By Rob Young
The Wire Magazine UK
Issue 186 issue August 1999
For Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner, music is not an end point. Instead, it is part of a complex web of activity that defines the democracy of the digital world .
Leiden, The Netherlands, late September 1999. As you enter the Museum of Archaeology, you are clutching the doors into the launch party for ID_Strip, an anthropological project organised by Dutch art facilitators KKEP and in which you are an exhibit, your code is scanned by a code reader, your body investigated by heat cameras, infra-red beams and X-rays. A waiter scans the zebra-striped patch stuck to the drink and canapés you lift from his salver. Slowly, plasma screens on the walls of the room start displaying information on the individual guests: their arrival times at the party, their occupations, details of the companies and organisations they represents; the data displayed alongside thermosensitive colour images which even reveal the stomach breaking down recently ingested food.
Somewhere, an electronic ear is monitoring the ambience of this room. Above the crescendo of voices, clinking wine glasses and cries of recognition hovers a thin mushy vibration; you listen closely, and recognise the sound of your own voice, as it was in conversation only minutes earlier. A tray of glasses smashes on the floor; the sound seeps into floor sensors and hidden microphones, and circulates round the space via a series of speakers the size of credit cards. Over in one corner, you recognise the conductor of this electronic time-lag symphony, a pixie-like figure in a skin-tight suit seated at the table spread with small flickering gadgets.
The pixie looks up from the table. "This is a really exciting thing to work on," he pipes up, "It's not about a 'Scanner gig', not about a concert, but about a shared sensibility; and this is meant to be quite playful, fun." He grabs a microphone and wanders through the milling crowd, talking incessantly into the camera in your eyes. "People have all these end of millennium scenarios about being caught within digital technology; the work I do has evolved within digital media, you can have all these heavy discussions about that. But let's just relax for a minute, work with those, see how far we can take it."
Smile, you're being monitored. By Robin Rimbaud, your genial host at the cocktail party for the turn of the century.
"I really have lost the language for it," says Robin Rimbaud, staring at me form across his black banqueting table, "I don't know where it can live, how it can situate itself. I'm not convinced about it,; I'm not sure what value it has." He's talking about his new collection of Scanner music, Lauwarm Instrumentals, how unsteadily the notion of a 'new album' sits with the way he's been working and living over the last few years. It's been a period of displacement that's forced him head-to-head with the notion of nomadism that was romantically bandied about in the early 90's, when his brand of electronic surveillance formed part of the epicentre of this decade's flowering of creative electronic art music.
The room where Robin Rimbaud records his lukewarm instrumentals has few soft surfaces, but neither is it the hermit's cell some observer might expect. For a little over a year, Scanner Central has been this converted former Sunlight Soap factory in London's East End, commemorated in "Sonnenlicht", a track on Lauwarm.
He may be a fetishist for hard edged furnishings, and rigidly teetotal, but there's one thing anyone who's actually met Rimbaud face to face would dream of accusing him of, and that's monkishness. "So much of the work I do is about outreach," he affirms, "but maybe people don't realise that I'm not involved in certain things, simply because my name is not involved with it. That's the frustrating situation. I've always argued that if people haven't liked all the work I've done, maybe they can be interesting in the ideas." Like Jim O'Rourke, with whom he keeps close counsel, Rimbaud is often selected as a secret agent, the viral infection what will kick a sound of concept into a different evolutionary path. When the American alt.lounge outfit Combustible Edison invited him to work on their Impossible World album last year, they perhaps hoped his minimalist ear would thin out their over-stuffed arrangements. In the end, inevitably, they didn't know quite what they wanted him to do, Rimbaud would arrive at the group's studio each morning to find his mixing desk mysteriously changed back to its original settings.
