The pioneer of ambient music -- and producer who has worked with artists including U2, Coldplay and David Bowie -- attracted an international, inter-generational but uniformly reverent crowd on Thursday (June 16) in an auditorium at Barcelona's Fira conference venue.
The 68-year-old artist broke the ice with his awe-struck audience while he struggled with a problem with his mic, joking it had fallen into his pants. He began his talk by questioning the dominant economic values of our times, "this sort of neo-liberal drive which is very results-oriented and prizes economic freedom and individual freedom. The whole idea is based around the notion that individuals are the driving force of society, not communities."
He pointed to the "weird perversions of thought" prevelant in an age "that more than anything else describes itself in economic terms," giving prison privatization and standardized testing as examples.
"It's possible to graduate from a school or university with fantastic results and not know a fucking thing about anything," he observed, to loud applause.
Eno titled his talk "Why We Play," and towards the end of it, touched on the idea of art as play.
"Art is where we gather the sense of what we will agree on," he said. "All of us who are so different from one another. How can we possibly ever cooperate to produce the complicated things we produce together? The road systems, the judicial systems, the educational systems all of those things that we produce together require that we have reached consensus in some way."
He cited rock and roll, and popular music in general since the latter half of the twentieth century, as the most potent example of art's ability to form opinions and cement society. "[Popular music] came out of a lot of marginal people: black people, Jews, Irish people," he said, then added "Liverpudlians" for a laugh. "People who weren't part of the power structure of socety."
Eno alluded to his love of heavy metal and cited the Velvet Underground, a band that "wouldn't have passed a single audition," as one of his biggest influences. He contrasted rock's anarchic character with classical music's hierarchical structure.
"This music doesn't come from above, it comes from below, it comes out of the ground," he said. "It's not an accident that a whole revolution in how we think about gender and sexuality has happened in the last 50 years, because there has been a whole lot of art about it as well, David Bowie not least. There's been a whole conversation, really, about who people could be, about what you were allowed to be." He pointed to Anohni, a Sonar headliner this year, as "a very good exampe of someone who has held this conversation."
"How else do we hold those conversations?" He asked audience members, enrapt with a pre-internet concentration, hands free of mobile devices. "Really, our impressions about things like that are mostly formed by our cultural experiences."
Eno did not mention his latest album The Ship, which was released in April, or any specific examples of his electronic music legacy. As a cacophony of sound installations and technology company demos buzzed elsewhere in the building, he spoke without musical or visual aids.
"If you watch children, they play all the time -- but what are they doing when they're playing? They're imagining. They're feeling out things. They're trying to understand what other people feel about things. So children learn by playing adults play through art."
Eno spoke of culture as the "lubricant" of society's evolution, while warning that in England and other countries it is being regarded as "less and less important."
"Nobody really knows what the arts are for," he said. The arts, he said, are treated as a sort of "luxury add-on" Eno told the crowd. "Once you deal with the difficult problems, like earning a living and getting planes to fly and trains to run on time, then you can have a bit of art, sort of like the ice cream at the end of the meal."
"What I want to convince you of is that that isn't the way it works at all," he said. "That the only way that we can continue to cooperate and work together as a human society, and as the community that we are, is with lots and lots and lots of culture and art.
"I want to convince you that it is the most important thing you can do."