77 Million Paintings by Brian Eno

A few years back, I read a short story about a woman who had passed away, leaving her husband with a sort of “documentary” of her life. The catch, though, was that the camera that had followed her for so many years– the size of a small insect– was unable to capture images concurrently, due to its small size. Instead, while filming of her life proceeded, the contents were saved randomly; resulting in unordered “scenes” of the deceased’s life available for playback at the memorial site.

The husband, first viewing the playback at the memorial, is delighted to find one of those moments that lovers share– where a confluence of events, lighting, mood, and memory create a perfect image– but he is stunned to find that he cannot “rewind” or even search for this moment again. At the end of the story, the husband realizes that unless he is willing to sit until the end of his days to view the memorial, he has little chance of seeing this moment again.

That’s a little like how it is to watch the software included with Brian Eno’s “77 Million Paintings.” The paintings, created from hand-made slides of Eno’s artwork, were originally displayed as part of generative light-painting installations where pieces overlap, blend, mix, and color-change with one another, creating a total of 77 million possible artworks.

Where Eno has really succeeded, though, is in realizing the importance of bringing this sort of thing out of the installation space, and into homes. With the availability of computers, and the prevalence of high-quality displays, viewers can simulate a decent installation experience at home– minus the free wine and cheese, I suppose.

For me, the most interesting aspects are the conflicts that occur. On one hand, artwork is traditionally considered a permanent medium. It is framed, bought and sold, displayed in museums, in homes… but here, viewers are asked to not only to accept the impermanance of the created artwork, but to also accept the possibility of never seeing it again!

Additionally, because viewers are somewhat primed for the combination of the original artworks, our own appreciation of these as stand-alone pieces diminishes somewhat. No longer are we viewing them individually on their own merits, but find ourselves judging them on their ability to mix well with the others. In this sense, “77 Million Paintings” brings up some interesting ideas about the role of popularity in art.For listeners familiar with Eno’s generative works, “77 Million Paintings” will be familiar and accessible. For others new to Eno, I’m not sure its the greatest starting point, seeing as how the closest frame of reference might be that of a screen saver.

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