As I sit here, the radio announcer announces a feature on the forthcoming Big Brother series, another chance to engage in this collective shared experience, another opportunity to revel in your very own voyeuristic impulse, what once was private is now made public.
Curiously it’s almost fifteen years ago since I released the first Scanner recordings Scanner 1  and Scanner 2  featuring the intercepted cellular phone conversations of unsuspecting talkers, which I 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. Sometimes the high frequency of cellular noise would pervade the atmosphere, at other junctures it would erupt into words and melt down to radio hiss. Intercepted in the data stream, transmissions would blend, blurring the voices and rupturing the light, creating audio transparencies of dreamy, cool ambience. In many ways they pre-empted our reality culture as it exists today.
Having the technology to peel open virtually any zone of information and consume the contents, I used the scanner device itself – a modestly sophisticated radio receiver – to explore the relationship between the public and private spheres. Working with sound in this manner suggested a means of mapping the city, in which the scanner device provided an anonymous window into reality, cutting and pasting information to structure an alternative vernacular. It was a rare opportunity to record experience and highlight the threads of desire and interior narrative that we weave into our everyday lives. The sounds of an illicit affair, a liaison with a prostitute, a drug deal or a simple discussion of “what’s for dinner” all exist within an indiscriminate ocean of signals flying overhead, but just beyond our reach. Applying the tools in this manner, I was able to twist state-of-the-art technology in unconventional ways to intercept highly personalised and voyeuristic forms of info food: sound recordings, phone scans, modem and Net intercepts, all of which became material for my multi-layered soundscapes. Every live performance, recording or mix that has followed is still in its way a “true” representation of that moment in time and in that way relates to performance art in the temporality of its data – a “Sound Polaroid” – a way of capturing the moment in sound similar to that of a Polaroid camera, which seizes an image and immediately exposes it to permanence of interception.
Is there an innate desire to remain invisible and yet hear the world, scanning it for its stories and secrets? Today for our media saturated culture, this almost fetishistic desire to know all, is expressed in the publishing of private communications, of letters, faxes or telephone conversations, giving rise to all kinds of debate on the nature of privacy and the extent to which its protection can be legislated for. Images come to mind from Wim Wender’s film Wings of Desire where the lead character is a fallen angel left on earth to try and understand the madness of mortal behaviour. At various points he is able to pass through public spaces, the library, an underground train, people’s innermost thoughts and concerns become audible to him while he remains invisible to them. It is here that these Scanner CDs mirror this fantasy of the 20th century: to know everything and to have access to all secrets without being observed. This desire continues to inform our entertainment and cultural channels and looks to continue to do so for some years yet.
This listening-in and scanning of the private channels has a clear relationship to surveillance, and connects to an aesthetic explored in works such as the seminal video piece, Der Riese – The Giant (1983) where the artist collaged the contents of surveillance cameras from German supermarkets, subway platforms, traffic crossings and shopping centres, using the tools of commercial voyeurism. Without a director, nor actors nor script, this is a dehumanised exploration of a contemporary history of our post-modern times. Connecting the invisible dots between Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera and the Rodney King TV footage, this detached work resonates and celebrates new technology’s ability to film and map everything, scanning our landscape for future reference. We watch with a constant anticipation of resolution, of catching a moment, yet the suspension finally gives way to an exquisite boredom, the true revelation of watching others. The film closes with an alien landscape, unmarked by any human presence, moving over a simulated environment, a toy-town yet still patrolled by the power of surveillance. This corporate datasphere, revealed as a kind of digital fingerprint through its storage and distribution, has moved from security and surveillance to entertainment consumption.
For me, zooming in on these spaces in between – between language and understanding, between the digital fallout of ones and zeros, between the redundant and undesired flotsam and jetsam of environmental acoustic space, led to a focus towards the cityscape. Scanning technology led towards an understanding and reading of the environment and city in a fresh manner. If an accent suggested a certain class, age or attitude, then how suggestive was the raw sound around these conversations, how influential was the location where each conversation was held? Sound is ever-present, sometimes as a constantly shifting whir, as a damp grain of footsteps, as the drone-like spangle of distant traffic, as the seemingly motionless air that ripples past our ears, or as the elegant stuttering trill of a bird overhead. How influential was this common envelope of space, the environment in which we consume sound and music? How does one define the spaces between music and sound? When we listen to a Walkman, how do we distinguish between that which is intended – the sound carrier – and that which is incidental: passing traffic, the roar of a plane, the screech of a train door, your own footsteps? Whether active (creator) or passive (listener) we set up a virtual space in which we are each free to explore the sonorous and acoustic strata of what is an intimate yet global expression of space, a simple translation of the social transformations wrought by new technologies.
