A Glossary of Water: Music and Sounds for rīvus, the 23rd Biennale of Sydney

I produced my first cassette mixtape in January 1982 at the age of 11. It was a TDK D-C120. On the A Side it read: fiesta. On the B side it read: juanfran. The model had only been released a couple of years earlier and you could record for the first time up to 60 minutes of music on each side. All the music on that mixtape was recorded from hours and hours waiting to the radio stations, waiting with a finger on the record button of a portable tape player.

David Rando speaks of the mixtape as ‘a form dependent upon borrowed, repurposed and re-contextualised sonic material’ and ‘a heterotopic space capable of constellating music from disparate times and places into configurations that long to disorder the given forms of capitalist music’.  When I was producing my first mixtapes I wasn’t really concerned with disordering the forms of capitalism. Yet the act of curating songs became a way of cultivating affect by sharing a durable object as a personalised gift for friends. By the late 1990s the CD mix had taken over my mixtapes and by the mid  2010s it was the playlist on digital streaming services.

When Colombian curator José Roca, the Artistic Director of the 23rd Biennale of Sydney 2022, invited me to co-edit with him the companion book to the Biennale, I immediately thought what a wonderful idea it would be to produce a cassette mixtape. It would be a physical object to be gifted together with the book, in which the importance of the listening, as in mixtape culture, would be highlighted. In words of Kieran Fenby-Hulse, as a ‘creative, haptic, performative, immersive and embodied’ listening experience. Wishful thinking! The result was a playlist on Spotify of 120 tracks.  Slowly, slowly, over a period of eight months, as the artists were being announced and the entries to the book confirmed, the Glossary of Water playlist developed as a companion to the eponymous book for rívus, the 23rd Biennale of Sydney 2022. 

The playlist has a tidal length, following the long rhythms of oceans, rivers and estuaries, and resisting the lengths of playlists imposed by music industries. Along the 10 hours that the experience lasts, listeners may hear at least 50 different musical instruments, some invented by the musicians themselves, to replicate the sounds of waters or communicate with rivers. Many non-human characters make cameos: Albatrosses, Saltwater Crocodiles, Mangroves, Whales, Sea Urchins, and Seaweed. The lyrics speak of many forms of rain, of flood devastations, of water spirits, orishas, and deities. They tell of water conflicts, of slavery, massacres and colonialism; and of the need to care for rivers, oceans and glaciers. Tracks selected are linked to the work of participating artists in the Biennale. Including by artists in the Biennale such as Bernie Krause and British-Finnish artist, composer and performer Hanna Tuulikki.

The 23rd Biennale of Sydney in 2022 was curated by José Roca collectively with a Curatorium comprising of Paschal Daantos Berry, Anna Davis, Hannah Donnelly, and Talia Linz. The ethos of the Biennale is to position itself as an agent of change, avoiding what Felicity Fenner calls ‘elitist platforms for authorial singularity and visual spectacle’ in favour of ‘a new model based on collaboration’ as a mode of enacting novel curatorial strategies in the context of a climate emergency in which water and rivers are centrestage. This is captured in the evocative and generative Curatorial  statement:

Rivers, wetlands and other salt and freshwater ecosystems feature in the 23rd Biennale of Sydney (2022), titled rīvus, as dynamic living systems with varying degrees of political agency. Indigenous knowledges have long understood non-human entities as living ancestral beings with a right to life that must be protected. But only recently have animals, plants, mountains and bodies of water been granted legal personhood. If we can recognise them as individual beings, what might they say?

rīvus invites several aqueous beings into a dialogue with artists, architects, designers, scientists, and communities, entangling multiple voices and other modes of communication to ask unlikely questions: Can a river sue us over psychoactive sewage? Will oysters grow teeth in aquatic revenge? What do the eels think? Are the swamp oracles speaking in tongues? Do algae reminisce about the days of primordial soup? Are waves the ocean’s desire? Can a waterfall refuse gravity? Considering the water ecology’s perspective entails a fundamental shift in understanding our relationship with the rest of the natural world as a porous chronicle of interwoven fates.

