Brian Eno lecturing at MoMA on Duchamp’s “Fountain,” October 23, 1990
This stimulating interview with Brian Eno was conducted in 1993 by Israeli industrial designer and architect Ron Arad for the TV show Rencontre/Begegnung on the bilingual Euro TV arts channel Arte.
In the interview Eno confesses that “Roxy Music was an aberration in my life” and also intriguingly asserts that he has never owned a copy of the Velvet Underground’s third album because he does not want to spoil it by overplaying it. But the most startling portion of the interview comes towards the end, when he describes an illicit art adventure he experienced three years earlier, in 1990, when he decided to pee in Marcel Duchamp’s famous “ready-made” from 1917, a urinal with the title “Fountain” bestowed upon it.
Eno explains the importance of “Fountain” quite well when he says that it represented “a new idea in art,” that “the artist was not necessarily somebody who made something but somebody who recognized something, somebody who created an art experience by naming it as such.” Then Eno eases into his narrative: “This readymade was on show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was due to give a lecture there called ‘High Art/Low Art.’ … There it was, sitting in the museum.” After mentioning that he had already seen “Fountain” at the Sao Paulo Biennale in the 1980s as well as in London in the 1970s, he gets to the meat of his protest:
And I thought, how ridiculous that this particular … pisspot gets carried around the world at—it costs about thirty or forty thousand dollars to insure it every time it travels. I thought, How absolutely stupid, the whole message of this work is, “You can take any object and put it in a gallery.” It doesn’t have to be that one, that’s losing the point completely. And this seemed to me an example of the art world once again covering itself by drawing a fence around that thing, saying, “This isn’t just any ordinary piss pot, this is THE one, the special one, the one that is worth all this money.”
So I thought, somebody should piss in that thing, to sort of bring it back to where it belonged. So I decided it had to be me.
In the video he then goes on to describe in great detail exactly how he managed to pee on the urinal. The date of this series of events was October 23, 1990. Eno wrote about this episode in his 1996 book A Year With Swollen Appendices. Here’s his account from that book (the story in the video is very similar):
…each time it was shown it was more heavily defended. At MoMA it was being shown behind glass, in a large display case. There was, however, a narrow slit between the two front sheets of glass. It was about three-sixteenths of an inch wide.
I went to the plumber’s on the corner [New Yorkers might wonder what “plumber” has a retail presence on the intersection of 53rd and 5th Avenue?] and obtained a couple of feet of clear plastic tubing of that thickness, along with a similar length of galvanized wire. Back in my hotel room, I inserted the wire down to the tubing to stiffen it. Then I urinated into the sink and, using the tube as a pipette, managed to fill it with urine. I then inserted the whole apparatus down my trouser-leg and returned to the museum, keeping my thumb over the top end so as to ensure that the urine stayed in the tube.
At the museum, I positioned myself before the display case, concentrating intensely on its contents. There was a guard standing behind me and about 12 feet away. I opened my fly and slipped out the tube, feeding it carefully through the slot in the glass. It was a perfect fit, and slid in quite easily until its end was positioned above the famous john. I released my thumb, and a small but distinct trickle of my urine splashed on to the work of art.
That evening I used this incident, illustrated with several diagrams showing from all angles exactly how it had been achieved, as the basis of my talk. Since “decommodification” wwas one of the buzzwords of the day, I described my action as “re-commode-ification.”
To my ear, this story has the strong whiff of bullshit about it, but as far as I know it has not been debunked—presumably, the guards or an art expert would have been able to verify at the time whether such a thing had happened. I would very much like to see those “diagrams” showing how he did it.
Paul Ingram implies that Eno was working as part of a group of similarly minded activists, which if true Eno’s two accounts certainly obscures: “In the last decade of the twentieth century, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain  was the subject of a series of interventions by artists who each attempted, more or less successfully, to urinate in it: Brian Eno at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1990; Kendell Geers at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice in 1993; Pierre Pinocelli at the Carré d’Art in Nîmes in 1993; Björn Kjelltoft at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1999; and Cai Yuan and Jian Jun Xi at the Tate Modern in London in 2000.”