A Scanner in the Works

Jim McClennan on a man who is making surveillance an art form

Observer Newspaper UK

Given the amount of press he's had in recent months - from coverage in the music papers to screechy tabloid headlines - there's a chance you may have heard of Robin Rimbaud. And if you've been using a mobile phone in south London over the past two years, there's also a chance he may have heard you.

An electronic musician and DJ, Rimbaud uses a radio scanner (the kind that made 'Squidygate' possible) to listen in on mobile phone conversations. He tapes most of what he hears, incorporating any interesting snippets into the vaguely doomy 'dark ambient' albums he releases under the name of Scanner.

Rimbaud, now 30, has been fascinated   by eavesdropping, bugging and crossed lines since he was a child, but only began scanning three years ago, after buying an old scanner from the Brixton Hunt Saboteurs group. 'They used it to keep track of the police. I bought it for £90, which was a bargain - a whole new career for £90.' He still uses the same model, a Lowe AR800E, which costs around £300 new. Looking like a piece of Sputnik Moderne, it takes pride of place in Rimbaud's Battersea flat, occupying the space you might expect a television to fill. Rimbaud doesn't have a TV and when he switches on his scanner you can understand why. Forget soaps - there's much more interesting stuff around on the airwaves.

Almost immediately a prosaically foul-mouthed micro-drama unfolds - two blokes moaning about another guy at work and the world in general. Though I would have been happy to keep listening, Rimbaud switches off. It's five o'clock and this is workday stuff. Things get more interesting at seven, he says, when people start making arrangements for the evening. Ten to midnight is also a favourite time. 'People are winding down. You get theses dreamy, almost surreal conversations. It's beautiful sometimes.

'Recently I came up with a term for what I do,' he continues. 'I'm a flaneur electronique . This is a kind of electronic wandering, electronic idling, if you like.' Others might think of a few different words to describe it, but there is something in his comparison. Where 19th-century Parisian flaneurs had the nascent consumerist carnival of the city to wander through, he has the psychic static of the low-tech lowlands of cyberspace.

The conversations on Spore range from the amusing (a Scotsman moaning colourfully about a rich relative), to the prurient (a woman discussing the infection caused by a rather intimate body piercing), to the unnervingly sad (a woman calling her ex-husband from a house where the electricity has been cut off). But, for the most part, they highlight disconnection, the fact that while it may be good to talk, it's sometimes impossible to actually communicate, especially where men and women are concerned - many of the conversations feature women trying to elicit some kind of emotional response from men.

Communication breakdown and a fascination with the rhythms of ordinary speech have been fairly constant themes in Rimbaud's output. But with Spore, his most recent studio album, he also plays with the textures he picks up, incorporation noise on the line and cutting some conversations down to almost unrecognisable samples. 'I didn't want to be in the situation where people said about me, "oh, he's just that bloke who listens into other people's phone calls," explains Rimbaud, who also hosts The Electronic Lounge, the monthly ambient club at London's ICA. 'It's not as simple as that. This time I did spend quite some time composing music, because I wanted to play conversations off against relatively moving pieces of music.'

Along with police traffic videos and reality TV shows, the Scanner records are part of the 1990s surveillance aesthetic. They play on our paranoia about surveillance technology and on the sense that we are so media saturated we can only get a charge off 'reality' or images which ostentatiously signal reality via their low-tech crudity. It also, of course, appeals to the voyeur in us all. As Rimbaud says: 'Everyone wants to be the observer but no one wants to be the observed.'

Rimbaud admits to a sense of moral uneasiness about what he does. Recently he bought a scanning magazine (available in most newsagents!) and felt as if he was buying a porn mag. Then again, he says, the existence of such a magazine is proof that scanning is a popular hobby and most people are aware that if you have a mobile phone you can be listened in to. 'I don't think I'm doing anything completely immoral. I often think, well, who's being abused here? These people would be talking to each other anyway.'

That said, Rimbaud keeps things anonymous, cutting out all identifying details. A few months ago he was offered a lot of money by a tabloid for stories about the phone calls of celebrities or politicians: he turned it down, though he didn't have anything they could have used anyway. Though he has picked up 'gangster stuff' - drug dealers talking in code; people selling guns - he avoids anything illegal. So what about the legal status of his own work? 'It's this relatively grey area. It isn't phone phreaking. I'm just picking up radio waves. All these scanners are legally for sale.

So what happens if someone he has listened in to recognised themselves?

Rimbaud says he has discussed this with his record company. 'Their angle was: "What great publicity!." But the chances are fairly remote. After a while all the voices sound the same, and most people don't know what they sound like anyway. It's more likely that Elvis Presley and Lord Lucan are going to turn up at my door to record an EP.

Those who think that there is something dodgy about the Scanner records will perhaps be amused that Rimbaud himself has been scanned by ambient star Richard James, aka The Aphex Twin. The results will appear on James's Caustic Windows album, due out soon. It probably won't happen again, though: the new generation of digital mobiles can' be scanned. And anyway Rimbaud is unlikely ever to won any kind of portable phone. 'I despise them really. I like being able to go somewhere and no one be able to get hold of me.'