Taking Modern Culture by Strategy

From The Wire, Issue 104, October 1992, conducted by Mark Sinker

For easy access to particular areas of interest, click on the appropriate subject heading in this list.

Culture and uncertainty
Fractal Zoom
Haircuts and certainty
Withdrawing My Squelchy Life
Contributing to today's culture
Topicality, relativity, vulgarity

Brian Eno talks to Mark Sinker about past, present and future - and what happens in a world where nothing's any longer certain.

"His record is annoying because it doesn't do anything..." - from the 1973 Rolling Stone review of Here Come The Warm Jets

The man who pissed in Duchamp's urinal is a most charming fraud. Conjuror, charlatan, confidence trickster: in his preferred - imagined - art/music worlds, all these words we bridle at Brian Eno hears as compliments.

This non-musician musician, this nearly art teacher who happened to get into the wrong (or the right) train carriage one day back in 1971, who happened to fall in with the style-thieves and magpie-musos who were Roxy Music, who happened never to find his way back to his certain appointment with the provincial polytechnic lecture-room. Except by extraordinary global indirection: nowadays he's invited back, the licensed stir-it-up outsider star, to disagree (charmingly, plausibly, roguishly) with whatever teacher's telling the students: the glamsexy name on this-or-that futurewatch thinktank - who can always be trusted to put the creative accounting back into art history.

After all, "culture," as he told an audience of businessmen in Brussels not so long ago, "is everything you don't have to do." Its importance, he chooses to suggest, is its unimportance - its necessity stems precisely from its contingency. In this way Eno - like his anything-goes precursors Warhol, Duchamp, Cage - is quiet-spokenly but uncompromisingly anti-fundamentalist.

All along, he's done his best work by indirection, tripping even himself up: oblique strategy. In a welter of gently unteased-out paradox, Eno's theories and practices, begged, borrowed or stolen, have spread, easily and completely, right through pop and out into the world. All music after Music For Airports is sometimes nothing more than ambience: all music is in the right (or the wrong) moment about nothing less than itself, as soundscape. It would have happened anyway - Satie willed it, recording/broadcasting technology perhaps enforced it - but Eno articulated it for the rock'n'roll masses.

"...a very easy trick," he admits. "Anyone could have done it." To treat one zone in music as the map of itself (glam rock, let's say), and introduce offcuts of the maps of another (post-Cage experimentalism, let's say): and to show the result, as nonchalantly as you can, to whoever you can get to take notice. To take the sting - the "meaning," the "history," the "sincerity" - out, while you re-configure the context. To point out, mildly (but to explosive effect), by indirection (with maps and charts), that our survival in a world overfull of inadequate (because contradictory) absolute principles entails just such a pragmatic relativism.

"Those little pools on the outskirts of silence seemed to me the logical consequence of letting the processes and technology share your conceptual burden - twilight music perfectly suited to the passivity Eno's approach cultivates" - Lester Bangs in The Village Voice, 1978, reviewing Another Green World.

He met a previous acquaintance - avant garde saxist Andy Mackay - on a train one day, and ran away with him to set up the world's first ironic-effective BritPopArt rock group: they needed someone who knew about tape recorders - which he did, because he was in those days working to be the UK's Steve Reich, a music-noise tape-loop boffin in experimental hogheaven. Next stop: "Do The Strand", "The Bogus Man", No Pussyfooting, Here Come The Warm Jets, ambience, Obscure records, Bowie, Talking Heads, video art...

...and then a long loop out of music (except by pervasive influence and occasional lowkey release) for more than a decade. His decade, the PoMo decade, the 80s, when the old languages of cultural hierarchy failed, and were seen to fail; and because no one could be trusted to construct new ones, anyone had the right - the duty? - to try. From the Christian Right to the Shining Path; from Jeff Koons to George Bush to you the reader, far more cynical charlatans than Eno seemed sometimes to fashion careers out of this vanishing of all possible principle: "...since political claims always have to be framed in a language of certainty and absolutes, and since political action has to happen in a pragmatic, real way - because it has to negotiate with the non-absoluteness of the world - then there's a disparity. It's what I call the Gulf Crisis."

Which makes his Gulf War less a war on authenticity or sincerity in themselves (because in themselves they only exist in the ill-tempered fictions we make for our foundations), but against the proliferation of false sincerity and bogus authenticity: against the demand that the buck stop here. Jeff Koons is not George Bush because he's at least honest about his insincerity: who or what does that make you? (And what does all this casual appropriation of moral and political issues for art-modelling purpose make Eno?)

The single is called "Fractal Zoom". Seemingly dud title: the chief coloniser of the Imaginary Landscape, the armchair Columbus of the aural Virtual World, doesn't need credibility leg-ups from overexposed video game jargon. Fabulous geography is his business - territories explored, Fourthworld maps made: "On Some Faraway Beach" (which "Fractal Zoom" resembles - willed fraudulence aside, there is certainly such a thing as an Eno-signature, a self-similarity even he can't evade); Another Green World; "Over Fire Island"; "By This River"; "Through Hollow Lands"; "Inland Sea"; "Lizard Point"; "Warszawa"; "Neuköln"; "Moss Garden", On Land; The Plateaux of Mirror; Dream Theory In Malaya...