There have been several CDs of Scanner music issued in the past few years: Mass Observation, Spore, Delivery, Sound For Spaces, Lauwarm; as well as the Derek Jarman tribute, The Garden Is Full Of Metal, which was released under Robin's 'given' name. But there have been many other projects in a lower key. A spoken word collaboration with the nasal-voiced Canadian post-human critics Arthur and Marilouise Kroker. Live sessions with David Shea and Robert Hampson, which were then issued on limited edition CDs via the Sub Rosa label as a way of raising funds for future performances. A Techno album with Michael Wells, aka Signs Ov Chaos. Sonic injections into the work of numerous other artists, including Nonplace Urban Field, David Toop, David Cunningham, Coil, Laurie Anderson, Terre Thaemlitz, John Oswald, Pauline Oliveros, DJ Spooky, Charlemagne Palestine, Orlando Gough. What this method amounts to is a more modest engagement with the zeitgeist, one that attempts to have a catalytic effect while divesting itself of the blare of celebrity. In fact, for the longest time, Robin has been so much there as to become practically invisible.
Performance art has given way in the 90's to 'time-based art', processes and systems harnessed, or chaotic and fuzzy structures unleashed upon form. And hand in hand with these developments has been an obsession with space filling, emptying, transforming, sound joining, annexing, (re)contextualising, publicising, privatising space. 'Art' crops up when and where you least expect it. Oslo's new airport is lined with aluminium 'Sound Refreshers' - part umbrella, part shower - through which ghoulish, disembodied voices whisper in broken English to anyone standing underneath, "Death under the ice", or emit the sounds of laughter, moaning, casually tossed insults. These installations are typical of the kind of work Rimbaud has become involved in (though he's not responsible for those particular devices).
Imperceptibly, his methodology has shifted over time; from passive trawls of the hidden noise of the modern metropolis - suggested by early works such as Mass Observation, Spore, even a 12" released under the name Trawl - to a more active mapping and altering of the city's aural furniture. "My work has become more site specific, but the specific is still open," he asserts. "In the first work I was doing I was interested in the juxtaposition between loops of environmental sound against voices, after a while I began to dissolve the voices, and they became merely a texture. I tried to integrate them, make it more like a grain. Now, a lot of the work is more focused, it fits between micro and macro, but I'm not sure where it fits. Did it start macro and become micro now, and I'm focusing on smaller detail, or has it worked the other way? I'm not sure, because it's moved from an individual to a social aspect now."
Records and CDs are "temporary broadcasts", in Rimbaud's words. His current work locates itself in a distributed net of projects for different master, and on a global scale. Albums are postcards shot out from the midst of feverish activity. "I don't feel I've made any clear statement with anything I've ever done," he says. "The Sub Rosa Live Series was very much like that. Journalists didn't' understand that this is live, for a start, and there was only 1000 of them, and they've gone. It was only about that moment. That's what appealed to me about performance art: something that's happening in real-time, there and then. People have misconceived and album, see it as some grand statement when in fact for me the emphasis is on all the other projects I do. The album is almost like saying, 'I'm still here, by the way', a tiny reminder, a little flag."
So, over the coming year, various Scanner-curated intrusions on public spaces are due, with less of the voyeurism of old and more of an altruistic bent. Commissions are coming in from 'straight' organisations and corporations, that nevertheless allow Robin to exercise his peculiar talent for cracking open the shell of consensus reality. One of them, Surface Noise, has already taken place: a surreal bus route that cruised London's backstreets late last year. In London, the event seems to have ushered in a anew interest in the 'art walk', for example, two recent 'tours' tracing the footsteps of the late occultist/psychogeographer David Rodzinsky, and artist Janet Cardiff, both sponsored by the Artangel organisation, which also commissioned Surface Noise.
"Surface Noise was an invitation to work with the city," Robin explains. "I chose two point of sound significance: Big Ben and St Paul's Cathedral. Big Ben as a point of regulated, formal sound that - particularly if you're English - regulates our news at night. But it's also something that is striking every 15 minutes. It's about a metre, a rhythm. St Paul's was more about a spatial quality, a spiritual peace, but it also has the Whispering Gallery, where 50 metres across from a friend you can go "pssst" and they can hear you. I like that idea: the tone striking through London, and the whispering sound. Originally, Artangel were talking about me making a walk, but I couldn't imagine myself walking around with tourists holding and umbrella. So I chose the sheet music for "London Bridge is Falling Down", and in a very Cagean way - this is certainly not a new idea - laid it over London, with the first note over St Paul's, the last note over Big Ben, and just followed that route over London."
