Monday, February 08, 2010

no longer controlling

"One of the motives for being an artist is to recreate a condition where you're actually out of your depth, where you're uncertain, no longer controlling yourself, yet you're generating something, like surfing as opposed to digging a tunnel. Tunnel-digging activity is necessary, but what artists like, if they still like what they're doing, is the surfing."

- Brian Eno

Below: from Eno's 77 million paintings (image by mafalda; click on image to enlarge)


  1. I reckon both come with that feeling of uncertainty, and being out of your depth, etc. It's a choice of being crushed or drowning, but the thing about surfing, is that you enjoy it all the more if you've spent a few years digging tunnels.

  2. Hi Alec, yeah perhaps Eno's choice of metaphors could've been better. For me what he's talking about is directed, goal-oriented activity (tunnel-digging) vs. non-directed, freeform activity (surfing). But this opposition is flimsy and breaks down under scrutiny.

    The quote reminds me of one of the Zen koans used by John Cage: "goal is to have no goal".

    Absolutely agree that "you enjoy it all the more if you've spent a few years digging tunnels" (so to speak).

  3. Sorry, just to clarify, I think the opposition can be very useful. But as you've shown, there's a lot of crossover between the metaphors used by Eno, which kind of muddies the waters (pun intended). Although having said that, I think this crossover itself is interesting and potentially very useful!

  4. I like the way the radical contrasts in these analogies highlight shared fundamentals. As you say, very useful.

    I just know that while I was digging my tunnel, for almost eight years solid, entirely underground, constantly under threat of suffocation and tunnel collapse, my dream was to eventually work my way out of that self made labyrinth.

    Maybe some people can go straight to the beach and find the waves they'll ride to shore, but for me that only became possible after I opened up my channels the hard way.

    I always enjoy these thoughts you put up on your blog Stu. You've inspired me to do more of that on my own blog. Cheers.

  5. The generative potential of what Keats called negative capability (a willingness to accept not-knowing) seems to me essential to true artistic creation of any kind.

    The element of preparation via discipline in one's practise is however often overlooked by those who would would wish to be guided entirely by instinct in plunging over the falls.

    But, Stu, something tells me you knew all this already. (The "something", quite likely, is the fact of the excellent poems you have made and continue to be making.)

  6. Alec: yeah, I feel it's only through years and years of making mistakes, of being 'dumped' by waves (both big and small), eating sand, that I've begun to recognise how valuable all these fuck-ups have been, or perhaps that they weren't fuck-ups at all. Maybe some have caved in, but ultimately the tunnels are all still there, all accessible if I put my mind to it. These pathways are present in the act of surfing.

    TC: thank you, as ever, for your kind words. I feel that the trajectory of my life (and my gravitation towards poetry, the arts, and meditation) may be a gradual movement towards negative capability. Although it's only fairly recently that I've been able to put a name to it. It's a quality that I hold very highly indeed. As if through learning to truly let go (and perhaps this is the most difficult discipline of all), one floats in negative capability. I think there's an analogy here with learning to surf.

    On that note, a correction: the Cage koan is actually "goal is not to have a goal". Perhaps negative capability is the ladder to this? ;)

  7. Stu,

    I think there may be a kind of curve inscribed in this trajectory to which you refer.

    My sense is that for a while one moves hopefully toward negative capability.

    And then later negative capability moves inexorably toward one.

    Whether or not one is in control something is always in control. Or else completely out of control.

    As one comes back around the curve, the light and feeling change.

    (But happily I don't understand what I mean by this.)

  8. Excelent, great quote, I belive art is like that, involves setting you free from constraints that have no reason to be. Besides I love brian eno, he is an amazing thinker, did you read more about him? Here is a tweet I wrote:"Brian enno regarding contemporary issues", do you use that tool by any chance? we can get connected trough it

  9. Well, it's taken me a while to reply, but...

    Tom, I think your sense may well be right. Thanks for the link, I really enjoyed that piece.

    Mariana, thanks also for the link. Some very interesting observations there - I can certainly relate to Eno's thoughts. I'm _Wordy_ on Twitter, I'm now following you. :)