Do high-technology tools like computers and synthesizers enhance or corrupt modern artists' work?
That big question kept recurring Saturday, when Art Direction + Design in Orange County hosted an all-day symposium, "Perspectives '87: Original Vision" through UC Irvine Extension.
Nearly 200 people attended, many of them drawn by a rare U.S. appearance by British musician-composer Brian Eno, 39, best known for his 13 solo albums and for collaborations with rock stars David Bowie, David Byrne/Talking Heads, U2 and others.
But the wide-ranging symposium also featured talks by West German-born typography designer Wolfgang Weingart, Emmy award-winning Los Angeles computer animation artist Rebecca Allen, Los Angeles artist Tom Van Sant and San Francisco industrial designers Sigmar Willnauer and Anthony Guido.
In his 90-minute talk, Eno said chance plays a big part in originality: "The world throws up a mutation, and somebody notices it.
"It's important that you have some expectations about what (new) configurations might relate to," Eno said. "Luck is being ready. People always say to me, 'You're very lucky.' I say, 'No, I'm very ready.' "
He's found that originality is aided by "naivete and limitations, both of which I have in abundant proportions. When you're naive, you can approach a situation with a kind of idiot freedom that very quickly gets ironed out when you're a professional"--unless the professional strives to "keep an open focus" for new possibilities, Eno said.
In his music, "I use synthesizers a lot. Some of those synthesizers are clearly boxes of possibility. You don't have to play it like anybody else, you can reinvent that instrument," Eno said. However, "the big synthesizers don't encourage you to think about music very much, they encourage you to think about synthesizers," and that can stifle creativity, he said.
Outside influences on an artist's work--particularly influences from other cultures--also interest Eno. "What often happens with ideas is they get transported from one place to another and something goes wrong. . . . The damaged product is the seed of a new idea."
This "warped assimilation," Eno said, happened when American soul-music artist James Brown incorporated West African rhythms into his work, then West African artists incorporated James Brown's ideas into their work, then the Talking Heads listened to the Brown-influenced West Africans' music, and "the ball was flung across the Atlantic again." Recently "I went to West Africa, and what those musicians were really interested in was the Talking Heads," Eno said, laughing.
But what Eno is most interested in these days are the music and video art pieces he's been making since 1983. He began making them by chance, since "I have always had a deep suspicion of video art. I have never liked it, and, with a few exceptions, I don't like it now. It just seemed to me like pretentious TV," he said.
However, he began "video painting" after he got a good deal on some video equipment from "a roadie from (rock group) Foreigner--if you remember them," he said.
Eno's computer-controlled installations, which combine music with slowly changing colors and images projected through plexiglass boxes mounted on television screens, have been shown in museums around the world. A new show is scheduled for San Francisco's Exploratorium in March.
The installations feature several pieces of music playing simultaneously and overlapping each other while the images change, Eno said. "With most of my work now, I just want it to go on as long as it can. I don't want to dominate the world with it, I just don't want to repeat" myself, he said.
Eno's stance on the technology question seemed to be that modern artists should make use of modern tools available to them, but remember that original vision starts with the human mind, not the machine. Similar ideas were stated by other symposium participants.
"Everybody talks about how insignificant we (humans) are," said Tom Van Sant, who makes paintings, sculptures, elaborate kites and films as well as art generated by configurations of mirrors flashed to satellites in space. "Well, we are insignificant in scale, but are we insignificant in imagination?
"I'm not particularly interested in technology for itself," Van Sant said. "I'm sort of caught (up) in (wondering) what art is in the 20th Century, and what it's going to be in the 21st Century. . . . What is technology? Is it inhuman, is it dehumanizing? Technology is neutral. . . . We're interested in technology, technology isn't interested in us," Van Sant said.
However, Wolfgang Weingart--the typography designer who flew to Orange County from Switzerland just to participate in the ADDOC symposium--cautioned that designers must know more than just how to operate computers.
"The technology is to me fascinating," Weingart said in heavily accented English. "I take the machines for help, I use them as much as I can," but a computer is "only a better tool, a better pencil, a super-pencil." At the Swiss art school where Weingart teaches, students "must learn hand-composing in the same room where the computers are," he said.
What may happen to even the best creations of modern designers was portrayed by industrial designers Sigmar Willnauer and Anthony Guido. Partners in a new firm called That, Willnauer and Guido presented a slide show that juxtaposed images of their designs with photographs of deserted buildings, landscapes and abandoned inventions taken on short trips into the Sierra, Southern California and Nevada.
The connection between the contrasting images lay in the idea that some of That's designs "will make it (into production), but they will end up in the same process (as the abandoned inventions) sooner or later. Hopefully, later," Willnauer said.
Through the journeys that produced the black-and-white stills of abandoned creations, the designers have learned to "cleanse ourselves" by "emptying out" old ideas and feelings of creative constriction through returning to a low-tech environment, Guido said. Such excursions have also helped them feel "freer" in their work, he said.
The symposium closed with Rebecca Allen, who has made innovative music videos and other animated films.
Allen, who spent three years studying computer design and programming before she began working in animation, said she had pursued that training because she wanted to transfer her fine art skills into a more avant-garde medium.
Yet, she added, it's important to consider how human creativity can be expressed or confined by powerful tools such as computers. Taking such questions seriously, Allen said, "helps us define what is uniquely human, and what differentiates us from machines and animals."