I’m still working through thoughts about the relationship between visual art and narrative, but I want to record some observations about the present and future of interfaces, music, and paintings occasioned by Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings (now in its second edition) and an Edward Hopper retrospective at the National Gallery of Art. Oddly enough, both involve music—and unusual interfaces. But the central concerns of these two exhibitions are different, as is the web presence used to market them. I’ve written briefly about Eno before, but the Hopper thing is relatively new to me.

To begin, Brian Eno is alive. He can speak for himself, and does so on YouTube, in galleries, and even in Second Life. Hopper’s dead. He won’t be getting any more paychecks from his work. Eno’s monetization scheme is pretty traditional, i.e. limited editions:


My copy came from the first edition (just barely, from the numbers on the case). The normal concept of a “limited” edition is that the price is driven by scarcity—but Eno does not use any sort of DRM to keep you from installing the software on multiple computers. The success of the concept (into a second edition) allows him to improve or alter the software for newer machines, to expand the book (I can’t tell for sure, but the Amazon page suggests that the second edition is better than the first) and generally to surpass the original. Not to mention the fact that the software is meant to generate a nearly unlimited number of original works of art (hence the title, of course). Why the heck is the software’s package attached to the ploy of a “limited” edition? Seems absolutely the conceptual opposite of the package’s contents.

One of the main complaints about the software which creates generative art (and music only on a G5 Mac—speaking of instant obsolescence!) is that it is just too slow. Not slow as in processor/programming limitations, but slow by design. It is clear by Eno’s writings that part of what fascinates him is how people’s attention can be stretched by modifying viewing conventions. In 1978, he made these observations recorded in the booklet:

One afternoon while I was working in a studio with the Talking Heads, the roadie from Foreigner working in an adjacent studio, came in and asked whether anyone wanted to buy some video equipment. I’d never really thought much about video and found most “video art” unmemorable, but the prospect of actually owning a video camera was at that time quite exotic. I bought the equipment and excitedly took it back to my apartment on West Eighth Street. There I realized that the bulky camera – it was about the size of a large shoebox – did not come with a tripod, and, because the bottom was curved, it wasn’t easy to sit it up straight. So I put it in the windowsill on its side, the lens pointing toward the World Trade Center towers just south of me. Then I rigged the rest of the stuff together and plugged the camera in. Of course the image was rotated, so I turned the TV – the size of a washing machine – onto its side, and there, on the screen, was something I’d never seen before. It was like a painting, but it changed. The sideways-on screen was an essential part of this; it took the TV out of narrative space and into picture space. And the fact that the camera was still – not zooming or panning, but patiently sitting there and letting the world go by in front of it -added to this feeling. Subsequently, I never turned the camera round, and, once I’d set up a shot, sat down and let it record until I felt like making a different shot.

I noticed an interesting thing. People visiting me would sit and watch those recordings of the view outside the window with the rapt attention they would accord a painting or a move or TV show I thought it interesting that people (not just me) were happy to watch something that didn’t change any faster than real life changed. This was not something you expected from the TV experience.

I purchased one of the soundtracks to Eno’s sideways videos– Thursday Afternoon not long after it came out. I never got the chance to see the video that matched. The album was like listening to wind chimes, not unpleasant but not particularly life-changing. Reading this description of the “portrait’ oriented video, Thursday Afternoon makes more sense. The goal was to subvert what are frequently narrative technologies so that they unfolded over time without telling any sort of story—while maintaining the attention of the audience. A formidable aim, for any sort of traditional audience at least.

Marshall McLuhan, and much later Kathleen Welch, have observed that one of the central defining characteristics of television is sound. Rapt attention on the image is seldom necessary, or even desirable because the sound is what really cues you in to what is going on. Not simply speech, but changes in music and or environmental sound universally cue the audience to the key moments requiring attention. Unlike movies viewed in darkness, the TV is viewed in a world which competes for the attention of an audience easily distracted. Why should we give TV strict attention? After all we can still follow the story without the visual cues in most cases. Eno’s music is a long way from the sort of exagerated foley sounds found on TV. Televisions sound is a subject for another post I should take up at a later date.

