Aura Satz: Colour Opponent Process
Paradise Row, London
1 November - 6 December 2013
Review by Francesca Laura Cavallo
The echoes of remote technological inventions, encrypted messages and a sense of arcane ventriloquism form the grammar of Aura Satz’s work. In some of her films, out-dated machines sound like haunted creations, whose material elements have lost their function and are left as bare mechanisms, portals for unknown messages. The ghosts that inhabit them are mainly women, captured by their relationships with these experimental prototype technologies.
Daphne Oram, Hedy Lamarr and Natalie Kalmus are the protagonists of three of Satz’s films. They where respectively the inventor of the Oramics Machine (‘Oramics’, 2011); the Hollywood star who patented ‘The Secret Communication System’ based on spread spectrum technology (‘Impulsive Synchronisation’, 2013); and an established Technicolor consultant for early films.
The latter is the inspiring figure behind ‘Doorway for Natalie Kalmus’ (2013), Satz’s latest film, presented at Paradise Row. For the first time, the artist who is known for her research on the visualisation of sound through encrypted and automatic devices explores early colour film by ‘entering’ into the lamp house of a 35mm Technicolor film printer.
In the technological world, the process of opening a mechanism, dismantling and re-mounting it is often used to understand its hidden mechanisms, to explain its automatic patterns. Aura Satz’s approach is rather different: the process of entering into the machine is more iconoclastic than scientific; in ‘A Doorway for Natalie Kalmus’ the hidden mechanisms are not revealed but their secrecy almost amplified by the flickering succession of kaleidoscopic images whose intense colour and stroboscopic effects reverberate within the white gallery. Its swinging rhythm leads nowhere and becomes almost ritualistic: the lamp is simply a doorway, a passage-through that invites and simultaneously rejects the viewer. One wonders if behind the dark box resides the emptiness of transmission technology itself: a tool with no content, a voice without words. The colour, which evokes the presence of Kalmus, is also an apparatus, an atmospheric superstructure whose role in early cinema was limited to retouching and makeup.
Structural American and British cinema has made the exploration, deconstruction and abstraction of cinematic elements its strength, and certainly in films like this we can recognise the legacy of artists like Lis Rhodes with whom Satz has previously collaborated. Going back to Satz’s own grammar, however, filmic technology is just one element in a synaesthetic transmission process, a device for ventriloquism where sounds, voices or colours are literally encrypted in automatic codes of writing. In the work ‘Colour Score’ (2013), for example, the coloured and perforated film strip is nothing but the footprint, the matrix of the film, and evokes Kalmus’ attempt to create musical sequences of colours. There is a correspondence between this work and the pianola strips in ‘Oramics’, where the sequence of holes is not a form of writing but a pure encryption of sound. Similarly in the video installation ‘Impulsive Syncronization’ (seen at the Hayward Gallery last summer) the holes on a perforated paper roll produce and spread out Heidi Lamarr’s coded system of transmission.
Satz’s investigation of these technologies is part of her personal hunt for the woman behind them: a search for the multifaceted voices trapped in the universe of transmission. This idea becomes clear in the light boxes ‘Joan the Woman - With Voice’ (2013), which depicts three captivating stills from Cecile B. deMille’s iconic 1916 film, in which added sound (by Maja Ratkje), black and white images and the stencilled stain of bright orange have imprisoned the heroine in the frozen moment of her burning.
Masked behind fire and smoke, we can detect the woman’s lifted hands pointing towards the sky and hear the echoes of arcane voices coming from the box; Joan of Arc has become herself a device for transmission, her voice a container for other voices, a mouthpiece for the multiplicity of whisperings she could hear during her life but also for the numerous ones that continuously re-invent her myth through history. There is a sense of triumphalism in her lifted hands, as if she is embracing her disappearance as an individual to become what Jeffrey Sconce would have called ‘Haunted Media’. 
Aura Satz will be in conversation with Professor Esther Leslie on 21 November 2013 at Paradise Row, discussing abstraction, colour, and the contributions of female labour to the early colour film industry.
 Jeffrey Sconce, ‘Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television’ (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2000). See also David Toop, ‘Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener’ (London and New York: Continuum, 2010).