February 3, 2006
If you were lucky enough around the mid ’90s, you might have caught a slight, bespectacled man seating himself furtively behind a small rack of electronics, teasing out microscopic ribbons of sound. Then he’d pick one particular gadget, twiddle a few knobs, and out of the ether a voice would bubble up. Then another. A conversation, microwaves pulled out of the air and converted through the alchemy of microprocessors into the sounds emitted by two people on either end of a cell phone call. The contents of said call don’t matter for his purposes, and are rarely comprehensible anyway, as we arrive in media res, without the benefit of context to help us parse out what these people might really be saying to each other. There are questions to be raised here—difficult, penetrating questions—but the immediate human drama immediately eclipses those. Is this really any of our business? Isn’t this illegal?
As for the latter question, in most places, it certainly is. You can nab one of those gadgets from a black market retailer in some breakaway Russian republic relatively cheap, to have and to hold, but never to utilize. Somehow, Robin Rimbaud—the aforementioned slight, bespectacled man—never got himself arrested. His records under his nom d’espionage Scanner were never made available domestically, but he still managed to make a certain notoriety for himself—even, if memory serves, garnering a piece on MTV News—while making appreciably un-mainstream dark-ambient records with a kind of terrifying gimmick: Be careful who you call and what you say, because you never know who might be listening. But that first question? It’s almost a moot point by the time it’s passed down the line and into your ears; I mean, you did start listening to Scanner, and you could walk away or turn it off any time. Or, to put it another way, let’s say you’re at a party, and the host couple begins arguing loudly, but in the sort of coded language used by people who know each other almost too well. They’re plainly arguing, but not exactly yelling, and you can only make out the outlines of its cause if you strain a little. So, what’s your first instinct? Really? Now, what’s your first course of action?
That there’s a large, and possibly growing, strain of voyeurism in our culture (and enough preening narcissists to fill any available void, real, imagined, or hastily created) is almost overly-discussed at this point, but what of these accidental entertainers who don’t realize that their assumed privacy is being turned over for our delectation? Most recorded-and-sold media of this sort is fairly obscure, and its “participants” may never know about them; if one were to discover this random transformation of the solid wall of their private lives into glass, the most effective way to protect themselves from further invasion would be to say nothing at all about it, to retain whatever anonymity and privacy they have left. James Harper and Carly Ptak, of molten-noise terrors Nautical Almanac, released a collection of “found and stolen answering machine tapes” in a teensy limited CD-R run in 2000. Its contents run the gamut from wholly mundane to vaguely sinister to borderline humiliating. This woman, for instance, was just trying to reach out to an old flame, only to have her proclamation of love overheard by the man’s new belle, We get to simmer over both the original, ever-so-slightly desperate message, and the ensuing hasty, squirmy untangling of the return call, and not only were both calls taped, that tape, through whatever channel, now belongs to all of us upon request. Or the centerpiece of the Wind-Up Bird’s ambient transmission Whips, which uses a painfully sad, boiled-over message from (perhaps?) an ex-girlfriend. In its new context, it’s a heartbreaking (and loud) lament of confession and redemption, and she may be the only one here who knows of her new notoriety, but we still know more about her than we’d ever need to know, while still knowing essentially nothing at all.
These covert listeners tend to be rather secretive about their covert listening, and there’s no more ready an example of a busting down of their walls than Irdial’s Conet Project (available free of charge here). Their private transmissions are obviously harder to parse out, being mainly Cold War-era spy instructions, and if the recordings are at all paranoia-inducing, it isn’t the recordings themselves, or even the existence of these numbers stations, that’s just a little unnerving. We know governments spy, but don’t necessarily know where, or why, or on whom, and it’s easy to just forget about it and assume that what’s being done is in our benefit. But this sudden confrontation with the sounds of that spying—its secrecy being necessary for its efficacy—leads to the sorts of questions that we rarely, if ever, confront. Listening in, we don’t know what these instructions are, who’s receiving them, and where they’re going. Hearing as much as we want, sticking around for as long as possible, we don’t even get the outlines. There’s just enough to make you wonder….