Rivers are the sediment of culture. They are givers of life, routes of communication, places of ritual, sewers and mass graves. They are witnesses and archives, our memory. As such, they have also been co-opted as natural avenues for the colonial enterprise, becoming sites of violent conflict driven by greed, exploitation and the thirst to possess. Indeed, the latin root rīvus, meaning a brook or stream, is also at the origin of the word rivalry.

The 23rd Biennale of Sydney is articulated around a series of conceptual wetlands situated along waterways of the Gadigal and Barramattagal peoples. These imagined ecosystems are populated by artworks, experiments, activisms and research, which together follow the currents of meandering tributaries, expanding out into a delta of interrelated ideas including river horror, creek futurism, Indigenous science, cultural flows, ancestral technologies, counter-mapping, queer ecologies, multispecies justice, hydrofeminism, water healing, spirit streams, fish philosophy and sustainable methods of co-existence.

Sustainability should be an action, not a theme. rīvus will reflect on its own conditions of possibility, becoming the catalyst for works already in progress; encouraging the use of non-polluting materials and production processes; advocating for locality, collectivity, collaboration and reduced waste; acknowledging its own impact on the environment while aiming to lower it through a systemic and creative approach.

As José Roca explains, the book A Glossary of Water is a substantial publication (572 pages) presented as a companion to the Biennale. It is an artistic book, a scholarly reference and a beautiful object. It was printed sustainably on excess paper stock of different types and weights from previous book projects, rather than recycled paper, giving the profile of the publication the look and feel of the sediment of the river.

The book is organised around 93 words or terms in alphabetical order. Each entry is vividly illustrated with images of the work of the 89 participating artists exhibiting at the 2022 Biennale. In each entry we carefully curated a diverse range of texts, reprinting short excerpts of work by an outstanding diversity of authors, poets, essayists, Elders and artists. A few entries were specially commissioned with short essays by Astrida Neimanis, Andrea Ballestero, Jason de Santolo, Bawaka Country, Gay Hawkins, Emily O’Gorman, and Macarena Gómez-Barris and reprinted essays by Báyò Akómoláfé, Marisol de la Cadena and Kyle Powys Whyte.

The multimodal experience across exhibition, book and playlist is also notable in the work and music of Indigenous Australian artists. For instance, the Torres Strait 8, a collective formed in 2019 in Zenadh Kes (Torres Strait Islands). The work Warfare Dhori by Yessie Mosby, Zenadh Kes Masig man and claimant is being exhibited at the Biennale as part of the Torres Strait 8. The book includes an excerpt of the Our Islands Our Home campaign where eight Torres Strait Islander claimants  have brought a landmark human rights complaint against the Australian Federal Government for its failure to reduce emissions or pursue proper adaptation measures across the region. The playlist expands this by including the track Island Home, with a version by Torres Strait hip-hop artist Mau Power.

The book includes images of work and excerpts from texts by 25 Indigenous Australian artists. These are extended into the playlist with tracks from Gurrumul (Baru Saltwater Crocodile); Yothu Yindi (Gapu), in connection to the commissioned text by Bawaka Country on Gapu; Dhapanbal Yunupingu (Märi Wurrapa); the Yakanarra Commmunity School (with a song by Elders to the Martuwarra Fitzroy River); The Sandridge Band (Ngabaya); Kardajala Kirridarra Ngurra (Raing Song); the above mentioned Warrell Creek Song by Emma Donovan; and Wash my Soul in the River by Archie Roach with the Australian Art Orchestra.

Sonic mediations: a companion playlist to rīvus A Glossary of Water

Music playlisting practices remediate significant music collection cultural practices of the pre-streaming area. As such, playlisting can also be a mode of storytelling. In our Glossary of Water playlist, each of the tracks was carefully chosen, following closely the process of artist selection by the Curatorium, and as the book was shaping up with a diversity of texts. The tracks curated for the playlist deeply connect to the theme of rīvus, to many of the artists’ workand to the texts included in the A Glossary of Water book. Crafting a story across all the 120 tracks was inherent to the process. This was a radical departure from the Spotify playlist created by La Biennale Architettura 2021, for instance, which was randomly put together from tracks selected by the invited artists with the end product being a dislocated, haphazard combination of disparate genres and messages.

