramshackle building.

This setting probably enhanced the acoustics. (Just as well, with the sound provided by somewhat lo-fi ghetto blasters.) Certainly, the echoey voices in the video clip below sound almost as aesthetic as the music! But more importantly, the empty space made for a contemplative setting. This was not a parcel, pre-packed for delivery, but more a space to think. You felt minded to linger, soaking it all in, rather than walk round and leave once you’d ‘done’ it all – a feeling a ‘proper’ gallery would inevitably inhibit. Conceptual art should perhaps always look unfinished, like a rough sketch rather than a blueprint poised for mass production, an invite not a schedule.

Best of all were the mono guitars, which allowed for audience interaction. You could add or remove pebbles from baskets, altering the pitch of the fret-boards. Though there were three guitars, alas attendees didn’t try to create something in synch. Clearly, we all needed to surrender that little bit more...

(Photos I took of this installation here.)




Coming Soon! (if somewhat shamelessly...) more completely out-of-date stuff!

14 comments:

  1. Eh? Why does an elephant need ticks?

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  2. Can't you accept a bit of poetic license when it comes your way?

    I was of course originally thinking of the birds that eat the ticks off the elephants. But then i was dumb enough to Google it, and it seems there's some confounded debate about whether this is actually an example of mutualism or not.

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  3. Ah yes, the old vampire tickbirds. As it happens, my colleague Darren Naish wrote about these at some length over on his blog Tetrapod Zoology: http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2007/01/good_oxpecker_bad_oxpecker_not.php -- the story is more complicated that you might guess.

    In other news, I think I've figured out why I felt vaguely irritated when I read "Much of Eno’s art is conceptual, which is to say the most important aspect of it is the idea within it. [...] Some people seem to see this as a criticism, for reasons I’ve never fully understood." Speaking on behalf of the unwashed masses who think conceptual art is dumb. I will try to say this in as non-confrontational a way as I can, so bear with me ...

    So in conceptual art, the idea is elevated so that it is itself the thing we're meant to admire. As in, "I haven't made my bed in weeks" or "look, a shark that's been sawn in half" or indeed "Examining Work No 88, A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball (1995), the viewer is thrust into a conceptual space similar to that evoked by looking at a shovel or a collection of vacuum cleaners".

    But in every other field, we recognise that ideas are cheap and it's what you do with them that counts. Larry Niven didn't just publish "Imagine a huge artificially constructed world in the shape of a ring surrounding a sun, with people living on the inner face of the ring" -- he wrote the novel Ringworld. Christopher Nolan didn't just say "a man has short-term memory loss and finds it difficult to mount a coherent investigation into how, why and by whom his wife was killed. His story is told in reverse chronology" -- he made the film Memento.

    To pick an example closer to home, the idea "The Doctor is forced to live a normal human life among ordinary people" is interesting so far as it goes; but depending on whether you give it to Paul Cornell or Gareth Roberts, you get results as different as Human Nature or The Lodger.

    So when I look at conceptual art, I find myself thinking "Yes, a very nice idea: now what are you going to do with it?" And when the answer is "No, the idea is it; the piece is the idea, I'm left more than a little unfulfilled.

    Conceptual Artists are like all those people who have a great idea for an Internet start-up, but don't want to tell people the idea because it's so valuable and it's theirs. But as Paul Graham and countless others have shown, ideas are ten a penny: what counts is execution. And for people who live in that world (or indeed the world of palaeontology, where I have ten or twenty ideas for every actual paper I have time to write), it's pretty irritating to find that in this one area, conceptual art, people seem somehow to be given a free pass where they're not expected to do the work of making their idea do something.

    Let me finish by saying that this is not in any way meant as a criticism of Eno: I don't know much about him, but I do at least know enough to realise that in his music he absolutely has done the necessary work to realise and develop his ideas, to put them to work on music as diverse as his own ambient albums, U2's Joshua Tree and Paul Simon's Surprise. That, I hugely admire.

    Hope that made some kind of sense.

