Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


77 million ideas


Yesterday a friend and I went to Long Beach to see the Brian Eno installation, “77 Million Paintings,”  at the University Art Museum of California State University Long Beach. The genesis of the 77 million paintings enumerated in the title — which, Eno later said during his lecture, would actually be 77 million cubed —  is described well in this piece by the LA Times’ Reed Johnson. In short, a video mosaic of 12 individual screens pulls images randomly from grouped sets contained in databases held by three different computers, generating an ongoing series of freshly executed video “paintings,” which are sonically supported by a soundtrack of  sound loops on six separate tape decks, resulting in randomized musical accompaniment. The intention is to remove deliberation and intention from the artistic process; the result is mesmerizing. As my friend and I found, it was quite easy to get lost in the neverending self-generating inventions of the computers and the tape decks. For one brief period, I felt detached from space and time. I’ve had this feeling before with some art, in various disciplines, but only rarely.

Later, we attended Eno’s lecture at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center (also part of Cal State Long Beach). After 30 years of following the man’s career in all its phases — rock star, record producer, artist, writer, thinker — this was our first chance to see him in the flesh. Eno proved to be thoughtful, puckish, droll, and concerned, in equal measures. I would characterize the first third of his lecture as an admonishment to let go. (This should be expected from an artist whose visual work is created largely from computer generation.) He started by reminding us of something we’ve known for 566 years, since Copernicus:  that not only we are not at the center of the universe, we are off in a small corner, in one of a billion billion solar systems, and we exist as only one of innumerable species just on this one planet, where only an estimated 10% of species have been cataloged. In other words,  Get over yourself. Again, this viewpoint should be expected from someone extolling the virtues of random, unemotionally generated, art.

On the way home I wondered aloud how well these theories that can work so well  in visual art and music would work in long-form narrative. Having read (or tried to read) Samuel Beckett’s novels and some of William S. Burroughs’ longer pieces, I unfortunately believe I know too well. In such cases, even a little plot can go a long way. Organic writing — which I practice and preach — benefits from pruning and shaping. Effects can engage an audience, but only for so long; the best effect is an emotional verisimilitude, however achieved, that transports people into a deep level of caring about what happens. That occurs in better productions of “Waiting for Godot” because Didi and Gogo are present and we can relate; it never happens with “The Unnameable,” which is a true chore to read. When he’s collaborating with, say, Robert Fripp, Eno is free to produce an album of electronic feedback loops, but when he’s producing records for U2 or Coldplay, he must serve the song. To his immense credit, he never claimed in this talk that he was abandoning all oversight; rather, he talked about intentional balance, moderating oneself along the continuum between surrendering all control, or controling all elements, depending upon the desired outcome. I think that’s about right.

If you’re interested in “77 Million Paintings” and cannot make it to Long Beach, where it runs through December, here’s some good news:  a beautiful software-and-DVD version exists. Here it is on Amazon.com.  I bought a copy at the museum, and at about 35 bucks, it’s a steal. The package includes the software to run these self-generating images on  your computer, with accompanying soundtrack. In addition, there’s a beautiful booklet with notes from the artist, plus an interview DVD. Get it and surrender all control to it.

2 Responses to “77 million ideas”

  1. Uncle Rich Says:

    The article was great but I’m surprised that anyone can write about chance in music without mentioning John Cage. Remind me to check and see if Cage’s INDETERMINACY is available on CD.

  2. Lee Wochner Says:

    Is INDETERMINACY available on CD? It might be, or it might not be. (Actually, it is, in either hard copy or MP3.)

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