It’s opening morning at Pop!Tech, and if you think it was hard to get an opening night ticket to Madame Butterfly at the Met, it was nothing compared to getting a seat at this Camden conference.
The Opera House here is packed to the rafters with a glitterati of geeks, and the folks who love them. A
moshpit of people drawn together by their shared passion to know: What’s Next????
In customary fashion, the kick-off presentation is a mind blower.
Brian Eno, the sonic wizard behind Roxy Music and the father of modern ambient music (thank you, Wikipedia!), steps to the stage, a bald, British guy in a plush plum velvet jacket. I loved the man instantly when he announced that he wanted to talk about simplicity –- one of my favorite topics — and how, as Darwin pointed out, simplicity generates complexity. “Complexity and intelligence grow from simplicity,” he says, “ not from greater complexity.” Guess that’s why it’s hard to find a simple remote.
Eno said that two things interested him as an artist: Why people want to be artists, and why others want to see what they do. What is it about art, he wondered, that changes people’s minds, makes them think differently?
One of things that does that, he says, is culture — the way we look at ourselves, the place we create in which we can surrender. For an artist, his medium is the safe, non threatening environment where he can try out another way of thinking and feeling. For an audience, we can sample those feelings vicariously.
To demonstrate, he points to the screen behind him, on which a pattern — like an abstract painting — changes every few minutes. It’s Eno’s latest work. A simple piece of software that randomly generates a new image every few minutes. It’s called 77M images by Brian Eno, and it’s generated by permutations of a few hundred images. Imagine having it over the mantle. Sensational, worrisome. Will this eliminate the need for artists? Willl our kids be bored with one static painting, even if it’s the Mona Lisa?
As a writer, I start fretting, harboring dangerous ideas — appropriately, the theme of this year’s conference. Will too much technology eliminate the human hand? Will some super efficient robot be writing this blog in a few years?
But enough about me and my neuroses. Here’s what I loved about Eno’s presentation. He talked about cultural events that changed his life (I’m a sucker for seminal moments, life epiphanies.) One of them was hearing a simple loop of music by the artist Stephen Reich. It was called, “It’s gonna rain,” and
it ran on two machines, slightly out of sync, that overlapped each other. “It was a beautiful piece of music, exciting to listen to.,” Eno remembered. “And it had a huge freight of message: you don’t need much material to start with. “ That, he pointed out, was a good message to hear in late 60s, and early 70s, when multiple track recordings had just appeared. It was an elegant, simple piece.
The second message he took away, he said, was that the piece didn’t need much composing. Once the system was set in motion, it sort of worked itself out.
Finally, he said, the thing that blew him away the most was when he recognized that the real composer of the artistry was in the audience’s brain.
“That reverses the notion of where the art is,” he says. “It makes you realize the brain is the part that’s active. Art objects are made by artists to give you the opportunity of creating something in your own head.” It’s an epiphany, he says, that’s underlined everything he’s ever done since.
So how does that relate to the images on the screen behind him? Because he’s created this technological bit of wizardry and let it go. “I don’t know what it’s going to do. I don’t know what I’ll be seeing,” he says. It’s continues to make itself in my absence. Ungraspable, ephemeral.” Spooky.