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  4. So in conceptual art, the idea is elevated so that it is itself the thing we're meant to admire. As in, "I haven't made my bed in weeks" or "look, a shark that's been sawn in half" or indeed "Examining Work No 88, A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball (1995), the viewer is thrust into a conceptual space similar to that evoked by looking at a shovel or a collection of vacuum cleaners".

    But in every other field, we recognise that ideas are cheap and it's what you do with them that counts.


    I don’t think you can cheapen something just by giving some bad examples of it. There are bad examples of everything, including ’Doctor Who’ episodes. (Even if we can’t really agree which they are!) If conceptual art is about the...um... concept then it logically follows that if the concept isn’t very interesting then the piece will fail. Similarly, if nobody dances to your dance track then it wasn’t really much of a dance track. But I don’t think that invalidates Sly and the Family Stone.

    I’m not sure Tracey Emin’s bed was intended conceptually, rather autobiographically. (In fact a trip to the Saatchi Gallery reveals them saying: “By presenting her bed as art, Tracey Emin shares her most personal space, revealing she’s as insecure and imperfect as the rest of the world.” (I have, incidentally, forgiven you for getting me to visit the Saatchi gallery.)) Hirst’s shark cut in half probably was conceptual, but the concept was (to my mind) a bit crap so I had no interest in it.

    So when I look at conceptual art, I find myself thinking "Yes, a very nice idea: now what are you going to do with it?

    But the real question of conceptual art is of course “what am I going to do with it.”

    You write as though you regard an idea as a closed and finished thing, waiting on a shelf to see if it makes it into the shopping basket. I compared it to a seed because I feel an idea can germinate in your mind, lead it in new directions and possibly see everything else in a new and different way. In a handy metaphor for this, the conceptual artist Robert Barry released an inert gas which he insisted would effectively work its way around the world. (There’s also an element of Dadaist provocation to Barry, as there often is with conceptual art. But I’d rather put that part aside for now as it’s not relevant to Eno.) I certainly felt that way after visiting Eno’s sound instillation or hearing his talk. This is in fact the reason why I bother to take in any art form at all.

    ...the idea "The Doctor is forced to live a normal human life among ordinary people" is interesting so far as it goes

    This is perhaps a telling line because I don’t see that description as an idea at all, more a plot precis. A hack writer could elaborate on that precis without letting a single idea intrude. Someone probably has, for all I know. The idea of ’Human Nature’ was more along the lines of “what if the Doctor became human, and perhaps didn’t want to go back any more?” The idea of ’The Lodger’ was “what if the Doctor had to live among humans – with hilarious consequences.” (Or not, depending on your point of view.)

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  5. When you compare conceptual art to “every other field”, I wonder if you mean ‘genre fiction.’ Which perhaps makes for an interesting comparison. Genre fiction is defined by adherence to certain intrinsic rules, just in the way a dance track has to ‘do’ certain things musically to be a dance track. A lot of people then go to decide the input is predetermined, and all that’s left to consider is the skill and finesse of execution. That kind of genre fiction doesn’t interest me at all. I see the rules more like the conventions of a haiku, a challenge to create something within them.

    But there’s a paradox to genre fiction, for in a way it’s all about the concept. I often feel that ’Doctor Who’ fans just like the overall concept of the mysterious stranger travelling in the blue box, to the point where they don’t even care if the individual stories get tiresome at times. And fans often want to create their own fiction around this concept. The modern novel doesn’t seem to have an equivalent world of fan fiction.

    In summary, just as all music is ‘ambient’ (in that it contains an element of ambience), all art worth bothering with is conceptual. ‘Conceptual art’ is a handy term for where the concept is foregrounded. But a writer like Grant Morrison is very ‘high-concept’.

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  6. First of all, don't forget that I am not trying to persuade you not to like conceptual art! I am just trying to articulate the reasons why many people (myself included) don't. This is exposition, not evangelism.

    When you compare conceptual art to "every other field", I wonder if you mean 'genre fiction.'

