Interview with Robin Rimbaud (Scanner) by Mette Marcus
Museum of Contemporary Art
November 2001

MM: When others describe your work it is always given several names and it seems to be very difficult to categorise very shortly. How would you yourself define the art form you work within?

This is a remarkably easy question to ask but without a simple answer. I have a tendency to be an artist that shape shifts at will and definitions seem impossible to locate to quite capture my activities. I have often considered myself as 'catalyst' in that I like to make things happen, simply put! Apart from my own creative activities with sound that constantly take me around the globe, I am occupied with promoting the work   of others through a record label,   producing cultural events in London and Europe and presenting shows on the BBC radio about the contemporary art scene. When boarding a plane for a long journey for example, I actually find it easier to invent a new occupation for myself rather than respond with 'artist' or 'musician' as these categories inevitably suggest questions along the lines of 'what do you paint?' and 'what instrument do you play?' Am I a sound artist? A cultural engineer? A telephone terrorist? An ambient voyeur? A flaneur electronique?

MM: How do you relate to having your work categorised as being Intermedia as opposed to multimedia? (The term Intermedia, has been used to describe works of art, which seems to fall between medias ñ more than covering all, since the early 1970ís where Dick Higgins wrote his text ìIntermediaî)

This relates to the issue of categories and how one can embrace work that refuses to cling to any clearly defined lines. I have never had a problem with labelling and the way that people have a desire to identify material. Sound as an art form still   strongly appeals to me as visual culture is often representational whereas sound can be more impressionistic in nature and style.

MM: Where does your interest in working with sound derive from? Do you see yourself as part of or in a specific tradition? (Which persons or art forms are you inspired by, if possible give some names)

At the age of 11 my piano teacher played my school class John Cage's The Prepared Piano works which left me feeling so inspired. I remember running home and hammering on our cheap piano and causing my poor mother great distress with my actions. Subsequently I went on to read all of his published works, attended concerts and was lucky enough to meet him some years ago. It was his influence that led me to zoom in on these spaces in-between - between language and understanding, between the digital fall out of binaries and zeros, between the redundant and undesired flotsam and jetsam of environmental acoustic space, taking the ordinary and attempting to make it extraordinary.

I began using voices in my work, inspired initially by hearing recordings by English industrial artists Throbbing Gristle (on Heathen Earth [1980]) John Cage ( Variations IV [1965]), Brian Eno and David Byrne ( My Life in the Bush of Ghosts [1981]), with their use of randomly mixed voices in the live environment, and eccentric English guitarist Robert Fripp's use of found voices in his Exposure recordings (1979). A chance encounter with a neighbor's ham radio, an early form of radio communication favored by truckers   on the road long before cellular telephones, meant that often when I listened to records or the radio at home, their voices would be featured as uninvited guests, with my amplifier acting as a receiver for their banal communications. My entry into sound was certainly not traditional nor followed stable classical musical roots.

MM: What are your reasons for working in different ways with sound - sometimes as ìpureî sound works other times in collaboration with visual artists?

I am fascinated by the spaces in between information and sound, the debris. I have attempted to take something relatively mundane and ordinary and in an almost alchemical manner transform it into something extraordinary.   Searching out the spaces in between information and sound, exploring the cracks in media, chiselling   out the most abstract sounds from the most unlikely sources.

Sound is now far more portable than it ever was and I am clearly aware how we consume sound and images in a very different manner than we would have done some 15 years ago even. We are constantly learning to deal with shifts in new technology, shuffling our means of control and understanding to match and fit what is offered.   We cannot escape sound: We constantly breathe it in, soaking ourselves in its unique texture. Sound is always present, sometimes as a constantly shifting whirr, as a damp grain of footsteps, the drone like spangle of distant traffic, or as the seemingly motionless air that ripples past our ears, the elegant stuttering trill of a bird overhead. I like to use these elements within the soundscapes I make, even in the most accessible pop vein as well as more installation work.

I like collaborations a great deal and continue to collaborate with many artists quite outside of music. Whether it's with a writer, a DJ, a video maker or dance choreographer, the ability to exchange and share ideas is crucial and these collaborations allow me and the collaborator to work as both negatives and positives of each other, recognising spaces within the soundfields and ideas of the other. It teaches the respect of space but also the relevance of context and extension of ones ideas to the other. I feel that my approach is chameleon enough that I can shift within my structure to engage on so many different levels within a project.

MM: How would you describe your difference in work methods?

There is no formal structure to any of my projects and my working methods depend very much upon the situation and context, quite often in a very improvisatory manner. I am interested in the relationship between different art forms and believe that one can inform the other, so have never looked for any limitations within projects. My work is as much visual as it is sound, though it may not present images per se but it is strongly suggestive of cinematic encounters and imagery.

