This conversation with Lis Rhodes and Aura Satz appeared in issue 52 of Mousse magazine:
Aura Satz, In and Out of Synch, 2012
Agnieszka Gratza: In the credits to Between the Bullet and the Hole (2015), you thank Lis Rhodes “for years of conversations”.
Aura Satz: I actually got rid of that added line, because I felt it didn’t need to be quantified, but the conversations with Lis have always been precious and valuable and have fed into the making of my work.
Lis Rhodes: We don’t talk necessarily about the construction of a piece of work; we talk about it in a rather more tangential way and find interesting common ground that we deal with rather differently in the work itself. There’s the continuity of it. Every three or four months we get together for two hours without having to pick up from anywhere – we just go.
AS: We’ve been in conversation for probably 17, 18-odd years. I’m trying to think how it began. I first came to the Slade as a student in 1998. So that was one kind of conversation. It always seemed an important part of my formation and even of my understanding of what a conversation might be.
LR: What I was going to ask is what do we think a conversation is, because we’re speaking of it as a dialogue but obviously a conversation can be very wide.
AG: Yes, that’s what a “conversation piece” was as a genre of painting in the 18th century, where you see a group of people in a landscape or a domestic setting, often gathered round a table such as this, conversing or exchanging ideas.
LR: You mention 18th-century painting, which immediately makes me think about being in conversation with maybe an author writing in a completely different moment in time. That’s a different sort of silent conversation.
AG: In the artist talk introducing your solo exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton, Aura, you invoked the idea of a “trembling line” – the title of the show – or musical strings as two points of tension with a vibration in between, which you saw as an apt metaphor for a conversation or a collaboration.
AS: In In and Out of Synch (2012), the film which Lis and I scripted together, that idea of the space between the two voices comes up. That’s how I understand a conversation: as something constantly vibrating, in motion and unfixed, although there are two voices or more.
AG: Could you comment on the title of In and Out of Synch in relation to your work with sound and image, and their synchronization?
AS: When I was looking at optical sound, Lis’s Light Music was a key point of reference. I wrote an article for Cabinet magazine, “Shapes With the Sound of Their Own Making”. That was a pretext under which we started to meet more regularly. A few questions came up in that conversation which still come back, again and again, around what abstraction is and does; what synchronicity is, if it’s even possible; sound and image; how you might use language to break it down. All those questions are very much present in your work, Lis, in many different variations.
LR: Dresden Dynamo (1971-72) was made to prevent the usual slippage in film between sound and image. I wanted to not have that gap, so that the one is the other and the other is the one.
AG: Why did you not want the gap?
LR: To make it so that the two things were inseparable. And because so much of film at the time, particularly fiction films but also documentaries, was using sound in very manipulative ways. I do it myself, so I know perfectly well that that’s the case. After that, before making Light Music, I tried to see whether I could get an equivalent from the sound of words and letters. I made something called Amenuensis in 1973, and I used some of it in Light Reading five years later. (I work very much backwards and forwards and sideways.) That didn’t work, I thought; the sound became rather blurred but it made me think about reading and led to Light Reading. Do you hear the words or do you read in silence? I’m never sure. I find this a very interesting aural set of questions.
AG: There was no such thing as silent reading up to a certain point. When Augustine describes reading silently in the Confessions, it’s still a perplexing activity as people at the time were used to reading out loud. The words were never voiced in one’s head but had an aural envelope. That’s what I find so fascinating about In and Out of Synch: these two embodied voices that you can characterize. You know something of your age, where you come from – there’s so much character to both your voices in that piece.
AS: In and Out of Synch developed as a conversation and then went into writing and back into spoken word, woven into a soundtrack where the voices were exactly that: sometimes overlapping, sometimes slightly out of synch. They are slipping in and out of each other. There’s a real sense in which the voice doesn’t have a set place; it’s this very mobile space between.
LR: We wrote it in a very mobile way as well, over about six months. From March to September 2012, we were exchanging bits and pieces every now and again. It wasn’t anything either regular or structured. So “slippage” is absolutely right for describing how it came into being.
AS: When we’re in conversation I experience a very productive doubt about how languages operate and the meaning of certain recurring words such as “abstraction” or “measurement”.
AG: As an image, the ruler crops up in Between the Bullet and the Hole or Light Reading, and then the word also appears in the titles of your films or exhibitions, whether “Her Marks, a Measure”, Aura’s new show at Dallas Contemporary, or Lis’s certain measures an index of disbelief. One of the meanings of “index”, I believe, is in fact “measure”.
