Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Aura Satz: I studied cultural studies and art history in Bologna (Italy) before coming to London to do a PhD by theory/practice at the Slade School of Fine Art. Initially I worked with sculpture and performance but over the last 20 years or so I have become more invested in film and sound. My works operate in constellations, I have a central theme which might manifest in multiple formats, as films, performances, sound works, and so on.
RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?
AS: I was very much influenced by Lis Rhodes who taught me at the Slade, and whom I have since collaborated with. Intergenerational conversations are extremely important to me. I have been teaching for around 20 years now, and I get a lot of inspiration from my students. Teaching also keeps me attuned to practices outside of my own. In my undergraduate studies I was particularly fascinated by iconoclasm and theories of the image based on contact relics. I suppose this has carried through in my later works which attempt to look closely at technologies, prying the apparatus apart, as well as my interest in technologies of sound writing, such as the phonograph – where the groove is a trace and relic of the voice, so to speak. I have always been inspired by female voices, and there are a number of women composers who are key sources of inspiration. I often think of some of the more dialogic works I have made with people such as Lis Rhodes, Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, as an opportunity to go deeper into the conversation, not just through the encounter, the film or the recording of a verbal exchange, but even later in the editing process, where I spend a lot of time listening and composing to the cadence of speech or a pause for breath.
RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?
AS: I keep returning to the notion of a distributed, expanded and shared notion of voice. Works are made in conversation and use dialogue as both method and subject matter. In my works which draw on historical research I see myself in dialogic exchange with past voices, speaking backwards and forwards, being spoken through. When I have focussed on technologies of sound writing, recording and playback, it is precisely because I am interested in ways in which voices carry through, have been under-heard, and can be ‘listened into speech’. Many previous works focussed on minor histories, using archival research as a starting point, but in recent years I have shifted from the idea of notation of the past towards a logic that is more aligned with a visual or verbal score, an open invitation to think towards possible future manifestations. A score implies a non-hierarchical generosity, suggesting multiple future iterations and no singular privileged way of performing or enacting. Some scores simply suggest a shift in focus, such as Oliveros’ suggestion to listen with the soles of your feet. Many of my works could be read as an invitation to recalibrate attention, ways in which we give it, what is deemed worthy of it, how we might enact a different modality of attention, what we conceive of as foreground and what is background.
RB: You began working with sound, with the piece Ventriloqua, in 2003 when you were pregnant. A number of your later works are to do with acoustic devices and vibration. Can you give some examples of these works?
AS: In Ventriloqua my pregnant belly became an instrument, a medium or antenna of sorts for a thereminist to play the electromagnetic waves. I wore a red outfit that covered all of my body, including my face, and the only visible part was the belly, which looked like an oracular eye or a breast of sorts. Through the trope of ventri-loquism (belly-speaking) I was able to explore the possibility of becoming a conduit for other voices. For me that performance was a powerful manifestation of speaking and being spoken through. In other works such as Automamusic (2008), Sound Seam (2010) Onomatopoeic Alphabet (2010), Vocal Flame (2011) and In and Out of Synch (2012) I focussed on devices such as orchestrions, mechanical music, phonographs, Chladni Plate, Ruben’s tube and optical sound on film as technologies of sound visualisation, some of which manifest sound patterns without quite constituting a notation system or code, and others which encrypt sound in order for it to be read back by a machine rather than a human. All of these enabled me to explore voices that align, interfere, interweave, synchronise, overlap, overwrite, hover between signal and noise, between decipherable meaning and the unfamiliar and as yet unencoded.
In Sound Seam for example we worked with the surface noises of wax cylinders and vinyl glitch, as well as generating many layers of sounds by recording voices over each other. At the same time there is something about seeing as informed by hearing, and vice versa, a listening that is in tension with the visible, that I find incredibly generative. This became central to In and Out of Synch, the 16mm film co-scripted and co-voiced with Lis Rhodes, where the optical sound on film patterns conveying our voices are ruptured by stroboscopic effects, due to a deliberate subtle misalignment of the monitoring eyepiece. You end up with a kind of Rorschach effect, certain sounds are punctuated or counteracted by the visual, and their respective rhythms generate a friction that is useful in unsettling standardized readings, making us hear or see differently.
RB: When did you begin to prioritise film-making and why?
AS: Initially I used film to document performances. When I made Automamusic in 2008 I realised that the only way to get inside these multiple mechanical music devices (which were housed in a museum in a small town in Switzerland), the best method of access to open them up and reconfigure them, was through the camera and the juxtaposition of sound patterns with visual rhythms. In other projects I found that there’s a kind of close-up looking and listening that can only be achieved through film. In my films I am keen to foreground sound, often it becomes the driving force, literally the engine driving the visuals or setting the rhythmic pace of the film. This is true of all of the sound visualisation films mentioned above, as well as a more recent project Preemptive Listening (2018), where the voice triggers an emergency rotating light. A film might feature moments of darkness or silence to allow for the senses to cross-pollinate, the eyes to take on the role of the ears or the other way around. I like the idea of an anagrammatic remapping of the senses, a disruption of hierarchies, a destabilizing of relations, of what is perceived, how, where, by who.