MM: How would you describe your use or focus on the element of time in your works? (Reasons for using time based medias as opposed to more static art forms like most traditional visual art). And what kind of concept or idea of time do you work with?

I am a urban artist exploring and creating an urbanised form of work that exists within the timeframe of a city commonly. Digital technology has been liberating in that it allows each of us to become time travellers watching the cursor on a screen: where the pointer lies is the present moment but we are able to travel forward and backward in sound, in some way mirroring an idea of time travel, moving back and forward in imaginary time.

Time based artwork explores an obsession with space filling, emptying, transforming, sound joining, annexing, (re)contextualising, publicising and privatising space and as an artist I act as some kind of filter for these aspects.

MM: How would you describe the space or the spaces that you create?

Many of the more public art projects I have concentrated on offer a more democratic approach to 'difficult' ideas in a popular form, a shared sensibility. Many of these projects in recent years have allowed me to exercise my rather peculiar talent for cracking open the shell of consensus reality. I welcome opportunities like some of these public art commissions that look towards an audience, as I am aware that the technology itself can become transparent rather than a distraction for the public. I commonly explore familiar sounds and situations in a fresh manner, often using the human voice in different contexts with the sound mix, out of which the voice barely emerges from a sonic ambience that is viral, meshed, conspiratorial, dank, introverted, and organic.  

  MM: Part of your work takes place in public ñ social spaces. This is also an area that many artists worked with in the 1960s and 70s. How do you relate to that tradition? (performance, radio art etc.)

Inevitably I have been inspired by the rich history that has gone before, especially within performance art, realising how artists like Joseph Beuys,Laurie Anderson, Gordon Matta-Clark,John Cage, Coum Transmissions and Stuart Brisley opened up countless creative opportunities for me and others.

Let me explore for a moment a particular project that demonstrates the development of my work. I have moved from performances that focused on the body and the individual in my earliest voyeuristic scanned phone call works through to projects like 'Surface Noise' which explored the wow and flutter of my own city taking people on an infamous red Routemaster bus journey across the city from Big Ben to St Paul's Cathedral, where the sheet music of 'London Bridge is Falling Down' became the score and A-Z for both musical and geographical direction following a Cageian use of indeterminacy. Where each note fell onto the map of the city between these two points not only suggested a location to record at but also one which the bus would later follow with public aboard. Performances followed this routing every night for three nights, at intervals through the evening, each re-assembling fragments of the city in terms of sound and image, suggesting the slight shifts in tone and shape in similar places but at very different hours, so that a busy West End street at 18.00 would transform into a ghostly empty presence at 21:00 and 'Surface Noise' would become a form of alternative film soundtrack where the film was simply the view through the dusty window a double decker bus. The work was a very successful public adventure, opening up an often perceived private 'art' space to a wider arena.

MM: What is your relationship with the art institution?

Almost by accident have I tripped into more familiar art institutions yet still remain the outsider. I have no contact with gallery dealers, managers or anything of the kind.I have never worked or considered working within any 'business' - indeed I have consciously walked away from commercial productions and the whole industry of music production. I find I still have a huge freedom in the projects I involve myself with otherwise I simply would not work on them.

Digital information offers new categories, narratives and interests that a more commercial music and art industry seems to consistently fail to recognise until it is easily digestable and stable at which point it becomes invalid. It is essential for me that this form of creativity to remain fun and playful and until that day when it might possibly resemble these aspects I have no intention of moving away from it.

MM: The technical part of your work is quite a big thing. Do you do all of the work yourself? (Referring to other artists using engineers or other technicians)

I try my utmost to find to have a hands on control on my work but there always reaches a point where one cannot master absolutely everything. I have realised through experience that if one moves home for example that you cannot do all the plumbing, electricity yourself, nor lay the floorboards, install a washing machine and so on, so you turn to others who have the skills and knowledge to be able to do these tasks competently. I realise that I lack skills in certain areas so employ the talents of those who are able to complete these tasks far better than I ever would be. I am finding especially on larger public works that I need a supportive team around me.

MM: Who do you experience the importance of the physical aspect of sound in your works?   (Do you see a difference between making îphysicalî/or ìliveî works as opposed to i.e. Internet art?)

It is interesting that along with painting, music, sculpture, theatre, that we now have 'net art', an artform that actively uses the medium of a network. I am interested in it as outside of digital music culture it is an artform that consistently offers a promise. I think the development of software related technology within sound mirrors a previous development of hypertext offering possibilities far beyond our imaginations at present. One can overcome the physicality of the sound in a club or gallery space by exploring alternative means of presenting sound.

Working with sound live and applying new digital technology to its manipulation I am interested in bringing together a new synthesis between the sound and the associated image. Played live as sound and image instruments, working on interactive installations and exploring the potential of the interface my work looks towards a clear understanding of 'how' the technology works and for an audience to be able to very rapidly comprehend how their actions can play and effect this work.