It always surprises me that in most galleries there are few provisions for people who might want to stay for longer than a cursory glance. The assumption is that people visit galleries like sightseers—a quick glance, read the label, and then you’re away. You aren’t expected to stand in front of one painting for very long before you move on to the next thing. My shows aren’t like that—partly because there isn’t a “next thing.” I want to encourage people to stay in one place for a while.1Eno, in Steven Leckart, “The Brian Eno Evolution” (interview), Wired Magazine 16, no. 6 (May 2008). …
— Brian Eno
In 1978, Eno left England and moved to New York shortly after the release of Music for Airports. The critically acclaimed album established Eno at the forefront of experimental music, and introduced the idea of ambient music to a mass audience who embraced a radically new approach to listening. In New York, he continued to expand the range of his artistic language by bringing together his sonic and visual investigations. Over several bodies of work, he began to experiment with video as a way of playing with perceptual phenomena such as light, scale, and mass. Video was at the epicenter of a new art movement by the time Eno landed in New York. Many of the artists working with the medium were also involved in conceptual art, performance, and experimental film. From an academic perspective, too, the importance of video art was assisted in no small part by the publication of Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema in 1970. It was the first book to consider video as a serious art form and was influential in establishing the larger field of media arts, which the author perceived as an “intermedia” discipline that was “nothing less than the nervous system of mankind."2Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1970), 41.
Eno’s inspiration for these early works was the city skyline and the building facades in his neighborhood. Soon after purchasing his new video camera, he set up a series of experiments shooting directly out of the window of his Lower Manhattan apartment.3Eno’s acquisition of a video camera and recording equipment came about by happenstance. He was working with the Talking Heads on Fear of Music when … Without a tripod to balance the camera, he placed it on the window ledge and pointed it toward the opposite building. Because of the camera’s curved design, he had to place it on its side. When he turned on the TV to view the image, Eno realized that the recorded picture was rotated. He said, “I turned the TV—the size of a washing machine—onto its side, and there, on the screen, was something I’d never seen before. It was like a painting, but it changed. The sideways-on screen was an essential part of this: it took the TV out of narrative space and into picture space."4Ibid.
Despite considering video art “completely unmemorable,” Eno found himself among a growing community of artists using video and television as a creative medium.5Ibid. Many artists found video more appealing than film, in part because the technology provided instant playback capabilities and video cameras came with built-in features that facilitated modifying and editing the image. While video art shared with film the moving image, it focused for the most part on processes specific to the medium, dispensing with actors, dialogue, narrative, and other plot devices. The Korean artist Nam June Paik, who is widely regarded as a pioneer in video art, was active in Fluxus from its inception, and as such maintained a studio practice that synthesized visual arts, music, performance, and eventually television and video.6Paik was trained as a classical pianist in his native Korea and later studied music history in Germany, where he encountered John Cage, Karlheinz … His earliest experiments with the nascent medium involved using magnets to distort and manipulate the flow of the broadcast image across the television screen, thus creating loops and patterns of infinite variation. Peter Campus, another pioneer, deliberately distorted the image by sending video signals through a mixer to create Double Vision (1971). Joan Jonas’s seminal work Vertical Roll (1972) intentionally used the “vertical hold” as a formal device to reframe and distort the image. By the late 1970s, however, video was less concerned with image manipulation and distortion and became increasingly focused on real-time explorations of conceptual propositions.
Eno shot his videos from his apartment window; without benefit of intervention such as editing, panning, or changing focus, he recorded what was in front of the camera for an unspecified period of time. The first series became 2 Fifth Avenue, a linear four-screen installation subsequently shown at museums and alternative spaces throughout the United States. The work’s title was taken from the address of the building across the street, and the music came from his ambient album Music for Airports. In a simple but crude form of experimental postproduction, the color controls of the monitors on which the work was shown were adjusted to wash out the picture, producing a high-contrast black-and-white image in which color appeared only in the darkest areas. Through this simple process, Eno manipulated color as though painting, observing, “Video for me is a way of configuring light, just as painting is a way of configuring paint. What you see is simply light patterned in various ways. For an artist, video is the best light organ that anyone has ever invented.”7Eno, quoted in Peter Nasmyth, “New Life of Brian,” Observer (London), January 17, 1988. With time as a major underlying theme, Eno’s visual works are no different in their aesthetic intentions than his music.
