Aura Satz's ‘Preemptive Listening’ Investigates the Power of Sirens

An interview with the filmmaker on how to reconfigure our relationship with siren sounds away from catastrophe towards collectivity and care

BY Xenia Benivolski AND Aura Satz in Film , Interviews | 24 APR 24

Sirens are complex sounding mechanisms closely associated with trauma, memory and danger. They act as decriers, protectors and arbiters of violence, but who or what is worthy of their protection – and at what cost? In her new film, Preemptive Listening (2024), Aura Satz investigates the sonic prism of the siren through collaborations with artists, musicians, activists and thinkers including Raven Chacon, Camille Norment, Laurie Spiegel and David Toop.

Xenia Benivolski Preemptive Listening [2024] speaks to a state of emergency that is being felt acutely in several global conflicts currently, including Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine. The film positions the siren both as a protective territorial guardian and as a means of enabling possession, exclusion and violence. Can you talk about this protection/possession binary?

Aura Satz Although sirens were first invented in the end of the 18th century, they really came into their own during the two World Wars. Later, in postwar Japan, in a bid to counteract their traumatic sonic associations, some were repurposed to play music as ‘symbols of peace’. The role of the siren changes according to context. As filming progressed on the project, any precise definition of the siren that I’d had at the outset dissolved. Many sonic prompts in our everyday lives are micro-sirens of sorts. Some are gentle, like the car beeping at you because your seatbelt isn’t fastened, thereby alerting you to potential danger. The problem is that, now everything communicates with us via flashing lights or sounds, we not only have added acoustic stress in our daily lives, but when we receive too many false alarms, we stop paying attention. There’s a sweet spot between the rehearsal for the disaster and where we’re at now – alarm fatigue.

Preemptive Listening Aura Satz film still
Aura Satz, Preemptive Listening, 2024, film still. Courtesy: the artist 

XB In your film, Maori activist Erin Matariki Carr talks about how the siren is designed to give precedence to human life and property over the environment. Speaking to the relationship between state powers and their subjects, police sound weapons scholar Daphne Carr describes the use of sirens as a process of ‘herding’ – a (sometimes deadly) messenger of the state, not of the land.

AS Matariki Carr points out that within most legal frameworks, human life and human property are prioritized over nature, so we have little sense of our accountability to the river or to the mountain. From Carr’s perspective, the siren is a colonial imposition. She feels that, rather than just protecting human life and property, we need warnings capable of addressing the space between humans and nature. While the siren does mark a territory and identify a public, it also bleeds out beyond that. I’m thinking of places where the siren is a form of governance that protects some citizens but not others.

For example, there are no emergency sirens in Palestine, just as there are no shelters. Israel, by contrast, has sirens installed in the illegally occupied territories, which are sounded to protect the settlers. Palestinians hear them too, but they are not the intended receivers of the warning. We discovered that, in Palestine, they sound an incremental siren on Nakba Day via minaret loudspeakers, marking in seconds the years since 1948. Each year, the siren becomes one second longer: last year, it was 75 seconds long; this year, it will be 76. Running through the film are these two key notions of the catastrophe: firstly, as an interruption, as in Fukushima, where the clocks were left frozen in time to mark the moment the nuclear disaster took place in 2011; secondly, as an ongoing event, as the Nakba is understood in Palestine.

Preemptive Listening Aura Satz film still
Aura Satz, Preemptive Listening, 2024, film still. Courtesy: the artist

XB With all these figurative and commemorative uses of sirens, it’s hard to tell whether something is genuinely urgent. What constitutes the threshold for a real emergency?

AS In the film, I talk about how sirens draw on past trauma. Yet, the nuclear catastrophes that took place at Hiroshima, Chernobyl and Fukushima, for instance, are three very different examples of how such events might unfold. The problem is that the threshold itself is unstable. We are constantly hovering at the tipping point in relation to climate catastrophe. Metaphorically, we’ve internalized the siren – it’s inside of us. As Carr says in Preemptive Listening: if society functioned the way it was supposed to, the only time we’d hear a siren would be when something truly calamitous was happening. Whereas now we’re bombarded by all these sirens that can indicate anything from failures of infrastructure to failure meeting patients’ needs in healthcare settings.

Preemptive Listening Aura Satz film still
Aura Satz, Preemptive Listening, 2024, film still. Courtesy: the artist

XB In the film, poet, nurse and activist Asantewaa Boykin talks about hallucinating the electronic noises of her nursing station when she’s off work. I was thinking about how some forms of therapy that utilize binaural light and sound are very effective in treating and healing trauma. They surface the trauma to a place where it can be rewired and re-inscribed to make it far less potent. The combination of flashing lights and loud sounds triggers your body to be acutely present.

AS Research proves that, in instances of disaster, people support each other. What I’d like to understand is how we can reframe solidarity and mutual aid beyond a response to catastrophe. There’s a line in the film about the siren as a potential beacon – a point of orientation or guidance that helps you avert catastrophe – which connects to what you said around the remapping of trauma: can the siren be reframed as an opportunity to listen or respond differently? Actor Khalid Abdalla talks in the film about the siren being the revolutionary sound of the Arab Spring of 2011, signalling the possibility of change and the friction of governmental forces pushing back against this other vision of what society could be. He likewise spoke about finding his ‘version of the emergency’ in order to rewrite and re-inscribe it with a different reading. That’s why I kept thinking of this image of a beacon or a lighthouse, which I tried to invoke visually in the film. It’s a rewiring or recalibration of how we understand emergencies, away from trauma and towards something that builds collectivity, solidarity and care.

Aura Satz’s Preemptive Listening will be screened at Tate Modern on 25 April, followed by an artistic programme on April 26 and 27 organized by the Royal College of Art with Tate Modern

Main image: Aura Satz, Preemptive Listening, 2024, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Xenia Benivolski curates, writes and lectures about visual art and music. She is curator of the e-flux project You Can’t Trust Music.

Aura Satz is an artist whose work encompasses film, sound, performance and sculpture