In advance of the project, Robin visited the site where each note fell on the map. "I took a digital camera, took photographs and recordings on a Walkman, took the sound back to my studio, and made a composition from these different places, using Metasynth [software that can 'read' a digital image as sound], but then morphed it with the original sound, so it became not just a piece of software speaking back to us. I didn't want to just produce a CD, so I thought: if the actual recordings is about this movement across the city, why don't we just follow that through? So wee hired an old fashioned London Routemaster bus, took all the lights out, installed a PA system, to produce a magical mystery tour of London.
"I did it live each time, because on the roads you don't know if it's going to take 30 minutes of three ours. On the first night we had an accident on a side road: the couple having sex on the second floor of their house didn't anticipate a red double decker bus parking outside with 150 people all staring through the window at them! It became very filmic, like you were in a goldfish bowl staring out. It was fun, that really important. It was meant to be entertaining. I wanted people to enjoy it, but then think about the sound they were listening to. I would use voices at times, I put a plate mic on the side of the bus, so I would mix the sound from outside, the engine and traffic, people outside. I was speaking to somebody about doing it in New York recently, even somewhere like Cairo, places that are so outside a traditional art aesthetic. For years I've wanted to do a tour of Africa, take electronic music there."
You are where you are
Before Africa, however, you need a port from which to travel. Robin spent much of 1998 living in Liverpool, as the guest of John Moores University, where he was appointed Professor of Sound. He can see the absurdity of the position in one sense, but agrees that the placement acknowledged the communicative thought-nurturing for of his work.
"I've always avoided talking in academic, post-structuralist speak - I think it's a dangerous thing to do, in that it can alienate and push people away," he says. In Liverpool he would be visited by students "who would ask me, 'Is there such a thing as the avant garde?', or they would sit there for two hours and record me waffling away". Sometimes he would act as a technical advisor if someone was having difficulty with equipment. "There's something that's so important to me, which is to share time and ideas with people that are about time and moving forward. I always liked the idea of acting as a catalyst: enabling an accessible event to occur".
Robin used Liverpool as a test bed for his focused drifts through the urban landscape. Stopstarting, premiered at the city's ISEA festival last September, was the result of his work with the students, involving location recordings of significant places, teasing out the language the city speaks - the title is Scouse vernacular, a challenge to fight. "It was a chance for me to work with the sounds of the city," Robin says, "the language and diction of a city, the different way a green man will operate in cities, the different way the underground or police cars will sound, outside of verbal interchange." Experiences during the making of the piece reinforced what he'd previously discovered with his 'controversial' mobile phone scans: microphones can seem threatening. " I went to a big shopping centre with Muzak piped in, and some people were very suspicious about a bald person coming in with a MiniDisc and mic, crouching on the floor, recording nothing. A security guard asked me to leave - you're not allowed to crouch down. If you think back to those stories about Burroughs and the Beat period, they were going round in hotels recordings things, and I always liked the idea of the terrorist aspects of the microphone. I was involved in an action about five years ago to bring Buckingham Palace down. We all went down and played recordings of buildings collapsing on Walkmans, held them up to the gates of the Palace while the guards just stood there." (It must have worked - Prince Charles has just announced that Buck House will no longer be the royal pad in the next century. Hurrah for Neoism!)
"A lot of the work I've done is about interference," Robin continues, "things going wrong. A lot of the things I listen to, as you probably know, is digital broken media stuff." He is referring to Gescom, Rehberg & Bauer, Fennesz, Terre Thaemlitz, Thomas Brinkmann, Pole and their ilk: 'musicians' who use digital noise to break into and shred musical scriptures. Poetry is syntax tested to its extreme, articulation re-articulated, linguistic slippages explored to their fullest extent. Hackers are digital poets, in a sense: cracking an entry into the computerised languages that control, that establish standard practice, and tearing up the prescription by jamming in obstructions that splinter the syntax.
