Ambient Lightworks

Alongside his celebrated ambient Music for Airports, the musician and producer Brian Eno instigated another transit-centred new media project, his ambient video. Here Kevin Eden traces its origin, from Eno turning a video monitor on its side in a New York loft, to the realisation of a new form of artwork for public spaces.

by Kevin Eden

 

INTRODUCTION

The seven colours of the rainbow have increasingly been linked to the seven notes of the diatonic scale.. The French Jesuit Louis Betrand Castel describes inventing a 'colour organ' around 1750, and Scriabin, the Russian composer, had what is called synaesthesia; a strong colour association with musical tones, and composed 'Prometheus'(1914) to which an optional part for "Tastiera per luce", or keyboard of light, was written. In the visual arts various abstract film-makers and animators such as Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger and Len Lye, have used the idea of coloured light to accompany a musical soundtrack. However, these experiments all use the medium of film and, in the end, remain cinematic in conception and experience. Only Ludwig Hirschfeld-Macke, in his Bauhaus experiments of 1922, succeeded, albeit briefly, to use pure light projected onto coloured glass. Only by using acetylene flames along with various rheostat settings, changing light sources, dissolves and

fade-outs could he achieve anything purely abstract. With the advent of audio and video technology these two mediums could be thoroughly unified, and at the forefront of this pioneering experimentation is Brian Eno.

Pictures courtesy of Opal

LISTEN TO THE QUIET VOICE

Brian Eno is among the most influential and admired figures in today's popular music. He's produced many respected solo records and been a guiding influence on some of the best known recordings of the last twenty five years, including those of David Bowie, U2 and Talking Heads Yet outside of the rock music milieu Eno has forged another, and equally influential path. The source of this other path is often seen to originate from two events.

In 1975 two, not unconnected, events were to shift Eno's perspective of not only his own music making but the role it had to play with the listener. In January of that year Eno was involved in a road accident that left him bed-ridden for some time. A friend, visiting him, brought along a record of 18th Century harp music. After having put the record on Eno realised that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level and that one channel of the stereo had failed. Too weak to alter this situation, and as it was raining at the time, what Eno heard was a new way of listening to music - as part of the ambience of the environment: "just as the colour of the light and sound of the rain were parts of that ambience." Since this insight Eno has released six solo 'Ambient' albums. He's stated, "I believe we are moving towardsa position of using music and recorded sound with the variety of options that we presently use colour - we might simply use it to 'tint' the environment, we might use it 'diagrammatically', we might use it to modify our moods in almost subliminal ways. I predict that the concept of 'muzak', once it has shed its connotations of aural garbage, might enjoy a new and very fruitful lease of life. Muzak, you see, has one great asset: you don't have to pay attention to it. This strikes me as a generous humility with which to imbue a piece of music, though it is also nice to ensure that the music can offer rewards to those who do give it their attention."

This concept of music as ignorable as it is listenable was to have far wider consequences from when Eno made the above statement. The second event, was the publication of 'Oblique Strategies' with artist Peter Schmidt. 'Oblique Strategies' are a box-set of over 100 cards with a short, cryptic statement or aphorism. They are to be used as a technique to prompt intuition and escape blind alleys in various creative pursuits. Like many of Eno's procedures the idea for the cards had its origins in his experiences with Roxy Music. Working in the recording studio, Eno noticed that interesting ideas and sounds that arose by chance were constantly passed over and lost forever. Sometimes the musicians were so caught up in the task at hand that these special moments went completely unnoticed. To combat this tendency, Eno began to compile lists of reminders designed to open his eyes to the aleatory occurrences of the recording process. Eno transcribed 64 or so of these messages - some technical, some conceptual, some just plain cryptic - onto a deck of small cards. Whenever he was unable to decide what to do next he would pick one of the cards at random and try to apply it to his problem. Shortly afterwards, Eno discovered that his artist friend, Peter Schmidt, had produced a similar set of observations to aid his own work as a painter. The two decided to combine their cards, produce some new ones that did not arise specifically from their work, and publish the pack as a box-set. With the subtitle; 'Over one-hundred worthwhile dilemmas', Eno explained that their function was: "simply to bring the consciousness one has as a listener to ones consciousness as a composer - to deal with things in a much more studied way." Perhaps the best known of the cards is the first one that Eno formulated: 'Honour thy error as a hidden intention'. Its injunction to keep a watchful eye on the secret workings of chance could stand as an epitaph to Eno's entire career.

INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE

After Foundation Studies at Ipswich, Eno studied at Winchester Art School between 1966-69 for a Diploma in Fine Art. By this time he had read John Cage's 'Silence'. Cage had been one of the first composers to signal the shift of emphasis from the purity and repeatability of a work as a predetermined pattern of sounds, to the ideas of or process used to generate it. By concentrating on behaviour rather than results and process rather than product, as proposed by Cage, Eno's period at Winchester was spent delving into the textual processes that could be used to generate music, so that his approach to painting and sculpture became increasingly conceptual. During this period Eno constructed a number of 'sound sculptures', in which the distinction between the sculptures function as an art object, and its potential as a music generator became even more blurred. Throughout his career Eno has explored questions that have preoccupied him, in one form or another, since his time at art school: What is the function of contemporary art? What are the psychological and cultural origins of this kind of work? What does the audience gain from exposure to it? As a student Eno felt that the platitudes of the liberal humanist art establishments were completely out of key with his own experiences of art and music. For answers to his questions Eno looked partly to cybernetics, the science of organisation and control, and partly to biological theories of evolution and adaptation.

Over the years Eno has drawn inspiration from the works of a number of writers and thinkers, but two theorists were particularly important in the development of his ideas during the mid 1970's. The first, Stafford Beer, is the international authority on the cybernetics of management. The second, Morse Peckham, a Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. In Biology a species periodically throws up random mutations, but only those suited to dealing with the changing conditions of its local environment survive. Survival, in turn, reinforces the characteristic within the species as a whole; if the characteristic is more effective than the one it replaces it will eventually dominate. Like computers and the animal kingdom, humans also learn by mutation. But the behavioural innovation that new ways of doing things require are often resisted because they lead to unacceptable increases in the rate of error. To gain the full benefits of change, Eno thought, people would have to learn to accept and endure the temporary increases in error that arose from the process of mutation. In his 'Brain of the Firm: The Managerial Cybernetics of Organisation', Stafford Beer furthered the discussion on self-organising and mutating systems, whether they be ecological, biological or electronic. Beer uses the term 'heuristic'in his book; his definition specifies a method of behaving which will tend towards a goal which cannot be precisely specified because we know what it is, but not where it is. For example, an heuristic instruction to reach the top of a mountain would be 'keep going up', whereas an algorithmic instruction would be 'go up 200 yards, turn left at the rock, up another 400 yards, past the ravine...'. Heuristics prescribe general rules for reaching general goals. By arguing that for dealing with unthinkable systems, such as biological mutation, or computer-designed error it is normally impossible to give a full specification of a goal, so that moving in some general direction will leave you better off (by some definite criterion) than you were before. By thinking in terms of heuristics is at once a way of coping with proliferating variety. The one heuristic of Beer's that Eno still refers to when discussing all of his working methods is: 'Instead of trying to organise it in full detail, you organise it only somewhat; you then ride on the dynamics of the system in the direction you want to go.' By now Eno was convinced that contemporary art must have something to do with biological processes, and with the modification of behavioural patterns. Exactly where this link lay continued to perplex until, in 1970, he discovered 'Mans Rage For Chaos: Biology, Behaviour and the Arts' by Morse Peckham. Eno was to spend the next four years coming to terms with its contents. In his book Peckham attempts to establish a relationship between art forms that many scholars have classified as quite different phenomena: poetry, painting, architecture, and music. He does this by challenging the widespread assumption that the social and psychological function of the arts is to transform the chaos of human experience into a reassuring vision of order and unity. The opposite, he argues, is the case. Day to day human experience is not chaotic. Our perceptions are continually engaged in imposing order on the flux of information that reaches us through our senses. If this did not happen we would be powerless to act. In Peckham's view, what art really offers the perceiver is an escape from the orderliness of life. The arts, far from being characterised by order, exhibit a profound disorderliness: art creates expectations in its audience precisely in order to violate them. 'The distinguishing mark of the perceiver's transaction with the work of art is the discontinuity of experience, not continuity; disorder, not order; emotional disturbance, not emotional catharsis...'Peckham wrote. All of the arts, whatever their formal dissimilarities, expose the perceiver to this kind of disorientation. Two terms used by Peckham in the course of his discussion were especially important to Eno. The first of these is the concept of 'cognitive tension'. This is the feeling of deep unease that results when we realise that our mental models of how the world works - the assumptions by which we live - are not adequate to describe the world as it really is. Peckham argues that high degrees of cognitive tension can only be endured in conditions of 'psychic insulation'. By this he means settings which are sufficiently cut off from the rest of life to allow the individual to lower his defences and expose himself to disorientation. To Peckham - and to Eno - the arts provide their audience with a safe area where there is no physical risk, and little real psychic risk. In the insulated settings in which works of art are created and perceived, artists and their audiences can experiment with ideas, attitudes, and behaviour that might, in real life, have disastrous consequences. In a phrase of Peckham's that became Eno's credo during this period: 'Art is the exposure to the tensions and problems of a false world so that man may endure exposing himself to the tensions and problems of the real world.' The idea that art has a biological function, as an 'adaptational mechanism' necessary for our survival as a species, went a long way to resolving the uncertainty that Eno felt about the relevance of the arts. As Peckham puts it: 'Art is a rehearsal for the orientation that makes innovation possible.' Throughout the 70's and 80's Eno tried to put into practice, through his music, many of the lessons learnt either at art school, or through reading.

