NICK ROBERTSON has been BRIAN ENO’s go-to visual collaborator since his 1997 album, The Drop: working with him not only on album art, but also Eno’s generative AV software project 77 Million Paintings and a variety of live installations and performances across the world. We talked with Nick about his creative collaboration with Eno for the new album Small Craft on a Milk Sea – his first for Warp records, excitingly. Unsurprisingly for one of contemporary music’s great innovators, their working relationship is a pioneering attempt to redefine the common practice of album artwork: here, the visuals grow in tandem with the music, a response to and commentary on its themes but also as a mutually inspiring practice of work. This is typical of Eno, Robertson tells us, as a man who loves the process of creating as much as its results.
The below is the full interview with Nick Robertson, an extract of which was published in Notion 48
MCL: Hi Nick! So I’m guessing you don’t subscribe to the old truism, ‘never meet your heroes’. How did it come about that you began working with Brian Eno? Was he an influence before you began working together?
NR: There are a certain artists whose work takes a vital role in developing you ideas and your approach to what you do as an artist. Brian was certainly one of these for me. I have never been interested in designers, even when I was at art school studying Graphics. I have always gravitated towards musicians & writers who have a much more attuned relationship with their imaginations. I have always felt more comfortable working with this kind of artist as they are talking about the same thing as you but in a different language. We can bounce off each other and take each other in unexpected directions.
I started doing work for All Saints Records as soon as I left art school, which is the home of many of Brian’s albums. The first time I worked with Brian directly was when I put together his design for The Drop in 1997. Our working relationship really developed after this rather humble start but in a sense, it is not so surprising that we work well together as the ideas that he has developed over the course of his career helped shape my own and so they now compliment each other.
MCL: How would you characterise your working relationship: is it a collaboration, in that he conceives of your work as part of a greater whole ‘piece’ incorporating the music (and sometimes performance), or is there more a sense that you work from a brief from him, as a commissioned artist? And has that developed over your years’ working together?
NR: Brian is a born collaborator. He is as interested in the process of creating as much as the end result which allows flexibility in the way he approaches the working process. The pieces we work on – be it artwork or generative software such as 77 Million Paintings – are very much a two-way conversation. Traditionally, album artwork has been a secondary project, which happens after the music is delivered. We are attempting to change this. The basis of the ideas for Small Craft on a Milk Sea was the result of us tossing around ideas based around the title and then I developed the themes from there.
Because I share Brian’s studio, I was witness to the recording and development of the album and was able to experiment with atmospheres and respond to the audio right from the beginning of the process. The idea of the two processes happening in parallel and feeding off each other is the way we would like to develop.
MCL: Given Eno’s own history as a visual artist, does that make it easier to work with him and communicate what you’re doing and thinking, or does it lead to disagreements?
NR: We are both very much products of art school and both teach at art schools so we share common references and approaches. This remains the basis of how we work together and makes it much easier.
MCL: Do you think you share aesthetics? And do you share similar working practices, do you think?
NR: It is impossible and in fact not desirable to have exactly the same aesthetic sense. Ideas and processes become exciting when sensibilities are complimentary and sympathetic rather than identical. Then they push each other forward. In terms of working practices, we can invent this as we go along depending on the nature of the project.
MCL: Perhaps, to expand upon that last question: I notice that Eno comments that this record was very much borne of improvisation with the fellow musicians on there. Is improv a useful way of describing your working practices? I read that a lot of your work is based upon experimentation with printing and in the darkroom, using light trails and photograms. I would hazard that it isn’t an exact science…
NR: Improvising is a vital tool but in the visual arts it is rarely called improvisation. That term seems to be confined to the performing arts and more often, music. At the beginning of a piece, I tend to construct a process and see where it takes me. I am controlling this process but have no preconceptions of an end result and no idea how it will turn out. All I can hope for is that it yields something interesting and experience tells me that at least one result (usually out of many) will define a direction. For example, many years ago I did the artwork for a Roger Eno album called Damage and started creating imaginary subaqueous landscapes. I started working with salmon eggs, which are semi-transparent. I wanted to utilize this quality and so put a pile of them on my scanner, covered them in fairy lights (which I had lying around in the studio) and then wrapped the whole thing in baking foil. I reasoned that the Christmas lights on top and the bulb of the scanner below would bounce light off the baking foil and through the eggs. The results were amazing but not what I could ever have anticipated or done with out conducting that experiment.
MCL: How, specifically, did you create the very particular works for Small Craft on a Milk Sea? Firstly, did you work from a brief, from conversations with Brian, or was it inspired by the music (for example)? And secondly, how exactly did you create those remarkable textures and colour palettes?
NR: The artwork for Milk Sea was informed equally by the title of the album and my familiarity with the music as I listened to it develop in the studio. It is an intensely nuanced body of music. At times melancholy with a hint of danger, at times warm and hopeful. Always delicate and often abstract.
I wanted to create two completely different moods, which exist side by side and are strongly related but reflect the two extremes of mood in the music. A good starting point was the title ‘Small Craft on a Milk Sea’. My immediate impression was of the vulnerability of a ‘small’ craft adrift on the immensity of a powerful ocean. It conjured themes of isolation, regret, and danger.
