Art: Voyeurs of the world unite

It's good to talk. But it's even better to listen in. Welcome to the world of Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner.

Fiona Sturges@FionaSturges
Wednesday 14 October 1998 23:02

Scanner, aka Robin Rimbaud, first drew attention to himself five years ago after "scanning" the airwaves for mobile phone exchanges and broadcasting his findings to a gaggle of arty eavesdroppers at London's ICA. Some might view such a practice as just desserts for mobile-phone users forever disrupting our morning repose on public transport, but accusations of voyeurism were first levelled at the DJ by those staunch defenders of privacy, the tabloids. Paradoxically, his work gathered pace soon after "Squidgygate" - the disclosure of private conversations between Diana, Princess of Wales, and James Gilbey accessed by a similar scanning device. According to the Department of Trade and Industry, such gadgets are legal and no one has yet tried to pull Rimbaud up on issues of copyright. But then the chances of somebody hearing their own conversation in a live show are remote, to say the least.

Rimbaud is accustomed to defending the ethics of his work. "Voyeurism is part of everyday life," he says, "and perhaps I'm just a little more brutal and honest about it. I would challenge anyone not to listen in to an argument going on behind them in a cafe. And just look how many people on motorways slow down to gawp at accidents."

But Rimbaud is not especially interested in the unsavoury side of his subjects' conversation. "I like to listen to people talking to each other in a very simple fashion," he says. "Anything personal makes me feel uncomfortable. The human voice is a valuable point of connection, and there is a complex tonal frequency that we understand better than any other sound."

The ambient tinkering of turntable wizards such as Aphex Twin and Plastikman may have proved popular with the dope-smoking dance clique, but Rimbaud's refusal to give into stylistic temptation makes his work more of an acquired taste. Snippets of phone dialogue are interspersed with prolonged rhythmic sequences and eerily distorted background sound. If you didn't know it was recorded, you might be forgiven for thinking it was the muffled noise of your disorderly neighbours.

Running the risk of being virtually unlistenable in the live arena, Rimbaud increases the tempo and introduces stronger rhythms, playing mercifully short sets.

Listening to the dialogue, you find that you are less interested in what is being said than the peculiarities of pedestrian phone chit-chat, the impenetrable subtext of private communication: how people talk at varying volumes when expressing different emotions; how some readily bring up grievances when others would rather talk face to face; and how, on the telephone, silence is excruciating.

Despite the computer know-how necessary to manufacture such projects, Rimbaud is no techno nerd - he does not even own a telephone. "There is a major technophobia out there, and I share it as much as anybody else does," he says. "People are so easily seduced by the latest piece of computer software. It's avoiding the issue of creativity."

Rimbaud has now garnered a reputation principally as a collaborator in the arts and refuses to be pinned down to any defining category. "I'm more than someone who just puts sound together. I've always been interested in language and I've always worked with sound, but I find myself utterly inspired by visual arts. I work in a variety of contexts and I simply improvise accordingly."

However, current projects see him branching out. Rimbaud has been enlisted to give a helping hand to local artists and DJs at Nottingham's NOW ninety8 festival, a celebration of experimental artists and musicians, now in its seventh year, devised to give a creative boost to the city. Still meddling with airwaves, Rimbaud has joined forces with Andy Barrett, a local DJ, in a project that enables local youths to create their own radio shows. "Most of them really want to be DJs or rappers," explains Rimbaud. "I want to show them that you don't have to have sophisticated equipment to produce a hip-hop record - you could simply use one voice against the sound of a door slamming. It's really about realising the potential of the most minimal of means."

Rimbaud's sound fixation has also graduated toward noises that surround us day to day but never reach our consciousness. He is set to relinquish his trademark scanning equipment in favour of a simple recorder and a digital camera for Surface Noise, a project commissioned by Artangel, an avant-garde collective. Rimbaud's contribution forms part of a giant undertaking called Inner City, consisting of nine commissions over the next two years and designed to explore conceptions of urban space. Other collaborators include John Berger and Laurie Anderson.

Rimbaud's project entails a journey across London between Big Ben and St Paul's Cathedral, two points chosen for their "sound interest" ("booming Big Ben against the Whispering Gallery of St Paul's"). The route will be dictated by placing an acetate score of "London Bridge Is Falling Down" over a map of central London. Where each note falls on the map, Rimbaud will stop to take photographs and record sound.

At the end of the walk he will translate the photographs from images to sound and condense the recorded material. But rather than present the music as a concert, he has chosen to perform it live on a bus ride of his route, on which the audience will don earphones and experience a tour of London's invisible sounds and spaces.

"People will hear the sounds that surround them everyday, from people chatting and Walkmans buzzing to the traffic and trains," says Rimbaud. "But it will be processed and fine-tuned into a musical piece." A sensory overload, even by Scanner's standards. Just don't take your mobile phone.

NOW ninety8, Nottingham, 19 October-15 November (details on 0115-9419419); Surface Noise, part of Artangel's Inner City, 12-14 November (details on 0171-336 6801)

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