A fractal zoom is a computer-graffix effect, a mathematical process of detail-imaging that allows a simulated map (of fictional coastline, typically) to be enlarged, to whatever scale - a dizzying trick, even on-screen, as if an impossibly tiny space capsule is tumbling to Earth: the wiggliness of some faraway beach gradually, even infinitely magnified. Is this the Pacific Seaboard, or the edge of an Oregon rockpool?

If his created objects have been perhaps little more than SF jumpdoors from one such terrain to another - another easy trick - they derive their weird sideways force from the old romantic confusion, maps with territories, art with life. The fractal zoom only happens on-screen - but you still feel yourself falling. Affectlessness is attempted, not achieved. We try to be cheerful (but fail) as our conceptual maps are ripped up and repatched - as willed cultural choices telescope down into meaninglessness, as trivialities balloon into real-life political facts:

"...the haircut doesn't exist in the abstract, it's very contextual and very local in time and space, and when you engage in these things, you are actually identifying a locality in time and space that you feel you have a special attachment to, a special investment in. And that usually is defined by what it negates also: your faith in this indicates a non-faith in certain other things normally. In fact it indicates direct opposition. So what you say to someone when you say 'Beethoven and Bolan,' in the same breath [chuckles] , you suddenly say, hold on, the walls round this capsule that I built for myself are not intact any longer. Because these things used to be in opposition to one another. Therefore my picture is in danger of falling apart. My sense of certainty, and therefore my sense of the reliability of my judgment about things, and consequent actions, is called into play. It's like saying to somebody, look, this map you've been using all this time is all wrong. 'this isn't here - and there's no road from here to here and actually the main highway is here. And they suddenly think, Fuck me, I'm lost. It is a very serious thing, I think. One thing I like about British pop music fans is that they are so serious about it. It's life and death."

"Brian Eno is an agent from some other time and some other plane who seems to know something we don't but should" - from the 1978 Crawdaddy review of Before & After Science.

"...To not meet a deadline for me is sort of an internal failure of the whole work: I feel I haven't done it right. And I really expect everyone I work with to meet deadlines. It's very important. What happened last year was that I made a record, to a deadline, and then when I sent it to Warners they said, 'Oh, actually, it turns out there's a lot of other records being released at this time of the year, so we want to hold it over.' A five month delay, they were talking about, right over the Christmas bulge. And I said, 'Well, you know, this record isn't made for February, it's made for September.' And we got into a big discussion about it: they said, 'Don't you believe in it?' And I said, 'Yes, well, I do now . But I'm sure I won't by February. I'll want to have made a different record by then. Even the delay that currently exists between finishing something and releasing it is too long for me - because by the time it comes out, I'm not there any longer. So I withdrew that whole album, actually. It wasn't released."

Not released; but reviewed in The Wire. Which is, of course, currently, his favourite magazine: or so he says. Because it takes seriously the notion that what you say ought to be as much cheerfully primed provocation (our motto: HAVE FUN STARTING ARGUMENTS) as tiresome reiteration of "principles", which you straightaway refuse to discuss further.

"That's also a big part of releasing things to me - it's wanting to make a contribution to whatever cultural discussion I think is going on at the time. That's in fact the most thrilling part for me. That's the part where I measure my success or failure. It isn't in sales. Of course I'd be disappointed if I released something and it suddenly didn't sell anything. And of course I'd be pleased if I suddenly sold two million records. But the fact is that those aren't ultimately what I'm making decisions on. What really thrills me is to contribute to the conversation in some nice way, some useful way, and to then get echoes of that coming back later on. So when people say, 'Don't you get a bit fed up when The Orb (let's say) is ripping you off?' I think, 'No, I don't at all, it's very flattering really.' It's like being quoted years later - someone saying, 'Yes, that was worth doing.' And it's making a difference to someone."

"Eno, as a socially responsible artist, has two basic tasks: to engage our hearing in novel ways, and to provide objects for our new world. He does both, splendidly" - Tom Hull, Village Voice, 1976.

I didn't ask him a single question I'd intended to. I didn't ask him - this man so in favour of fiction, of pretence, of art as the try-out zone for life's little trials - if he actually did reclaim Duchamp's most famous readymade for its original, low, life-affirming, bladder-relieving purpose. If capitalism has reduced all value to price, is it of account that money itself - blinking electronic ink - also only exists through consensus hallucination, in the virtual world of currency confidence? Do all peddlers of value turn into confidence men? Is the anecdote history or fable? Is an interview still part of art, or is it where real life begins? It must be "culture": after all, we certainly didn't have to do it. Or am I being directed again? Don't ask.

"One man's nirvana is another man's nap" - from the New York Times 1979 review of Music for Airports.

