I interviewed electronic artist Robin Rimbaud a.k.a. Scanner in 2000, light years before September 11. I never published the interview, but, rereading it after digging it up on my hard-drive, it still seems timely.
((Tape begins with Robin checking my recording levels and is punctuated throughout by his nervousness that the tape isn't recording. We are seated at a round table in the Walker Art Center's basement, between the artist's green room and the stage door. Around us are the sounds of preparation for the night's film/performance of Godard's Alphaville with a live score by Scanner, mingled with the sounds of the building's nearby boiler room, tech storage, carpentry shop, and plumbing works. Our conversation is accompanied by the intermittent sounds of water flushing through pipes deep in the walls, tinny radio songs filtered through the gray cinderblock walls, the various hums and clicks of machinery, a nearby refrigerator, and heating equipment, and the distant noise of AV guys and stage hands completing a sound check on stage. All of these things, Robin hears and some of them he comments on. The work Scanner is best known for--and from which he takes his pseudonym--featured human voices "stolen" from the airwaves and sampled into his works.))
Paul Schmelzer : Let's jump right in: have we as a western culture lost the ability to listen?
Robin Rimbaud : What's interesting to me is the way that we consume sound now. When I used to listen to sound when I was 16, 15 years old, I would lie in my bed in the dark and listen to a Pink Floyd album or a Brian Eno record. And you really would absorb it on so many levels. You would really breathe that record. I wonder today when we listen to music how we consume it. When we're listening to a CD on a portable carrier, we are incorporating acoustic sound around us. How much does that become part of the work? I've fed that into my work. It led me to begin to ask myself questions. When you listen to techno, do you walk quicker than if you were listening to 15th century church music? If you listen to hip-hop, which generally runs at around 110 per minute, do you generally walk along at that kind of sloppy pace? It's interesting because when people use mobile phones today, they generally, if they're in a conversation, walk away from the group, because they're on the telephone. It's interesting because that suddenly becomes a private space for them, even though it's a public space. They generally take seven to nine steps around, up and down. If you notice now I've said this, you start looking outside a café, you see people start to take this amount of steps. It's really interesting, these kinds of moments. It all comes from listening. It all comes from this kind of almost obsession. It's like, if you were to go and buy a pair of shoes tomorrow, you start looking at other people's shoes. Because I work with sound all the time, I constantly listen to these kinds of sounds. We sit and talk now, but we embrace the sound of water coming through the system behind us, some kind of engine hum in the distance here. But once it's erased, that noise, once the machine is switched off, we suddenly realize how noisy the environment has been.
PS : This is "silence" to us now.
RR : This would seem to be silence, but it resembles the inside of an airplane, not only acoustically, but also visually at the moment.
PS : Since you sample the forgotten sounds, like the water pipe, perhaps the music you make is more familiar than keyboards and guitars, which are actually more alien to the human experience.
RR : It's a good point. When I first had some success with Scanner, eight to 10 years ago, when people started to pick up on the controversial issues--the private/public, the invasive issues of "should you be doing this," the morality issues of the scanned conversations--the interesting thing for me was that I was using the human voice in the work. And the human voice is something very unfamiliar to electronic music... It appealed to people because electronic music, particularly, was perceived as a very cold, inorganic, distanced, alienated type of music, and I was bringing something quite warm to it: I was bringing acoustic sound, the human voice. Which as any ventriloquist knows or anyone who studies the history of the voice, the human voice is the one item we can really relate to. It's interesting to note that we all like the sound of our voice when we speak, but you never like to hear it back on a tape recorder. That's because it lacks the resonance. Your body isn't acting as a kind of speaker. For me, it's curious to me that ventriloquism...has evolved. Machines like this are the new form of ventriloquism. They're disembodied voices. A mobile phone is a form of ventriloquism.
PS : It's interesting when I listen to your music and hear only half of a conversation, and I can't help but fill in the blanks...
