When machines began entering everyday life in the 19th century, the prospect of automation aroused a mixture of fear and euphoria. Devices such as the gramophone or the telegraph (‘writing from afar’) seemed to offer the possibility of communication with another world – they were even used in seances and magic performances. Technology promised an amplification of what humans could do while also, occasionally, actually mimicking human activity: pianos were invented that played themselves and the voices could be stored on pieces of vinyl. In her installations, films and performances, London-based artist Aura Satz explores this complex blend of human and machine. Her work is a mix of delight in archaic technologies and an engagement with the uncertainty they engender in terms of bodily perception and human agency.
For Spiral Sound Coil (2010), for example, which was recently shown at the Jerwood Space in London, Satz used a device resembling an ear trumpet, emphasizing the body’s own mechanics (its spiral replicates the geometry of the inner ear). Visitors put a large brass conical horn, like an oversize witch’s hat, over their heads, through which they heard a story comparing memory to wax cylinder recordings and a mystic writing pad (a metaphor also used by Sigmund Freud who published his concept of the uncanny in his 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’ and his 1925 work ‘A Note Upon the “Mystic Writing Pad”’). This physicality of sound and memory recurs throughout Satz’ work – along with the possibility of music being made legible, visible or secretly perceptible. Her film Sound Seam (2010) draws on a short text by Rainer Maria Rilke, who wondered what ‘primal sound’ might be heard by running a stylus along a crack in a skull. Images of this line – like the path of a river in a dessicated landscape – mix with images of eardrums, grooves of vinyl records, the furls of ‘swarf’ created when records are cut, and are set against the detective story of a man trying to decipher the sounds of his deceased lover. Can we hear music from the detritus produced? Can we track down sound, like detectives, from what is left behind?
By contrast, the film Automamusic (2008), looks at self-playing instruments such as the pianola, wind-up music boxes and organs. Filmed at the Museum of Music Automatons in Seewen, Switzerland, it explores a world of levers, pulleys and strings, each of which produces eerily faultless songs. It is easy to see in them the workings of their sounds – bellows expanding and contracting to create ‘breath’, for example – and tempting, to extrapolate this into a general overlapping of senses (sounds you can see).
In an art context this interest in the physicality of sound is perhaps the most famous legacy of this 19th-century period, with the various later attempts to create ‘visual music’ by artists such as Oskar Fischinger or Mary Ellen Bute. Satz is developing a work at the moment which investigates various syntheses of movement, vision and sound, including the Chladni sound patterns – intricate geometric patterns made by sand when exposed to a particular sound frequency – or the quest for a ‘pure’ or Utopian alphabet. Set against these investigations, Satz’ work underlines the importance of the perceiving body, reinforcing the fact that understanding these Utopian possibilities involves its own mixture of magic and machination. I Am Anagram (2005–6) investigates problems of perception. The work is a beautifully constructed chest of magic tricks: a mirror that shows one’s face not in reflection (one’s right side seen as a left side) but as others see it, with right side as right side, and various tricks of false dismemberment and phantom limbs.
Though Satz sometimes pokes fun at 19th-century technology, often playing the role of the magician’s assistant in her performances, the euphoria of the occult, coupled with scientific method, is at work here – the belief that what we see is not all there is. The artist’s emphasis on the body is important in this regard, challenging the ways it organizes hierarchies of knowing, means of movement and connections between itself and the wider world. In the performance Ventriloqua (2003) Satz transformed the workings of the theremin – an instrument which alters the frequency of the air waves around it, allowing the musician to ‘play the air’ – as it were, producing an appropriately unearthly, almost voice-like sound out of nothing. (Ventriloqua, mimicking another creation of something out of nothing, was played over her pregnant belly.) The 19th century surmised that a vast world of secrets, which seemed hidden under regular ways of seeing the world, could be unlocked by playing the right airwaves, understanding letters in colour, visual patterns as music, or languages as universal – mere matters of shifts in perception that Satz works to restage.