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Easy Listening
Frieze Art Magazine

James Roberts picks up some good vibrations

There is a scene in Wim Wenders' film Wings of Desire in which the protagonist of the story, a fallen angel placed on earth to try and understand the folly of mortal behaviour, walks down the aisle of an underground train. As he passes the passengers, their innermost thoughts and preoccupations become audible to him while he remains invisible to them. In a sense, this encapsulates one of the great fantasies of the 20th century: to know everything and be privy to all secrets without being observed. This desire, which we all share to greater or lesser extent depending on our degree of honesty, has formed the mainstay of the media - particularly the tabloids and television - for many years. Bearing witness to this salacious 'need to know', the newspapers have delighted in publishing private communications, whether letters, faxes or telephone conversations, giving rise to all kinds of debate on the nature of privacy and the extent to which its protection can be legislated for. Similarly, fly-on-the-wall documentaries, soap operas, Hello! magazine and the more recent phenomena of real-life TV dramas (The Nick for example) offer windows into worlds which most of us can never be, and would probably never wish to be, a part of.

Although vague, there does seem to be a vital distinction between these two worlds: one caters to a desire for scandal - to bring down the great and the untouchable - while the other seems to represent a wish to understand the everyday and to see into the lives of 'ordinary' people, to compare and reassure. The former is certainly not a new phenomenon, though the media of communication has changed: literature is littered with attempts to recover 'indiscreet' letters, written at an impressionable age, that will bring the downfall of their author. Throughout history, enormous amounts of effort and ingenuity have been expended in attempts to ensure the safe delivery of personal correspondence. In the latter part of the 20th century, though, many have suffered through a failure to understand that, despite all suggestions to the contrary, recent technology provides less, not more security to the individual. In the age of the cellular phone, convenience is paid for with privacy.

Recently, a recording artist working under the name 'Scanner' has released three CDs - Scanner, Scanner 2 , and Mass Observation - which relate to many of these issues. The CDs present material both recorded out in the world - fieldwork so-to-speak - and intercepted by means of a scanner, a broadband radio receiver that picks up virtually all forms of broadcast information. Much of the material is taken from mobile telephone conversations and it is these fragments of one-to-one communication that are often the most intriguing. On the opening track of Scanner 2 the listener is party to a conversation between a man and a woman. As the conversation develops you begin, instinctively, to try and place these two people in the world, using information gleaned from their accents, intonation and vocabulary. Drawing upon the same skills that are learnt through meeting and speaking with others, you attempt to classify them in terms of class, education, background and wealth and begin to read all manner of information into the phrasing and choice of words that are used. You start to establish the relationship between the two: it seems that they are on easy terms - the language is casual and there is just enough of a spark in their banter to suggest that a more than platonic relationship has been established. But as the conversation continues, it abruptly becomes clear that the woman is a prostitute and the man a potential client - so much for intuition.

The essential motivating force behind the work emerges as an interest in communication and in the pathos of lack of communication - the way in which things that are felt are said, and so frequently unsaid. Often this is painful: in one instance a middle-aged woman attempts - against all odds - to revive a relationship with an overtly uninterested ex-partner. The desperation in her voice is plain, and like so many people faced with a hopeless situation, she reverts to rational, logical arguments. We all know they are doomed to failure, and you wince from your own memory of such experiences. Like the angel from Wings of Desire, you are placed inside the head of another to see how different or similar life might be. This is not so much the figure of speech as it may sound, for the low-end of the frequency range carries the transmissions of hearing-aids, providing the listener with a simultaneous delivery of what the wearer is hearing in a kind of second-hand aural reality.

These conversations and fragments of speech become increasingly abstract over the course of the three projects released so far. The first CD, Scanner, is predominantly verbal and comparatively raw. Scanner 2 mixes recognisable speech with an undertow of interference, ultra-low frequency emissions and processed sounds that are almost inaudible at times but which create a nervous sense of the vastness of the frequency spectrum and the fragility of much of the material travelling across it. The most recent release, Mass Observation, is a collaboration with two musicians and comes closest to being a 'musical' album, yet it evokes, in just as concrete a sense, the fog of electronic emissions in which we exist. In this respect, Scanner's work shares similar concerns to that of many younger British artists, such as Adam Chodzko and Georgina Starr, with their interests in recording experience and mapping out the threads of desire, aspiration and interior narrative that get woven into things called lives. After listening to Scanner material, ordinary music just isn't the same: it seems flat and one-dimensional - a kind of aural decoration that is so far removed from any real experience that its frequent role as mental space-filler becomes painfully apparent.