IN TOTAL DARKNESS, OR IN A VERY LARGE ROOM, VERY QUIETLY

In 1978, whilst living and working in New York, one of those chance incidents that Eno thrives on occurred. According to Eno, "a suspicious looking character" came into the recording studio and asked him if he wanted to buy some video equipment very cheap. Eno accepted and anxious to try the equipment out he set up the camera without consulting the handbook. As he didn't have a tripod for the camera and it would not stand upright he laid it sideways on his window-sill overlooking the rooftops of New York. Naturally the picture was sideways on too, so Eno turned the TV screen on its side. What he saw was, "the most exciting thing I'd ever seen on TV...unlike any other video I'd seen before...First of all there was nothing happening, which I'd never seen on TV before...it was looking to downtown Manhattan and there were the Twin Towers, the tops of a few buildings, and clouds, and there on the screen were the Twin Towers, clouds and an occasional bird would fly by." As an original Panasonic industrial camera, it did not have many of the standard light, focus and colour pre-sets that many new ones have. Therefore the image he saw looked strange because the camera hadn't been set up correctly and was incapable of getting anything right; the colours shifted and the contrast was over dramatised.

Each day Eno left the camera tor ecord for 2 - 4 hours and in the evening he would watch it back. Sometimes Eno would focus on the studio of the School of Art across the road and watch the students going about their work. Looking at these videos in the way he did; leaving them to run without having to sit and watch them constantly, because they were so slow in terms of action, Eno felt he had developed a new medium of video art: the video painting. He wrote "I want paintings, I don't want drama, I don't want action or narrative, I want pictures." From this seed Eno developed his 'video paintings', accompanied by his own 'Ambient' music. In July 1979 he was offered the chance to exhibit at The Kitchen, New York. By now Eno was using 3 or 4 monitors to create a piece entitled 'Two Fifth Avenue'. A critic for The Village Voice was somewhat perplexed: 'Is it music, is it sculpture, is it video, or is it some strange personal hybrid of all three? Whatever, it's like seeing Monet's 'Rouen Cathedral' happening in real time - the buildings appear like constantly woven and re-woven plaids and ecstatic chanting, like scores of unseen angels, giving the ensemble a spiritual aspect.'

Throughout 1980 Eno exhibited 'Two Fifth Avenue' across America. A most unlikely invitation came in June when he was asked to install it in the Marine Air Terminal of New York's La Guardia Airport. By now Eno had released ambient music album 'Music For Airports'. The music accompanied the video. "When I go into an airport I always find myself buying some magazine that I really don't want to read and sitting there getting fed up and feeling nervy and so on." He was to say. "In an airport you have this captive group of people who don't really have options; so you can create a place where you can introduce some sort of meditative calm for a while. I guess I'm looking for some feeling of luscious silence, a feeling of solitariness."8 'Two Fifth Avenue' was activated by timers - from 7 to 8 a.m. and 9 to 10 a.m., and from 4 to 5 p.m. and 6 to 7 p.m. - to coincide with the terminals peak hours. Short breaks in the hour-long performance allowed the tape to rewind. Reactions were mixed, ranging from enraptured enthusiasm to impatience and total nonchalance. But Eno remained resolute in his plan to bring 'meditative calm'. "Soon after the monitors go on, you start to realise that nothing's going to happen. It lets you off the hook in a way. You know you can sit there and look around and drift back to it whenever you want. So your approach to it is quite different from reading a magazine, where you're put in the position of having to search and concentrate all the time."

