Scanner (aka Robin Rimbaud) has been at the forefront of electronic and experimental music for decades. As a document, as a work of art, and as a social and cultural commentary, his music has never been more in tune with the wider world. An expanded edition of 1994’s Mass Observation is released today, and it arrives at an appropriate time. In the cold light of 2018, it’s a shockingly relevant work.
Data leaks, cyber wars, and snooping charters make up the daily headlines. China has recently implemented a terrifying ‘social credit’ system, making true what we already feared to be true: that 1984 was a prescient work. I recently had the chance to chat with Robin about modern technology, the pitfalls of social media, and the mass observation of society as viewed through the all-seeing-eyes of CCTV. Mass Observation (Expanded) releases October 5 on Room40.
First things first, please may you describe your music as Scanner and the artistic intentions within your work?
‘I am an artist, composer, sound designer, performer, collaborator, curator, and activist who uses technology to recover, capture and transform sound, and recording, performance and installation to interrogate its meaning and context, adding new layers of significance. I’m interested in people, in stories, in sharing possibilities, hoping that through my works I can offer back engaging work of an emotional and imaginative nature and language.
My work connects the points between a bewilderingly diverse array of genres – a partial list would include sound design, film scores, computer music, digital avant garde, contemporary composition, large-scale multimedia performances, product design, architecture, fashion design, rock music and jazz, so boxing myself in in any manner is rather futile’.
Technology has changed in such a massive way since the early 90’s. How has your music developed in the time since, and how have you documented these changes?
‘Well, I’ve been recording since I was around 10 or 11 years old so sound has always taken a key role in my life and productions. I’ve always been drawn towards new technologies.
A little bit of history – we had a cheap 1970s tape recorder at home when I was a child and I used to record TV shows like Spiderman on it so I could listen to them later on, as VHS tape recorders had yet to be invented! Then I realised I could record our birthdays, holidays, Christmas time, trips on the school bus, etc. Rather like the way people use their smartphones today to photograph all the time, so the tape recorder offered me a way to record the world around me, without any ambitions of using it in any other way, but just because it was there and accessible and fun to do!
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s I was using bulletin boards, a precursor to what we now recognise as the Internet, and was one of the first people in my peer group to have email back then. So, I use the tools of my time to create work that reflects the times and my ideas as they develop. Having said that it’s been important to maintain a voice that reflects who you are, whether it’s with words, sounds or images.
Listening back to tapes I made as a teenager in the early 1980s I can recognise patterns in the way I work and create shapes in sound today, so in many ways I’ve not developed at all!’
What are your thoughts on the current state of the world? Are these darker times?
‘How to answer such a question? It’s something I think about a lot actually, looking back at what seem like more innocent times in my youth even, but were they? Are we now so locked into online news and constant updates on global situations that our world view has radically altered and not the world itself. Track back 150 years and read the newspapers and they are filled with gloomy tales, both locally and in the bigger picture. Is it that today we can immediately respond and learn about what’s happening that’s altered our viewing of the world? Perhaps they only seem darker whereas what in fact it’s really only access and the focus that has changed’.
It seems that surveillance technology isn’t restricted to the street anymore, creeping more and more into personal lives and personal spaces, such as homes, safe spaces. What are your thoughts on voice-activated products such as Siri /Alexa / Cortana? On the surface they seem innocent enough, but do you think they’re actually quite invasive?
‘I don’t use any of these products, mostly because I find them quite annoying, and not practical for my purposes, but it’s easy to see how quickly people generally adapt to such technologies within their lives and homes, but of course that comes at a potential cost, though not one that most people seem overly concerned with still. They are another contribution towards a lifestyle that is ever more sentient. If you remember the closing scenes of the animated film WALL-E it features rather overweight characters being force-fed food and drinks and told at the touch of a button the latest trendy colours in clothing. Many developments in our culture have been towards promoting laziness or easy access which can be pitiful at times, when people forget to question or debate things. Or as we know simply form opinions by something they saw on a YouTube channel produced by some amateur scientist or activist. Their innocent offers of help leads to many more darker situations I believe’.
The European Court has only recently announced that the UK Government’s mass surveillance program is a breach of human rights. What are your thoughts on surveillance in the UK, and does this have an impact on your work and what you want to communicate?
‘Any kind of Snooper’s charter is concerning but how to respond to this? The general public at heart has no great concerns for it, in a country where they are seemingly currently afraid of ‘outsiders’ infiltrating the country as can clearly be seen from the Brexit results. In some ways, this surveillance of the private sphere induces a kind of media voyeurism, where the body and the ‘self’ has lost its relevance in the datasphere for many people, erasing issues of privacy. Art can force questions, opinions, tear open the electromagnetic sphere itself and provide content where there is no content anymore in the wider mass media. One can try to alert people but it’s a challenge, ever more’.
How has surveillance culture evolved since you first started recording, and how has your music evolved to encompass, acknowledge, and project these shifts?
