Reading Notes: A Year of Swollen Appendices

Because I have such a hard time remembering books that I read these days, one of my geeky habits is to circle things that resonate while I’m reading and type up whatever I’ve circled when I’m done. I then print out my notes and stick them in the book so that when I pull it off my shelf again, I’ll remember what I found interesting.

These are snippets from the last book I read, a journal that Brian Eno kept in 1995 and published the year after. I’ve never been a fan of his music. But I loved this book.

(references to Stewart are to Stewart Brand and bold numbers are page numbers…if you happen to be having a bad day, I’d jump to 349)

A Year of Swollen Appendices, Brian Eno 1995

35. Stewart said that installations that depend on cutting-edge technology are fine the first year, out of date the second, and embarrassing for ever afterwards…

87. Almost without exception the best works were the cheapest. There are so many good reasons why this should be so, but perhaps the best is that people who haven’t invested much feel free to change their minds. So the cheap shows were the ones that suddenly changed quickly and for the better at the last moment.

98. Attention is what creates value….So how do we assess an artist who we suspect is dreadful but who manages to inspire the right storm of attention, and whose audience seems to swoon in the appropriate way? We say, ‘Well done.’

The question is: ‘Is the act of getting attention a sufficient act for an artist? Or is that in fact the job description?’

100. At home, we played with KidPix. Irial’s very comfortable with it and makes nice pictures. Why aren’t there things like this for grownups? Or rather, why aren’t programmes for grown-ups made with the same assumptions: viz. people are impatient, want results quickly, prefer good rapport to endless options, are more concerned about easy usability than high fidelity.

178. Oblique Strategy: ‘Define the problem in words. Now think of a context in which the problem would be an asset.’

182. Deepak Chopra: You don’t grow old; you stop growing and become old.

189. To Stewart…I’ve noticed that all these complex systems generators…have something in common – just three rules for each. And these three rules seem to share a certain similarity of relationships: one rule generates, another reduces, another maintains. I suppose it’s obvious, really, but perhaps it’s not trivial to wonder if those three conditions are all you need to specify in order to create a complex system generator (and then to wonder how those are actually being expressed in complex systems we see around us).

….I’ve been writing a proposal, by the way, for another type of synthesizer altogether, which would be based on the idea of self-evolving programmes….The problem with designing synthesizers is that there is a tension between the number of options a designer could make available and the number that any user could be expected to understand and have access to. What this means is that synths are always less interesting (sonically) than they could be, for reasons that I generally applaud – if the machine is going to be usable, it has to not be infinitely complex.

But what if the synthesizer just “grew” programs? If you pressed a “randomize” button which then set any of the several thousand “black-box” parameters to various values, and gave you sixteen variations. You listen to each of those, and then press on one or two of them – your favourite choices. Immediately the machine generates 16 more variations based on the “parents” you’ve selected. You choose again. And so on.

There would also be some simple controls – for instance “constrain mutation” – so that when you are getting close to an area you like you can focus more finely. And there could be a few typical synth controls – ways of subtracting individual elements from the mix; ways of applying overall filters and treaments.

The attraction of this idea is that one could navigate through very large design spaces without necessarily having any idea at all of how any of these things were being made. At present, synth design requires you to build from first principles (well almost) – as though you asked someone to make a tomato by building it up from individual molecules. What I’m proposing would be much more like hybridizing – find something that’s pointing in the right direction and then improve on it.

208. Note to Stewart re computers being the geodesic domes of our time.

223. the interface problem (increase rapport, not options)

226. …the screening of Julian’s Basquiat film. Confident, interesting, and involving. Trades heavily, however, on the glorious struggle of “being an artist,” which leaves me a little cold. (As struggles go, it isn’t that much of one.)

253. Whenever I show Koan to someone I get excited about it all over again. I’m finding something increasingly unsatisfactory about putting a record on – knowing that someone else knows exactly what’s going to happen next. It’s the kind of pointlessness you feel when you catch yourself doing a crossword, when you know that someone already has answers to all these questions and you’re basically adding nothing whatsoever to the sum total of the world’s knowledge or pleasure…

254. To Stewart: Of course the real can o’worms opens up with the new stuff I’m doing – the self-generating stuff. What is the status of a piece of its output. Recently I sold a couple of pieces as film music compositions ( a minor triumph, and an indication of how convincing the material is becoming). I just set up some likely rules and let the thing run until it played a bit I thought sounded right! But of course the film-makers could also have done this – they could have bought my little floppy (for thus it will be) containing the ‘seeds’ for those pieces, and grown the plants themselves. Then what would the relationship be between me and those pieces? There is, as far as I know, no copyright in the ‘rules’ by which something is made – which is what I specify in making these seed programs.

