In Imaginary Landscapes, documentarians Duncan Ward and Gabriella Cardazzo paint an impressionistic video portrait of Brian Eno: record producer, visual artist, collaborator with the likes of U2 and David Bowie, ambient music-inventing musician, self-proclaimed “synthesist,” early member of Roxy Music, and co-creator of the Oblique Strategies. Even if you’ve never handled an actual deck of Oblique Strategies cards — and few have — you’ve surely heard one or two of the Strategies themselves in the air: “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.” “The most important thing is the most easily forgotten.” “Do something boring.” The idea is to draw a card and follow its edict whenever you hit a creative block. This should, in theory, get you around the block, no matter what you’re trying to create. Eno first published the Oblique Strategies with painter Peter Schmidt in 1975, and here in Imaginary Landscapes, fourteen years later, you can hear him still excited about the cards’ basic premise: if you follow arbitrary rules and theoretical positions, they’ll lead you to creative decisions you never would have otherwise made.
This short documentary combines interviews of Eno with footage of him crafting sounds in his studio, simulating the echoes of a cave, say, then turning that cave into a liquid. It weaves these segments together with a trip through American cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, then back to the Woodbridge, Suffolk of Eno’s youth, then on to Venice, one of the world’s places that draws him irresistibly with its wateriness. Place itself emerges as one of Eno’s driving concepts, not simply as a source of inspiration (though it seems to work that way for his video Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan), but as a form. When Eno talks about making albums, or images, or installations, he talks about them as places for audiences to exist. In any physical place, you’re presented with a certain set of choices. You can’t always tell the deliberately designed elements from the “natural” ones, and having a rich experience demands that you actively use your own awareness. This, so Eno explains, guides how he builds “places” — imaginary landscapes, if you will — for listeners, gallerygoers, recording artists, or himself, trying to open up “the spaces between categories” and “make use of the watcher’s brain as part of the process.” Look into his more recent projects, like his iPhone apps or his collaborations with bands like Coldplay or his touring exhibition 77 Million Paintings, and you’ll find him building them still.