RR : What I'm interested in is stories. Our history of development has been through stories, in a way, through family stories, through parables. The bible is just a series of stories. And it's really interesting because stories get changed. You have a tendency to reinterpret a story. You hear a conversation or a part of a conversation and you start to fill in the spaces, and that's what began to interest me. Not you and I talking together, but just overhearing one part. You start to picture an image of what these people look like. Their social backgrounds. What relationship they hold to one another. And then try to fill in the spaces. When you didn't hear what the other person was saying, what were they really talking about. You just heard a bit of a pop record, Scannerfunk, where there are these voices buried underneath the mix. These people saying things like "The sun is shining" and "I'm too sad to tell you," and all these very melancholic phrases just keep spinning out underneath this elegant, melodramatic music. I like to use these voices on that level. Also, to relate it back to the issue of how you listen to that record, somebody may be listening on a Walkman on a bus and hear these voices. Is it on your headset or is it behind you? Is in the environment or is it in the frame of the music?
PS : When you use these snippets of conversation, two points fascinate me. One is about relationships: women tend to communicate one way and men another, making it evident that "communication" isn't happening, rather mutual one-way message-sending. The other is about technology: these halves of conversations are like the messages borne on the radio waves that travel out into the ionosphere and travel in space forever, never to be responded to.
RR : I've taken the role, in a sense, of being a medium. Pulling down, retrieving these indiscriminate signals that float around us all the time. Pulling them into these soundscapes. ...It's something that interests me, the idea that as we are talking now, rather like those radio waves floating out there into the ether, these stories float into the walls here. If you have a computer and you have all your data there and you throw something away, there are bits of software, which allow you to dig within the frame of the computer and pull out that information again. It's really easy. You just literally hit "un-erase" and it will un-erase your hard drive. Something you threw away three years ago, if you haven't initialized your hard drive, will still be there. I love this romantic idea of speakers. If we could un-erase what has been through them, what would they have heard? If we could un-erase the memory of a building, what would we hear? What stories would be there? We can look at images. We can make film. But how would you capture that sound, these stories that have been lost?
PS : There's something compelling in there about the spirituality of technology--the idea of ether. The air used to be the realm of anima mundi, mediums would channel spirits through the air, and heaven was "up." Today, technology uses the air, and you're being called immoral for grabbing what floats in the air.
RR : It is a romantic idea that around us the whole time there are these radio waves, and it merely takes a mechanism like a scanning device itself or a shortwave radio to enable one to pick up these messages...
PS : With the intercepted cellphone calls, you have no ethical dilemma because you're erasing out all the identifying information?
RR : I'm not interested in exploiting people. If I wanted to exploit people, I wouldn't have released CDs. I would've taken their credit card numbers down and bought products. People always order things over the cellphone. I've heard so many people giving out credit card details, addresses, rendezvous, but you can do all kind of pranks, all kind of extreme things, but I wasn't interested in that kind of exploitation. I was more interested in the kind of linear narrative that was happening--how people communicate with each other, how they act, how when I make a performance it's called a "live act." It's a performance, it's a persona you're adopting; it's a live act. Like now, we're in a different situation. We're in a formal question and answer. Well, it's not formal, but we're both playing roles. Unfortunately, devices like this [tape recorder] take away innovation or improvisation, but I think we're doing OK. It's such a huge question, the issue of sampling. At the moment I'm trying to work out a project; I want to make the most extreme sampling project imaginable. I'm thinking about trying to document years of the century, trying to do the 20th century in one swift cut in like a one-hour piece that goes through everything. I was thinking as much as possible of going through everything imaginable and putting it onto one CD. All music, Led Zepelin, Stockhausen, whatever. Alphabetically. I was going to work through my and everybody else's collections I know and sample them in and just make one huge piece. And hold it together with something really simple, maybe just a breath or something.
PS : Tonight you'll be performing the score for Godard's Alphaville. In terms of your early work taping phone calls and addressing issues of the pervasiveness of surveillance, it seems like a fitting film for you.