The structure of 'Two Fifth Avenue' reflected the function of the terminal and airport: tone, images, people and planes arrive and depart, each group with its own logic in apparently random patterns. The whole is at once an orchestrated unit and a series of disconnected entities. In this abstract sense the work relates to the airport, or in a similar sense, a train or bus station, restaurants or museums. In an airport you catch yourself listening to patterns and textures of sound. Conversations and machine noise circle around; climaxes, lulls, and ironic sequences of events draw your attention to abstract features of the environment and away from the details and mechanisms of your situation. You begin to notice architecture, music, light and space, and the dynamics of human interaction.Because 'Two Fifth Avenue' was entirely open ended it drew attention to these aspects of the airport; it is an extension of the traditional role of the airport facilities.

By the end of 1980 Eno had developed another 3 or 4 monitor piece entitled 'White Fence', which was shown, albeit briefly, in Grand Central Station, New York. In 1981 Eno had constructed a new piece, using elements of the previous two, to create a single screen video painting, 'Mistaken Memories Of Mediaeval Manhattan', which has been shown in numerous exhibitions all over the world. Whilst the first two video pieces were mostly of buildings, 'Mistaken Memories' was of horizons and skyscapes; drifting clouds, rain, smoke, light and shadows, birds and aircraft. Comprising of seven vertical format pieces, all using Eno's own music from 'Music For Airports' and his 1982 album 'On Land', the pieces: Dawn, Menace, Towers, Light, Empire, Appearance, and Lafayette range from 3 minutes to nearly 13 minutes in length . One critic wrote that: 'the lack of separation between the elements [audio and visual] suggests that this tape is less a rigorous investigation into the conditions of ambience, and more an introduction of the devices of the popular media into an art gallery context.'10 These notions could not have been further from Eno's mind: "The pieces and music that accompany them arise from a mixture of nostalgia and hope, and from the desire to make a quiet place for myself. They evoke in me a sense of 'what could have been' and hence generate a nostalgia for a different future. It is as though I am extracting from this reality (the one the camera is pointed at) the seeds of another, creating a shift of emphasis. My assumption is that by giving it attention it will be nourished and will thus be seen to exist: that which is recognised has a reality."

In July 1983 Eno accepted an invitation to provide an inaugural exhibition at La Foret Museum, Akasaka, Tokyo. Arriving in Japan with little more than some tapes and a handful of ideas jotted down in his notebooks, Eno set about creating an environment that would fill the immense gallery space. He was unsure how to expand his usual 3 or 4 monitor works into a large-scale installation. His intention was to construct a multimedia 'landscape' constituted of 'oases of mood', and began by putting together 24 soundtracks of his ambient music. These were fed into 42 speakers, of varying sizes and shapes, which were hung throughout the gallery at diagonals from ceiling to floor. The soundtrack, however, was not purely musical; Eno added naturalistic elements to his quiet melodic structures, among them a recording of frogs (which repeated every 25 minutes), another of crickets, which played through tiny speakers that were de-activated whenever a set of photo-cells was triggered by someone's approach. Visually, the overall atmosphere of the installation was effected by two grids of a hundred spotlights, each of them focussed on the ground in such a way that its patch of light would overlay with that of its pair on the other grid, thus inducing a 'fringe' whose intensity was adjusted, very slowly, by a control panel of dimmer switches. The 36 video monitors showed both old and new images, assembled in an apparently haphazard manner. They included sequences of landscapes, beach scenes, waves, skylines, cityscapes, and a white fence, as well as a set of nudes and portraits. The latter originally eleven seconds in duration, were slowed down and extended to five minutes, and like the other videotapes were repeated constantly and not synchronised to each other or the soundtrack. "The way the sound installation worked was that each of the speakers has a unique sound source. Therefore you get music that is different at every point in space. If you stand at one point you're going to hear mostly two speakers, and you're going to hear vestigial versions of those further away. If you stand in the middle you're likely to hear everything. So that's the mix point, but it isn't the preferred point, there isn't a preferred point with this music, the idea is that at any point in the place should operate in some way. So it was different at every point in space. I also wanted it to be different at every point in time as well. All I did was use four auto-replay recorders, so when they get to the end of the tape it just turns round and plays the other side, like a very long loop. So I just made very long loops, one was say, 23 minutes, others 27 minutes, etc, and then I set them all running. What that means is that the overlap is always different, they effectively never repeat. I calculated it would finally repeat after 112 weeks!" It could be said that this installation was not only avisual culmination of ideas that Eno had been pursuing with his video paintings, but also the final outcome beyond his own masterly ambient album, 'On Land', where he conceived making a landscape in which to construct, in music: "a geology, and then a geography, and then a landscape that sits on top of it. And then I wanted to populate these places with creatures, some of which might be, eventually, human."

