One of the many notable events going on during Red Bull Music Academy‘s benign reign of corporate arts patronage this month is the New York City premiere of Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings installation. The piece, first developed in 2006 and debuting in the US in a 2007 San Francisco show, is what’s referred to as a “generative work.” It’s led by software to change subtly as it goes, layering specific colors and patterned components on top of each other in slowly shifting combinations that will never repeat twice. It was sort of like sitting inside your own Xanax catnap for half an hour. In a good way…
Inside what looked to be a big, disused commercial space on 32nd Street in Manhattan (former home fo the Cafe Rouge, apparently), you entered through giant red curtains into a high-ceilinged room lit by the glow of the central piece. Interlacing panels of swirled color stood at the front, in contained units that matched up, but didn’t bleed together. Weird little Ray Bradbury Martian cones sat on the floor among comfy red couches and rough-surfaced industrial pillars. The patterns themselves could be a little staid, ugly, or beautifully luminescent depending on when you glanced at them. But if you looked to the side for a second, left the room for a minute, you’d be struck by how different things were when your glance returned. It takes concentrated focus to see the work changing in molasses quarter steps. It’d be very interesting to know what specific elements of visual taste were worked into the software. If color combinations were programmed as specifically pleasing? Because even if no specific panel held up as an individual masterpiece of “painting” at any given time, the overall balance was consistently tasteful.
Couchbound, gentle tweaks in color and pattern rolling in and out, pinpointing changes becomes hypnotic. Part of the point of the slow pace is to take you out of your unnaturally chaotic, phone-bound ADD for a while. It’s partly the moment we live in and partly our own fault that paying close attention to anything requires a mental adjustment. Paying close attention to something moving so slowly that it appears still in any given second can be wildly disorienting. After a few minutes of pushing against it, the space left you deeply calm. Coming at it with the context of Eno as ambient music pioneer in mind, it seemed like a natural extension of obsessions he’d been wrestling for decades. Ordered randomness as an enabler of creativity. Slow, glacial changes in an immaculately controlled space. A shroomers’ delight, no doubt.
I hadn’t thought of this exhibit as a music event going in. Just an art show from a big-name music icon. But it’s no surprise that chilly, elegant ambient music played continually in the room. (The man invented it, you know.) As influential as it’s become, as far as it creeped into indie rock in the mid to late 00s, ambient music is usually kind of a disaster in performance. It’s still and motionless by design, a perversely, perpetually thwarted build that isn’t really meant to stand up to intense focus. Even though there was no live performance element to the installation, this might have been close to the platonic ideal of experiencing the genre in a dedicated space. The speakers were assorted three-dimensionally, with certain sounds popping up occasionally in different quadrants of the room. It was unobtrusive, but important for sculpting a peculiar geography to exist inside of. Ambient makes so much more sense filling a space than it does filling your head. I guess they played Music for Airports at LaGuardia for a brief time in the early 80s? They should probably do that again.
After the show, Eno huddled with some well-wishers on the outskirts of the free champers (and Red Bulls of every color!) reception space, mostly in the dark, out of view. Kind of the ambient version of basking in your own glory? I was too geeked out to bug him, but I’d like to think that some of of my adulation creeped in subtly, from the side.
77 Million Paintings will be open for public viewing until June 2nd at 145 W. 32nd Street, 12 to 8 PM, Mondays excluded (Garfield-style).
Photo by Devon Banks.