Surveillance Art MP3s

Scanner, the British electronic musician also known as Robin Rimbaud, regularly posts MP3s of his live concerts on his website, It certainly seems fair-minded for him to give out music for free, since so much of his early work was built on random voices and sounds that he snatched with his namesake device. The most recent such concert listing, as of this writing (it’s toward the bottom of the MP3 page), is from an April 29, 2005, event held in the capital of Latvia. He gave a half-hour concert in Riga as part of “Waves: Scanning,” a lecture and performance session at the RIXC Media Space. His set and that of the Latvian duo Clausthome (credited as Lauris Vorslavs and Girts Radzins) are available as free downloads from RIXC’s website (link).

Though Scanner has gone on to mix visuals (Michelangelo Antonioni in 52 Spaces) and archival audio (Andy Warhol on the album Warhol’s Surfaces), he is true to his early form here, mixing “found” conversation yanked from the ether into extended, mournful electronic ambience that serves as a contextualizing soundtrack. In this case, the initial conversation features what sounds like a brassy New York woman, a substitute aerobics instructor or something along those lines, planning her schedule with another equally obstinate woman, either a manager or a booking agent. After the two tough cookies find something to agree upon, their words are subsumed by an undulating, bottom-heavy score, which transforms repeatedly as it continues on; voices will be heard again, but none with such clarity as those first two.

On to Clausthome’s music: is it more haphazard, more confused or, simply put, more challenging? Or are Scanner’s techniques just more familiar, making his work easier to decode? Clausthome’s has the additional disadvantage — well, this is a geolinguistically chauvinistic thing to utter, but there you have it — of not using English-language content. As a result, their spoken material, buried beneath phone hookups, dial tones and generic sonic interference, will provide a comprehensible narrative to few Scanner fans. All of which said, the telling in the Clausthome work is in its remoteness, and that’s something you can sense, whether or not you understand what’s spoken; the emphasis on phone sounds highlights the role of technology as a tool that both connects people and keeps them apart. To Western ears, Clausthome’s recording, with its echoes of wiretaps and of Eastern European intrigue, brings to mind a cornerstone of surveillance culture: the Cold War.

Usefully, Scanner’s own recording comments on the association of language and accent, of verbal affect, with emotional meaning, when that same snotty New Yorker duo discuss someone they both know: “He’s adorable,” says one. “He’s South American or something? Aww, I love him.” Says the other, “He has a little bit of a Ricky Ricardo accent?” If Scanner’s surveillance art always brings along with it the illicit thrill of intruding on someone else’s privacy, he knows how to turn that back on the listener. By the time these women are judging their colleague based on how he speaks, we’ve already judged them.

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