Hanging on the telephone
The Sunday Times
08 February 1998
ANDREW SMITH meets Scanner, the mobile phone manipulator who taps in to our frailties
Scanner: 'I'd hate to be called lazy, but voyeuristic doesn't bother me'
There's a digital clock on the fascia of Pennsylvania Station in New York that counts time to the hundredth of a second. As the digits spin past, it's hard not to feel a pang of existential angst: time is flying by and you're doing so little with it.
Visiting Scanner at his bunker-like flat in Battersea, south London, has a similar effect. This morning, the man who made his name by turning his voyeurism into art, returned from performing at an arts festival in Cologne to find that he has been of offered a fellowship at John Moores University in Liverpool. As we prepare to talk about his latest CD, a homage to his friend Derek Jarman called The Garden Is Full of Metal, he receives a phone call from the American band Combustible Edison, asking him to produce their next album. On Valentine's Day, Radio 3 will transmit his haunting, experimental dramatisation of Jean Cocteau's The Human Voice, while, tomorrow, he hosts his regular Electronic Lounge club night at the ICA.
He can't make tea, though. Scanner's real name is Robin Rimbaud and he doesn't eat meat or fish, or drink alcohol or hot drinks, which is why I'm standing in his kitchen, advising him on the production of mine. He eschews ownership of a television, too, explaining that "it's amazing how reluctant people are to believe that you can live without a TV, but you can. What I need to know still filters through to me." The speed at which he talks makes you feel as though you're operating in slowmotion - which, compared with him, you almost certainly are. Everything in his living room is black, except for his large collections of records, CDs and art books.
The handle by which Rimbaud is most commonly known, Scanner, refers to his most notorious method of working. The primary instrument used to make the series that began with 1993's Scanner 1 CD was a mobile phone scanner, bought second-hand for £90. It looked like a mobile phone with a few extra knobs and buttons and enabled its user to scan the airwaves, tuning in to any analogue mobile phone conversation within a four-mile radius. Popular with computer boffins and techno nerds at the time, one of these devices was alleged to be behind the infamous "Squidgygate" tapes, but Rimbaud used it to record snatches of conversa-tion, which he combined with an eerie mix of spare, synthesised instrumentation and naturally-distorted background noise.
More pieces of art than pieces of music in the conventional sense (you wouldn't listen to them repeatedly for relaxation - this was uneasy listening), it soon became clear that there was a theme running through the Scanner discs. The theme was the power games concealed in even the most mundane exchanges between people, particularly those involving men and women. One party wants something, the other is backing off. The women tend to be using the phone as a probe, the men as a barrier, and Rimbaud insists that these patterns emerged unintentionally, that they merely reflect truths that anyone who spends time with a scanner comes to recognise. Other things you notice are how revealing the gaps in a telephone conversation are, as people rush to fill the uncomfortable silence in a way that they don't face to face, and that the city has its own, immutable rhythm, starting off frenetic and gradually winding down as each day draws to a close.
"What you hear is often compared to watching a soap opera, but I think of it more like reading a book of Raymond Carver short stories," Rimbaud says. "It's interesting, because I've always thought of it as being akin to hovering over the earth in a helicopter: you lower yourself into one area and get a sample of the life that's going on there - there are no beginnings or ends."
Scanners are quite legal, according to the DTI, though their attraction has lately diminished as digi-tal phone systems have steadily replaced the old analogue ones (the signals from these are encrypted). The issues of copyright surrounding the Scanner CDs are so labyrinthine that nobody has yet tested them, nor are they likely to. But morality is another matter. Does Rimbaud mind being thought of as a voyeur?
"No. I'd hate to be called lazy, but voyeuristic doesn't bother me. Voyeurism is a much more hazy idea these days than it ever was before. Someone is watching us on a closed-circuit system much of the time these days and ordinary people are appearing on radio and TV all the time now, on talk shows, fly on the wall documentaries and series, especially in America. Why are these shows so successful? Aren't we all voyeurs? We're interested in the realities of other peoples' lives. Maybe I'm just being a bit more open and honest about it."
Maybe. In any case, this is why Scanner's work is typically capable of making you feel uncomfortable and fascinated at the same time - and why The Human Voice and The Garden Is Full of Metal are no exceptions. The first, which came about after a BBC producer attended a lecture Rimbaud gave at Warwick University, features in Radio 3's experimental Between the Ears slot. It finds the actress Harriet Walter engaging in a series of telephone conversations with a lover. We hear only her side of it, so the plot emerges gradually, an effect heightened by the sleights of hand Scanner performs with structure and timescale, to unsettling effect. He likes the irony of the piece being transmitted on Valentine's Day.
By way of contrast, Rimbaud describes The Garden Is Full of Metal as an "intimate" portrait of his friend Jarman, pieced together from taped conversations they had over many years, elements of which have been electronically treated, to create melodies and rhythms, and combined with recordings taken from "spaces he would have inhabited" had he continued to live. These include Charing Cross Road, and the walk from Jarman's house in Dungeness to the beach. "The idea," Rimbaud explains, "was both to explore the idea of mem-ory and to produce a document which could seduce and move people." To an extent it does seduce and move, though, as always with Scanner's thought-provoking work, there is a limit to how many times you'll want to listen to it. The compensating joy is that we're dealing with an artist who has no right to object should any of us choose to borrow and tape his latest album, rather than buy it. Andyou can't say fairer than that.