Music for Airports was composed, in part, by recording individual notes on separate tapes that were then looped into different lengths. The album partially owes its rich texture and varied repetition to the layered collage of notes that—when run simultaneously—fall into different configurations depending on the lengths of the individual tracks. The composition was prompted by Eno’s experience at a German airport, where he found the surrounding noise at the terminal anxiety-producing and was determined to create an alternative ambiance constructed from music. Eno stated, “Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”8Brian Eno, liner notes for “Ambient Music” (September 1978), Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Opal, 2004, CD. In contrast to conventional canned music, which erases the distinctions between the idiosyncrasies of specific environments and replaces it with homogenized pabulum for mass consumption anywhere, Eno’s ambient music is instead concerned with site-specificity, as reflected in the album title.9This ongoing interest would be explored in later albums such as On Land, Apollo, and Music for Films. It is no surprise then that 2 Fifth Avenue was exhibited as a four-monitor work in the Marine Air Terminal of New York’s LaGuardia Airport. If for John Cage music could be created using random and ordinary sounds from the environment, for Eno, the environment could be created in the music.
The video portraits of the Manhattan skyline continued the following year in a new series, Mistaken Memories of Mediaeval Manhattan (1980-81). With the camera now located in his new thirteenth-floor Broome Street apartment, Eno made a series of seven video paintings with a total running time of forty-seven minutes. Once again, necessity dictated that he reposition the camera from the conventional landscape orientation to a portrait format, turning it on its side to capture in real time the living image of the city. A technical problem caused by damage to the tube that converts the optical image to an electrical signal lent the works an unexpected impressionistic tone, compounded by rain and clouds moving across the skyline. The works’ muted light and atmospheric sensibility recall Monet’s paintings of Rouen Cathedral, in which the artist depicted the edifice under different temporal and seasonal conditions, reflecting subtle atmospheric changes. Although he did not anticipate the problem, Eno had been well trained by Ascott and others to embrace random accidents and errors, and this case was no different. Rather than jettisoning the damaged camera, Eno instead worked with what he referred to as a “unique paintbrush” for many more months.10Eno, in Michael Oliver, “Kaleidoscope” (interview with Brian Eno), BBC Radio 4 (broadcast January 1, 1986), …
Like Warhol’s film Empire (1964), each video in Eno’s Mistaken Memories of Mediaeval Manhattan series consists of one continuous, unedited shot. Warhol’s silent black-and-white footage of the Empire State Building at night has a running time of eight hours and five minutes. As Catherine Russell has written, “In its durational aesthetic, ‘nothing happens’ in the film because ‘nothing happens’ in the quotidian realm of the referent.”11Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 162. Warhol films such as Empire, with its fixed camera position and temporal dimension, would have a resounding influence on experimental filmmakers, who “reworked his long-take, fixed-camera aesthetic into what came to be known as structural film.”12Michael O’Pray, “The Big Wig,” Sight and Sound 9 (October 1999): 20. Eno’s videos explored many of the same formal qualities, revealing an aspect of the city that is rarely recognized, “New York at street level is a busy city, but . . . it’s actually a very slow city at sky level.”13Eno, in Sue Lawley, “Desert Island Discs” (interview), BBC Radio 4 (broadcast January 27, 1991), … Both Warhol’s and Eno’s works turn time into an aesthetic gambit as the camera captures imperceptibly passing clouds and changing shadows. Neither could be considered eventful, and neither has story nor plot, but the temporal dimension of both works calls these very concerns into question as a rebuttal of the inherently narrative conventions of cinematic time. The single, long-take shot dispenses with edits and, in so doing, dispenses with illusory time, upon which cinematic narrative is constructed. In the work of both Warhol and Eno, time is not illusory but concrete—experienced in the duration of the work.14Malcolm Le Grice, Abstract Film and Beyond (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977), 93.For Warhol, using slow motion—that is, projecting the film at a slower frame rate than that at which it had been filmed—facilitated this investigation and rendered the nonevents captured by film even more imperceptible. For Eno, turning the video camera on its side represented a shift from narrative to pictorial space, and with it came an attendant shift in time. These early videos were created in response to the question, “What type of image would not presuppose the time and attention characteristically accorded a narrative structure?”15Eno, quoted in David Ross, Matrix 44: Brian Eno, exh. cat. (Berkeley: University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley, 1981), 3 Here, as in 2 Fifth Avenue, time becomes mutable and elastic.