‘Discovering the actual scanner device itself in the late 1980s provided me with the chance to tune in directly to the language and lives of private individuals. The first Scanner recordings featured these intercepted cellular phone conversations of unsuspecting talkers (Scanner 1 – 1992 & Scanner 2 – 1993), edited into minimalist musical settings as if they were instruments, bringing into focus issues of privacy and the dichotomy between the public and the private spectrum. This suite of works was received with interest by the general press and public, partly fuelled by a voyeuristic delight and curiosity and that ‘fly on the wall’ scenario where you can enter into the private conversations of another without alerting them to the fact. After a few years it felt that this work had achieved all it needed to achieve in some sense and I most certainly didn’t wish to be forever known as the fellow who listened to other people in the name of art!
Over time my work has shifted across many different fields but at its heart still focuses on the voice, the environment, our world around us, reflecting it back for review and consideration’.
Has your sound evolved or changed with the introduction and rise of new devices, scanners, and other forms of technology?
‘My work is a reflection of the times it is made in so I use the tools at hand to make whatever feels necessary. As such it has constantly changed and developed over the years, from analogue to digital and to a hybrid of the two today’.
You use cell phones and police scanners in live performances – does every performance play out differently as a result? Is it all improvised, or is the performance mapped out beforehand?
‘I rarely play live shows these days but frequently continue to draw on the airwaves around me for inspiration in shows. I’ve simply never been interested in repeating what I release on record, like a kind of digital jukebox. Recordings made in a studio can only be replicated by playing them back via a laptop which isn’t that inspiring for me, although audiences might be content to hear that material. As such I rely on random and chance encounters with the airwaves and other devices that continue to surprise me’.
How has voyeurism changed since the development of the internet?
‘Like so much about it there’s a process of normalisation that occurs with everything. MTV for example used to censor Lady Gaga videos because you could see her bottom in her skimpy outfits, whereas a decade later it’s common place for a pop singer to happily appear semi naked, flouting their body without question, which many young people then take as normal and copy on Instagram and their date nights. Where do we stand with voyeurism today? When I began my work our television networks were very different, whereas today with Big Brother and The Circle here on TV, the private is very much public now. Of course, this is all entirely mediated, often scripted, whereas what I’ve always been interested is in the individual, the intimate, the authentic, not the ego and those hunting for success in a TV show. The internet has broken down any perceived public/private/morality walls, so people will video themselves after they’ve lost their virginity, or in the school toilets announcing their positive pregnancy results and so on. It does indeed lead you to wonder where things can go to next?’
Photo: Inna Avechenko / Secret Thirteen
What are your thoughts on social media, the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, and intentional data misuse? Facebook itself was involved in the release of personally identifiable information of some 87 million users. Social media use has been linked to depression, too – in reality, do you find there’s something dehumanizing and disconnecting to the platform, when on the surface it appears to be ‘the social network’?
‘Yes, the irony of social networks encouraging us to feel ever lonely is a worrying one. To be judged by the numbers of likes or followers in a society is utterly meaningless. Do you need to know if this person has 1 million followers or 1 to listen to their opinion? It’s a very complex situation. We need to focus on the technology and how people use it. I used to spend hours on the telephone, now the phone barely rings. People don’t communicate with their voices so much anymore, but texts and even just emoji’s, so the tonality and character has been lost, even the idea of face to face conversation is evaporating. At the same time, of course, these technologies can enhance a life for many, and connect them to communities and people they might never have had the opportunity in life before. Like many things in life one needs to assess and reassess what we use and have. And again it’s about finding a balance’.
Please tell us more about your upcoming reissue of Mass Observation. What’s included in the expansion, and how does that expansion affect the record in its entirety?
‘Well, perhaps ‘expansion’ might be a little misleading, in that the original sessions were recorded and released on the label I ran at the time, Ash International, with Mike Harding of Touch. However, I digitized much of my archive a few years ago and found about 600 hours of unreleased materials just on DAT tape. That’s not including all the cassette tapes, about 2000 CDRs and hard drives. One of the DATs I found featured a second recording from the same session, more than double the length, sharing some of the ideas, sounds and shapes of the originally released recording, but completely different. Both were recorded live directly to tape with no editing and I felt it was about time the world at least heard this work. So, no-one has heard this since 1994’.
I see people on the tube on their mobile phones all the time, like zombies in the way they’re all glued to the screen. There are addictive properties to them, such as buzzes, flashing lights, and red flag alerts. Do you try to capture this enslavement to technology within your music?
‘I don’t wish to add to this gloomy image of the world around us! In fact, many of my projects have explored ideas of slowing down the entertainment process. 52 Spaces for example (https://youtu.be/Wm199mmZAoU) was created in a very deliberate way to slow the spectator down and immerse themselves in a work for a time’.
Do you find the rise of instant gratification to be a problem, especially for the areas of experimental and electronic music?
‘I recognise this impulsive aspect to many in their lives. I’ve read about this syndrome with regards to dating and commitment, in that there’s always someone better just around the corner, the next swipe on your smart phone will bring you the REAL love of your life, etc. It’s disappointing that people fail to invest time as the might need to in anything, to master a craft, a friendship, a loved one even. I’m not sure the experimental music scene exhibits the same restrictive qualities though, they are much more dedicated towards finding and embracing new ideas and possibilities’.
