Does an alarm have to be alarming?

On Aura Satz’s Preemptive Listening

Eliza Barry Callahan

Preemptive Listening
Director AURA SATZ
Year 2024
Country UK

While a siren is something that works against the present landscape, something contra,the siren is also a reminder that we are in the landscape. The siren alerts us to something we can’t see—dislodges our relationship to the present tense and often acts as a directive to abandon it. The directive? An imperative: go away, go outside! Evacuate the siren itself. How to get out of range? How to get to ‘silence’? How to get to the other side? The siren is untouchable, God-like, at once indeterminate and also a line, a boundary, finite—safe or not safe. 

Aura Satz’s documentary Preemptive Listening is a litany, an invitation, an invocation of the siren. Its thesis is a question: Does an alarm have to be alarming?

The film is also a demystification—showing the siren’s humble centres. Its sources. Its sites. Its architectures. Its moulds. Its quarry. Its rusty perch. It presents the siren as synecdoche (weather, war, dissent, the state!), shows how the siren fills up space like water fills a glass—becomes the environment, the temporary element, the thing that saturates. The siren is erasure of individual instinct; a call for obedience, a bid for trust. The siren is something to bear with, to ignore, to recall. A trick. A tool. A possibility, too—there is somewhere beyond here. There’s still time to get there. The siren is posed as literalized abstraction, and abstraction literalized. As threat. The siren is reconstructed as planetary data, cellos, sheet metal, voices, the wind, the bees, whistles, trumpets, organs, harps, feedback.

The etymology of the word siren is disputed. Some believe it to be related to the greek σειρά (seirá, "rope, cord") and εἴρω (eírō, "to tie, join, fasten"), bringing about the definition: “binder, or entangler.” Sirens in mythology are infamously known as the creatures with the calls, the voices, the cries we are meant to resist, not to heed or follow. The distraction. We stuff our ears with wax and tie ourselves to masts to refrain from their pull. Known for their attempt to take us off course, tempt us, seduce us, stop us—the sirens call to us, for us. They don’t repel us, or warn us, or help us—however, they do attempt to shift our course as we are warned to stay away from their songs’ source.

The siren (much like its mythological counterparts) is a signal to wonder about, not simply a signal to react to. Preemptive Listening is a siren itself.

Eliza Barry Callahan is a writer and filmmaker from New York, New York. Her first novel, The Hearing Test, was published in March 2024. She is a New York Foundation for The Arts Fellow. She teaches at Columbia University.

This text was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to accompany the screening of Preemptive Listening at Tate Modern, 25 April 2024.