Adams Sitney coined the term structural film in 1969 and would subsequently elaborate the concept in the 1974 publication Visionary Film. In the work of filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Paul Sharits, and Michael Snow, Sitney discerned four characteristics typical of this shared cinematic practice (yet seldom all found in a single film): a fixed camera position, the flicker effect, loop printing, and rephotography off the screen.16See P. Adams Sitney, “Structural Film,” Film Culture 47 (Summer 1969): 1–10; and Visionary Film: The American Avant-garde (Oxford: Oxford … Later critics would add to this debate, contributing to the theorization of structural-materialist cinema as an alternative practice. Malcolm Le Grice, both a theorist and a filmmaker, expanded Sitney’s analysis to include an emphasis on celluloid as a material, the projection as an event, and duration as a concrete dimension.17Le Grice, Abstract Film and Beyond, 88. By emphasizing material and temporal aspects, Le Grice argued, these filmmakers subverted cinematic illusionism. For Le Grice, the recognition of time as film’s “primary dimension” was “equivalent to the abandonment of deep, illusory perspective in painting,” and as such this materialist practice was also a minimalist one.18Ibid., 95.
Eno’s video series incorporated music from On Land, the fourth and final album in his ambient series, which would be released in 1982. For Eno, On Land is about “the idea of making music that is in some way related to a sense of place—landscape, environment.”19Brian Eno, liner notes for Ambient 4: On Land (1982, revised February 1986), Music. hyperreal.org/artists/brian_eno/onland-txt.html. The music for these video painting installations is played at comparatively low levels so that at times the sound may be subsumed by the noise of the surrounding environment, swallowed by people talking or cars driving past. Eno has spoken frequently about the influence and theories of the French composer and pianist Erik Satie, who coined the term furniture music in 1917. The term described the live performance of background music that blends and mixes with the sound in the room.
We must bring about a music which is like furniture—a music, that is, which will be part of the noises of the environment, will take them into consideration. I think of it as melodious, softening the noises of the knives and forks at dinner, not dominating them, not imposing itself. It would fill up those heavy silences that sometime fall between friends dining together. It would spare them the trouble of paying attention to their own banal remarks. And at the same time it would neutralise the street noises which so indiscreetly enter into the play of conversation. To make such music would be to respond to a need.20Erik Satie, as quoted by Fernand Léger, in Alan M. Gillmor, Erik Satie (Boston: Twayne, 1988), 232.
In his ongoing investigations of non-narrative imagery, Eno traveled to Canada to visit Michael Brook, a musician friend who was helping run the Charles Street Video lab in Toronto. The lab was established to encourage artists to experiment with video, and Eno wanted to somehow jettison the moving image and simply use the architecture of the TV as an apparatus to control the color, form, and density of the light it transmitted.
I began to think that I could use my TVs as light sources rather than as image sources. My thinking went like this: TV was actually the most controllable light source that had ever been invented—because you could precisely specify the movement and behaviour of several million points of coloured light on a surface. The fact that this prodigious possibility had almost exclusively been used to reproduce figurative images in the service of narratives pointed to evolution of the medium from theatre and cinema. What I thought was that this machine, which pumped out highly controllable light, was actually the first light synthesizer, and that its use as an image-retailer represented a subset of its possible range.21Eno, “My Light Years,” n.p.
Eno began by making a very simple color video in which the entire screen was filled with one color and contained within it a second, smaller color field—a kind of rudimentary “electronic Mark Rothko” in which the colors fade softly into one another. By using foam core to create a long, simple lens or tube that fit perfectly around the colors on screen, Eno hoped to control and project the light onto another surface. As with his first video works in which he serendipitously turned the TV sideways to correct the camera’s position, here he turned it on its back to facilitate attaching the makeshift lens. With the TV on its back and tubes attached on top, the internal light source was projected upward like a flashlight, and the whole was transformed into a stand-alone light sculpture with a singular presence. For Eno, the presence of this “internally illuminated ziggurat” was far more interesting than what he had originally planned, “This unusual object . . . had the presence quite unlike anything else I’d seen. The light from it was tangible, as though caught in a cloud of vapor. Its slowly changing hues and striking color collisions were addictive. We sat watching for ages, transfixed by this totally new experience of light as a physical presence.”22Ibid.
