A Scanner's Telephonia
by Frances Dyson
World Art Magazine
with me?...you see, why phone and not listen?..I wanna talk to you!
The most recent CD release of Robin Rimbaud - aka Scanner - begins with the ringing of an old fashioned telephone. No surprises here, especially as Rimbaud is known for making an art out of mobile phone conversation. However there is something disturbingly archaic about the sound of this phone - obviously dating from the 40’s - as it tolls its bell-like tones. (W)ringing like an aural logo, all the melancholic irony, the double sided sentiment and scathing nostalgia that flows through Rimbaud’s oeuvre, pours out of its sonic familiarity. Entitled - ironically - "the spirit of speech," like most other tracks in Delivery, the sound of the phone - that cross between an alarm and a harmless beep - often overrides any conversation. The voice sits ambiguously, tentativly, amongst a mix of odd atmospheric sighs and flutterings, transmission interference, sounds of dripping and cutting, or dial tone that gradually becomes a dentists drill. With all talk embedded in sounds too numerous to mention, too sampled and treated to recognise, as ambivalent about their origin as are the telephonic voices that, more often than not, the listener can barely hear, one realises that the voice, for once, is not priveleged. As if to underscore this change in status, a woman’s voice wails behind the ringing: not quite able to speak, shot through with transmission interference, it whistles in the wind of contemporary telecommunications.
Scanner’s schtick is the telephone. Although his sonic creations fall within the atmospheric, intellectual, pseudo avant garde, sci-fi ambient music of contemporaries like DJ Spooky, although they touch upon the parodic use of found sound and stolen voice that John Oswald exploited so exquisitely with his CD ‘Plunderphonics’ and although they have various connections with the polyglot media mixes of groups like Negativaland, who also ‘tap the wires, ’ as a genre Rimbaud’s work is none of these. Through a subtle mix of samples, drones, ambience and what often sounds like a low frequency heartbeat, the too familiar, already hot products of media sound (sound bites, advertising jingles, snappy effects) are peeled away, exposing the raw, intimate and messy stutters of mundane, earth bound, scratchy cellular conversations. Rimbaud describes his work using ‘imagined categories like "Flaneur Electronique" or ‘Un-Easy Listening Music’ - but for these ears at least his work is less about sound or music and more about the space of telephony and the atmospherics of transmission. Telephonic verite perhaps.
But it would be a stretch to say that Scanner’s sound tries to be ‘real’ in its revealing. It is proximate to the surveillance aesthetic by video art works like Der Riese -The Giant, 1983, in which the contents of surveillance cameras were spliced together to reflect the big brother eye of German authorities. This easthetic has now infiltrated network television (as, for instance, the obsessive replays of the Rodney King bashing: surrogate body for the 1991 Gulf war carnage that the networks couldn’t show) and even appears in black and white, noise ridden images scattered throughout advertisements for indigestion, no less. As an aural corollary, the lo fi telecommunications grunge in Rimbaud’s compositions evokes the omnipresence of the corporate datasphere, revealing a nineties form of surveillance that artists like Jeffrey Schultz expose as they track the electronic fingerprints left at every ATM for the erudition of marketing strategists.
Yet the conspiratorial connections in Rimbaud’s work that would link him directly to millennial culture also mix, ironically, with a history of audiophonic irrealism, artistry and playfulness that was born with audio technology and has claimed a particularly aural innocence ever since. The invention of the phonograph and especially the tape recorder allowed sound artists and composers to use sounds of the ‘real world’ - train whistles, dripping water, squeaky doors etc. to create audiophonic compositions that had the abstract and symbolic nature of music but yet, in themselves, were still diligently stuck to the noise - and for the high art world at least - annoyance of the everyday world.
Since then audio art has continued to refine its duplicitous ability to signify both the authentic and the virtual at the same time - not to mention the mystical, otherworldly, and transcendent associations it shares with music and, of course, technology. Uniting ‘the spirit of electricity’ with ‘the music of objects’ John Cage, for instance, explored the practise and trope of transmission inImaginary Landscape No.1, (which used a radio studio, variable speed turntables and test tone records) and Imaginary Landscape No.4 (a score for 12 radios), while Stockhausen, - believing that ‘we are all transistors’created Hymnen and Stimmung, (lit. voice), works which made extensive use of short wave receivers.