    No, not at all -- I really do mean "every other field", which is why my examples included Internet startups and popular music as well as genre fiction. I used mostly sci-fi examples because there's where I know our tastes have some overlap. I guess I could have talked about early Genesis albums, too :-)

    But there's a paradox to genre fiction, for in a way it's all about the concept. I often feel that 'Doctor Who' fans just like the overall concept of the mysterious stranger travelling in the blue box, to the point where they don't even care if the individual stories get tiresome at times. And fans often want to create their own fiction around this concept. The modern novel doesn't seem to have an equivalent world of fan fiction.

    I think you're conflating two rather different things here. Many Who fans (myself included) would not be remotely interested in any story that happened to involve a time-travelling blue box. I love it because it's good, not because it's Doctor Who. When it's not good (as in the rote exercise that was Planet of the Dead) I don't love it.

    That people like to use the existing Whoniverse as a container for their own fiction seems pretty much unrelated to that. If I wanted to write epic fantasy, I'd find it more convenient to write within Tolkien's world than to spend the next forty years making up my own: isn't the fanfic impulse the same thing?

    In summary, just as all music is 'ambient' (in that it contains an element of ambience), all art worth bothering with is conceptual.

    No argument here. Art without ideas is just a pointless as art that is nothing but ideas.

    Finally: is there any possible rational reason why Blogger doesn't allow the BLOCKQUOTE tag in comment? Thought not.

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  7. Oh, and I forgot to mention ... (Using BOLD for double-depth quoting, since BLOCKQUOTE is for some reason illegal) ...

    So when I look at conceptual art, I find myself thinking "Yes, a very nice idea: now what are you going to do with it?

    But the real question of conceptual art is of course “what am I going to do with it.”

    Screw that. If you're an artist, your job is to make me care. I have a stack of novel this thick waiting to be read, I have papers I need to write and a blog to feed, and the second season of The West Wing to watch. An artist who wants some of my headspace needs to do some work to earn it.

    That's not to say I'm not prepared to do some of the work for myself (hey, I just read the Silmarillion for the second time this summer!) but that's in response to the artist having actually shown me something, not just hinted at it.

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  8. To kick off with another Eno quote, he said of ambient music that all new forms of music involved a different way of listening to music. I think you could expand that to all artforms. Someone tuned to expect a Mozart symphony won’t like a hardcore punk song. Professional art critics concluded that the Impressionists must be literally mad to paint the way they did because things simply didn’t look that way. And so on...

    Which creates a slightly frustrating impasse. (Which is in no way your ‘fault’, even if it’s the result of what you’re asking.) To try and explain the new artform you end up trying to contextualise it, find the points of overlap between it and existing artforms. Which is rather paradoxical because the whole point is experiential, that it’s a new artform. But it’s all I’ve got, so let’s carry on trying to compare it to other things...

    ”I think you're conflating two rather different things here. Many Who fans (myself included) would not be remotely interested in any story that happened to involve a time-travelling blue box. I love it because it's good, not because it's Doctor Who. When it's not good (as in the rote exercise that was Planet of the Dead) I don't love it.

    That people like to use the existing Whoniverse as a container for their own fiction seems pretty much unrelated to that. If I wanted to write epic fantasy, I'd find it more convenient to write within Tolkien's world than to spend the next forty years making up my own: isn't the fanfic impulse the same thing?.


    First point, me and you both! I just saw ’Planet of the Drab’ as one-hour-plus of my life I wasn’t getting back in a hurry. Of course some obsessive-compulsive people are obsessive-compulsive over ’Doctor Who’, that’s just a given.

    But I think there’s more to the participatory element than the “convenience” you make out. I don’t think it’s just deciding to stage your own play, and using a handy set that just happens to be lying about. Fans of soaps and sitcoms don’t seem to want to add to what they’re watching, at least not to the same degree. The borders of the Whoniverse are somehow amorphous and permeable.

