Aura Satz’s installation in the Hayward Project Space, based around the invention of ‘frequency hopping’ during the Second World War, mines a fascinating piece of ephemera from history. This rapidly changing radio signal was invented by George Antheil and Hedy Lamarr, a composer and Hollywood actress, and used in later various military technologies. Through this historical frame, the installation stages the aesthetics of encryption, notation and pre-digital data: it consists of a revolving perforated screen, as you would fine on a pianola, with a single frame loop of Hedy Lamarr in Come Live with Me (1941), washed in and out by a spotlight. A clattering soundtrack of fire engines, air raid sirens and static is powerfully present, bouncing round the room and echoing down the stairs into the Hayward reception.
The historical dimension of the installation somewhat overtakes the aesthetic, in that the story of the invention and the comprehensive programme notes are in many ways the real point of engagement with the work, over the experience of the room itself. It serves as a reminder that WWII was probably the last ‘total’ war, the last time all aspects of a society, even cultural life and the avant-garde were shaped by and oriented towards a single conflict. Imagine the impossibility of an experimental composer and film actress today inventing a weapon for warfare. Cultural response to war is today almost exclusively polarised between support and opposition, where during this time the conflict became so big as to transcend these binaries. Every form of production, cultural, civilian and political was ripe for deployment on one side or another, whether the films of Leni Riefenstahl or the technological improvisation of Antheil’s Ballet Mecanique, (original inspiration for the ‘frequency hopping’ technique). Satz’ points to the practical engagement of society with the experimental fringe of culture, of obscure American composers, writers, actors and directors transposed to a military-industrial context. A war between societies, with struggles taking place across all occupations and aspects of life, however it might now be coloured by our 21st century hindsight.
The installation, in bringing this story to the fore also contains a strong feminist impulse, publicising a brilliant and overlooked figure in Hedy Lamarr. Women are present in school history lessons that focus on the Home Front and factory girls, but there is a growing recognition of those women whose contribution defined the rigid gender codes of the time. Artists and writers are increasingly able to publicise female code breakers at Bletchley Park, resistance fighters throughout Europe and here, in the work of Satz, the figure of the mathematically gifted, fascist-escapee/divorcee, inventor and actress, Lamarr. Strong and independent women, whose stories are as heroic and extraordinary as any male. That today the same engineering technique pioneered by Antheil and Lamarr forms the basis for WiFi is particularly significant. Barnes-Wallis immediately became famous for his bouncing bomb, hailed as an engineering great when it was not until 1997 that Lamarr received recognition as co-creator of frequency hopping. What technology today has more impact on our lives? The slowly strobing light in the installation causes Lamarr’s face to appear randomly, emerging from either darkness or harsh white, like slipping from one history to another. Aura Satz’ work highlights this fascinating story and illustrates it with a clear, uncluttered aesthetic object. Two claims to fame, historical and cultural, but only ever fleetingly snatched from the glare.