You can do anything, just don't fall asleep

by Brian Eno

From The Observer, Sunday 8 June 1997

E-mail from Russia: It all seems slightly dangerous here. Even the women look like Joan Crawford.

I am writing this at 11pm on Sunday 1 June. It's perfectly light outside, a sort of silvery light. The sun is just behind the horizon, waiting for a couple of hours before it rises again. In a few minutes, I'm going out to have a late walk with Sergei Bugaev, who paints under the name Afrika, though I don't know why. I like Afrika. He carries his head deep in his shoulders, looks up from under his brows with sparkly eyes when he talks, and is always laughing. He was a Russian film star and became a painter. At the moment, he's doing pictures by acid-etching the copperised plastic sheet they use for making printed circuits. He gets it from a local missile factory.

Sergei has firmness and resolution about him, and it carries over into the determined way he flirts. He'll break into flirtation in the middle of a sentence, if a suitable candidate passes. And for suitable flirtees, St Pete's leaves every other city standing. Its beautiful proud women don't seem to care in the least whether you like them or not, however. Even the ones in Doc Martens have amazing brilliant Joan Crawford lipstick. The fashion here is for very short skirts and very high heels, so all you see everywhere are these endless legs scissoring their way around you.

What we're going for a walk for, Sergei and me, in the middle of the non-night, are two things: he's been working in psychiatric institutions in Crimea, making things with the patients. He'd like me to come along on the next visit and make a video of what happens. 'We can stay in the hospital and maybe a few days by the Black Sea. At Yalta - where they signed that treaty.' Meanwhile, I'm hoping to do an installation here in September at the Russian Museum, and I'd like to do it with him: I'd do the sound and projection side of it, he'd do the images that get projected. He doesn't know this yet.

I'd arranged to meet him somewhere along the bank of Moika Canal - he walking from his place, and me from mine. I saw him from about half a mile away. There's an African language which has a single word for the situation. 'We see each other from a distance but it is still too far to begin greeting each other.' From this, you could conclude that the people who coined it lived in a big, flat country without much interruption by foliage or buildings - probably savannah. Or in flat swampland like St Petersburg.

When Sergei and I finally connect, he looks pretty wild-eyed and wasted. He's been to a rave in some deserted palace outside the city which ended at about 10 this morning with people barbecuing meat in a nearby field. He'd then come home and, because it was International Children's Day, had taken his son Ilya out for the morning. There's a very strange semi-derelict funfair on one of the little islands here. It's like Coney Island after a military attack. Kids love it - you can see how everything works, and a lot of things don't, and it looks like it was built by children, out of big rusty Meccano pieces.

Like a lot of other things here, this funfair wouldn't be allowed in Europe. It's possibly dangerous, and you'd get sued. Well, it might be the want of any evolved legal structure that allows this, but it might also be that people are used to looking out for themselves. Everything here is slightly dangerous: the pavements are pitted and bumpy with leftover stubs of metal posts sticking up out of them and banisters on stairways have sections missing, leaving terrifying gaps looking down through five flights. Sergei seems perfectly at home with these small harms and though, to me, this made the whole place horrible at first, now I have got used to it I even find it stimulating - as though the human brain was designed for a certain level of continuous alertness, of keeping an eye on the edges of things. In St Petersburg, you stay awake.

Brian Eno is living in Russia. This is the first in an occasional series of e-mails.

© Brian Eno 1997