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A Filmic Meditation on Sirens and the World in Which They Resonate

A Filmic Meditation on Sirens and the World in Which They Resonate

This essay originally appeared in  Reframed , the  Art in America  newsletter about art that surprises us and works that get us worked up.  Sign up here  to receive it every Thursday.




A drone from above slowly spins as it sets its focus on an abstract emanation from the ground. A tessellated pattern is small enough at the start to barely merit attention, but its design takes shape as the camera zooms in on what reveals itself to be a public address system for emergency management. More visceral than the visual, however, is the sound: a tense, tangled mass of microtonal music made with (as the credits later divulge) “astronomical planetary data” and “electronics.”




The sound by composer Laurie Spiegel, an important early figure in computer music who made her name at Bell Labs, opens Preemptive Listening , a new documentary about sirens and the state of the world in which they resonate. A voiceover sets up the premise near the start: “The siren is an interruption, a jolt, a wakeup call that points to the possibility of escape, a threat that has erupted into the present.” Some more: “These are vibrations at the edge of danger.” And still more: “Each siren is a tombstone for a past trauma.”




Preemptive Listening —premiering Friday at MoMA’s Doc Fortnight festival—is less a didactic documentary than an essay film that follows poetic cues. The soundtrack is full of full of notable names from the realms of music and sound art: in addition to Spiegel, contributors include Moor Mother (poet and member of the fiery free-jazz band Irreversible Entanglements), Debit (who will be part of this year’s Whitney Biennial), Raven Chacon (Pulitzer and MacArthur winner with a show up now at the Swiss Institute), and Kode9 (DJ/producer and author of the 2012 book Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear ). All of the 19 artists involved were invited to “reimagine the sound of the siren, to think of it as a prompt: a call to attention, a call to action, an instruction towards the possibility of the future.”




The sounds created for the film accompany director Aura Satz, who, in voiceover narration, thinks out loud about sirens in discursive ways. Over impressionistic footage from a siren factory and sites full of flashing lights (strobe warning!), she nods toward the history of sirens as industrial-age warning systems and traces their genealogy back to such things as church bells, shepherd’s horns, and town criers blowing bugles to capture the attention of the masses. The sounds of sirens accompany all manner of crises, from accidents that call for immediate alert to disasters that play out at planetary scale. Earthquakes, floods, and catastrophes related to climate change count as points of focus in the film, which includes travelogue footage from ominous locales such as the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan and a volcano-monitoring station in Chile.



Still from Preemptive Listening .




Sirens’ presence in social disorder figures prominently too. Passages in the film are given over to meditations by Khalid Abdalla, an actor and activist in the Arab Spring; two co-creators of Mental Health First, a non-police-response initiative for mental health intervention; organizer and police-sound-weapons scholar Daphne Carr; Maori law scholar Erin Matariki Carr; and anthropologist and environmental philosopher Arturo Escobar. Each speaks about sonic warning signs and states of disquiet that often follow in their wake.




Preemptive Listening is a heavy film, but it also makes space for hope. One of the Mental Health First founders flips the foreboding mood of the script when, thinking about conflict resolution, she wonders what could happen “if we saw the siren as an opportunity instead of a crisis.” And Escobar, the anthropologist and philosopher, connects the notion of emergency with the chance for different kinds of emergence it allows. He posits, intriguingly, that “when there is a breakdown, possibility also arises.”

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