Tracks selected are linked to the work of artists participating in the Biennale, and to the commissioned and republished texts selected by the book co-editors, which speak to a range of matters of concern around rivers and waters. They are arranged in alphabetical order but are woven together in a permanent diffraction pattern. This extends the diffractive nature of the book:

This glossary invites creative submergences
into water’s knotted and rippling figurative,
material, and aesthetic modalities.
An enticement to being-in-relation
with water and with rivers
through words and imaginings.
It is not a collection of disparate ‘glosses’
and explanations of obsolete words.
As an aquatic artefact, it expresses
intended meanings in terms of the nature
of the entries it brings to print.
While following an alphabetical order,
the entries do not only inter-act among themselves
as pre-established terms that reflect on each other:
they intra-act.
All chosen entries are continuously diffracting,
swelling and waning in the vitality of water,
its forces and sensualities,
its chemistries and spirits.
It offers one way to glimpse the rivers
whose qualities and soundings we listen to
in our human existence with and in water.

Diffraction is a physical phenomenon that occurs as waves emerge, when water flows across an obstacle such as a rock. It is in many ways the opposite to reflection, the act of mirroring. Diffraction as a process of ongoing differences, not similitudes. In the book we invite a diffractive reading. In the playlist, a diffractive listening. And across book and playlist  a relational agency emerges between songs and sounds, words and texts, inviting an intra-action across book and playlist.

In the process of selecting the words for each of the entries, and the text excerpts and artists’ images that populate each entry of the book, we drew inspiration from Julio Cortazar’s 1963 novel Rayuela (Hopscotch). Cortazar starts his novel with a Table of Instructions  where he explains that there are ‘two books above all’ to be read: the normal, linear reading of the 56 chapters that form the core of the novel, and a different reading,  which include other sections of chapters where the reader might choose to read athwart, from diverse sides, in a non-linear sequence, hopscotching through the book.

The playlist is often intruded upon by poems from renowned poets such ‘an ode to rain’ by Nikki Giovani, African-American author who took part in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s in the United States. Or work by Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad. In the track Conquest of the Garden, the Iranian actress Elham Nami reads poems by Farrokhzad, with whom we begin the book under the entry Aab and the poet’s poem ‘Bathing’:

I shed my clothes in the lush air
to bathe naked in the spring water,
but the quiet night seduced me
into telling it my gloomy story.
The water’s cool shimmering waves
moaned and lustily surrounded me,
urged with soft crystal hands
my body and spirit into themselves.
A far breeze hurried in,
poured a lapful of flowers in my hair,
breathed into my mouth Eurasian mint’s
pungent, heart-clinging scent.
Silent and soaring, I closed my eyes,
pressed my body against the soft young rushes,
and like a woman folded into her lover’s arms
gave myself to the flowing waters.
Aroused, parched, and fevered, the water’s lips
rippled trembling kisses on my thighs,
and we suddenly collapsed, intoxicated, gratified,
both sinners, my body and the spring’s soul.

The playlist is also often intruded upon by experimental sounds and field recordings from bodies waters, rivers, waves, glaciers, fogs and rains. For instance, the sound work ‘The Disrupted World’, by Stefan Helmreich and Eva Hayward for the compilation for Distorted Worlds, by Swedish composer and sound artist Kajsa Lindgren, who in 2018 released WOMB, an album that was performed as an underwater concert, virtualised as a floaty web installation. For Distorted Worlds, a follow-up EP, three artists and two anthropologists/writers (Helmreich and Hayward) waded through WOMB’s archive, including material from the recording session, field recordings, voices, memories, swimming pool impulse responses, notes, drawings and thoughts, and created an aquatic soundscape mixing different sound sources. The Disrupted World, included in the Glossary of Water playlist, was a hydrophonic recording of underwater pile-driving undertaken to build the foundations of the Block Island Wind Farm, off the coast of Rhode Island, on the Atlantic Ocean. Sounds of a transduced sonar ping, captured in 2014 by the Australian vessel Ocean Shield and suspected to be a signal from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared over the Indian Ocean. Bits of radio communication between a Libyan Coast Guard boat and the rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 that had been called to answer a distress call from a boat hosting 58 migrants from North Africa in 2017. And seismic airgun blasting, a technique used by petroleum companies to blast compressed air underwater, a remote sensing technique to obtain information about oil deposited beneath the ocean floor. These soundscapes are then mixed with human voices: first an excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s 1931 novel, The Waves, recorded and read by ocean theorist Eva Hayward, then the punk rock anthem ‘Pro-Choice’ by the Swedish feminist band Radium Grrrls and a sound sample of a chant from a women’s march in Washington, DC, in 2017.