Eno titled these works Crystals (1983–85), reflecting a move to a more abstract language.23Five works from this new series were shown in the exhibition Brian Eno: Crystals at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, in December 1983. Each had a distinct color-field video with up to four concentric fields or layers of color paired with foam core structures mapped to the exact profile and shape of the color fields. The videos all had unique running times so that they ran asynchronously. For the first time with his installations, they were accompanied by stand-alone music. Eno had collaborated with the Canadian musician Daniel Lanois on a twenty-four-track piece that was cut into four separate mixes, each containing only six tracks. Eno explained, “I put each of the four mixdowns onto a cassette leaving a silence at the end of each, then cut a random chunk of that silence out, so that each cassette ended up a different length. I then turned them over and put the mixes onto the other sides. So now I had four cassettes of different lengths, which I played back on four auto-reverse players. The four layers of music juxtaposed with each other in different relationships, so that an ever-changing music accompanied the ever-changing ziggurats.”24Eno, “My Light Years,” n.p. The separate mixes played simultaneously yet out of sync, creating an auditory, asynchronous experience that paralleled the visual one. If recorded sound is “essentially a static experience, remaining identical to the last performance in every detail,” this approach was a strategy to return the static to its original mutable condition.25Brian Eno, “Language and Growth: Generative Art,” unpublished text, n.p. For Eno, this installation introduced generative music as a “working concept,” because an infinite set of arrangements and configurations of sound could be heard differently over time, rather than reproduced repeatedly.26Eno, “My Light Years,” n.p. While Eno’s interests focused on art and music, generative systems were the subject of research in numerous fields of science, including cybernetics, cognitive science, and linguistics. In the late 1950s and the 1960s, the American linguist Noam Chomsky developed a theory of linguistic competence in which he argued that language has an infinite set of sentence combinations, which became known as “generative grammar.” He wrote, “A fully adequate grammar must assign to each of an infinite range of sentences a structural description indicating how this sentence is understood.”27Noam Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965), 4–5 Chomsky believed that when one learns a language the “linguistic competence” attained gives one the possibility of generating an infinite combination of words to form grammatical sentences that one has never heard before.28Ibid., 27. Working with Lanois, Eno created a system of musical phrases that reintroduced variability to musical composition by establishing a generative grammar.
A subsequent generation of Crystals was constructed with the concentric walls of the lens structures built to the same height and topped with a sheet of colored plexiglass. With the light of the video projecting onto the colored sheet, it produced an outline of the foam core below. Where the foam core touched the plexiglass, a dark line appeared, producing an indexical shape from the tube below. Eno realized that if he also cut the structures to varying lengths, the lights from the tubes would mix and produce different colors where they intersected. By subtly changing the distance between the tube and the plexiglas surface, and by replacing the foam core with more malleable materials such as cardboard and cut paper, Eno was able to sculpt the light and create more intricate and complex abstract compositions. By also editing the videos to slow down the color transitions, he could make it almost impossible to detect the gradual shifts from one color to the next. The different planes and tilted angles of the ziggurat forms subtly challenged the act of seeing; becoming meditations on individual perception, as well as on the aesthetics of time and the conventions of art.
Eno’s combinations of light, color, and music recall the work of the early twentieth-century American educator and color theorist Maud Miles, who described color music as a new art form that was created not with traditional paint on canvas but with colored lights. “The truest parallel that I can conceive between direct light rays of color and music would be to lay aside all attempts to represent objects either in a natural or conventional way, in using the color. To simply use the color as music, might prove genuinely new art,” Miles wrote.29M. Miles, Short Talks to Art Students on Color from an Artist’s Standpoint. Also Dealing with the Relations of Color to the Musical Scale (Kansas … For Eno, the Crystals light works marked the first time that color was completely disassociated from form. As pure light, color could be experienced in its simplest state, without the need for objects that might be “referential, and possibly limiting.” The Crystals come close to achieving Miles’s vision of a color music in which visual and auditory stimuli are perceived as inseparable, and as such also suggest the synesthetic experience of color as music and music as color.