My approach to the cover image and the sombre images within the package was to provide evidence of the craft without ever seeing it. It is always just out of your field of vision. To literally show a boat would be ‘over sharpening the pencil’ which makes it more difficult to place your own interpretation of the poetic title. By placing the viewer in the boat you involve them in the mood and the situation.
All these images are looking from the back of the boat so all you see is the wake in the water receding from you. The cover image is of a motorboat turning round but it is sufficiently abstract to be slightly ambiguous. It look both solid and fluid, static and in motion. The air of sadness is enhanced by the fact all the images are looking back – the past and never the future suggesting regret and introspection. The colour palate was chosen to increase the rather eerie quality of the images although they have not been artificially coloured. They really came out like that.
The next ingredient was a hint of danger. A lighthouse is exactly this. It signals to boats with the message – keep away from me I’m dangerous to approach. The lighthouse became the unifying theme in the two different moods. My rational became ‘outside and inside the lighthouse’. There is threat and loneliness on the outside and then security & warmth on the inside.
This got me thinking about the ‘good’ mood images. They needed to be very different in every respect but I did not want to be too overtly representational with them for the same reasons that I kept the cover quite abstract. I gained permission from Trinity House to go down to the North Foreland lighthouse and photograph the lantern from the inside. This is a remarkable structure made from about 500 individually hand made glass elements. A beautiful space I had happened upon when it was still open to the public some years ago now.
It is still functioning and the light was going when I got to the top of the spiral staircase. The refracting lenses sent the light in all sorts of directions and through all the glass elements, some of which are a deep red. This determined my colour pallet. The red abstracts were straight macro shots through these pieces glass lens. I have not played with them in any way. There are shards of yellow where the bulb is catching the edge of a refractor. Another example of initiating a process and seeing where it leads.
I do not think anyone would understand what these images are but this is intentional. I am not communicating anything other than an emotion. There are no words on this record and I wanted to avoid images that were words. This lighthouse theme is the imaginative structure around which I decided to shape the decisions I made. It doesn’t matter if people don’t know they are looking at a real lighthouse interior. It’s a bit like going on a walk to Canterbury following the route of the Chaucerian pilgrims. By the end you don’t know any more about Chaucer or understand pilgrims any better, it has just informed your route. This is becoming an increasingly interesting way of working for me.
MCL: In his comments on the record, Brian has spoken about this being a ‘sound-only movie’, and also of his love of soundtracks and how they were unresolved, lacking a guide through the piece, which would only be completed by the movie. That leads me to two related questions: firstly, should your work be conceived as, or was it intended to be, something that would help resolve or at least contextualise the music in a similar manner to how the film might have?
NR: I don’t think it was intended to contextualize the music, I think it is better to think of it as springing from the music and existing along side it. It does create a bigger picture but I’m not sure that picture is any easier to read although perhaps it is more complex, more textured.
The big difference between still images and both music and film is of course the dimension of time. Recorded media has to be arranged on a timeline in order to be understood. There is a beginning and an end and everything in between is locked in an order. Still artwork has no such restrictions, it has a no narrative order, and the viewer decides the duration of the experience. In this sense it does not relate to the music in the same way as film might. It doesn’t specifically relate to any single point in the music.
MCL: And related: is there something intentionally ambient and unresolved, lacking in that identifiably human ‘personality’, in your images which is deliberately related to this quality in the music?
NR: This was less of a conscious decision and more how I responded to the music. I didn’t rationalize it at the time but yes, there are no human figures in the images because there are no human voices in the music. I do think of the images as deeply human though.
MCL: Did you ever discuss what the title, ‘Small Craft on a Milk Sea’, might actually refer to? And did you discuss what the film accompanying the music might have been? Alternatively, do you have your own conception of what it might be?
NR: In keeping with the music and the images, the title of the album and the tracks on it do not relate to anything specific. They don’t mean anything. They are collections of words which paint a picture, but in quite an abstract way. They are all responses to the sounds Brian has made.
If I was to visualize this as a film it would be something like a cross between Patrick Keiler and Tom Ford … with a bit of Peter Ackroyd thrown in for good measure.
MCL: Finally: what are you up to next? Are there any plans for more live work, either with Eno or solo? And do you have any interesting work on the horizon we should keep an eye out for?
NR: There are loads happening at once at the moment. I am working with Brian on a large-scale projected video piece for a musical performance in Krakow based around the film Solaris. We are also working with the poet Rick Holland on a words and music project. I am doing a type based public artwork in Blackpool for their Central library. There is also an ongoing project with the aforementioned Peter Ackroyd and the architect Iain Johnson, which is the proposal for a new London monument to the buried Fleet River. I am turning this into a book. All this is running alongside personal work, which will form the basis of an exhibition to be called either Bastard Issue, or Human Fuel.
I continue to do the 77 Million Paintings exhibitions with Brian and we have some interesting directions to take that in.
I am also learning to cook soufflé … but I imagine you are less interested in that !!
- Interview by Michael C Lewin