261. Digital is too deterministic. At the purely electronic level, there are very few molecules involved, and their behavior is amplified. The closer you get to the “real” instruments – including physical devices such as tapeheads, tape, loudspeaker cones, old echo units, analogue synths – the more molecules are involved, and the closer you get to a ‘probabilistic’ condition…

268. The paradox of modern painting: the message, again and again, is “Hey look – anyone can do it!” But the market of course depends on exactly the opposite message: “Hey look – this is special.” It is literally true to say that I could make a Damien Hirst painting – in fact I did make 250 of them in an afternoon for Pagan Fun Wear (which Damien signed) – and so could almost anyone else. Or they could get someone else to do it for them. So why pay Damien however much it costs for his? I don’t mean people shouldn’t, but I wonder exactly why they do.

Possible reasons:

Reliquary – *this* is the one touched by Him and therefore has special intrinsic value, an unquantifiable something that will improve me. The St. Anthony’s Scrotum syndrome.

Currency – this is an item of currency in exactly the way that a particular piece of paper with a picture of the queen and the right watermark is. An item of currency is defined as something which we agree doesn’t have intrinsic value…but which has conferred value. It has the value of our confidence in it. That means that the partners in the transaction have constructed a set of cultural agreements that allow them to agree that this thing can be used as a value-symbol. I give to you for L100 of goods, and you accept it becasue you know you can pass it on to someone else within the same set of cultural understandings. None of us actually holds the thing up to aesthetic scrutiny: “er, sorry – I don’t really like the design on that one: I can only give you L36 for it.” The difference with this form of currency, of course is that it is very negotiable – *you can change its value.*

History – this is the one that was there at the time, the first of its kind! This is the Magna Carta of modern dot painting, the Lincoln’s axe of dissected-beast sculpture. Look at it and think it all started here. Closely related to reliquary, but without the metaphysical overtones of contained value. The value is in the event of which this is the remaining physical evidence.

Psychology – investing this much money in such a thing is good for me. It will make me think about the future. It is an investment in new thinking.

Philanthropy – I think art is a Good Thing and I register my commitment to it by supporting this artist.

Society – I would like to be part of the community of people who buy pictures.

283. Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided.

288. So much of modern dance is a reaction against something that no one else cares about anyway…It’s like watching two theologians discussing Mary’s virginity: you just don’t care about the whole subject. Sometimes I think that all I want is to rid the world of artists.

349. Into the abyss. After several months of work, I slowly grind down and it all starts to seem like “my job.” I do it, and I probably don’t do it too badly, but I find myself working entirely from the momentum of deadlines and commitments, as though the ideas are not springing forth but being painfully squeezed out. At the back of my mind, unadmitted to, are some nasty thoughts swimming about in the darkness. They whisper things like: “You’ve had it” and “You’re out of steam.”

Experience has shown me that, when I reach this point, all the distractions I can muster are only postponements. It’s time to face up to total, unmitigated despair. I sometimes do this by going alone on a “holiday” – though that word scarcely conveys the crashing tedium involved, for I usually choose somewhere uneventful, take nothing with me, and then rely on the horror of my own company to drive me rapidly to the edge of the abyss.

It goes like this, me thinking, “What’s it all for? / What’s the bloody point? / I haven’t done anything I like and I don’t have a clue what to do next / I’m a completely empty shell.” This lasts two days or so, and is the closest I ever get to depression. Then I suddenly notice – apropos of something very minor, like the way a plane crosses the sky, or the smell of trees, or the light in the early evening, or remembering one of my brother’s jokes – that I am thoroughly enjoying myself and completely, utterly glad to be alive. Not one of the questions I asked myself has been answered. Instead, like all good philosophical questions, they’ve just ceased to matter.

I think the process involves reaching the point of not trying any more to dig inside, but just letting go, ceding control, saying to myself, “I am utterly pathetic, so I might as well give up.” And at the point of giving up I’m suddenly alive again.

368. Suppose some things. Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences (Roy Ascott’s phrase). That solves a lot of problems: we don’t have to argue about whether photographs are art, or whether peformances are art, or whether Carl Andre’s bricks or Andres Serranos’s piss or Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” are art, because we say, “Art is something that happens, a process not a quality, and all sorts of things can make it happen.”