Brian Eno on the Importance of Limits

By Andreas Koller

Originally posted on his blog.

Brian Eno shares his views on creating situations to let go of control, reducing one’s options to avoid known paths, the concept of a “genius” and his idea of art education for everyone in this interview at Red Bull Music Academy in New York in May 2013.

[vimeo 65663692 w=500 h=281]


Eno uses the word “surrender” when describing the effect he wants to achieve with his music. His ambient pieces adress the parasympathetic nervous system (discussed around 8:30 into the interview). In contrast with the speed of urban environments, which require our constant attention and thus adressing the sympathetic nervous system, the sound and light environments Eno creates allow people to surrender, meaning that they actively choose not to take control (explained 10:30 into the interview) and give themselves up to the situation.

The perfect analogy for this is surfing: the surfer takes control momentarily to situate himself on a wave and then surrenders to it and lets himself being carried along with the movement of the water. This can also be seen as an anology to what we do in life, as we are constantly oscillating between these two states. Furthermore, Eno makes an interesting observation that “we tend to dignify the control side of the spectrum more than the surrender phase”, and tend to think that people who are good at control are the masters of the universe, while we are not paying enough attention to those who are able to give up control and let new things happen.

From genius to scenius

Eno argues that a the notion of a genius is distorting reality, as an individual is always supported and influenced by other artists from whom he/she grabs ideas and is also dependend on society at large. Therefore he has come up with the term “scenius”, describing that genies don’t come out of nowhere. He made this observation when he visited an exhibition on early 20th century russian painting, where he noticed that there is not much difference in quality between stars like Kandinsky or Rodchenko and hundreds of other painters.

“Nobody comes out of nothing.” (22:10)

As we live in a culture that wants to create heroes and champions, it is important as an artist to realise that judging one’s own work is not necessary – it’s probably good, probably not. “I think this is what happened to Miles Davis as well. He started to think: actually I don’t really know how to judge it. It comes out of me. It’s probably good. Why should i ask questions about it? I’ll let history decide.” (20:50)

“I just do it. You lot decide if it’s good.”

Fuck up technology

Pushing the limits of existing technology is the job of artists: “You have to find out how to fuck up technology.” Find out what can be done with the tools, no matter for what purpose they have been invented.

“It’s a constant dance between artists and technologists.”

Cut the options

Why is it that people can still make innovative stuff with very primitive instruments like electric guitars and drumkits? These instruments are hopelessly limited, but that’s exactly the reason why people are still exploring and pushing its possibilities: one quickly understands what it can do and stops looking for options.

By contrast, digital tools offer sheer unlimited possibilities, where it’s easy to get lost. The problem with software based art is that you never know what it can do. That’s why it’s necessary to set yourself limits. Experimenting in his studio, he would set arbitrary rules to narrow down possibilities and spark new ideas, like: let’s not use anything on that side of the room.

Another limit Eno mentions is having a deadline. A deadline means that there suddenly is a context, a reason, a destination. His 2809 unreleased pieces of music are all experiments, until the moment he’s been given a deadline, which makes him choose one and finish it.

“Two things that really make for good records: deadlines and small budgets.”
Brian Eno (1:02:28)

Creativity and education

Eno studied at Ipswich Civic College, where Roy Ascott established his seminal Groundcourse, applying radical teaching methods. In stark contrast to these methods, the predominant attitude to education today is “based on the idea that you have to educate people to fit into this society as it stands now – which is stupid, of course”, simply because society in 20 years will not be the same as today. Eno critisises this ideological view of education:

“We are born endowed with a lot of creativity. We then go through an education system that very carefully is designed to get rid of most of that creativity.”
Brian Eno (56:00)

Eno advances the view that “everybody should go to an art school for a year or so”. The idea of art school is to allow students to discover what parts of their creativity they want to explore and to enlarge, how to apply yourself to a situation creatively like nobody has done before. That’s something the current educational system renders impossible.

At one point during the interview, Eno jokes:

“I don’t do anything really i just watch documentaries and then make theories.” Brian Eno (11:10)

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