********************** Ethereal transmission - its one of the twentieth century’s more profound concepts, and its in this sphere that the telephone shines. Practises such as table tapping, voice boxing (aka ‘the wireless telephone’) and mediumship infiltrated the meaning of telephony at its origins, leaving ectoplasmic traces in the wires that still rumble and roam through the ether’s contemporary manifestation -‘cyberspace.’ In the late nineteenth century the ether represented the cohesive force of the universe, the vehicle of transmission of all energies, technological and spiritual immortality and the sphere within which both telephonic, telegraphic and later wireless communications, together with messages from the 'other side', could occur. By transmitting the voice, telephony secured a prime position in this complex tropology: here was the disembodied voice, once ascribed only to ghosts or deities, here was proof of the potential immaterialisation of physical presence, and the eventual control of time and space, here was the birth of ‘telepresence.’ Yet despite grand predictions of a forthcoming virtual life, the technical limits of early telephony, together with the coughs, stammerings and noisy ‘grain’ of the voice reminded users of a fatal body glitch circulating through the system; a fleshy transmissive virus that would implant the bug of mis-communication even during the inaugural telephone call. It is worth mentioning that when Alexander Graham Bell phones his assistant Watson saying "Mr. Watson - Come here - I want to see you." Watson records this in his memoirs as "Mr.Watson I want you," deleting a few words perhaps in order to remember March 10, 1876, as the day when he heard what he wanted to hear.
In one of the most intimate mobile phone conversations in Delivery another male voice wants desperately to both hear and not hear. Against a background of crowd sound and scratching, searing noise he repeats "I’m asking for one thing Heidi - Heidi don’t lie to me." The voice is treated, distorted, it becomes telecommunicational, computer like, almost robotic. A massive interference -like a sigh infiltrated with glass that’s then electrified - closes the track as the voice laments "I always seems to find out Heidi and it hurts." More than one hundered years after Bell and Watson the same mis-hearing circulates like a tragic, compulsive and aberrant crossed wire. Miscommunication, the ubiquity of information and electronic interference swamp the ideals of clear, direct, private communication articulated by early telephone enthusiasts. With wirelessness amplified by mobility and the postmodern imperative to be transit, the noise of transmission drowns out whatever sense of individuality and person-to-person privacy once associated with the telephone, revealing instead the electronic, ethereal interference that has never been entirely filtered out despite the rhetoric of hi fidelity, transparent, unmediated communication that twentieth century communications is supposedly all about. Rimbaud plays with this sound, his voices fade in and out mirroring the range restrictions of the mobile, often only half a conversation is heard, often the voices sound like they’ve undergone laryngectomies. As if signalling a new law in contemporary information culture, all voices are subject to the overriding interference and interruption that the space of transmission imposes, all talk is subject to amplification, exposure and surveillance. The electromagnetic radiations that Rimbaud amplifies extend beyond the telephone call to include the sound of microwaves and hearing aides, creating an aural scape that harks back to the idea of the ether as a kind of cosmic glue binding each particle in the universe and providing a continuity between the living and dead. Referring both to the dissolution of boundaries between the public and private spheres and, by inference, between one individuao and another, a London writer concluded in 1897 that " we shall soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other," . Listening to Scanner one hundred years later, we find telephonic communication situated in a gelatinous electromagnetic matrix, with the voice barely emerging from a sonic ambience that is viral, meshed, conspiratorial, dank, endo -colonial, authoritarian, introverted, closed and numeric rather than organic. This kind of sub-mergence occurred at a ‘live’ performance Scanner gave at Artspace, Sydney, in 1996, during which he intercepted a conversation between two women that was entirely about the correctness of a third party’stelephone number. Implosive tendencies aside, the insecurity and hesitancy in their voices was enough to remind us that without the number, they literally could neither speak nor be heard.