"The city is an organism which defies planning and prediction," writes Canadian radio artist Christof Migone, "the individual contains similar internal struggles. I am laughing but I fell like crying. I am not hungry but my mouth is stuffed. I am falling asleep but I've got work to do. I crack because otherwise I can't move. These are everyday occurrences, banal decisions, little manias. Nevertheless, their cumulation provides a kind of map of the internal. In the case of crackers, there's a lexicon of cracks, an endless vocabulary of tearing aparts. As the sound of the cracks echo, some wince, others feel relief. In all instances, a crack is when and where something breaks."
A few minutes' walk down The Mall from Buckingham Palace is the institute of Contemporary Arts. This autumn, the ICA's gallery will exhibit Sound Polaroids, Rimbaud's collaborative multimedia work with graphics expert Paul Farrington, which is descended from his research work in Liverpool. At the ICA, Rimbaud is returning to the venue of his Electronic Lounge club, which, for a period of four years between 1994-98, reinforced the notion of the DJ as part of the furniture, but also helped to contextualise and draw together strands of British underground music activity that were already converging in the freedoms opened up in the post-Techno, post-industrial wilderness. Building on the methodology he devised in Liverpool, Sound Polaroids synthesizes sonic snapshots with new advances in digital imaging. This time, the points of sound significance are chosen by members of the public, via a postal and e-mail survey. Armed with digital camera and Metasynth again, plus Farrington's software that produces texts generated by sounds, a shifting sensual map of London will be produced. "It's loose, open, but it's a public project again. It's another piece about outreach".
As is the other large piece Robin is working on for next year. Sound Curtains, destined for London's Science Museum, will permanently install sheets of sound erupting from pressure sensitive spots in the museum's floor. "What it will throw down to you randomly," he enthuses, "will be recordings of science, the invisible sounds of science. Sounds inside the human body, the blood rushing, bones cracking and creaking, through to sounds inside computers, PlayStations, electricity, power stations, the sun - the language that science speaks to itself that we never hear. There are two million people visiting this place every year, I don't want it to be hand-on or to wear headphones, because that immediately limits it. Then it becomes a physical object, which people have to queue up for, and which can break. The idea was that people in wheelchairs are also able to engage with it - it's a very open access idea."
Nets are made of holes
The 20 minute Scanner piece, Cystik, will soon be released as the August instalment in the German Raster-Noton label's monthly CD series, 20' To 2000. The discs' strikingly designed cases are thin, translucent scallops, and the CDs only contain as much chrome as the music, the outer ring is transparent perspex. "Product design, logos and packaging has all become part of this aesthetic we're all engaged in" Robin says, referring to the distributed community of electronic minimalists that stretches from Ryoji Ikeda and Minoru Sato in Japan to Austria's Mego label, Chain Reaction in Berlin, Cologne's Kompakt family, Touch in London, Richie Hawtin's Canadian Minus imprint. "There's an important aspect here, not only for sales, but also reflecting the sound. The whole 20' To 2000 series is about that: it's almost telling you nothing. Record sleeves have such an importance - it's something I spend quite a lot of time on, trying to keep it as minimal as possible. Often when I'm trying to design, I'm removing stuff. The same with sound: I'm the cleaner, the Norton Utilities of sound, digging stuff out and saying let's get rid of this.
"The piece is a response to media saturation," he continues. "Geri Halliwell's a good example: she's had two million pounds on press, and here record only sold 25,000 copies. I've got friends that have sold 25,000 copies with no press whatsoever. It's quite extraordinary. A lot of artists, myself included, and the Raster/Notion people, are really playing against that. The sleeve tells you nothing - you look right through it. It doesn't mean the music is transparent, but this music's so clean. Pure's the wrong word, it makes it sound like a Leni Riefenstahl, fascistic approach, but it has a purity."