Eno’s experiments with television as a “light synthesizer” devoid of representational or narrative syntax echo Paul Sharits’s work with film some ten years earlier. Sharits was key to the development of structural film, and his multiple-projector installation Shutter Interface (1975) is the apogee of what Sitney termed structural film’s “flicker effect.” Four 16mm projectors aligned in a row run looped films that consist of nothing other than color-filled frames interspersed with a single black frame to create the flicker. With varying running times, looped films, and overlapping projections, the installation creates a mix of hues in a seemingly infinite immersive lateral filmstrip. By eliminating all imagery in favor of single-color frames, Sharits explored celluloid as a material in much the same way that Eno used the television for its inherent light properties. Sharits, who called these works “locational” because they were installation-based rather than theatrically presented, emphasized the material and durational aspect of the cinematic apparatus, “Two or more films, on projects with loop devices, may be projected indefinitely, suggesting a continuum without beginning, middle or end. The films are all out of phase/sync and therefore a multitude of variational states of interactions between them is set in (potentially perpetual) motion.”30Paul Sharits, “On the Drawings of ‘Locational Pieces,’” Paulsharits.com/locational.html. For Sharits, the fades and dissolves were “‘active punctuation’ for the ‘sentences’ being visually enunciated,” and in their variable syntax recall a Chomskyan notion of grammar.31Paul Sharits, “Hearing: Seeing,” in The Avant-garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York: New York University …
The exploration of perceptual phenomena echoes the interests of the Light and Space artists of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, and James Turrell. These artists were eager to move beyond the confines of a limited canvas in favor of more expansive perceptual phenomena. Irwin’s “disc” paintings from the late 1960s exemplify this strategy as they blur the boundaries of both painting and sculpture. Like the Crystals, these works are a fascinating interplay of light, shadow, illusion, and environment. Irwin would go so far as to abandon an object-based practice altogether, saying, “What appeared to be a question of object/nonobject has turned out to be a question of seeing and not seeing, of how it is we actually perceive or fail to perceive ‘things’ in their real contexts. Now we are presented and challenged with the infinite, everyday richness of ‘phenomenal’ perception . . . one which seeks to discover and value the potential for experiencing beauty in everything.”32Robert Irwin, “Being and Circumstance: Notes Toward a Conditional Art” (1985), reprinted in Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries, exh. cat. …
Works such as this render one keenly aware that what one does affects what one sees and what one sees affects what one does. At first, one might assume that the ziggurat forms are missing something, not unlike an empty display case, but as one moves around them, the remarkable effects of light and color become apparent. The properties of a light work do not belong to the work alone; their color, shape, and surface effects are contingent on the spatial and temporal conditions of observers as they experience the work. In their minimalist expression, the Crystals typify Eno’s approach, using conventional materials in entirely unconventional ways in order to create a new and unexpected experience and mode of engagement. These works further express his desire to move from a traditional static painting to a three-dimensional light box that offers the viewer a sense of both ambient and direct vision, echoing his earliest experiments with “animated paintings” with the artist Peter Schmidt.
In the midst of his ongoing series Crystals, Eno returned briefly to single-channel video to make another suite of video paintings in 1984. In its representational impulse, Thursday Afternoon recalls 2 Fifth Avenue and Mistaken Memories of Mediaeval Manhattan. The work—a collection of seven video paintings featuring Eno’s friend Christine Alicino—was commissioned by Sony Japan and was accompanied by a new musical composition of the same name. Each is shot with a different treatment, and in each the subject is recorded in different contexts and states of being. The images are tightly framed, capturing the model in various states of undress, at times submerged in water and seemingly unaware of the camera’s fixed gaze. Despite the return to a representational mode and the choice of a figurative subject in slow motion, the seven videos continue Eno’s investigation of temporal experience and engagement. For the first time in his video work, the paintings were presented in the same vertical, portrait format in which they were shot. At the time the image’s vertical orientation would have been counter to the conventions of the narrative television format, thus resonating with Eno’s view of the TV as “a picture medium rather than a narrative medium.”33Eno, quoted in Nasmyth, “New Life of Brian,” 42.
These pieces present a response to what is presently the most interesting challenge of video: how does one make something that can be seen again and again in the way that a record can be listened to repeatedly? I feel that video makers have generally addressed this issue with very little success: their work has been conceived within the aesthetic frame of cinema and television (an aesthetic that presupposes a very limited number of viewings) but then packaged and presented in a format that clearly intends multiple viewings, the tape or disc.34Brian Eno, liner notes for Thursday Afternoon CD (1984), excerpted in “Excerpts from Interviews with Brian Eno,” liner notes for Brian Eno: 14 …
In Eno’s work, as in that of the video artist Bill Viola, who has translated the aesthetic of structural film to the medium of video,35See Russell, “Framing People: Structural Film Revisited,” in Experimental Ethnography, 157–90. time is the dominant dimension. Much of Viola’s work centers on the structures of perception, nowhere more evident than in his 1986 video I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like, in which the camera functions as a surrogate, carefully observing the world under its electronic gaze as reflected in the close-up of an owl’s eye. In Viola’s 1996 work The Messenger, a figure is revealed as it slowly rises to the surface of an inky pool of water. Time is foregrounded and extended, as the figure slowly breaks the surface, takes a breath, and slowly sinks below the surface again.
