Art in Focus: Brian Eno – 77 Million Paintings

Brian Eno’s music and image installation has been endlessly reinventing itself since 2006

What is it?
77 Million Paintings is a continuously changing sound and image digital artwork Brian Eno originally made for an exhibition in Tokyo in 2006 (an enhanced edition followed in 2008) in a two-disc combination: one containing the software that generates the succession of sound and images, the other a DVD of interviews with Eno. Since its launch, 77 Million Paintings has had numerous screenings (including on to the walls of Sydney Opera House), no two of them identical thanks to the randomised variations produced by the software.

How was it done?
It is an example of generative art: that is, Eno set up the framework and, no longer in control, he let it loose. 77 Million Paintings is a slight misnomer as none of the images in the sequence is a painting per se. To begin with, there was a series of original images, 296 of them, mostly painted by Eno on to glass slides. The software – developed by Jake Dowie – sources four of these images at a time, combining and overlapping them in a novel, transitory pattern. The same applies to the musical component, which draws randomly on given elements – vocal and bell-like sounds are discernible in the midst of the distortion – to generate endlessly novel arrangements. Eno relates it to natural processes whereby simple, algorithmic rules generate unpredictable and complex results.

Where can I see it?
77 Million Paintings is running at the Gallagher Gallery in the RHA, Ely Place, Dublin, until February 24th (rhagallery.ie). RHA director Patrick T Murphy notes that his first contact with Eno also involved a video and soundscape. That was over 30 years ago when Murphy was director of the Douglas Hyde Gallery, at Trinity College.

Is it a typical work by the artist?
It is typical, even given the phenomenal reach of Eno's activities. He is known as a musician, as an exceptionally creative and influential record producer and as a visual artist. The link is perhaps his conceptual approach in all spheres.

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Born in Suffolk, he studied painting and music in Ipswich and then attended Winchester School of Art. After an initial spell with Roxy Music he went out on his own and, over the course of several albums, more or less invented and defined ambient music – he also came up with the term. From early on he’d been keen on making music utilising a combination of nonmusical procedures and chance, culminating in his use of self-generated, or generative music. His ambient compositions have been widely used in films and installation.

He has also collaborated with and produced albums for many other musicians, including David Bowie, David Byrne and U2. Unlike a conventional producer, he brings not so much a sound or a style to a project as a sensibility, and he has worked with a surprising breadth of talent, from Robert Wyatt to Coldplay, Ultravox to Grace Jones. His conceptual art projects include his aphoristic set of cards, Oblique Strategies, regarded as something of a modern classic. He has always approached things on his own terms, following the line of his own interests, rather than pursuing conventional success in popular-music-industry terms.