Field recordings and experimental water soundings have been employed to capture the sounds of all kinds of water bodies and phenomena. Gustavo Valdivia, while undertaking anthropological research with Quechua herders in Peru in 2013, began recording the sounds of the Quelccaya glacier, the largest tropical glacier in the world. Sounds of water running. Of ice cracking. The Anthropocene melts. These recordings were later incorporated into the Metaphonics project, a book and seven-album box set designed, edited and produced in collaboration with Stuart Hyatt. Metaphonics: The Field Works Listener’s Guide includes original essays by experts and academics from around the world, inspired by naturalist Bernie Krause’s taxonomy of soundscapes: geophony, biophony, and anthropophony, to which a fourth soundscape ecology was added, cosmophony. The playlist includes a track by Moog pioneers Beaver and Krause, So Long as the Water Flows, connecting with the exhibition at the Biennale of the masterpiece The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists.

Coming back to Valdivia’s glacier recordings, these were used in the album ‘Kinematic Waves’, also in the playlist, musicalised by US composer, performer and producer, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, known for her use of the Buchla 100 Series synthesizer in a range of environmental electronic music.  Speaking about Glacier Music II, by artists Anushka Chkheidze, Eto Gelashvili, Hayk Karoyi, Lillevan, and Robert Lippok, Peter Kirn talks of sounds and songs that capture urgency. He evokes the sound of glaciers: ‘It’s heard in drips, in flows of water. It’s counted in numbers, echoes in poetry, called into the air in plaintive cries, sighing instruments, and the decay of piano notes. When a crisis reaches us somewhere that even words fail, maybe we need sounds and music to tell the story alongside science.’


The first lesson I was given was from a mestizo peasant woman who was carrying her 7-year-old child. I was about 9 or 10 years old. They crossed the river, a river that cats trot across; a river of stone 30 centimetres deep. A mountain river. Crossing the river, the boy saw a pebble that he liked. He picked it up, washed it, and put it in his pocket. The mother had already reached the shore. And 30 metres ahead she saw her child and turned around and said to him, what have you got there? A rock, he said. Let’s see? Then she said go and put the stone back where it was. But mum! Said the boy. She looked at him twice and the boy realized and went to put the stone back where it was. It was a stone of two colours. But why? I just wanted to play with it, I didn’t want to do anything, said the boy. I’m going to get you a stone, the mother said. But don’t steal stones from the river. That’s how it sings.  
– Atahualpa Yupanqui (1908–1992) 

That first cassette mixtape from 1982 included a song by Argentinean composer and guitar virtuoso  Atahualpa Yupanqui who sang copiously to rivers and the stones through which rivers sing. One of these tracks El Rio, from a live performance in Rotterdam, is part of the playlist. It is one way of paying homage to rivers. An essential relational experience across book and playlist is around rivers. Their conflicts, their spirits, their rights. Many of the tracks speak about rivers and the playlist pays homage to twenty rivers including the Amazonas, Barka (Darling), Doce, Congo, Dunaem (Danube), Harlem, Isuzu, Japurá, Martuwarra (Fitzroy), Orinoco, Paraná, Pitiú, Seine, Mapocho, Mississippi, Nile, Volga, Whanganui, and Warrell Creek, an old traditional Gumbaynggirr song sang by Emma Donovan & The Putbacks.

The Gualcarque River in Honduras is sacred to the Lenca people. The river makes a cameo in the track Aqua da Vida by Spanish electronic producer JAS which includes the voice of Berta Cáceres, Indigenous Lenca activist murdered in 2016 for defending her river, the Gualcarque.

