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I’ve been trying to remember when I first came across Scanner (the stage name of Robin Rimbaud). I’m quite sure it was a compilation CD but I can’t recall which one. No matter. What I do recall, however, was that the track featured recordings of phone conversations that he had snatched from the ether. At first I regarded it as a cheap gimmick. But I kept coming back to the track, listening to it over and over again as I wrestled with the complications of what the song meant.
The conversation was compelling because of it’s intimacy. It was simply two people talking, gossiping and joking, completely unaware that they were being recorded and, as far as I know, unaware that their conversation would be incorporated into a song. Despite Robin’s unsettling soundscape the conversation had a warmth to it. It lent humanity to Robin’s bleak music. Was this his commentary that we all can make the simplest connections with each other despite the alienating effects of the very technology that makes that connection possible?
But the question also sparked some anger. What right had Robin to steal their conversation? It rankled that he would intrude on their privacy and then compound the intrusion by using it in his art. But that provoked the question of my role as a listener. How could I point an accusing finger when I was just as complicit by being drawn into the song. True, I’m not the one who made the recording but if I was truly outraged I could have pressed stop on my CD player as soon as I realized what was going on. But I kept listening. Again and again.
And all of this raises the question of our governments who are more and more eavesdropping on our phone calls and reading our email and text messages. It’s one thing for an artists to do it but quite another for the government to do it. The common explanation these days is that the government is doing it to monitor for terrorists but it also acts as yet another panopticon to keep people under control. As Foucault observed, if you think you are constantly being monitored you will begin policing yourself which is very unsettling.
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