Where the shops have no name

by Brian Eno

From The Observer, 8th July 1997

Brian Eno's e-mail from St Petersburg

There's a cigarette sold here called 'Laser' but its name is written - in English - in a strange lower-case typeface that makes the 'a' look like an 'o' - so it reads as 'loser'. This gave me the idea that, if governments want to dissuade citizens from smoking, they should insist that the tobacco companies choose their brand names from an approved official list - words like 'prat' and 'jerk'. Prat 100s. Jerk Super-lights. Idiot Kings.

My sense is that Russians may be, on average, the worst businessmen on earth. Maybe that is one of the things that makes it nice here - there's absolutely no attempt to sell you anything. Just finding a shop involves high-level detective work: 'Observe, Watson, the lady leaving that apparently residential building. In her hand is a full plastic bag. Anything about that strike you as odd?'

The shops offer no indication that they are shops, nor, if close observation does finally reveal that, what they actually sell. A tool store may announce itself with a picture of Cindy Crawford holding some shampoo, whereas a bakery might feature a nice shot of a sausage. The naïveté of the Westerners who came here after perestroika was to believe that you only had to whisper the magic words 'free enterprise' and 'the market' and everything would immediately fall into place. This assumes that what you are is simply a matter of will, and you could just as easily be something else. Though this may be true at the level of surfing the Internet and cosmetic surgery, it isn't so easy at the living-in-society level. What is overlooked is that social and cultural structures are vastly complex interdependent webs. As with other ecosystems, sudden big changes are just as likely to be catastrophic as beneficial: the level of complexity involved makes it almost impossible to predict which.

We went to a rave on Vassilievsky Island. Rave music is democratic in that it makes everyone dance equally badly. We left and started home to try to catch the bridge separating the islands, which closes at two every morning. On the way, my friend Afrika insisted we check out a club called The Tunnel, an ex-nuclear shelter - deep underground, still fully provisioned, set in the middle of an apartment block. It's painted on the outside with flowers and love patterns. We only stayed for about two minutes - beautiful girls with dilated psychedelic-almond eyes longing us not to leave, sweaty boys dancing in a trance - and then shot off in the car, driving along the pavement, to catch the bridge.

We just made it, dumped the car and ran across under the hugely radiant full moon, with all the guards and police trying to clear it. There were people everywhere, dancing, shouting, laughing... all this at two in the green and purple morning. As the bridge slowly cracked and rose, huge cheers and fireworks went up. Stunning - both the thing itself and the fact that this technical event has become a spectacular thing for people to come out and see.

Then enormous long ships started to appear, one after the other, sleekly swishing through, off down to the Volga. People were cheering and milling about - thousands upon thousands of them. Suddenly, out of the crowds, all sorts of strange creatures started to appear - Peter the Great, Death, an enormous two-headed eagle, The Russian Empire, two black griffins with golden wings, The Hermitage, al accompanied by a marching band playing loud and infectious jazz. It was some kind of mad carnival - like Fellini.

The following day I went to the Russian Museum to see their contemporary art storage. When I look at all that work, and hear how this artist is dead, this one's now a monk and this other one's an addict, I realise that much of their original energy arose from seeing themselves as outsiders, the dissidents, the shamans, the makers of the new icons. And now they're just part of the art world, racked up against all those savvy western artists. But I also wonder whether the Russians might just be the first to step out of the art game completely, to say 'this isn't where it's at any more'. Perhaps what we now call 'art' is actually rather marginal - like medieval theology - and when we look back from the future we'll see that there were all sorts of other projects being pursued which in fact were the real art of our time... but we didn't recognise them.

© Brian Eno 1997

Brian Eno is living in St Petersburg. This is one of a series of his e-mails. His new CD is reviewed on page 13.