Similarly, Eno uses slow motion to confuse the perception of time and narrative structures, seemingly collapsing the boundaries between photography and video. He explains this thought process,
So long as video is regarded only as an extension of film or television, increasing hysteria and exoticism is its most likely future. Our background as television viewers has conditioned us to expect that things on screens change dramatically and in significant temporal sequence, and has therefore reinforced a rigid relationship between viewer and screen—you sit still and it moves. I am interested in a type of work which does not necessarily sugg est this relationship: a more steady-state image-based work which one can look at and walk away from as one would a painting: it sits still and you move.36Eno, liner notes for Thursday Afternoon.
In fashioning what one might call an ambient video, Eno has created a radically different experience of the moving image.
Natural Selections was commissioned in 1990 for Milan’s La Triennale, a design museum that focuses solely on contemporary architecture, design, music, and media arts. At the time, Eno was feeling restricted by the limited scale of the television as a vehicle for his work. There was no question that it was a very sophisticated lighting instrument and one that was easy to control; it also provided an unlimited range of colors. But the challenge it presented was one of size. How could its images be projected on a more environmental scale?
The work of Oskar Fischinger provides an insightful parallel to Eno’s dilemma. Trained as a draftsman and engineer in his native Germany, Fischinger owned his own animation company from an early age, made more than fifty animated short films, and painted hundreds of canvases. He combined his two loves, music and graphic arts, by creating abstract film works that he called “visual music.” Inspired by the work of Walter Ruttmann, he experimented with colored liquids, wax, and clay, which he used to create abstract forms and shapes in his animations.37Fischinger also designed a “wax slicing machine” that aided his experiments in abstraction. According to the historian William Moritz, it sliced …
Fischinger is often cited as the grandfather of visual music, music video, and motion graphics, but can also be seen as the forerunner of immersive environments.38Cindy Keefer, “‘Raumlichtmusik’—Early 20th Century Abstract Cinema Immersive Environments,” Leonardo Electronic Almanac 16, no. 6–7 … Using painted glass slides, and multiple projectors and screens, he projected abstract imagery on multiple surfaces to create all-encompassing environments. Fischinger believed he was creating a new art form that would merge all the arts; he called this concept Raumlichtmusik (space light music). Fischinger stated: “Of this Art everything is new and yet ancient in its laws and forms. Sculpture—Dance—Painting—Music become one. The Master of the new Art forms poetical work in four dimensions. . . . Cinema was its beginning. . . . Raumlichtmusik will be its completion.”39Oskar Fischinger, “Raumlichtmusik,” unpublished typescript, n.d., Fischinger Collection, Center for Visual Music, Los Angeles. Fischinger was …
La Triennale’s windows were the site for Natural Selections, allowing passersby to view the installation from a nearby garden at night. The site was an immediate challenge because Eno was not simply installing work in a gallery. For the first time in his career, he was forced to think about the installation in large-scale architectural terms and turned to a software program that allowed him to work on an environmental scale.40Eno had become friends with Rolf Engle, who owned Atelier Markgraph, a company in Hamburg, Germany, that specialized in large events like car … On the outside of the building at night, he projected large-scale images of butterflies. With several unused projectors, and a large empty wall inside the museum, he was driven to create a second work on the interior, and started to plot a new projection using the leftover slide mounts.
As a onetime rock musician, he was well aware of the lighting designers who created psychedelic shows for bands such as Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd, the Soft Machine, Jimi Hendrix Experience, and the Velvet Underground. Using overhead projectors and transparent containers filled with colored oils and water, along with color wheels, stage-lighting gels, slide and film projectors, mirrors, and various other items to create wildly colorful kinetic abstractions, they produced audiovisual extravaganzas that were projected onto the bands. Known as “liquid light,” these light shows were created using very basic materials and little technology.
