Scanning the Invisible City
by Betty Man
The Village Voice
July 1996

Lay the needle on the record and the only thing you hear is the piercing tone of satellite feed. A voice comes up over the line. "Yeah, could you imagine spending eight hours on a flight with that cunt. It'd be a high jack. I'd tell the pilot to top her out...," a man cackles across the phone lines, a bright techno beat comes in and floats you into a net of fine electronica. The signature sound, no doubt, belongs to Scanner a/k/a Robin Rimbaud, in this case from his most recent album Spore (New Electronica). In a sonic nutshell, Scanner gives us sound theft as evolving art form.

The Scanner project began about three-years ago in Rimbaud's London flat with a consumer-available, hand-held Lowe AR800E--a radio scanner turned cellular operator. What Scanner does is intercept cellular phone conversations and edit them into a musical context. What happens, minimalistly and elegantly, is a very cool progression in the relation of information airwaves and electronic music: the interweaving of private soundspace with public, i.e. stealing air time for a new language to grow in. Because what Scanner does is not exactly legal, Rimbaud is notorious in the underground and beyond (the English tabloids had a go at him). But the real test of the ranking order dub is sound. In a world of dark ambient, Scanner makes his own subtle, twisted bid for our ears.

In Scanner, recall Steve Reich's experiments with the randomness of the spoken word and fast-forward to the present density of lost communication. The compositions take bits and pieces of people's minutiae and treats them "as if they were instruments," says Rimbaud across the e-mail line (where this interview took place). The high frequency of cellular noise pervades the atmosphere, sometimes erupting into words at others boiling down to hiss. Transmission blends with a forecast of cloudy atmosphere--nascent, ground-heavy bass about to rupture past subsonic--or the light, audio transparencies of dreamy, drifting ambient.

I ran into Scanner not in his native London but Bit City. On an ambient BBS a tag "Rimbaud" was posting information about sound-related memorium for writer/thinker/nomad Gilles Deleuze. (You could call it philosophy what Deleuze was up to, before and after jumping out that window, but better to say he inspired many people to think nomadic--to move within the fragmentation of experience.) Rimbaud has brain-trust presence in the electronic sound sphere: he participated in last spring's Wire symposium on the future of music, he runs Electronic Lounge at the ICA, London, and hosts a smooth website (one hypertext is a list of Top 10 VHF frequencies and coordinates). There's breadth of bandwidth here that's not about phone freaking or reverse prank-calls. With mad smarts, Scanner adds new meaning to the term "interactive media."

"Scanner is a means of mapping the city," Rimbaud says/writes, "where the scanner device itself provides an anonymous window into reality, cutting and pasting information to structure an alternative vernacular." Before five o'clock, the airwaves have a certain narrative content and tone--the ritual of the pub, dinner plans. After dark, the underside of the city begins to chime in, gangsters, hungry johns, teenagers, bereft spouse. The voices are disfigured, repitched, anonymous, yes. But familiar enough to be disturbing. However fascinating eavesdropping may be, this is not anthropology, nor lifestlyes of the criminally inane, but music. Sweet and heavy memetic engineering for the present future.

Walking into a department store, or anyplace in downtown London, the ubiquity of surveillance cameras makes you nearly forget what they're for. Flaneur Electronique (12" New Electronica), recalls, purely musically, the disruptions, the cranks and glitches on the receiving side of that electronic eye. The Trawl 12" with Bill Laswell, "Wireless Rupture Mix," hits a bass horizon that just keeps sinking. Where some of Scanner's sound, particularly on Spore, gets a bit Brit Club Lite, this track lurks in subterranean storm. Unhurried beats translating, by their tremble, a little of the paranoid landscape of Scanner's audio lush-life.

"It's good to talk" the only liner notes of Spore says, and the irony of that quip is balanced in equal part by the wish--sincerely apparent in the Scanner body of sound--that people communicate. Scanner is well aware that it's the weird cybernetic of the telephone providing this rare sample of life unmediated by television or radio. Sound verité, the theft and reconfiguration of found text, enters the mix for the mentally restless.

Scanner comes to New York for the first time, July 28, to sample the air at the Brooklyn Anchorage.--Betty Mann