STATE THE PROBLEM IN WORDS AS CLEARLY AS POSSIBLE

By the time of the Japanese installation Eno had accepted an invitation to exhibit at the ICA, Boston, in December 1983. Eno immediately agreed on condition that it was a joint exhibition with his painter friend, Michael Chandler. As the date for the exhibition grew closer Eno had doubts that his video paintings would work when placed in a gallery with Chandlers paintings,

which were generally very small, painted in dark, muted, soft colours with tiny detail, therefore

requiring a certain kind of attention. Eno thought that placed against his videos with all their colour glaring out that no one would pay attention to the paintings and just watch the monitors. His immediate thought was to create a video piece that would not conflict with attention on the paintings. Writing to Chandler, Eno expressed his doubts and discussed the idea of creating a piece that could make the same claims on one's attention as a painting does. "You don't sit and stare at a painting; you look at it, you move around it, you look away, you look at it again. You constantly alter your position in relation to it. A painting doesn't have the magnetic and stabilising effect that a television screen does. The other thing about a painting is that you don't look into it, if it's a contemporary painting, whereas you do look into a television screen, you ignore the container and look into the image. And in fact it is an image, a TVscreen is nearly always used as a re-presentation of another reality." Eno realised that the only way for his video pieces to work with the paintings was if the video screens could somehow illuminate the pictures by using the monitor in the way a light bulb works. By the end of the letter Eno was exploring the possibilities of using the TV as a light transmitter, not as an image transmitter. "It's very flexible; whereas light bulbs exist to be still and mono-coloured, TV images exist to constantly change, and to change at whatever speed you choose. It's not easy to work with lamps and spotlights and computer controllers, but video is a highly flexible medium. When you make up a video tape, what you do is to say to the television set, at this point in time you will be blue here, yellow here, green there... and this next point you'll be green there, pink to purple there... The important thing about this understanding of video was that it solved the problem at hand because it meant that I could make objects, and they really used video and justified the use of video, without becoming TV."16 In fact, what Eno constructed was five card and perspex ziggurats entitled 'Crystals'. These structures were constructed on upward facing TV monitors. By means of specially prepared video tapes the light from the monitor was directed into these structures which thus underwent continuous colour change. They were reminiscent of looking at stained glass windows and showed Eno's first shift towards complete abstraction. Whilst in San Francisco, in 1984, Eno had made seven videos of a model friend, Christine Alicino. The important innovation with this video, entitled 'Thursday Afternoon', was Eno's concept of video as a 'painting'. That is to say, one doesn't normally sit in front of a painting for hours upon end, whereas TV is usually associated with this habit. Again, using the vertical format, 'Thursday Afternoon' is a series of seven extremely slow moving pictures of a female nude, that are reminiscent of Impressionist painting. The video then enhances a room, as a painting would, but is not necessarily its focal point. "The eventual acceptance of this approach (to TV) presupposes changes not only in the viewing habits, but also in the physical design of the television monitor itself. Among many other possibilities, one can expect flat screens in a wide range of sizes which can be wall-mounted and placed in a wide variety of locations, so that a house might contain several picture screens, each with its own built-in playback system."

