One 2 One: Scanning Scanner

By William Shoebridge, 2 October 2008

A telephone interview with Scanner - musician, composer, performance artist...

When you include segments from your scanned and taped conversations, are selections random or are specific selections made and the topic of conversations chosen to illustrate your own particular concerns

Well, it depends on the situation, in a live context obviously it's completely random. In a concert recently at the Purcell room I made the decision not to begin until I picked something up, something solid like a conversation. I walked on, switched on the little machine, and went through all the frequencies, it could have taken ages - twenty minutes, but I eventually got something - it was completely random. What I usually do with recording is improvise to that, I try and follow the tone or mood of it. Once a week I switch the scanner on, connect it straight to the tape deck and just record everything I flick through. I build up a library of sounds of conversations and other things and then I just work my way through-it. I'm very careful to edit anything out that, like names and addresses, could describe the identities of the person talking in any respect. I want to keep the pure text, the pure interaction between two characters, man to man, woman to woman, male to female and vice versa. And then see how I can take it from there. People have also asked me whether I write music to go with the voices or whether the music comes first. It depends on the situation and on the conversation. A voice can spark off different ideas, in different ways with no initial creative intent, so there's no one answer to that really.

`Spore' has a sinister filmic ambience much like watching an old thriller -are you nostalgic for the 'human' voice or presence? 

The work is a bit about memory. It's a way of recording memory.

But I think there's also an element of a certain kind of Britishness, not in a nostalgic or even patriotic sense, which I'm not in the least, but radio always strikes me as something very English, there's something warm about the sound of radio waves. 

Radio clubs and weird men in anoraks..

Yes, but I'm not a member of that! There is a kind of nostalgia about that though - memory is a way of recalling, it's about instances that have happened in the past. I used to always carry a recording Walkman round with me. I bought one when I was fifteen, and I'm thirty now - for fifteen years I've been carrying round this thing and it still works. I record everything, people in the underground, I record them. I was always more interested in recording people that I knew nothing about. At a bus stop for example, I use their voices in an environmental way, like a sound installation. I'm far more interested in that, because you don't know who these people are.

You seem to be attracting quite a lot of interest from a broader group than just club-goers or ambient and techno enthusiasts - what are your feelings on Phd's being acquired on writings about your practice?

laughs.... I must admit, that's quite amusing. Phd's... that's quite good. I find it very curious in that the work is partly about media, it's a reaction to media. I consciously don't have a television or buy a newspaper.

No, I don't either.

Really? Excellent! You know exactly the feeling then. I'm just not interested in that kind of medium, I find it ugly and unrepresentative of what I want to see or read about. The way the media works is very curious - over the last twelve or eighteen months I've done an awful lot of interviews. You realise how one magazine will take a story, navigate their way through it, somebody else will bleed a part from it, somebody will take another part, strip it bare until eventually this elaborate story exists which bears no resemblance to your real life at all! One of the Sunday papers contained an article saying my father was a famous television presenter. This was then referred to in other interviews and sought as a cause for the nature of my music. The fact is that my father died when I was fifteen!"

I do find it interesting how people interpret work. But sometimes you can explain work away, interpretation can almost negate its validity. I think there's something I call the unnameable, some artwork, some films are unnameable in the sense that language hasn't been able to, or can't quite embrace that work. You can't equivocate language with a work of art.

My work seems to be interpreted in a more appropriate way within artistic discourse. Unlike in a lot of music journalism there is no necessity for something to have a melody, have a beat and be four minutes long!

One 2 One: Scanning Scanner

Image: Picture courtesy Scanner

Is this academic, or even anthropological interest just sensationalism by proxy - for example, I'm sure more copies of the Sunday Sport were sold because of academic or artistic interest than because of the tit count on its pages, in a way making it more respectable - what do you think?

I don't know, I don't know whether it distances some people as well. What do you think?

I think it makes it respectable, like Sarah Lucas did some work about the Sunday Sport, . She makes work that I would class as sensationalist, and I think that it probably sold a lot more copies of the Sunday Sport to an audience who otherwise would never have picked it up.

True. Well I must admit, a lot of people have said to me that they've never considered a concept like this before. People will say "WOW, I want to go out and buy a Scanner". For me, as I said, I find it much more rewarding that I'm seen in a more artistic context. Obviously I don't create visual art, it's more sound work, which is the side I'm really interested in. I've always seen sound as a sculptural medium. I'm doing a radio show for the Videopositive festival, which is coming up at the end of April, beginning of May. It's a three week radio show that is part of a month long video festival. I see it as possibly a sort of sculptural representation of the Liverpool people. I'm going to try and mix together sound recordings of different kinds of spaces, streets, galleries, mix all these together and over the weeks feed in more and more of Liverpool culture, people talking about things, things I've scanned, things I've tuned into. It starts off as a kind of preview with nothing there, silence with nothing but radio feed back. But by the end of the week it's absolutely filtered through with voices and conversations and incidents.