AS: Light Music looks almost like lines on a ruler. Do you remember, Lis, when I proposed that we might write something together, we wrote down the sentence “Abstraction is measurement”. That sentence is in In and Out of Synch.
AG: How do you understand it?
AS: I don’t know how I understand that sentence because I still think of it as a question. I think of the measure as being something unfixed or manipulated in order to establish certain standards; how one group of people are treated as opposed to another, or how one voice is made to override another. In forensic photography, rulers are used to establish the size of a bloodstain or the distance of the bullet from the victim. There’s a sense of setting a scale, of measuring in order to construct a truth.
LR: In “certain measures an index of disbelief”, which is the central part of journal of disbelief, the “index” is the measure of those measures which are taken against some but not against others – measures of difference and inequities – the most affecting being taken in secret.
AG: You can also see an “index” as a pointing finger, or as a record.
AS: What does the gesture of pointing do? In our early conversations we talked about doubting Thomas and this idea of putting your hand in the wound in order to believe, or the legal dimension of it: if a court case takes place without any witnesses then did it ever happen?
AG: In your Cabinet essay you quote Lis as saying: “Seeing is never believing or lip synch a confirmation of authenticity”.
LR: Gertrude Stein, in her book How to Write (1931), wrote a chapter on forensics. And she writes “Forensics are the words which they like, they must be careful”. Be careful of what you measure with. Here the conversation goes both between the three of us and her, to a degree. I’m using her words, read in my voice. We’re having a conversation that’s wider than sitting around the table. Imagined persons come into the conversation.
AG: Your work, Aura, often brings to light unheard and unsung women’s voices, whether it’s Daphne Oram in Oramics (2011), the astronomers in Her Luminous Distance (2014) or Laurie Spiegel and Pauline Oliveros in Dial Tone Drone (2014). Light Music was likewise made in response to a lack of female composers. In 1980, Lis co-founded Circles with Felicity Sparrow to distribute women’s films and video. Do you see these as acts of resistance? More generally, do you consider yourselves as feminist artist filmmakers?
LR: It’s simple for me: I just can’t imagine not being a feminist. One couldn’t not be. It’s absolutely critical.
AS: Obviously I’m a feminist, though I wouldn’t call myself a feminist artist, a sound artist or even a filmmaker, but an artist who uses sound and film, sometimes about women. Yet I feel very strongly about the unheard voices and a lot of these are women’s. Certain conversations, certain phrases come back in circles, and one of them was “how to insist, how to resist” in In and Out of Synch. That’s one of the impulses behind making work. You don’t necessarily answer something or resolve it, but it needs to be insisted upon. Between the Bullet and the Hole is very much an attempt to resist.
AG: Would you say the same is true of your work in progress, journal of disbelief, Lis? How much of a work in progress is it?
LR: Very hard to say.
AG: How long have you been working on it?
LR: In its present form, the last 15 years. But it goes back to 1991 when I made Deadline, a short film to do with what I felt were distortions in legal practice.
AG: What is it that holds together, to your mind, the disparate concerns or acts of violence being denounced in the film?
LR: The extreme violence and illegality of law holds it either in pieces or together. Probably in pieces, actually. I’m trying to describe the slippage between an abstract system of law which is tortured into allowing to happen something that is blatantly illegal. And I’m using here, because that’s where I am, as the focus and everything else is perceived from that rather assumed position, possibly a prejudiced one. We don’t live in separate worlds, though some are forced to, say, at the camp at Calais that I visited in December. I filmed this only four weeks ago. But elsewhere I deal with the Sangatte refugee camp.
AS: You went to Calais to witness, take photos and provide evidence. Part of the challenge with the images that appear in your film is the relentlessness of it, lasting an hour and a half. At the beginning the images fade into one another very gradually, and you’re somewhere between feeling numbed and shocked. Then, later on, the writing becomes very dense, and one has to negotiate the legal language alongside the more poetic writing.
AG: The text often comes to the fore and takes over. The film seems to be doing something new in the sheer weight it gives to text. Why give such prominence to it?
AS: Wasn’t it going to exist possibly as a book or even as a website?
LR: This is what I really can’t decide, because it is in my mind somewhere between the two.
AS: The book would be a whole other experience. Rather than the slow fades or sharp cuts one would just turn the page and probably linger over some of the writing.
