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The strange life of Scan the man
by Samantha Ellis

Evening Standard Newspaper London
Mon 20 November 2000


Sonic artist Scanner (Robin Rimbaud to his family) is best known for eavesdropping on mobile phone conversations and turning the incomprehensible snippets into eerie soundscapes. In his role as a flaneur electronique, surfer of sound waves, he's sampled fridge noises, recorded blood pumping through his body and captured the sound of liposuction.

At 11, in love with elusive sounds, he recorded peas defrosting. Sitting in his shiny minimalist studio flat in Bethnal Green, we hear a whistle and he exclaims "A train!" Every sound is an event.

And his excitement is infectious; listening to his recordings, you lose your desire to block things out. Random, everyday noises become significant, even beautiful. "It seems quiet," he says, mischievously, "but in fact we're drowned in radio waves, with sound that's coming from taxi drivers and takeaways where they use those little headsets, mobile phones, satellites." He enthuses about how you can map cities through sound. He's just been to Helsinki, he's going to Atlanta. All over the world people want him to listen for them and sculpt their sounds.

In 1992 he released his first CD, enraging the tabloids by recording bits of mobile phone conversations with a scanner - hence his nom de guerre. He freely admits to voyeuristic curiosity: "Cellphones were rare objects then, so there was something super-voyeuristic about hearing people's phonecalls. Nowadays you can hear all these intimate details on the bus."

His new project, Diary, is also about voyeurism and vulnerability, but this time he turns the surveillance inwards. He's kept a diary "for 24 years now, never missed a day", and he'll be getting up in front of an audience and reading extracts, overlaid with sounds recorded that day, as he buys a Mars bar at a garage, gets lost and revs up backstage.

He's coy about showing me his current diary but reads extracts from his diary at 16 (bunking off school to see Yes play live) and as a 21-year-old (bunking off work to watch French films). He's talking 19 to the dozen about a project with Apocalypse artist Mike Kelly: "I'm going to the most haunted places in Paris, and I'm going to put a microphone in an empty room and just leave it there and come back a day later and play it back and hopefully there will be ghosts telling me stories."

He flicks open another diary and teases his 12-year-old-self ("He was obsessed by the weather and what was number one in the charts!") and the project becomes clearer; he's not tracing an autobiographical narrative, but reconnecting to all the lost voices, lost selves, of his past. It's about making walls talk, giving body to strange voices, it's almost ventriloquism. And most of all, it's about making intrepid forays into the cyberspace that William Gibson defined so piquantly as "the place where a telephone conversation happens".