Video Painting with Brian Eno
Brian Eno’s career as a video artist begins with Foreigner.
Yes, that Foreigner, the ‘70s arena rock band behind such hits as “Hot Blooded” and “Double Vision”.
During production on Talking Heads’ landmark Fear of Music, Brian Eno remembers the slightly less experimental band working next door at on their 1979 album Head Games (interesting tidbit: Foreigner’s then-new bassist Rick Wills toured with Eno’s old band Roxy Music in ‘75 and ‘76). A Foreigner roadie came over to the Eno and Talking Heads’ side and asked if anyone was interested in buying a video camera. Eno raised his hand, purchasing the Panasonic industrial color camera.
Upon getting it home to his New York high rise apartment, Eno wanted to begin shooting Manhattan immediately. He aimed the camera out the window and hooked it up to his television screen. But he didn’t have a tripod, so he had to rest the camera on its side. Because the image was now sideways on his television screen, he had to turn his TV sideways to correct the picture. In doing so, he altered the image from a landscape perspective to portrait.
After having left his camera pointing upwards at the sky for a four-day period that burned out the camera’s color tube (“a brilliant mistake,” he says), Eno’s little camera would now capture Manhattan skylines in vibrant and odd colors. He would sit and stare at the television screen, watching the motion of the city and sky as if it were an actual TV program.
Soon, Eno was altering the color of the images further through the color display functions of his TV, find a setting of colors that was syncing nicely with the image, and then would proceed to record the moment for stretches of time. As visiting friends started to take notice of the images on the television screen, and Eno and company would sit and stare at these slowly moving images with unique and living colors, Eno realized, “This is very interesting, it’s a new kind of painting really.”
And so it was. The combination of the portrait-style presentation, the more-or-less “still” images on screen as opposed to rapidly moving pictures, the lack of any narrative, and the heavily treated, non-realistic colors produced by both the television controls and the camera itself (“a unique paintbrush,” he says), formed an entirely new form of painting—video painting.
These works are clearly more effective as video paintings rather than mere still images. Without motion, Eno is not the painter of light that great cinematographers are, nor are the images interesting enough on their own, untreated. But the expressive color, reading like an Impressionist painting where you can almost see the brush strokes, combined with the grainy, pixilated images add to an overall abstract feeling of these otherwise live, real-time moving images.
His Manhattan skyline video paintings were culled and exhibited in as a video installation in museums known as “Mistaken Memories of Mediaeval Manhattan”. The effect of rolling fog that changes color as it rolls across a New York City skyline is moving. Some paintings are seemingly more altered than others, with a few from “Manhattan” being distorted and colorized almost to the point of complete abstraction.
The revolutionary time-lapse element of the works is easily lost in 21st century viewings, as everyone from music video directors and to sitcoms to big budget studio films have employed the technique. But in a painting context, the implications of time-lapse are exciting. When starting with a base skyline, the viewer can see how the shifting sun will recast shadows and alter colors on moving clouds on the same still picture. Furthermore, the moment can be made interactive by the viewer trying to anticipate and guess how the light will change the painting as one sees the sun beginning to move, adding a great deal of fun to the works. Imagine if there was a consistently rotating sun overhead on, say, Van Gogh’s haystacks.
Eno took the idea of video painting a step further than point-and-capture camera work by tackling the age-old art subject of a female nude (Christine Alicino) in “Thursday Afternoon”. The subject choice serves as an excellent link to the traditional painting world, serving to help collapse firm distinctions between the two—or at least to prove a through-line.
But the result isn’t nearly as exciting as the Manhattan skylines, feeling more forced and self-conscious as “art”, especially as the subject moves so deliberately (as if to say, “Pay attention!”) and the photography taking place indoors, removing the mystery, spontaneity, and palpability of outdoor light. The bending and twisting of the images’ shapes and colors on “Manhattan” felt like innovative and slight expressive enhancements, but in “Thursday” feel overt and contrived.
Both features are accompanied by Eno’s eerie ambient music, with “Manhattan” featuring works from Ambient 1: Music For Airports and On Land and “Thursday” being later released as a full album of the same name. The mix accompanying “Thursday” the video painting is different than that heard on the actual album, and “Manhattan” includes an unreleased Eno composition. All of the sound and video images have been re-mastered and enhanced for this DVD edition.