RR : It's interesting because it's filmed in very normal circumstances in the '60s in France and yet the direction, the way he's mapping a city with image, is so futuristic. It's like a non-place. That's what's so interesting to me. ...It also has this Big Brother feel, of this computer running a world, but you're never sure of this world. ... It's an alienating film, but it's set in a certain period in the '60s when Godard, amongst other directors like Resnais and Truffaut, were really playing with the idea of film and how far you could take it. Godard was always a key figure, and always is a key figure in a sense, in the development of the way you can subvert a very easily accessible medium.
PS : What about the issues of surveillance. Is the Alphaville nightmare coming true today?
RR : In some senses, the word nightmare obviously makes it seem more dramatic. But I think it's already there. I live in a city, London in England, where there are more closed-circuit TVs than anywhere in the world. More information is now passed between organizations and people in the last 10 years than it has been in the whole of time. More books have been published in the last 10 years than in the history of time. It's quite phenomenal, the overload of information. Where it becomes scary and unnerving is the access to information. I don't particularly have a problem with people having information. What I'm curious about is who holds that information and how do they use it? Where it becomes intriguing, and where the scanning element came into it, is the argument is the more technology develops, the safer we will be. That often seems to be the image that's being projected to us: it's making it a safer community, people are not ripping off the system through credit card fraud and all this kind of stuff, or like housing benefit abuse and all these things you can take from the government and all these analog ways you'd rip the system off. In fact, it's much easier now. It just takes a 13-year old kid to crack into a system. I've got a couple of friends that are hackers and it's amazing. They can just crack into a system like that, so swiftly. It seems to be the method by which people transmit information is the most vulnerable point. That's the most interesting thing. A law's just been passed in England where employers can rightfully look into their employee's emails, but there's a secondary law that no one knows about that allows you privacy at work, but people don't know it to fight back. These two laws, one big, one small, both battling one another, but the big one is the only thing that people know about.
((Our second interview takes place in the Teen Programs Office at the Walker, the only quiet, uninhabited place we could find. Sitting on a grey, once-futuristic looking sofa, we talk, our conversation punctuated with automatic beeps and e-mail chimes from the three Macs in the office. The microphone rests on the sofa making slurping noises as it rubs against the burlap-like fabric. We start out talking about the previous night's performance of Alphaville .))
PS : One scene the stayed with me after the film last night reminded me of [Guy deBord's Society of the Spectacle : Lemmy Caution is walking through the city and he sees a wall-mounted machine with a sign that says "Please insert coin." So he does, and out pops a card or bar that says "merci," which he pitches over his shoulder in disgust. It reminds me of how a whole life can be circular: we watch the TV show, then read about it on the website or magazine, discuss it at the watercooler the next day, never really getting beyond the spectacle and to real human beings. We respond to the signs around us without thinking, somehow pleased (unlike Lemmy) to get our little thank-you brick in return.
RR : The film actually plays on that very cleverly. There's this phrase that people, the women in particular, keep using: "Yes, thank you very much, please," or some phrase like that, which is a very bizarre phrase. I like it, it's a kind of tautology. When he actually takes that chip out and it says "Merci," it is a beautiful moment. It's very funny; not what you'd expect.
PS : Back on the technology part, the early part of your career, where you're talking about how advanced technology makes us more vulnerable than ever: it's interesting to me how we're so "wired" and "interconnected," but it's all a myth--were more distant from each other than ever before.
RR : The thing that's lacking in a sense is that, when people grew up, before architecture became what it is today, when buildings now are built, particularly in the '60s, they failed to realize that the social interaction between individuals was key to your upbringing. So they started, particularly in England, building blocks of flats where you have no streets. There's no engagement with your neighbor. You walk out of your door, you hit a staircase or a lift, you exit, and then you're on the ground. There's been no relationship you've had with any other person... If you walk down the street, there's a relationship you're having between buildings. You're seeing people coming out of spaces. There's kids playing in the street. There's this kind of flux and change that's existing there. It's interesting that technology has really led us to a role now we play where, I do question about what kind of real communication is happening.