The Barka (Darling) and the Martuwarra (Fitzroy) rivers also appear prominently in the book. The first through the work and words of Badger Bates from Wilcannia. In the book he explains how his work for the Biennale is aimed at allowing people to understand ‘what it means to be a Barkandji wiimpatja and how the people, plants, animals, country, and water are all connected and interdependent and we all know each other and belong as family’. Uncle Bates tells a part of the story of the travelling Ngatyi or rainbow serpents ‘who map out our living landscape and give it lifeforce. They travel about looking after the country and leaving water for all living things. They travel though waterways shaping the rivers and creeks and filling them with water. They also travel underground through the aquifers and appear at springs and rockholes’. The playlist comes in with a track by The Wilcannia Mob, the legendary a hip-hop band of five Barkandji boys and a version by Sri Lankan-British artist M.I.A featured the boys singing “Down River” on the track, “Mango Pickle Down River”.

Another inclusion in the playlist is Raye Zaragoza’s protest song, ‘In the River’, written against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and a song that has been featured as an important hymn in social movements across the United States.

In the river is our sisters and our brothers
We are camping out for each other
We are stronger when we band together
And we’re standing up for the water
Don’t poison the future away

The Japurá River in Brazil actually starts in the Colombian Andes, where it is known as the Caquetá River. It flows for almost 3000 kilometres until it bonds its waters with those of the Amazon River. In 1993, Phillip Glass collaborated with Brazilian music ensemble Uakti on the album Águas da Amazonia (Waters of Amazonia). The ensemble takes its name from Uakti, a mythological being who lived on the banks of the Rio Negro (Black River) and whose body was full of holes. When the wind passed through them, it produced sounds that bewitched the women of the tribe. Uakti, the ensemble, build and play their own custom-made musical instruments.

Not far from the Japurá is the Rio Doce (Sweet River). Indigenous Krenak philosopher, writer and leader Ailton Krenak was born on the riverbanks of the Doce in 1953; he was forcibly removed from his community of only a few hundred people at the age of nine. In the book we are honoured to include an extract of an interview given by Ailton Krenak in which he speaks of the ancestral land occupied by the Krenak in the Amazon rainforest, to which he refers as a monument, a monument built over thousands of years. The ecology of that place in movement has been creating shapes, volumes, has been arranging all that beauty. The Amazon rainforest, the Atlantic forest, the Serra do Mar, the Takrukkrak are monuments that have, for us, the force of portals that open to access other visions of the world. The forest does that. And, beyond its materiality—the materiality of its body that can be felled, torn like wood—the forest is not perceived.

In 2015, 40 million cubic metres of iron ore mining tailings were dumped into the river basin of the Doce. The worst environmental disaster in the history of Brazil. Not counting the slow violence of the biggest crime of all: the deforestation of the Amazon. When the Fundão dam broke a wave of mud overran the Doce river basin. Many people died; hundreds were displaced. Agricultural and conservation areas were destroyed followed by the death of endemic aquatic biodiversity. The silting up of waterways interrupted local sustenance fishing activities. From the ochre mud that submerged those places, ghost towns now surface. Buildings, churches, a school. Covered in weeds, the walls incriminate those responsible with the stained coppery residues bursting from the iron mine upriver. The playlist included the work of Brazilian singer songwriter Djalma Ramalho who composed a heart-wrenching song, ‘Doce’, in the weeks after the crime to honour the river. It’s an ode to the Doce and illustrates music as a powerful way of paying homage to rivers.

Many river spirits are captured in both the playlist and the book – such as the orisha Oshun, a Yoruba spirit originally of the Osun River in Nigeria. A goddess that is integral to the history of the Middle Passage, the forced and brutal dispersal of enslaved women, children and men, throughout the Americas, Oshun travelled in story and music from Nigeria to Brazil, to Haiti, to Cuba and to delta regions in the southern United States. Audre Lorde sang candidly and sensuously to her and to her kindred orisha, Yemany (Yemanjá). In Cuba, Lydia Cabrera recorded in 1957 a traditional song offering to Oshun, Idé werewere ni’ta Oshún idé werewere (Song for Oshún) one of the earliest recordings in the Americas of this healing music devoted to the orisha Oshun.

