June 2009 Archives

My notes from Brian Eno's Scenius keynote talk at the Sydney Opera House on 29th May 2009 for the inaugural Luminous Festival as part of Vivid Sydney.

Eno goes out of his way to downplay his work and his public image; he also tape records every talk he does.

In response to a group of protesters outside who were angry about the Australian Government funding Eno's trip, Eno explores various governance issues about government arts funding. He felt uncomfortable about receiving government funds. Noting the public influence of scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould and Daniel C. Dennett, Eno states that one of the problems artists faced is that they often did not make clear on their grant funding applications how the broader society would benefit from their work. A second problem was the deliberate mystification by artists of their craft and methodologies. Eno feels that artists need to detail with greater clarity their methodological approach.

Eno praises Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species (1859) as a model of clarity which revolutionised our scientific worldview and challenged the prevailing theological interpretations of natural history.

He describes Western cultural history as the evolution and interplay of functional artifacts and aesthetic forms. Eno illustrated this by showing and talking about four different screwdrivers from the Sydney Opera House's maintenance department --- contrasting the functional ends with different handles. He also mentioned fashion and joke punchlines as examples of ornamentation and self-presentation.

'Scenius' is Eno's term for a proxemic subculture which diffuses from an aesthetic response and evolves into a unique design space to solve complex social problems. Eno describes late 1960s San Francisco as a space that was less politicised than is now portrayed, and in his view, was more about a group of people deciding to simply 'live' a different philosophy. He also describes the Manhattan Project in these terms, given that the scientists essentially solved the problem of nuclear fission through brute force. He then suggests that there were other scientific frontiers, potentially cold fusion, that were at a similar conceptual and epistemological stage as nuclear fusion was in 1935. 'Scenius' also describes Eno's role as curator/mentor in New York's 'No Wave' scene in the late 1970s.

In contrast to these successful large-scale collaborations, Eno suggests the Santa Fe Institute has been a failure, as nothing really has emerged, and its researchers continue to work on their individual projects rather than collaborative research programs. Eno omits that Citicorp's Walter Wriston tapped Santa Fe expertise so that its capital markets and trading division could develop complexity models of international and cross-border financial flows.
Eno thinks in terms of axes, continuums, and spectrums which are then layered in a possibility space (he uses an overhead projector to explore various axes and issues throughout his talk), and drew on ideas from product development and quasi-experimental methods of iterative, rapid prototyping.

He talks briefly about working with Danny Hillis to co-develop the algorithms and music for January 07003: The Bell Studies for The Clock of the Long Now (Opal, 2003), and the rationale and research design of the project for the Long Now Foundation.

Eno feels that climate change and the 'limits to growth' scenario means that artistic methods for problem-solving need to be diffused more widely, and that everyone needs to perceive themselves as having the abilities to contribute to solutions.

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