The Encyclopaedia of the Immediate Future - Eno's keywords explained

IRONY: "...it's so much an important ingredient of so much of the culture round us now. We are more and more used to being in several places at the same time. This whole thing about cameras: I realise the reason I've always hated them is because they force me to be somewhere else at the same time. When someone points a camera at you, you're no longer just there - you're also somewhere in the future looking back at this picture. So you're suddenly forced to be self-regarding as well. People are more and more comfortable with this idea. I'm not: even though I think more about this world, I actually belong emotionally to another one. To one that still exists but is fading out, I suppose. I'm still made very uncomfortable by being forced to live in different times, in what I call the present. I think irony is really to do with that - to do with simultaneously being here, being fully into it. But at the same time a part of you is looking at you, and saying, well, if you turned this way a bit, you'd look better. Hold on, don't say that - you might regret it. The romantic critic, the romanticist, would despite that - that part of you was not in the situation, that part of you was somewhere else, evaluating: they would call it all the things they do call it. Manipulative, insincere, uncommitted, pretentious. Arty: that's what arty means."

THE TOPICAL, THE RELATIVE, THE VULGAR: "[...a review I read said:] What makes Keith Haring's work great is that it questions all these blah blah blah, the things that artworks are supposed to do, whereas most Graffiti Art is topical, relative and vulgar.' And I thought about those three words. Topical, what's wrong with being topical? Isn't that what I like? Isn't that what we love about pop, or fashions, or whatever? Precisely that: they are real barometers, moment-to-moment barometers. Relative: as opposed to what? Absolute? But I don't believe in that idea. What he [the reviewer] was trying to say was that somehow or other Haring had transcended this relativistic Universe and somehow enshrined the absolute truths of the world. I thought this is just pre-Renaissance, this kind of idea. And vulgar - what does vulgar mean? As opposed to refined? As opposed to upperclass, elitist? Reading that review made me realise exactly what I like about Popular Art - for him to be saying that Haring had transcended all those was taking away everything that was good about him, and making all kinds of claims for him that placed him in this obsolete old world, the Fine Art pyramid of cultural attention."

FUNDAMENTALISM: "...this whole way of talking about things, in terms of understanding that they really don't embody intrinsic values, but that they do embody networks of confidence, that's really a new idea. To me, it's the most interesting idea - I so much want to see that become part of the way that people talk about things. Instead of what often happens now is that people have got this idea of confidence networks and so on, but they still think that they're going to find what it is that underlies it all, that they'll finally find something to which you can nail it all, and suddenly all our problems will cease (...) In nearly every serious discussion we have now, this is the point that keeps coming up - do we live in a world of relativism or absolutes? I got an amazing cutting out of the newspaper the other day: for me it really summed up the whole idea of fundamentalism. A Japanese car executive had his house shot at, and it was decided that the reason was that his car company had produced these tyres whose tread was interpreted by some Muslims as being a verse from the Koran. And they considered it a tremendous insult that it should be constantly ground into the dust. And the Japanese company withdrew the tyres, but said, 'But it was computer-generated! Just to do with wetness and holding the road!' This is so amazing to me. That somebody should go and try to shoot someone, an executive of a company whose computer has designed a squiggle that happens to look like arabic writing."

PRETENTION "...so anyway, there's that assumption. That there is such a thing as the 'real' people, and the 'pretenders'. And the other assumption is that there's something wrong with pretending. My whole thing about culture-as simulator, as a way of experiencing deliberately fake situations - if you want real situations, fucking go to Cambodia, or Somalia! If you really don't want to be in the simulator. The whole point for me is to create situations where you can pretend - like children do all the time (...) Robert Wyatt said to me once, 'It's funny, you know, in some respects we're always in the condition of children - there are always things which we don't understand, that we have to pretend about, about which we're naive.' Of course, they're different things. We know how to flush the toilet - but we might not know how the structure of our various waterboards works. The point about continuous childhood co-existing with adulthood is that it suggests the idea of allowing oneself lots of machinery, to keep pretending with, to keep simulating."

EMPATHY: "...if there is any unit of cultural intelligence, it's empathy. Empathy doesn't have anything to do with cleverness, technical ability, cultural background or traditions or something like that. It does have to do with how much you understand the impression you make. On other people round you. And how important that is to you. One of the thins that's very interesting about he second bit of the Rorty book [the Rorty book: Contingency, Irony and Solidarity], the bit about Orwell, is that Orwell proposes a future, the bit about O'Brien, the torturer: O'Brien is the image of someone who's highly cultivated, highly civilised, very intelligent, very clever, and has no empathy at all (...) The last part of the Orwell book [the Orwell book: 1984] says that there's no reason to equate the two: empathy doesn't follow from full engagement in culture of some kind. The important thing in what makes Hannibal Lecter so different from everyone else is an utter lack of empathy. There's none of that kind of intelligence at all. And socially that must be the intelligence we value. We don't just want to produce conjurors - we want to produce conjurors who have some kind of empathy, who understand the effect of their tricks."