March 28, 1996


A Sonic Quilt of Stolen Voices

Aobin Rimbaud swears it's his real name. Suspicions arise because, depending on how it's pronounced, the name can conjure images of the Prince of Thieves, the 19th century French poet whose hallucinatory works influenced the surrealists or Sylvester Stallone's avenger.

These allusions are entirely relevant to the work of Rimbaud, a London-based musician and self-described "telephone terrorist," even if his passport, as he states, proves that his given name is indeed a serendipitous match with who he is.

Rimbaud does have an alias, though. He performs and records as "Scanner," a tribute to the device he uses to collect cellular phone conversations, electronic squawks and other sonic flotsam he finds floating in the high-frequency ether. He then assembles them into eerie audio collages, sometimes over a droning, synthesized soundtrack.

In mid-December, Rimbaud, 31, launched an artfully designed Web site, also called Scanner, that playfully explores some of the issues of piracy and privacy residing in his work. This is very much a Mac-oriented site. Visitors will need plug-ins that can play aiff audio files and QuickTime movies.

Clicking on the home page of the site, developed in collaboration with Dorian Moore of the Web-design firm Obsolete in London, loads a simple rendering of a British telephone's touch-tone keypad under the word "scanner."

Stop! Don't touch that dial -- at least until you're been duly warned that > certain surprises await you, including some creative animated graphics.First, a navigational tip: clicking on the star key leads to an identical-looking page, but this time under the word "sounds" and with a different set of contents.

I am reluctant to reveal what "pressing" each of the site's 24 keys will yield, since part of the experience should reflect Rimbaud's hours with his own ear pressed to the scanner. The results can be delightful or dull, profound or puzzling.

Or profane. The sound files here are tame compared with some of Rimbaud's CD recordings of drug deals and sex talk. Still, if you are offended by coarse language, I urge you to avoid Key 7 of the "scanner" page, where a visually striking QuickTime movie, once downloaded, is accompanied by a thick-brogued diatribe that is hilarious but quite crude.

Rimbaud said he had "painstakingly edited" almost all of his space-age scavengings to protect his unwitting sources, removing identifying names and numbers and in some cases changing a voice's pitch to disguise it.

One of the files on the "sounds" page has a vocal quality much like my own. Hearing it the first time, before I discerned the soft English accent and realized the voice could not be mine, I froze at the thought of having been surreptitiously sampled.

For his part, Rimbaud was pleased to learn that he had made me feel as if my privacy had been violated, although he said people do not always recognize their own recorded voices.

"Fusing the voyeuristic with a barrage of field recordings, textures and interference spotlights the controversial issue of privacy," Rimbaud said. "What is private space, and what is public space? Video cameras cover our every movement in the streets, on the Underground, in shops. We are all featured on countless home videos without our consent."

"Opening up these issues is a way to encourage interaction and a return to real communication," he said.

Calling his hand-held scanner "an anonymous window into reality," he asserted, "Whether it's eavesdropping on an illicit affair or a simple discussion of what's for dinner, all exist within an indiscriminate ocean of digital signals flying overhead, but not beyond our reach."


He added: "We live in a time of heavily contrasting and confused communication, where people communicate not with others but with technology. Scanner sets out to take tiny fragments from this debris, to try to make some sense of it."

Rimbaud dodges questions about the legality and ethics of his art form, but he acknowledges the paradox of a recent episode, widely reported last summer in the European music press, involving the former Sugarcubes singer Bjork, now a solo artist.

"It's one of those stories that started small and grew out of all proportions," he said.

On her album "Post," Bjork had included a track called "Possibly Maybe" that used an excerpt from Rimbaud's mini-album "Mass Observation." In effect, she was sampling Rimbaud's sampling.

Robin Rimbaud
Rimbaud said that her use of the excerpt didn't bother him, but he added, "My record company at the time took it very seriously." In the end, he said, "It reached a really silly stage because it hadn't anything to do with me or Bjork, but was more a fight between record industry lawyers."

Eventually, the Belgian and Dutch press reported that Rimbaud had received 2 million British pounds in a settlement. But Rimbaud said, "No money exchanged hands at all in the end, and I gave the sample away willingly."

Recently, he said, he has been talking to Bjork about the possibility of working together on a project, "which now seems very likely in the summer of 1996, so something positive should come of all this."

Visitors to the site who are inspired to pursue Rimbaud's recordings, like the recent Scanner CD, "Sulpher," should be forewarned that not all of his sounds are easy on the ears. The musical genre might best be described as industrial-ambient, and while no one will mistake it for Mozart, Rimbaud's artistic predecessors do include Karlheinz Stockhausen, the avant-garde classicist.

Indeed, Stockhausen, a pioneer in the use of electronics in music, said last year in a British radio interview that Rimbaud " is very experimental because he is searching in a realm of sound which is not usually used for music." Stockhausen added, "He has a good sense of atmosphere."

In the end, Rimbaud is something of a paradox: an all-frequency terrorist, who rips our private speech from the airwaves without our knowledge or consent, yet an artist who makes a very entertaining and human comment on our condition. By carefully divorcing our stolen speech from its context, he shows how technology can create an atmosphere of mixed signals and disconnected discourse.

arts@large is published weekly, on Thursdays. Click here for a list of links to other columns in the series.

Related Site
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  • Robin Rimbaud's Web site, Scanner, can be accessed here.

  • A related site, The Scanner Guide To Scanning, offers 10 tongue-in-cheek rules of the game, with a sound file attached to each, and some hyped-up commentary from the European media. The samples themselves are alternately provocative, musical, unintelligible and somewhat vulgar.

    Matthew Mirapaul at welcomes your comments and suggestions.

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