AG: Aura, in Between the Bullet and the Hole you use words sparingly. Perhaps that’s another point of contrast between your films.
AS: One of the key ways of thinking around text when I first started was this idea of breaking down looking. What I wanted is for the looking to start widening a gap, to allow something to emerge. I didn’t want to give too much detail or specifics other than a starting point around women, data collection, data processing and war. Then the film started to unfold. I think of it as a series of collisions, both in terms of the historical starting point and how that collides into the present gun culture.
AG: And yet you deliberately eschew any graphic representation of violence, unlike Lis in the journal of disbelief. Why is that?
AS: I wanted to look at the ways in which women engaged in early computer programming, calculating the trajectory between the bullet and the hole, were undertaking an extremely abstract calculation, beyond victim and perpetrator. I did have specifics in mind to do with having myself lived in or visited war zones, experienced violence very much first hand and been intensely traumatized by it. Why I’ve resisted talking about specifics is because I was concerned about the ethics: I didn’t want flesh, which features a lot in your film, Lis. I also felt if I put in graphic images, which immediately bring us into a position of empathy or apathy, it would shift the way we look at it.
LR: What I’m wondering is whether the very intense soundtrack of Between the Bullet and the Hole (composed by Scanner) is meant to create a physical experience? Are you using it to punctuate and/or affect?
AS: The rattling quality of the soundtrack was intended as an acoustic counterpart to what’s happening visually. The film doesn’t actually have a regular rhythm; it’s throbbing but it doesn’t have a pulse.
LR: You almost described it, that physicality. Why I use bodies is that we are now avoiding – or not being allowed to see – that during years of continual war, to quote from the journal of disbelief, “the US military has spent millions of dollars to prevent Western media from seeing highly accurate civilian satellite pictures of the effects of bombing”.
AG: And these graphic images are a way of revealing what is meant to be kept secret?
AS: What you’re saying is these images need looking at; they cannot, should not, will not be concealed.
LR: Indeed. The problems are not of forgetting but rather of remembering, of the retrieval of the disappearing and the disappeared, of the omission and destruction of evidence. All of these are the effects of the illegalities of legality. The images in the journal of disbelief are not violent – they are the result of the inflicting of violence.
AG: In his novel Remainder, Tom McCarthy writes about the beauty of guns as objects and concludes that there’s “no beauty without violence, without death.” In Between the Bullet and the Hole you eschew the graphic nature of wounded flesh and other violent imagery; on the other hand I could not help but feel that the images of the bullet holes themselves, in the way that they’ve been photographed, are incredibly beautiful as images. I was left wondering if that’s not a way of aestheticizing what effectively amounts to violence?
AS: That’s a risk that I’m wary of. I definitely didn’t set out to make a beautiful film. Once the bullets are fired, they are effectively abstracted relics of a collision, evoking a mushroom or flower, traces of matter. Ultimately they are evidence of the bullet trajectory. This is the problematic beauty of forensics.
LR: If one is interested in the marking of the gun barrel, which is central to forensics, I suppose my mind moves to the markings on possibly the body and then to shrapnel, holes, internal damage; I find it difficult to not start thinking in that way.
AS: I think of the film as a kind of perforation or a gaping wound. It was a difficult film that I made reluctantly. I remember talking with you and saying I don’t know if I even want to make this film and you said: “Precisely because you don’t want to, you must.” Now it needs to circulate and we’ll see where it goes. I certainly don’t want it to be interpreted as a celebration of the beauty of guns and bullets.
AG: It’s curious: emotion is somehow kept at bay in that film. I wonder if that’s precisely because of the absence of flesh and the abstract nature of the images.
AS: I don’t like to be emotionally manipulated and I don’t want to make work that does that. All my films somehow hover, here it is between the bullet and the hole. I’m in one position but I could be on the inverse, or on the other side. We have talked about Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing as a film that achieves that brilliantly; Lars von Trier’s Dogville is for me another example of this. I wish I could make a film that enacts that slippage of positions and ethics, but I don’t know if I could ever make that kind of narrative film.
AG: At the Tate Film screening in 2012, these two films were bracketed as “work in progress” but one of them is about to be thrown into the world.
AS: How do you know when something is finished? In my case it’s been maybe two years; in your case 15 or more. I’m ready to let this go and see what it shouts back at me. I need to start hearing it. I need to step out of it.
LR: I don’t think I am ready to let it go at all.