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Ultimate Synaesthesia

Ellen Pearlman

Brian Eno hovered over me in a darkened room as I squatted writing notes about his 77 Million Paintings on a crumpled up piece of paper. Though I knew he couldn’t see what I was scribbling, its not often one gets the chance to come face-to-face, or rather back-to-face in situ with the flesh and blood incarnation of one’s investigations. He had slipped into the viewing room at the Glenbow Museum unobtrusively because he likes to watch – the audience as well as his “paintings,” and therein lays his strategy and appeal. In a lecture he gave that night at the Museum auditorium he described, in magnificent pantomime, the reactions one has when entering the viewing space of his exhibit:

looking around, furtively glancing at the work
walking further into the space, looking around, glancing at the work
leaning against the wall, glancing at the work
squatting, glancing at the work
sitting down, glancing at the work
focusing on the work, lying down on the floor mesmerized by the work
unable to tear oneself away from the work

77 Million Paintings contains 550 paintings Eno created over a span of 22 years. Since 2006 the exhibit has toured all over the world including Tokyo, Sydney and St. Petersburg before landing in Calgary. The digital projection is a “generative” work in that the ambient music for which Eno is better known, and the combination of images are generated and combined in an endless mandala-like array by a computer. Nine screens project a diamond shape with eight inserted “paintings” and one solid colored square on the lower right hand side serves as a control for the other eight. There are four black leather couches for people to zone out on while enveloped by his signature ambient sounds – and they are packed to capacity as the audience warms and hunkers down to the slow experience.

Originally conceived for in-home viewing, the show seems to change your brain waves from Alpha to Beta to Theta and the experience is pure occipital enjoyment. The cross-fades in the banks of images creep up as the landscape subtly changes as blue morphs into green, and triangles expand into circles As Eno says, “We’re not seeing a film. There’s no beginning, there’s no progression, there’s no end, there’s no narrative, there’s no drama. In fact everything is missing that would normally be called art or entertainment.”

Eno As Professorial

Eno’s lecture at the Glenbow Auditorium could have continued all night but for the protestations of those with day jobs. He began explaining the radical impact Copernicus had in 1543 when he revealed man was no longer the center of the universe, as earth orbited around a system with some 400 million stars. Darwin came along in 1859, and pointed to the phylogenic tree stating there were 20 billion species besides humans. “ We are amazingly minute in this picture,” Eno mused. After Darwin it was Cybernetics, which introduced the notion of feedback as a way to think about complex systems. We cannot control these systems, only set them up to control themselves, and that notion became part of his vocabulary of how things organize themselves.

Starting with royal Kings and the Church, man organized himself in hierarchies from the top down that includes the structure of the 18th Century orchestra, still extant today. Sixty or seventy years ago this would show up in the shape of a top-down pyramid, but the world now functions more as a feedback loop, not a hierarchy. Eno explained when he was growing up his uncle slipped him a book on the artist Mondrian. He found the pictures magical, economical, and transparent. They contained “no subterfuge of technique.” Attending art school at Winchester School of Art, part of a music school in England, his forward thinking art professors invited the composers John Cage, Christian Wolf and Morton Feldman to lecture. Not one musician or music student on campus came to hear them.

He described listening to Terry Riley’s minimalist music composition In C,as “life changing.” That piece contains 53 short, numbered musical phrases lasting from half a beat to 32 beats repeated an arbitrary number of times. He also mentioned Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain, where Reich recorded Brother William, a Pentecostal preacher and “sought to maintain the fascination of the speech content while intensifying its meaning and melody through rhythm.” This piece Eno admitted, “is the basis of most of my career.” He said one’s ears function differently than one’s eyes. Eyes scan all the time. If they don’t scan, they habituate and don’t see any thing. If you have a repetitive event the eyes cease to see, and what he focuses on is the uncommon information, “the out of phase collision of the loops.” This approach makes your brain do the composing. As this he says, has led him to his work ethos, “doing as much as I can with as little as possible.”


Brian Eno’s exhibition 77 Million Paintings takes place in the Glenbow Museum from January 6 to March 20 2011.