Pictures courtesy of Opal

By allowing the viewer the option of watching or ignoring the video piece Eno had successfully developed the concept of ambient video to accompany his own ambient music. A month earlier Eno was able to further develop his video-art at 'The Luminous Image' exhibition, held at The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. As well as exhibiting 'Crystals', originally made for Boston, Eno introduced a new form of video-painting. Rather than constructing a three-dimensional structure over the upturned monitors, Eno again used the specially prepared video tapes and the light they transmitted to project onto a flat opaque sheet of plexiglass. The light from the screen was directed by folded paper and cardboard guides onto the surfaces located several inches in front of the monitors, which in turn are completely concealed. [See Appendix A] Due to the extremely slow and controlled rate of change in the colour and hue of these translucent paintings visitors didn't have to wander round and look at each piece but could sit down in the semi-darkness and stay for as long as they wished.

 

Pictures courtesy of Opal

Over the next two years Eno honed and developed these 'paintings' with installations across Europe creating perhaps 30 in total. By 1986 a further development, 'Living Room', had been added to the installations. These constructions were on a much larger scale than monitors would allow. Using coloured light projected onto them the intensity of each colour was automatically adjusted in such a way that no configuration was ever likely to repeat. Placed in a secret corner of the main installation, viewers could sit on and watch these bars of iridescent light flare into life, to gradate and fade, whilst speakers in the corners of the room relayed Eno's ambient music. Like his 1983 Japan installation, Eno was now utilising multi-speaker systems with various sound sources to create unique sound clusters as the visitors wandered around. In these beautiful installations the setting is active, not passive. The environment is more that the sum of its parts; it is the experience. These environments have to be given time. The effects are physical and cumulative. Once the visitor has adjusted to both the low light levels and the slow-moving rhythms, it is not uncommon to stay for several hours, moving contemplatively from zone to zone. The installations are tranquil - they reduce stress and offer a kind of secular solace

. Pictures courtesy of Opal

With this in mind Eno began to formulate his ideas towards the concept of 'The Quiet Club'. Eno first intimated at this when he gave a talk following the opening of an installation in Copenhagen in 1986. "I used to go to clubs now and again, but I gradually stopped because I couldn't find one that did the kind of thing I wanted. The accent on a club is towards somehow speeding you up, presumably with the idea of obliterating what is assumed to be an otherwise average existence. Well I wanted the opposite of that. I wanted to find a place that would actually be slower, bigger, more open and would make me think in some interesting way. Clubs, in fact, prevent me from thinking. So I started to make music in places that would, I thought, create this atmosphere." "The Quiet Club,' if fully developed, would be somewhere between an art gallery and a reading room. A place where people could meet and talk, or simply be alone to watch the video paintings. A space to allow people to think in creative, and hopefully, new and innovative ways.

From 1986 to 1989 Eno's installations were shown across the world using various permutations of the sculptures, paintings and 'Living Room', usually under the title 'Place #...', depending on whichever was next. In 1988 'Latest Flames' and 'Relics, Charms and Living Rooms From the Recent Past Found Amongst Strange Trees' were premiered in San Francisco and Berlin respectively. They showed a continued sophistication for the medium both in terms of design and structure and in the use of colour and colour theory. In May 1990 Eno made a rare British installation in the basement of the Todd Gallery Soho, London. Entitled 'Contemporary Data Lounge' comprised of an oblong monitor overlaid with perspex screens, various light tubes and sculptural shapes, and a grid laid on the floor, the 'Data Lounge' was suffused with the slow change of colour, shapes, and symbols that are the stock of Eno's installations. An almost religious atmosphere was emphasised by the ambient soundtrack."...I've thought a lot about public spaces and how they aren't used very well. They're kind of ignored spaces, nobody thinks they're wonderful to put their work into... I like the idea that people walking through Soho could have a few minutes of a different kind of experience form their normal day." In June of the same year, Eno also created a large installation using projected light onto the Triennale Building, in Parco Sempione, Milan. This installation reflected Eno's interest in Darwinism, the use of natural sounds and random choice and was called 'Natural Selections: Eclipses, Mutations and Living Data'. Using computers to control faders on the slide projectors, various colours and images were projected across 12 windows that slowly changed and developed throughout the evening.