You have probably been asked this far too many times already! - Does the availability of such scanning technology for the 'bad boys' as well as the 'good guys' make it legitimate for you to select such technology to make something as banal as "Mass Observation"? The essential difference seems to be that you choose to make public your surveillance activities whereas other interest or government groups don't. Is that so?

Yeah, very much so, I have been asked questions about the legal implications of my kind of activity. I make myself public because I want to be honest about the work I do in that respect, I'm not going to try and hide. I find it curious that having a device which enables you to listen into all kinds of conversations, that probably the highest proportion of conversations I pick up on are drug deals. So where does it lead you morally - if it is illegal to do what I do which is debatable. Listening in to a drugs transaction, should I be shopping all these people? I don' know, it's an odd hall of mirrors effect, each looking at one another going: "hey!" You know what's going on.

What do you do with the material you don't use?

Archive it. I've got years and years worth of material, just for future reference really. I never get rid of anything.

Do you sell any of that?

No, no I just keep it.


Yes. They're all recorded, they're all logged. I've got tapes saying things like: "Woman with man, laughs" or "Children playing video games" - boxes of them.

Luigi Russolo, in 1914, a futurist making representations of city life using sound collages, built up a positive rendition called 'The awakening of the city'. Spooky, in a recent article for Artforum, has compared his DJ-ing and recording to such sound collages, but also stated that, rather than create a picture, his music is never static, always in flux, a disruption of coherence (both in meaning and identities) within the individual. Do you think that your music is also a coherent picture or rendition of city life or, like Spooky, that your music disrupts coherence and dissembles meaning?

Very good question. In a way, I see it as a sort of mapping of the city. It always reminds me of the opening shot of the film 'Short Cuts' the Robert Altman film. A helicopter going over the city, in a slightly privileged position, is able to listen in and see what's going on, it's almost like being a fly on the wall in that respect. It is like building a picture, a representation, but one that is left relatively open. Being in London is a limiting situation for me in that it's concentrating solely on London and London accents. I've been doing more international stuff, I've just done a record on Vienna. It's sad, the whole thing's German so I don't even really understand what's going on there, but it's kind of interesting situation to be put in when I don't understand the dialogue.

So you build a picture up?

Yes, but then again, is it a clear picture you're looking at anyway? There seems to be a fragmented picture anyway, so it's a fragmented excerpt, things are fragmented already.

It could be said that rave culture was, defined by its political passivity, a despondency which could be described as being void of the codes of radicalism, a sub-culture of complicity rather than opposition to the ram• pant consumerism of the 80's. How much does your music make fashionable again ideas about the political? Are you a kind of protest-technoist? Is there a technological equivalent to the acoustic guitar?

Actually, I had never voted until two years ago. I have a very passive involvement with anarchic movements to be honest but the work associates itself with involvement by default I think. The fact is I'm using a tool, a thing called a scanner which was invented to listen into other people, invented by security services and so on listening to people. In some respect, my usage of it is subversive as obviously it was never designed for things like this. I think the problem has been, and yes I agree in some respects, that the techno and ambient scenes have been slightly lethargic. It's smoking a bit, sitting with a couple of people and listening to a bit of chill out music. But at the same time the banding together over the criminal justice bill was really positive, last year.

So do you see yourself as a kind of protest-technoist?

No, I don't see myself that way, but if I get labelled that way I'm not insulted.

Rave culture was a collective of splinter groups, a development from a wide variety of backgrounds, music, clothing and attitudes about lifestyle - currently we seem to have disrupted that unity in favour of a fresh set of splinter groups, ie. jungle, handbag house tribal, deep house, garage and trance Is this a positive move for musics: sophistication and a development of spaces to occupy for people or do you think it has created musical monotony and a furrowing of individuals?

It's a relatively positive thing. I wonder how many people really limit themselves, to saying they belong to one scene, or dress in a particular coded language, or speak in a coded language following the code of dress of that so called techno or trance scene. I think people are relatively intelligent and that they can swiftly move between scenes, appreciating or embracing the differences between all these groups. I'm not saying this is one big kind of mutual love-in, but I'm optimistic enough and I like to think that people aren't so narrow-minded that way.

Do you have a girlfriend or are you in love?

I have nothing to say about that. My personal life is too bland.

Do you think so? I think it might reveal some of your.... humanity.

My humanity, I have no humanity. I'm too busy a person.

What's next?

What's next, an awful lot of work actually! This year, as I said, Videopositive in Liverpool, a week's radio show, half an hour each day, for seven days. I'm going to Vienna in October to do an installation at a gallery there, Brian Eno is also doing work there which looks really good. I'm doing some work for Mo Wax records, a hip hop or trip hop label as it's known, I'm doing five tracks on their next album and doing mixed work with various artists. A number of more obscure crazy projects which ... make me happy, I find them very satisfying.

Are you going on holiday soon?

Oh no, I don't need a holiday, I never go on holiday.