Brian Eno: 70 Million Ideas

Brian Eno: 70 Million Ideas

Brian Eno is one of the more intriguing folks inhabiting our cultural landscape.  His early work as a keyboardist for the glam rocking Roxy Music belied his future as an author and producer of Talking Heads, U2, Bowie and Coldplay.  But perhaps his most intriguing work is in the visual arts.  He is intrigued with the interplay of his role as musician and light artist.

Eno has sprouted installations around the globe, most recently in the somewhat improbable location of the University Art Museum at Cal State University Long Beach.

“77 Million Paintings” is mostly comprised of a series of twelve video screens, which Eno has programmed to slowly morph in an unending and never repeated sequence.  Hence the title, which is actually an underestimate of the number of images displayed over the course of the installation.


Like all Eno’s work, he challenges preconceived notions. Here, he disproves the assumption that the artist must be in control.  Although he created the still imagery on which the ‘paintings’ are composed, and although he worked on the computer software that creates the work, Eno says he only set the work in motion.  He has no control of the work’s trajectory, and neither he nor the viewer will ever see more than a fraction of the result. Eno is occasionally sad after sitting in the installation, as he realizes he will never again see that particular set of paintings.

The piece is comprised of 400 images and sixty initial ‘primitives,’ some of which are 20 years old.

He speaks of the need to surrender, the need to allow yourself to be out of control “most often found in sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll and religion,” Eno wryly notes.


The mesmerizing work is a perplexing but ultimately satisfying experience.  He created the entire space, which includes comfortable seating, darkened lighting which draws your eyes to the screen and atmospheric music which slows the pulse of the surroundings and your body. 

Upon settling into the installation, one notices that the video screens lose their configuration and familiarity as TV monitors.  The languid pace at which the abstract images evolve requires a suspension of a typical visit to an art museum.  In his only recent lecture in America, Eno said he abhors the ‘checklist’ approach of many museum goers: those who stride up to the small identifying card next to the art, glance at the art and move to the next ‘prey.’

Eno developed his ‘generative art’ in the last decade, and admits that by giving something a name you make it real.  He continues to delight in the unpredictable. The roots of this work he says ‘stretch back to the California school of composers’ such as Steve Reich and John Cage.

In a brief interview at the opening, Eno told me that the seeming randomness of his production work on Devo’s first album was just the opposite…and apparently not very enjoyable for Eno.  He expanded on his claim that ‘art is everything you don’t have to do.’ He told me that an artist is someone who ‘starts something, not finishes it.’ He likens himself to a gardener, not an architect. In that sense, it puts me in mind of Heraclitus who said ‘you can’t stand in the same river twice.’

CSULB is hence an ideal venue for Eno’s latest installation.  The University Art Museum ranks in the top ten percent of the nation’s 16,000 museums.  The installation will come down after December 13, 2009 and warrants repeat visits.  As with all great art, each visit will be different.  In this case, however, it is both the viewer and the art which will have changed.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.