CONSULT OTHER SOURCES

"As the works developed I became more certain that the primary material of the video artist is not stories. It is not concepts. It is not even images. It is light. by manipulating light the video

artist can tell stories, display concepts and generate images. But he can also simply play with light. Video technology presents the artist with the most versatile ight-controlling machinery available." With this statement Eno has consciously distanced himself from a large body of contemporary video-artists who, in the main, use the video monitor to either construct sculptural works or to display, or relate, a televisual experience. What Eno has done is align himself with a group of artists whose non-objective, non-narrative, non-figurative works date back to the first quarter of the 20th Century. In particular, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich stand out as the artists whose use of colour, form and shape can be seen as an influence on Eno. He readily acknowledges this influence and sees himself as a contemporary inheritor of their tradition. When asked how he felt about the criticism that his videos are merely decorative Eno responded by discussing the works of Kandinsky from 1912-15, and Malevich. "I find it revealing that Kandinsky acquired the license for what he was doing [1912-15] through having a background in decorative arts - his fairy tales, illustrations, Jugendstil, mythologies, and so on. In those contexts you're allowed to be fanciful and brightly coloured without having to defend it. In a way it was decorative art, and decorative art has an enviable

freedom in some respects...When I was about 9 or 10 I got my first oil painting kit and I started doing Malevichs. And I keep having this feeling that video is in about the same position as painting was in 1906 - just on the brink of doing something really significant. I'm now finding extraordinary possibilities that I hadn't foreseen. At first I found it extremely difficult to take all this technology, which was designed to present images in a more and more perfect way, and say to myself, 'Actually I'm not going to use it for images, I'm just going to use it for light.' It seemed to be denying the essence of the medium. But I was reading a book on Kandinsky, and it occurred to me that, to judge by his writing, he went through something very similar. With a huge tradition of figurative painting behind him, Kandinsky probably thought: 'Can I really get away with painting pictures that aren't figurative?'." In June 1987 Eno wrote a brief article entitled 'Only Decorative Art?', after overhearing someone say that the Boyle Family's work was 'only decorative': "...I began wondering, what a strange set of values had led us to the position where we were prepared to make such a firm distinction between 'Fine Art' and 'Decorative Art', and where the first group are accorded all the respect and admiration, befitting their genius, while the second group are rarely discussed, and certainly not in the same league. "...To erect a fence at an arbitrary point along this axis is a disservice to everybody: it downgrades the validity of those on one side, and it confines the imagination and usefulness of those on the other: they become frightened of being seen as entertaining, or populist."

On a political level Eno is adamant to stress that his work does have political resonances, in that he sees it more as a behavioural changer, rather than a didactic tool. "The decision to stop seeing yourself as the centre of the world, to see yourself as part of the greater flow of things, as having limited options and responsibility for your actions - the converse of the 'me' generation, 'do your own thing' idea - that is political theory."

Eno has argued that the problem with existing political systems is that they disregard the problems of adaptation, and fail to recognise that the environment will develop and change regardless of their attempts to control it. Like Stafford Beer, Eno believes that it is the structure of the system that ultimately governs behaviour. If you want to change the behaviour of the system you must first change its structure. "To attempt to invest art with a political role is a paradoxical proposition which attempts to say 'I will direct my non-goal directed behaviour

towards this specific end'. It's a confusion of terms." "There are plenty of other ways of being political. Anything that creates change... or encourages a questioning of codes at any level, seems to me to be a political statement. Anything that suggests different forms of personal relationships is a political statement."34 The belief that Art serves as a behavioural changer ties into a number of statements of Morse Peckhams that Eno picked up and adopted: First, Art has a biological function, it is an 'adaptational mechanism' necessary for the survival of the species.' and second that 'Art is a rehearsal for the orientation that makes innovation possible.' Whilst Peckham's statements are theoretically abstract they can be easily applied to Eno's own working practices, and in particular, his video installations. By letting the audience initially overcome the disorientation of the installations; the low light, the slow pace of the music, the slowly moving visuals, Eno allows them to question how they fit into, or interact with it. Eno himself, whilst setting up the installations, has been constantly surprised at unforeseen events, occasional clusters of sound and/or visuals that he could not have planned for. "I think one of the most interesting experiences that art can give you is the experience of uncertainty, of feeling simultaneously moved and seduced by something, but also of not knowing why... What is it about that particular twist in that melody that gets you every time? Or the way this colour works against that?...Now that feeling, that mixture of bliss underlined by a kind of uncertainty is a great feeling, that's the one I want to rehearse all the time... I want to be able to be in unfamiliar situations and not find that too threatening." Eno's friend and collaborator the late Peter Schmidt, once said: "One of the functions of art is to offer a more desirable reality; a model as it were, of another style of existence with its own pace and its own cultural reference.' Eno believes this statement is far more wide reaching than simple escapism; as it continually urges the audience to compare the reality they have with that created by the work. "I see nothing wrong with escapism... why shouldn't we escape? We're all perfectly happy to accept the idea of going on holiday, nobody calls that escapism... I think what's interesting about the idea of using art to create other realities, more desirable realities, is that it can give you a mental place from which to pull your own reality. You can start to pull towards that, start to practice ways of dealing with things, start to internalise that place, but you don't always have to have it with you. I think there are hundreds of thousands of realities, and we build new ones all the time. That's what humans do, they constantly build realities, and constantly get rid of them. That's what we have to do... To pretend that this is some way artificial, and that ultimately the destiny of man is to sit down and find the one reality that works for all occasions, doesn't make sense to me. The sense that I want to make is to increase my vocabulary of realities, to have more and more of them to draw on, to be able to mix them together, to collage them, not to put them in hierarchies, to be able to say this is more important now because it does the job now." These 'models of reality' shape and mould the audience's behaviour and interaction within their culture. By being exposed to something that does not fit these models the audience is open to disorientation (cognitive tension) and has to, therefore, adapt their behavioural patterns and in