Glenn McKay was an American pioneer in the field.41For a further discussion of these light shows, see Robin Oppenheimer, “An International Picture Language: The History and Aesthetics of West Coast … He was greatly influenced by the counterculture guru Ken Kesey’s infamous large-scale “Acid Test” parties, which often involved the music of the Grateful Dead along with a light show, strobe lights, fluorescent paint, and LSD. McKay went on to develop some of the most elaborate light shows of the psychedelic era. It would not be unusual for him to use five hundred hand-drawn slides for a forty-five-minute show. Using rear-screen projections and up to ten slide projectors, oil-dish projectors, overhead projectors, and motorized color wheels, McKay produced highly textured and colorful imagery that included moving biomorphic forms.42McKay’s work has also been presented in a museum context in the form of both performances and solo exhibitions, at New York’s Whitney Museum of … The British artist and designer Mark Boyle also experimented with projected light and immersive taped-sound environments in the 1960s. Boyle already had a recognized art career in the cultural underground before he began organizing full-scale performances at venues across London.43For this and other biographical information on Mark Boyle, see Patrick Elliot, Boyle Family, exh. cat. (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, … Against a backdrop of prerecorded audio, he mixed chemicals and projected the resulting physical reactions onto screens while the performances took place.
This experimental lineage was extended in Natural Selections. Eno covered the glass from the slides with correction fluid, so that he could “draw” into them with a fine-pointed instrument.44Eno, “My Light Years,” n.p. The incorporation of colored gels added another layer to the minuscule scratched drawings, which became monumental when projected at hundreds of times the original size. Eno was no longer limited to thinking about his work as a collection of small, discrete objects, but could begin to think in terms of environments on an architectural scale. With this installation, he embraced a site-specific approach that would reach its logical conclusion in his Quiet Club series.
An important reference for the Quiet Club is Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau, one of the landmarks of twentieth-century art and an inspiration for many installation artists.45Schwitters worked in many mediums, from sculpture and painting to collage, graphic design, poetry, and sound. He is a frame of reference in Eno’s … Schwitters’s lifelong project transformed a portion of his family home into a labyrinthine series of abstract grottoes, becoming a place where he could make art that was not separated from the life he led.46Elizabeth Burns Gamard, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau: The Cathedral of Erotic Misery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), 94. … Schwitters wrote in 1920, “My ultimate aspiration is the union of art and non-art in the Merz total world view [Merz-Gesamtweltbild],” and his Merzbau served as the ultimate expression of this idea.47Quoted in John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985), 31. For Eno, what began with Natural Selections as a response to a particular environment became in the Quiet Club the creation of total environments. Prompted by his Milan installation, he began working on complete room environments dedicated to the mood of contemplation. No longer limited to sound and light projections, these spaces, much like the Merzbau, were envisioned as extensions of everyday life, while offering a refuge from its stresses. Eno wanted to create quiet places where one could reflect—something akin to a public park, church, or quiet pub.
One of the things I enjoy about my shows is that they produce a type of behavior I haven’t seen before—lots of people sitting quietly watching something that has no story, few recognizable images, and changes very slowly. It’s somewhere between the experience of painting, cinema, music, and meditation. I’ve noticed two things: If you make something that is the right slowness, people are very happy to slow themselves down to meet it. And if you accompany that with music which is the right quietness, people are happy to quiet themselves down to listen to it. I dispute the assumption that everyone’s attention span is getting shorter: I find people are begging for experiences that are longer and slower, less “dramatic” and more sensual.48Eno, in Leckart, “Brian Eno Evolution.”
La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s hypnotic Dream House provides a more contemporary parallel to Eno’s Quiet Club. Their sound and light environment, first realized in 1969, was originally conceived to accommodate musicians, who would inhabit the space and play music twenty-four hours a day.49The environment premiered at Munich’s Galerie Heiner Friedrich and from 1979 to 1985 was established as an installation on Harrison Street in Lower … The installation was meant to exist in time as a living organism with a life of its own.50La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, “Kontinuierliche Klang-Licht-Environments,” Inventionen ’92 (Berlin: Pfau Verlag & Berliner … Zazeela, a visual artist, designed the light projections, while Young’s compositions played throughout a twenty-four-hour cycle. Visitors were expected to relax and recline on pillows while the music and light enveloped them. Like Eno, Young emphasized, “Time is so important to the experiencing and understanding of this work that Dream House exhibitions have been specifically structured to give visitors the opportunity to spend long intervals within the environment and to return perhaps several times over the span of its duration.”51Ibid.