As the architect Adolf Loos put it: "Ornament is crime." "Yes, it's the essentials, the bones, and sometimes the bones alone can be enough. That's why we're skinny people, you and I here! I make a parallel with taking a tablet. It dissolves in the water, and you still see that water, and you have the essence of the tablet, and it dissipates. When I've worked with other artists, I've always been talking stuff away the whole time. I did the production for this Combustible Edison record, just because you have a 48 track digital studio does not mean you have to record 48 digital tracks, because you become swamped. I've always liked the space between."
Many listeners find 'austere' noises problematic, disengaged. Have we become too coddled in analogue bubble bath comfort, to appreciate the beauty of clean lines? "I can understand those accusations, listen to a piece of high-pitched digital sound that 'blip' - there's something very elegant and beautifully choreographed, but I can see that for some people there's not that engagement. I use a lot more organic sound, a lot less original digital sound, the voice in itself has a human associations already wrought deep within it. I'm not a cold human being - I may seem it, the photos may seem austere and creepy, there's this bald alien creature staring out into the distance - but like all of us, we have our ups and downs. And I've done my best recently to engage with that."
"ROBIN RIMBAUD IS GOD", ran the legend for years, painted by school friends on guano-stained concrete underneath the railway bridge at Clapham Junction in South London. The graffiti was a fading rem(a)inder of a teenage period split in two by the loss of his father. There's a silent space between Robin's childhood, with its innocent home taping of family meals, and his emergence as and art-obsessed teenager. He spent an entire two years in self-imposed silence, so rigidly enforced that he had to drop out of his French course because it contained an oral exam. "I never understood it until I was 30", he says. "People build their worlds because it's their only outlet, and now I wonder, do I talk so much because I never spoke for two years? I think why I talk about emotions as much as possible at the moment is because they were never ever discussed. And English families are the worst, my family, lovely as they are, wouldn't talk about those things either. Some of the work is maybe an opportunity to work with these ideas of vulnerability, which I've only been coming to terms with in the last couple of years - with my change of life, the way my habitat has changed, moving home and these kind of things."
The unusual factor about his father's death was the fact that it was captured on video and shown on TV a week after it happened - a private, tragic moment exposed to a voyeuristic public. It goes some way towards explaining Robin's impulses to make intimate events public, via various media channels. "I've never thought about it like that, it's a good point," he replies. " I remember a week after he died, there was his bike passing by on TV, and you just sit there and think, 'That's my Dad'. It's weird dealing with the media when you're very young."
Leave the world as you find it
You cross a threshold that takes you into the unknown, and you bring back something of what you find there. For an English underground group such as Coil, with whom Robin has been associated via remixes and the Derek Jarman connection, chemicals, stimulants and alcohol are often the shamanistic launch pads for dark side voyaging: in his own way, Robin is also concerned with capturing, hunting sound from inaccessible spaces and bringing it out, wheter it's the private phone conversations he found in an airspace that proved more public than anyone thought, or location recordings from the restricted access sites which his art projects take him to. (There's one on Lauwarm: a computerised usherette reciting the path through the lift system of the NatWest Tower in London: a vertical ratmaze.) But his method is more clear headed. I ask if he would consider making music for adverts, and he says, only half joking: "I refuse to do anything for smoking or alcohol - I don't want to advertise any of those two sins." Of his own straight edge lifestyle, he comments: "It has to do personally with an element of control, I realise. But I wonder where, as I've never imbibed any of those things - not even coffee - I think maybe I can reach somewhere that most people haven't. I don't mean to be too abstract about that, but I wonder if there's that possibility of being so aware of stuff, when even drinking alcoholic drinks, or caffeine, can alter your consciousness like that. Keeping to a strict vegetarian diet and fairly regular hours, maybe that in itself is so unusual that I feel I can experience things differently. I realise now it's to do with and obsession with making things happens. I don't want to feel that anything else will interfere with that in a negative way. It's like a process of reduction, and I feel I've reduced things enough as it is. I can't reduce the food, and I can't reduce the water and juice and things."
You want to leave as little impression physically on the world as possible? "Yes, and I actually like that. It's like being a small shadow, rather than a big stain."