RB: As well as exploring different techniques for visualizing sound, a number of your works focus on gender and women’s important contributions to technology. I’m thinking particularly of Oramics: Atlantis Anew (2011), Doorway for Natalie Kalmus (2013) and She Recalibrates (2018). Can you say something about these works?
AS: Part of my commitment to the notion of a distributed voice is an unsettling of which voices are allowed, amplified within the range of the audible, who gets heard, who is written into the canon of history, and how can we destabilise these readings to allow for new voices to emerge. The film about Daphne Oram was central to my thinking on sound writing as a form of instantiating a new language or notation system, a new soundscape and in turn a new kind of listening.
She Recalibrates follows on from this by focussing on women composers working with electronic music such as Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, Eliane Radigue, Maryanne Amacher and others, who are portrayed with their hands on a dial, engaged in an experimental type of listening, modulating electricity, recalibrating what is considered noise or signal, what is worthy of being heard, and what can be understood as music. Their hands and ears are literally partaking in the circuit, tuning and recalibrating the signal. I made series of pencil drawings of hands on dials, framed inside a Fresnel lens which generates a diffractive pattern from the centre. The drawings only appear at a certain angle, due to the silver effect of graphite pencil on black paper, but also because the lens incorporates the interference of light reflections. It’s like looking at a lenticular print, or, more accurately, a CD or vinyl record with a diffractive centre, the image is continually changing according to the position of the viewer and the angle of light. This is emblematic of what I try to do in all my works, allowing for an entangled space between voices, between signal and noise, for both to appear as method and subject matter.
RB: You are taking part in the Science Gallery, London exhibition ‘Dark Matter: 95% of the Universe is missing’, with a sound work Tuning Interference: Dark Matter Radio. Can you say something about your involvement in this?
AS: The curator Sandra Ross commissioned me to make a sound work responding to the theme of dark matter, under the guidance of the astrophysicist Prof. Malcolm Fairbairn, who invited Prof. David (Doddy) J.E. Marsh into the collaboration. I was really inspired by the way some of the experiments have been described as listening out for a signal that has not yet appeared. In particular I was drawn to the description of ADMX, one of many dark matter research initiatives (and a number of related experiments operating in Korea, Europe, and the USA), as “a radio that looks for a radio station, but we don’t know its frequency. We turn the knob slowly while listening. Ideally we will hear a tone when the frequency is right.” I wanted to work with this notion of experimental listening by making a sonic diagram of sorts, which would evoke a tuning experience. Together with Malcom and Doddy, as well as audio engineer/music AI specialist Dr. David Ronan who sonified the data, we made a 10 channel sound installation which renders a current hypothetical simulation of dark matter into sound. Essentially the sound patterns are a set of relations between the data, and we mapped it in such a way so as to generate intense psychoacoustic effects in the listeners, exploring sonic equivalents of interference and collision through beat frequencies and other diffractive qualities which shift according to the listener’s location. The listener becomes a radio dial of sorts, as the ears move through the soundscape, micro-tuning with each adjustment. It’s not dissimilar to the effect I described with the Fresnel lens framed drawings. There is no ideal vantage point or listening sweet spot, the listener is embedded within the sound, effectively generating the sound according to their orientation within the speaker ring.
Doddy showed me some visualisations of the simulation of dark matter in a hypothetical galaxy, and it looked like ripples of water or waves diffracting. This particular model of dark matter simulated contains waves, and we used speed and density to generate the shape of the harmonic structure. We chose the spacing of the speakers around the ring to be close to one wavelength, so that the coherence between speakers is audible, and yet varies in an interesting way around the ring. I wanted to create a soundscape that felt like a field of vibration and flux, with clusters of density, moments of tension and relief. Close frequency alignment and interference became a compositional principle, much like a kind of acoustic moiré. The arrangement of the speakers reflects the distribution of dark matter, so what you are hearing is not the sound of dark matter per se, but the hypothetical flux and motion of dark matter as rendered through sound. Each speaker is one point of data in the simulation, and if you listen close-up you will hear a singular slow-changing drone rather than all the beat frequencies that occur in the centre of the ring where the sounds interact with each other. Sometimes the wave shape of one point of data is extremely close to another, changing at a variable rate, and this alignment generates a sense of dense patterning, a pulse which gradually accelerates, intensifies, shifts focus and recedes. The sound is sculpted into a rippling flux which gathers and dissipates in such a way that is hard to hold onto or memorise. You can’t possibly internalise the rhythm of the piece, and each listening session will sound quite different from the previous one as your ears fabricate new acoustic illusions, adjust to the sounds, are de-sensitized or fatigued. I spent months tweaking the composition and by the end of a long session I wasn’t sure what I was hearing anymore, what was in between the speakers and what was between my ears.