...There's something terribly dehumanizing about new technology sometimes, this kind of language and etiquette we need to learn. I feel sometimes we're in such a pace that we're failing to give ourselves the opportunity to engage with the technology. The Otaku kids in Japan, the kids who just grew up just playing games who don't really socialize with their peer group... I was in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago, and I pass this enormous warehouse-size space with maybe 200 kids all playing Quake. They're all sitting in this big kind of cyber-world. I was thinking, it's curious, because what I used to do as a kid was play football in the park. That's an analog versus a digital form of engaging with your peer group. But there is something important about that kind of physicality. A type of call and response. Where you understand what it feels like, flesh against muscle. This kind of physicality of dealing with situations.
Sometimes I feel like digital technology has an awkwardness about it. You're communicating through a device quite often designed by someone else, and you have to fit a certain parameter. If you use SMS text message on a mobile, you can only have 160 characters, which is an interesting scenario in itself. How far can we take that? What kind of communication can you have? Do we start to edit our conversation apropos the situation? A couple years ago, I made a piece for an exhibition in Holland for a thing called the Impact Festival. It happens every year; it's like a digital film festival. I made this piece where, there was a program called something like "Images for the Future" or "Ideas for the Future." And I made a piece where, I was thinking OK we're talking now. When you talk in e-mail you talk in a more edited fashion. You don't keep mumbling around the subject like I keep doing here and drifting off. You're more precise when you write things down. Well, you have a tendency to start editing words. You edit sentences. You know, the way the language is a living language and the dictionary is constantly updated. Well, I thought, what would be the logical conclusion 500 years into the future? How edited would our language be? Maybe we wouldn't even talk anymore; we'd actually use telepathy. Just a playful investigation into this. So I invented a language, which was a telepathic language. The piece was basically just these two people in a gallery space, a brother and a sister, and a huge video projection. You walk into the space, nothing in front of you, just left and right, and either the male or female voices follow. Basically what they did was just take the words and cut them up. So instead of them saying, "Hello, how are you today? Isn't it a beautiful day today," they go, "Hll, hw r y tdy? Snt t a btfl dy tdy?"and cut the whole thing up. It was quite dark and sinister in its way. The guy would go ((SFX)) and the girl would go ((SFX)) .
PS : As I hear that e-mail chime in the background, I wonder, since you've traveled the world sampling sounds, are there universal sounds? Is found sound specific to a place?
RR : It's a good question. Cities have their own languages, and it's something we fail to understand. Our environment's changed over the last 15 years with the advent of fax machines, mobile phones, bank teller machines, all these kinds of devices. But cities really exhibit their own language completely. This is just a purchased computer that has a series of roll call sounds in it. Which is pretty much the same everywhere: if you buy the system, somebody who's developed it put half a dozen alert sounds. You can change them, but most people don't bother to do it. If you're a student, generally what you do is you download some ridiculous Simpsons thing on there. Now that I've said that, you'll probably tell me you've got a Simpsons one.
PS : I did that a few years ago.
RR : We all do that in the past. It's always a playful thing. Then we reach a certain point and you think, I'll just let the machine do it for me. I've got six options. I'll go with one of those. But cities certainly do exhibit their own language. You go to somewhere like Sydney, and there's a kind of electrical hum to the city. It's really strange, this really weird electricity in the sound. You go to a place like Melbourne, it's so quiet. The general ambience of the city when you come back to somewhere like London, it's enormously loud, London. It's just a barrage of information. Visually, but aurally as well. It's incredible, the sound friction that goes on. A taxi engine in London sounds very different than a taxi engine does in Cairo. The green man that helps you cross the road in Australia sounds very different than the one in Berlin. These machines--things like a taxi being built--you'd think they'd pretty much be the same all around the world. But they're not. When a car drives through Milano in Italy, it sounds different than it does in Washington, because the cobbled streets in Milan. I've become very fascinated by this language of cities. If I played you a tape now and said, is this London or New York, you'd be able to guess. By car horns, the kind of ambience of New York, the sirens. It is quite curious how you learn the kind of geography through an acoustic disturbance.
PS : Also how sound bounces off architecture differently... As the world becomes dominated by Microsoft and Macintosh, I've had some of these sounds pop up in my dreams--
RR : Gosh. You poor man.