    I think it’s playing. If you buy a board game, say a bog-standard one like ’Cluedo’ , the game as purchased is in one sense complete. You don’t have to make your own board, or write a backstory to Miss Scarlet, it’s all there. But of course that’s not the point, the game’s not really anything until it’s being played. People respond to some genres as an invitation to play in a way they don’t to others, they’re less likely to regard them as closed systems.

    As said, this comparison is ultimately inadequate. There’s an exhilarating joy I can get from conceptual art (at least good conceptual art), as if shackles have been lifted from my mind and possibilities are opening up before me. I get something rather different from something like ’Doctor Who’ which, even if it bends genre conventions from time to time, doesn’t really transcend them. And conceptual art doesn’t change the way I see science fiction or teatime viewing but the way I see the world! But it’s the best I can do for now.

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  9. ”Screw that. If you're an artist, your job is to make me care. I have a stack of novel this thick waiting to be read, I have papers I need to write and a blog to feed, and the second season of The West Wing to watch. An artist who wants some of my headspace needs to do some work to earn it.”

    It would be tempting to get into a “mine’s bigger than yours” argument here! Suffice to say, I have novels to read and a blog to feed too...

    That's not to say I'm not prepared to do some of the work for myself...”

    Perhaps I’m over-analysing a single word here, but I do find it significant that you use ‘work’ to my ‘play’. It’s almost as if you consider conceptual artists to be sneakily passing some of the hard work off onto the audience, like chefs serving up ingredients instead of the promised meals. I see them as explorers not servants. And I revel in the stimulus to think for myself, because I honestly find thinking pleasurable!

    PS Formatting in Blogger can be a bit doolally. Lately every time I post a comment I get a scary-looking error screen, but if I reconnect to the page the comment is there!

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  10. Perhaps I’m over-analysing a single word here, but I do find it significant that you use ‘work’ to my ‘play’. It’s almost as if you consider conceptual artists to be sneakily passing some of the hard work off onto the audience, like chefs serving up ingredients instead of the promised meals.


    Yes! That's it exactly! Good conceptual art is like a chef who presents me for the first time with an ingredient I've not encountered before -- my first sun-dried tomatoes, for example. I'm not saying it's valueless, but it's not cookery.

    And, yes, Blogger is truly horrible in many, many ways. You might want to consider moving to WordPress -- my experiences with it (on Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week and The Reinvigorated Programmer) have been mostly very positive.

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  11. Many years ago, I was at a wine-tasting with some friends. In the context of wine flavours, one of my my friends asked "What's the opposite of fruit" and, quick as a flash, another answered "gravy". That's always tickled me.

    In the same way, I enjoy the way this discussion has resulted in the conclusion that the opposite of Conceptual Art seems to be Doctor Who :-)

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  12. But... but... i was saying conceptual art was like 'Doctor Who'. (Admittedly I was then obliged to add "just not all that much", which could be said to have weakened my position...)

    I actually find the 'frustration at laziness' thing you mention from bog-standard genre writing, such as the afore-mentioned'Planet of the Drab.' Something in my mind recoils at the very non-ness of it all, and I feel obliged to think up something better to counter it. I finally stopped watching 'Torchwood' when I realised I was spending more time thinking how to make it better than watching it. I might as well just write something myself from scratch if I'm going to do that. That way it wouldn't have to have John Barrowman in it. When conceptual art is bad I spend the same amount of time thinking about it as it's creator - very little indeed.

    The trouble with any move now is that I have built up something of a 'history' at this address.

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  13. But... but... i was saying conceptual art was like 'Doctor Who'.

    Oh. You were? Well, in that case, I, I ... I, er, I mean HEY, LOOK OVER THERE! <hide/>

    I actually find the 'frustration at laziness' thing you mention from bog-standard genre writing, such as the afore-mentioned'Planet of the Drab.'

    Well, I'm glad we can wind up on a point of agreement :-) A point I've made many times in my own Who reviews is how exhilarating I find the sheer ambition of Doctor Who. That was the first episode I've seen where I didn't feel any of that. Hack work from start to finish.

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  14. I'm afraid the HIDe tag works no better here than the BLOCKQUOTE one...

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