RB: In terms of the viewer, what are you trying to communicate in this exhibition?
AS: I am interested in the ways in which scientific research activates or distorts a certain intuitive understanding of the world, and I try to find a way to make this come across on a very physical level, as visual or sonic experience. I wanted people to feel enmeshed within a dynamic rotational flow or current, something that can be sensed but which we don’t necessarily have the theoretical frameworks to account for. I find it fascinating that in current research on dark matter we are at a point of knowing unknowing, so to speak – we don’t know what exactly we are looking for and we haven’t yet identified what it is, all we know for certain is that its presence is somehow implied through the way it interacts or interferes with matter. Without dark matter many previously accepted theories are untenable, and as such it both disrupts and holds together different hypothetical theories.
I think the piece also conveys some of my previous concerns around modes of attention, a continuous retuning and recalibrating of what is heard and where one is positioned in relation to the signal or the noise (or what is understood as which). The idea of acoustic moiré – a morphing non-hierarchical, almost untethered grid – resonates with my interest in a multiplicity of voices which align and interfere with each other, activating the spaces in between. This is the reason I am drawn to work with sound – already at a very basic level it is doing the work as a vibratory in-between, as inherently relational, unsettling boundaries.
In addition to the speaker ring, I wanted a visual marker to provide a distinct sense of oscillation, that you are entering a vibratory sound field, so between each speaker there is a VU metre driven by the sound. The needle trembles to echo the volatile, dynamic and ever-changing frequency fields, though what exactly is being measured remains uncertain (the metres are blank and have no numbers).
Nearby hangs a photo of Vera Rubin (1928-2016). Rubin was an American astronomer who discovered the galaxy rotation problem, providing evidence of the existence of dark matter. In the photo she is seen looking through a spectrograph mounted on the end of the telescope, recording an image of the spectrum (colours) of a small section of a galaxy. It’s quite an obscure image, in that she is wearing a hooded coat, so hardly any parts of her face or body are identifiable. Like the series She Recalibrates mentioned earlier, the image is framed inside a Fresnel lens, generating a diffractive pattern emanating from the centre, the point between her eye and the eyepiece of the telescope. The viewer has to somehow tune into the image for it to surface in amidst all the diffractive interferences and light play. It’s not central to the main piece, but I wanted to include Rubin as I think of the artwork as a space for naming, reconfiguring the canon, putting an underacknowledged female scientist into the conversation.
RB: In your view, what are the lines that connect art and science?
AS: I don’t think I could ever provide a definitive answer. The part that interests me from my recent experiences is the way in which both science and art ask questions and destabilise our current understanding of the world. Both are a response to curiosity and uncertainty, and can give us some orientation towards the future. Recalibration is key, an openness to change and a resistance to standardization.
RB: What other projects are you currently working on?
AS: For some years now I have been working on a project entitled Preemptive Listening, which looks at emergency signals and siren sounds. I read the siren as a specific kind of sound, one that requires attention, and demands an action or response. Citizens respond to its call, demonstrating obedience to its authority – it is a sound that commands submission, deflection, dispersion. It attracts in order to dispel, unsettles and resettles. It demands localized attention, and is the sonic architect of social order. It is a sonic marker that structures urban spaces in an emergency, a marker between future danger and dangers past, projecting a trajectory and expelling obstacles along the way. As the primary vocalization of the state, it articulates our relationship to power and civil order. All of which makes it fascinating, complex and in dire need of a re-wiring. My invitation is to pry it apart and recompose the siren, to think of it as a sound signal that requires recalibration. I am attempting to reimagine the siren sound: how can we open and destabilize this overly codified, prescriptive and stable semantic sound by taking a compositional approach, remapping new readings onto new sounds, how can we unlearn the existing code, find ways to listen differently, resist the hypervigilant, predetermined, automated call to obedience and set the intention to be curious, open, receptive, imaginative. If one remaps the sound, explores the possibility of different emotional registers, one can in turn generate distinct affective responses, more varied strategies for crisis management, and attend to a spectrum of different voices in need of our attention. And in our multiple modes of response, we might in turn enact an altered relationships to power.
 Simulations performed at the University of Goettingen by Mr Jan Veltmaat, Dr Bodo Schwabe, and Prof Jens Niemeyer.
All images copyright and courtesy of Aura Satz