Your music is so pioneering. Have any artists, past or present, been of a major influence to you?
‘Countless artists. In music, in art, in literature. I honestly wouldn’t know where to begin. Some figures have stayed with me since teenage years like Joseph Beuys, John Cage and Bruce Conner, BS Johnson, Ann Berg, Larissa Shepitko, Samuel Beckett, the long could go on and on…’
What else is on the horizon for you, Robin?
‘I’m currently working with Polish artist Kasia Molga on a very unique project investigating machine learning algorithms based around the quality of soil in the EU. (https://vertigo.starts.eu/calls/2017/residencies/ode-from-the-dirt/detail/). We are creating an App and then an installation in 2019. More recording projects in motion for 2019 but to be honest the most exciting project is the establishment of an arts foundation. This will be set up to run once I’m dead, so unfortunately, I won’t get to enjoy the fruits of the folks that will use it, but essentially it will turn my former home into a space for artists to use in residency programmes, using my valuable library of book, vinyl and CD archives, as well as my music studio. Having no family nor children means at least I can leave something behind that offers some inspirational to others in the near future’.
The writer would like to thank Robin for his thoughtful and considered answers. Check out the review of Mass Observation (Expanded) below.
In some ways, we’re living in 1984. Not the actual Year Of Our Lord, but George Orwell’s bleak and domineering police state. In a dark and politically regressive age, Scanner‘s music has never been more relevant, playful in its experimentation but carrying meanings so thunderous as to be deafening.
Police bands are now sometimes combined with ambient music, the sound of the city and her nefarious activities broadcasting 24/7 on a platform like You Are Listening To Los Angeles. In the ’90s, though, it was revolutionary. Scanner’s music was groundbreaking, and it still is. Bjork controversially sampled Mass Observation on her “Possibly Maybe” single, and after Mass Observation‘s release, Coil and Aphex Twin both bought radio scanners and later incorporated found voices into their records.
After seismic events, things can take darker, tighter turns. In a post 9/11 world, surveillance stealthily infringes and invades; it isn’t restricted to the street anymore. Instead, it crawls into the personal life, into millions of homes, just sitting there in a corner, nestling inside marketed products. Alexa, along with her creepy random laughing spasms, and other voice-activated products (Siri, Xbox, etc) are always on and always listening. In an online world, everything is connected. Just because she’s been given a purposely cute name, doesn’t mean she’s not dangerous. And the European Court has in the past month or so concluded that the UK Government’s mass surveillance program is a breach of human rights. CCTV is everywhere, especially in the UK, the West’s Surveillance Mecca. Scanner’s music literally taps into the paranoia of the age, broadcasting private secrets and one-on-one phone calls .
The internet has led to an avalanche of voyeurism. Life in the 21st Century is life on incessant display: Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter. Relationships, special moments and even meals are shared in our online windows. Scanner deconstructs those metallic parts to reveal the true face of the machine. He challenges ingrained perceptions and documents human psychology through the means by which we communicate. Unseen radio frequencies hang in the air. Domineering pylons stand like leviathans, occupying the fields. The run-time is now fifty-three minutes long. Phone conversations cut in and out intermittently before someone eventually puts down the receiver, like two lovers on the phone. You hang up first. No, you. No, you!
Those two original mixes, captured onto DAT tape all those years ago, gave rise to 1994’s Ash 1.7 – Mass Observation. And now, those dial tones, garbled and dehumanized conversations, and live radio signals are pulled one more into the music’s gravity, caged inside tape.
‘Mass Observation is a highly suggestive picture of a particular place in a city at a very specific time. A form of Sound Polaroid as I tended to call such recordings. This early body of work of mine, in the early and mid-1990s was a study in surveillance. Long before our concerns about data leakage at Facebook, and Siri spying on our private moments, I used the scanner device itself – a modestly sophisticated radio receiver – to explore the relationship between the public and private spheres, lending a deep sense of drama to these found cellular conversations within a contextual electronic score. In many ways, this work pre-empted our reality culture, as it exists today, with our TVs now saturated by Love Island and Big Brother’.
George Orwell – 1984 (Signet Classics)
Both are byproducts of a voyeuristic culture nd both do little to fill the void. On TV, lives are now considered to be cheap entertainment. Looking back, Scanner’s music was prophetic to the point of spookiness, predicting it all. What was once a personal experience, and a personal conversation, is shared on public platforms such as Facebook – a platform that had its own scandal with the data leak of some 87 million users – becoming a public thing existing in the public domain, the private becoming public, all exchanged for shallow likes and a temporary caressing of the ego, satiating the brain’s reward system. Being an ambient release, Scanner’s Mass Observation (Expanded) distances itself from the thrill and subsequent emptiness of instant gratification, instead spilling out its secrets in time and with a great amount of experimentation. It isn’t just a reissue, but an important statement on our times, an echo from the ’90’s, and now even more relevant than the first scream. (James Catchpole)