Throughout the century, technological development has been represented as open, enlightened, rising forth into the future, ever expanding, optimistic and dedicated to the pursuit of individual enhancement. Yet as millennial culture takes hold this optimism seems more and more misplaced and increasingly we see the hype about future developments followed by a fearful ‘but.’ This ambivalence was exploited in a series of adds the giant US phone company AT&T ran in 1993, outlining what consumers can expect from its global telecommunications strategy. As part of AT&T's "'i' plan," the series of four adds all began with a recital of all that 'i' stands for (individualistic, innovative, imaginative etc.,) and ended with either a statement of AT&T's commitment to 'bring the future to you' or the jingle 'AT&T: your true voice.' The adds were in this way, framed by the 'i', the future, and the most familiar of AT&T's accomplishments - the transmission of the voice, which, in this advertising campaign, is associated with 'truth'. Whilst professing to be wildly optimistic, (question: "ever thought you could attend a conference from your beach house?") each add contains its own kernel of dystopian panic and authoritarian inevitability (answer: ‘you will!"). Privy to ‘the future’ the viewer catches a glimpse of anticipated wonders including, amongst other things, long distance mothering - a harried mother about to catch a plane uses a videophone to say goodnight to her child; the absence of leisure time - a telecommuter continues to work from his vacation house; the disintegration of cities - a road tripping couple refer to the computerised location map in their car (rather than stop and look) in order to get through the crime ridden city ASAP.
In a new twist on fathering, the final add shows the ultrasound image of a foetus that ‘kicks’ (or so the prostrate, monitored mother exclaims) when the father, via telephone, asks it if it ‘wants to come out and play.’ Telephony in utero this might be, but the black and white ultra sound image of the foetus has an uncanny resemblance to those black and white images relayed through the smart bombs during the Persian Gulf war. Through the telephonic voice of the absent father, and an imaging accessed via sound, this future being becomes a target. In the wake of the Rodney King beating, it becomes another figure thrashed repeatedly on the screen as a reminder of the era of no-bodies - and no ‘i’s - in which we all now live. As the image and, in Scanners work, the sound of the individual loses its clarity, becomes blurred and merges with its telecommunications ‘home’, one realises that the surveillance of the private sphere which induced a kind of media voyeurism, has been replaced by something entirely more raw. Because Scanners voices are sop embedded in the sound of the network, his phone calls become the aural equivalent of other scans: the lo fi images of ultrasounds or smart bombs for instance. They reveal the insides, not of the private home, office staff room, grocery store or ATM booth, but the electromagnetic sphere itself - a sphere whose insides has the grotesque appeal of being incomprehensible to and independent of either sound or the human ear. Third law of contemporary information culture: the body and the ‘self’ - in fact any form of content - is irrelevant in the space and era of transmission. If content is irrelevant, so too are issues of privacy. Fourth law - it doesn’t matter what is said or who says it . The myriad of phone conversations in Scanners work speak less of the individuals involved than the way that transmission propagates, the way its sound filters through and filters out, how its tones interrupt, how it now demands a place at the table. It’s easy to imagine those imperceptible signals moving from ether to ear to brain and leaving a little trace a - lymphoma here perhaps? a tumour there? or simply a degenerative dis-ease that eats away at the hyper individualism that has mythologised the telephone (and technology) throughout the century. In Delivery a BBC voice announces "OK there’s lots of ways that the body can actually be helped by radio frequency as well as harmed" amidst classic whistling sound from b grade sci fi movies: aural tropes which hearken back to an age when there wasn’t the same sort of pessimism about technology and progress, where everything was good, clean and new. These sounds aren’t just kitsch - they represent the naive stupidity of fifties cold war culture - a culture that now finds itself swamped by garrulousness - TV talk shows, talk back radio, discussion groups on the internet - a culture smothered by its own talking cure. In this context, the ringing of that old 40’s phone serves as a sore reminder of an innocence that was always lost, a nostalgia that is no longer comfortable. Plundering from the past again, Scanner uses a standard, old fashioned recorded message to announce that "your call cannot be taken" at the beginning of a track entitled ‘Electro Pollution’, (from the Hearing is Believing anthology.) In this age of (mis) communication, of disappearing bodies and diminishing voices, of talk subsumed within a datsphere turning toxic, and an ‘i’ that now scratches the borders of corporate receptivity, that (w)ringing and that message is, and always was, a premonition. END.