turn influence changes in their culture. The fact that people are willing to sit quietly for some lengths of time in such an absorbed way, without any obvious reference points, or need for narrative or explanations is something new and important."... my central concern is what happens to people when they see one of my pieces, what they feel and experience. I'm interested in making these things work for people and want to know how comfortable it is to be in the place. Is the temperature right? Can someone sit there? Do they get a good view of things? These are not the kind of things artists have been trained to think about for most of this century. It has, however, been the concern of people putting on more spectacular, less arty events - things like circuses and fairs. I don't feel myself to be part of the fine art world - what I'm doing merely fringes on it."

Eno's ability to combine and gather together many, at times disparate, elements to create new conditions is at the heart of all his work. His early records were not rock music, but records about rock. His ambient music is the fulfilment of a search for 'organic' unpredictability and grain'. It's been called soporific, boring, waterbed music, but it isn't. Unlike 'New Age' music's flawless emulsions, Eno's ambient is fabulously complex. It can be enjoyed at any level of concentration, either subliminally or as an utterly absorbing, engulfing experience. His audio-visual installations cannot be simply described as rooms (large or small) with music and light sculptures, but are about creating a womblike environment one enters into where a feeling of mystery or unease is created; where rationale can be suspended for whatever duration and allow the audience to explore. One popular music paper called him a 'freelance theorist, random ideas generator, agent provocateur and gentleman musician'. With this role Eno has pursued the idea that exciting things happen on the edges of cultural space, rather than at the centre. That by navigating situations, encouraging experimentation and dabbling, new and far more interesting results occur. He believes that one should go out to an extreme and then retreat to a more comfortable position. He ultimately believes that the artists role and function is to acknowledge that the world is a confusing place, and that one either becomes frightened by it or celebrates it in some way. "One of the motives of being an artist is to recreate a condition where you're out of your depth, where you're uncertain, no longer controlling yourself, yet you're generating something, like surfing as opposed to digging a tunnel. Tunnel-digging activity is necessary, but what artists like, if they still like what they're doing, is the surfing."

APPENDIX A

TECHNICAL DETAILS OF CONSTRUCTION OF VIDEO PAINTINGS

The shapes made within the construction trap a group of colours within the space between the video screen and the internal surface of the structure.

Unlike paint, which when mixed together aspires to black, light when mixed aspires to white.

The video screen itself projects various colourfields that each go through various permutations.

e.g. TV monitor divided into 4 colourfields.

(1) moves through violet to yellow and back in 2min 11sec.

(2) from magenta to green and back in 1min 36 sec.etc.

Different colourfields configurating as well as time cycles can be used.

VENICE 1 (1985) 120cm by 30cm.

Illuminated by 20" TV monitor.

Plexiglass surface. Inside the construction of cardboard, folded paper and aluminium foil, internally lit from TV monitor.

TV monitor consists of slowly moving series of colourfields (see above). Areas of light are trapped within internal structures and aspire to a new colour. Other areas create shadows, or hues due to the surface of the construction being larger than the monitor.

Brightness decreases from (L) to (R) as monitor installed at (L) hand side of screen. (R) hand very subdued colours/hues.

 

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