Brian Eno’s ‘Scenius’ Keynote for Sydney’s Luminous Festival

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.

29th May 2009: What Researchers Can Learn From Brian Eno

For anyone attending Sydney’s Luminous Festival curated by musician/producer Brian Eno, some lessons for researchers:

 

1. Develop a longer-term view for your body of work/research program: Eno’s 40-year career demonstrates how creativity, foresight and role plularity may underpin a body of work or research program. Eno’s career spans several phases: early Roxy Music, a solo career which popularised ambient music and generative art, and as a producer on breakthrough albums by David Bowie, David Byrne, Talking Heads, and U2 (sorry, Coldplay doesn’t count). For most people, helming any one of the following projects would be enough: Talking Heads’ Remain In Light (1980); U2’s The Unforgettable Fire (1984), The Joshua Tree (1987) and Achtung Baby (1991); or David Bowie’s epochal ‘Berlin trilogy’ of Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979). Eno’s hit rate and cultural influence suggests he has a greater embodied awareness. For an overview, see David Sheppard’s recent biography On a Faraway Beach (Orion Books, London, 2008).

 

2. Develop a self-mastery of technique: As the creator of ambient music and generative art, Eno is frequently portrayed as a Renaissance-style creative mastermind with adaptive intent. Two more informed examples are Eric Tamm’s PhD thesis and Elspeth McFadzean’s study (‘What We Can Learn From Creative People? The Story of Brian Eno’, Management Science journal, 38:1, 2000, pp. 51-56). Eno’s diary A Year With Swollen Appendices (Faber & Faber, London, 1996) illustrates the emotional strength; attitude to funding, project and organisational constraints; and granularity of focus that a research program needs in the face of adversity.

 

3. Honour chance and luck: The ‘Law of Accident’ plays an aleatory, randomised role in many of Eno’s most influential creations: the car accident which led to the ambient music experiments for Discreet Music (1975), the Frippertronics tape delay experiments which resulted in Eno and Robert Fripp’s album No Pussyfooting (1972), and the oracular deck Oblique Strategies (1975) created with the late painter Peter Schmidt. This period shows the value of a disposition for action that is informed by conceptual depth; rapid, iterative development for strategy execution; and quasi-experimental methods with collaborators that fail fast and leverage upside risk. Eno continues this line of development with the art installation 77 Million Paintings (2006).

 

4. Build a network of collaborators and mentors: Eno’s collaborators range from David Bowie, David Byrne and U2 to journeymen producers Daniel Lanois and Robert Fripp. This network enabled Eno to transition from Roxy Music to a solo career, and then as an in-demand producer (where word of mouth and past credits are the equivalent of academic publications and grants). As recounted in Simon Reynolds‘ history of New Wave innovation, Rip It Up And Start Again (Faber & Faber, London, 2005), Eno also became a mentor and subcultural curator in the late 1970s to New York’s ‘No Wave’ scene and artists such as Devo and Talking Heads. Many of these artists and producers would become influential in their own right, rather than followers of an Eno aesthetic. Of course, sometimes things can go wrong: the rest of Talking Heads blamed Eno’s production as one of the catalysts for vocalist David Byrne’s decision to leave the band. More recently, Eno has leveraged his ‘public intellectual’ status to promote John Brockman’s Edge salon and The Long Now Foundation.