Eno’s environments were initially called Places, numbered sequentially by location (Place Number 12, London) but soon thereafter became known as Quiet Clubs (1986–2001). The ongoing series incorporated audio elements, including the ziggurat light sculptures, but also employed materials such as vermiculite, tree trunks, fishbowls, ladders, rocks, and even specially constructed tables and chairs with false perspective to create quasi-domestic environments. Eno wrote the following: “I was encouraged [by] the unexpectedly calming effect these shows seemed to have on people. These shows were always very slow-paced, but nothing was ever completely still. This minimal amount of change seemed to be very welcome—on a line between cinema and painting, these works existed quite a lot closer to the painting end than to the cinema end.”52Eno, “My Light Years.” The Quiet Clubs, which cycle continuously and asynchronously, are not conceived to create illusion or destabilize perception. Instead, one is invited to step into an environment that highlights the way in which light and sound operate as both subject and perceptual medium. Eno has continued to explore these ideas in an ongoing series of installations, including New Urban Spaces Series #4: “Compact Forest Proposal” (2001), created for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s landmark exhibition 010101: Art in Technological Times.53Eno chose a “deliberately clunky” title for the work because he wanted it to suggest “an architectural submission for a new space.” See Jesse …
In 1997 Eno created a generative, sound-only installation for London’s White Cube. Mapping out a one-mile radius around the gallery, he selected specific locations to record the ambient sounds and noises, the voices of people walking by, the busy London traffic, and the pealing of nearby church bells.54 Sites included Notting Hill, Old Brompton Road, the Oval, Regents Park, Barbican Station, Bermondsey, Kentish Town, Lavender Hill, and Camden Town. At each site, he also recorded himself singing a single long note. Back at his studio, a variety of software programs were used to stretch, compress, and otherwise manipulate the raw sounds, and the final mixes were transferred to disks. Within the gallery, CD players with two speakers were installed on each of the four walls, and the unique disks with eight distinct tracks were played in a random sequence. Played and remade continuously, Eno’s urban symphony of sounds rewards listening to its ever-changing landscape. He says of this work, “I was thinking of the sound less as music and more as sculpture, space, landscape, and of the experience as a process of immersion rather than just of listening.”55Brian Eno, liner notes for Music for White Cube, Opal, 1997, CD. For Eno, as for Cage before him, music needs neither beat, pulse, nor harmony.
Classical music works around a body of “refined” sounds—sounds that are separated from the sounds of the world, pure and musical. There is a sharp distinction between “music” and “noise,” just as there is a distinction between the musician and the audience. I like blurring those distinctions—I like to work with all the complex sounds on the way out to the horizon, to pure noise, like the hum of London. If you sit in Hyde Park just far enough away from the traffic so that you don’t perceive any of its details, you just hear the average of the whole thing. And it’s such a beautiful sound. For me that’s as good as going to a concert hall at night.56Anthony Korner, “Aurora Musicalis” (interview with Brian Eno), Artforum 24 (Summer 1986): 77.
The antecedents for this work can be found in the innovative work of the French composer, engineer, musicologist, and acoustician Pierre Schaeffer. Schaeffer is renowned for his achievements in experimental music and pioneered the form of avant-garde music known as musique concrète.57Thom Holmes, Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2008), 49. Musique concrète, or “real music,” refers to music based on recordings of everyday sounds, a form that does not depend on harmony, rhythm, or tempo to create a melody. Schaeffer’s first broadcast work was the seminal Étude aux chemins de fer (1948), which was a revolutionary montage of sounds recorded at a Paris train station. The work incorporated the sounds of steam locomotives, conductors’ whistles, and train cars rattling across the tracks. Back in his studio, Schaeffer would play and manipulate the sounds by reversing, looping, and decreasing the speeds of his recordings to create the final piece.
Within the antiseptic walls of the gallery, named White Cube in acknowledgment of the pristine generic spaces in which contemporary art is consumed, Eno’s introduction of everyday environmental sounds could be seen as a subversive gesture directed toward the conventions of art.58In a similar fashion, the following year Eno collaborated with Jiří Příhoda on Music for Prague. While the Prague piece was composed of … At the same time, the work’s site-specificity countered the nonspecific environment represented by the white cube. Within a gallery setting, the recontextualized sounds—often heard but rarely listened to—blur the edges between music and nonmusic.