Eno appeals to a specialized audience, I think, because his work is so staunchly non-narrative. There is no storytelling in his pictures even if he includes figures. Eno generates spaces, in both music and pictures, that are nondescript and resistant to storytelling. Leon Major, organizer of the ekphrastic opera Later in the Same Evening, argues for the utility of (what I feel is) a more commonplace approach. People want to find stories in pictures—which seems to be a fruitful enterprise, just as long as you don’t confuse telling stories about pictures with interpreting pictures:

It’s not a piece about Hopper, and it’s not a piece about the paintings, it’s a piece about our take on the characters in the paintings. And to have some consistency he chose the early 1930s, all set in New York to have some sort of framework for the piece and out of this came the paintings. The way the opera works is . . . when you look at a painting, at least when I look at a painting that is peopled . . . I look at the people and the way that they are posed and I ask: what were they doing just before that and what are they going to do right after that moment? That’s the exploration.

(taken from the podcast Hopper Meets Opera)

I think the key word here is exploration — Eno’s work is based on immersion, not exploration. There is a huge difference. Eno creates and environment, Hopper (and the associated opera) reproduce environments, at least as imagined. The force that makes Eno’s generative artwork compelling is novelty. Hopper’s, on the other hand, seems to be fueled to a greater extent by nostalgia—once again, real or imagined. Viewing Hopper, at least for me, an oxymoronic sense of a new past, imagined now although it was created long ago. I’m looking forward to traveling to Chicago in February (I hope) to see the exhibition.

Viewing work on web/screen presents an interesting challenge that is not addressed very well by the presence of either of these creative clusters around Eno and Hopper. Eno’s software cannot be speeded-up or slowed down (intentionally). It cannot be accessed randomly. It requires a while to “bloom” (or perhaps for the viewer to achieve a receptive state) so jumping in midstream, though tempting, is neither desirable nor possible. Like a narrative, the environment has only one programmed entry (on) and exit (off). It still must play the same game, without the possibility of the imposition of external narrative.

The NGA site offers a variety of ways to traverse the Hopper exhibition, of reading critical analysis and generally achieving the culturally acceptable “reading” of the art work. It has a single entry, but multiple exits through branching paths. In a sense, a viewers interface with the Hopper exhibit can be less orchestrated—but not by much. You can’t walk closer to the work, or randomly select one by glancing. To enter the program is to follow it, at least for a while. You can’t simply experience it. There is no sense of empowerment, or flexibility, or reality for that matter. It’s just another tightly-wound web site.

I really wonder what will become the lasting interface type of all this progress. Most of the new things coming from Phillips and Microsoft seem to suggest a greater degree of physicality than is currently possible. But even now, there have been some alternate priorities. For example, the Blake Archive has long stressed accuracy, going ot elaborate lengths to preserve the sense of scale in Blake’s works on display. Recent web interfaces for the Last Supper, on the other hand, have no desire to give you an idea of how big/small the painting is but offer unprecedented flexibility when it comes to walking closer and closer to the work.

However, one thing that seems absent from the current state of interface design is the ability to replicate the unruly nature of access to work that has become the nature of the “googlized” web—unlimited entries, unlimited exits, and user-driven narrative structures. Instead, art on the web sticks by the old tried-and-true method of having a critic narrate interface with artwork. I think that there are unimagined possibilities out there. This awkwardness is one of the difficulties of progress.

Simply telling a story about artwork does not guarantee that it is either interesting or true.

1 thought on “Interface”

  1. Fascinating. Re TV many of the reports of my all-time favourite TV news journalist, Charles Wheeler, are notable to me for precisely their lack of babble. Allowing the pictures to “speak” for themselves without a redundant reporter overlay. This has the effect of drawing the viewer into the story by engaging concentration and interpretation. And of course gives the narrative rather than the narrator the greatest prominence.

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