Projects that have followed since then have expanded upon these notions. In 1998 Liverpool became this cityscape of focus, where I produced a project, Stopstarting, which explored the acoustic debris of the city, premiering at the International Symposion on Electronic Art (ISEA) conference in September of that year. For this project I chose significant points of sound located in the city, partly based on random questions in interviewing local people, partly out of self-interest. From these I mapped out a walk that took me from one point to another, minidisc in hand, recording the acoustic data in that place, mapping out the city in sound, teasing out the language that the city speaks. I wanted to create, in a sense, a sound work similar to the opening scene in Robert Altman’s movie Short Cuts (1993), in which a helicopter hovers gently over the densely packed city landscape and the film scans into moments in the daily lives of its inhabitants. It is a motion across a city, an architectural electronic scanning of an almost invisible sound wave. Liverpool, like most cities, has its very own unique sound dialect. Historically one can recall the sound of the docks, the railway station, the Cavern Club where the Beatles played their earliest live shows, their brittle tunes floating through the air of memory. As in Der Riese, voices, traffic lights, announcement speakers, buses, building work, footsteps, telephones and cash machines became the key subjects, the lead players, and were manipulated and transformed into a composition that captured this Sound Polaroid of Liverpool at this particular point in 1998.
The following year Surface Noise (1999) which explored the wow and flutter of my own city, London; taking people on a red Routemaster bus journey across the city from Big Ben to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where the sheet music of “London Bridge Is Falling Down” became the score and A-Z for both musical and geographical direction following a Cageian use of indeterminacy. Where each note fell onto the map of the city between these two points not only suggested a location at which to record but also a route that the bus would later follow with the public aboard. Performances followed this routing every night for three nights, at intervals throughout the evening, each re-assembling fragments of the city in terms of sound and image, suggesting the slight shifts in tone and shape in similar places but at very different hours, so that a busy West End street at 18:00 would transform into a ghostly emptiness at 21:00. Surface Noise became a form of alternative film soundtrack, where the film was simply the view through the dusty window of a double-decker bus. Through the brief space of a bus journey the work drew upon many of our common reserves of sonic recognition, mingling the folk memory of the nursery rhyme, the background roar of traffic and the private sounds we make, secure in the knowledge that no one else is listening.
Most recently I was commissioned to create a work to celebrate Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni’s 90th birthday. 52 Space (2002) uses sounds of the city of Rome and elements of his movie The Eclipse (1962) to create a soundtrack of an image of a city suspended in time, anonymous and surreal. The resulting work is a distilled narrative of seductive conversation, musical fragments and scanned city soundscapes. Selecting a series of 52 framed images from the closing moments of the film slowed down to a kind of mnemonic slide show and accompanied by audio culled from the movie, processed with twinkling elements from the soundtrack’s original melody, the live performance conveys a complex and mysterious chronicle, offering up a space for contemplation and reflection as the soundtrack weaves an imaginary narrative. It’s almost as if you are gently floating through the city, experiencing this dream-like state.
All of my works have explored the hidden resonances and meanings within memory and, in particular, the subtle traces that people and their actions leave behind. My role has often been to discover and reveal these layers of history, scanning across the mediums, so the works are part urban guide, part urban geography and part detective fiction, raising questions about public and private space. Engaging with the tools of surveillance and scanning technology has given rise to an understanding of communication that was otherwise hidden. Revelation followed from a discovery of the possibilities of these devices.
Recording and redirecting these moments back into the public stream has enabled me to construct an archaeology of loss, pathos and missed connections, a momentary forgotten past in our digital future, radioactive fossils of sound, image and the imagination.