Another key aspect of both book and playlist is the relationship with floods. In the book we reproduce this excerpt from Toni Morrison:

 …[T]he act of imagination is bound up with memory. You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory—what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our ‘flooding’. Like water, I remember where I was before I was ‘straightened out’.

In the playlist we correspond this text by Morrison with a track by Laurie Anderson, ‘Muddy River’ from 1994:

Rain keeps pouring down
Houses are cracking
People drown
Cars are rusting here
A church floats by
Washed in the blood of the lamb
And all the superhighways have disappeared
One by one
And all the towns and cities and signs
Are underwater now
They’re gone
We’re going down by the muddy river
We’re walking down by the muddy river
Somebody tell me please
What happened here?
Mud is everywhere
Fish are swimming in the fields
Everybody’s running around, they’re yelling
Is this the end of the known world?

Floods caused by bloated rivers also haunt music genres. The Mississippi is mighty in the African American imagination. Historian Richard M. Mizelle Jr. looks at the lyrics of blues musicians to argue that race served as a filter for the way people experienced, grasped, and responded to the Mississippi River’s flooding forces in 1927.  Mizelle beautifully crafts a method to ascertain how the blues, deep-rooted in the Mississippi Delta region, hold stories of the flood that traditional archives do not. In the playlist a number of tracks speak to this: Skeets Tolbert’s ‘Delta Land Blues’, released in 1942; The Mighty Flood by Alabama Slim and his cousin Little Freddie King, released 7 April 2007, just after Hurricane Katrina; Lester Bowie’s ‘Rios Negroes’, released in 1981, when the US avant-garde jazz composer, trumpet player, and sonic scientist was experimenting with blues and carnival music, at the height of his career as a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and co-founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.


In A Glossary of Water, feminist cultural theorist Astrida Neimanis writes:

As the oceans warm up and struggle to breathe, as rivers no longer make it to the sea, as drinking water is commodified, as the seabed is mined, as all of the multitudes of life forms that depend on these waters are made increasingly precarious, caring better for other bodies of water seems more urgent than ever.

In this manner of speaking, both book and playlist also pay respect to oceans and seas. One stunning track is ‘The Sea’, by Shabaka and the Ancestors’ from their album Wisdom of Elders. Led by Shabaka Hutchings it brings poetry and myth back into the music of the ocean, partly inspired by Sun Ra’s multiple works on black ancestral futures cosmology. Resonating with contemporary Afrofuturist approaches to electronic music, jazz, and experimental music, ‘The Sea’ uses traditional Nguni rhythms, with blues, spiritual hymns, and Caribbean calypso, transforming it into a tribute to the origins of all life in the sea. For Shabaka Hutchings, the jazz saxophonist and band leader of bands including Sons of Kemet, The Comet is Coming, and Shabaka and the Ancestors, music begins as a celebration and hopefully then proceeds to higher levels.

The ocean is a central trope in Afrofuturism. For Kodwo Eshun, co-founder of the London-based art collective The Otolith Group, Afrofuturism in music works ‘as an intertext of recurring literary quotations that may be cited and used as statements capable of imaginatively reordering chronology and fantasizing history. The lyrical statement is treated as a platform for historical speculation. Social reality and science fiction create feedback between each other within the same phrase.’ And as an instance of ‘a program for recovering the histories of counter-futures created in a century hostile to Afrodiasporic projection’, Eshun spotlights Drexciya, the experimental Detroit techno duo. As an example of an Afrofuturist ‘aesthetic of estrangement’, Drexciya proposed a science-fictional retelling of the Middle Passage and the ‘Drexciyans’, water-breathing, aquatically mutated descendants of ‘pregnant America-bound African slaves thrown overboard by the thousands during labour for being sick and disruptive cargo’.

If played in alphabetical order, the playlist ends with a series of tracks that reflect on water bodies states of water, by diverse artists such as Joe Henderson and Alice Coltrane, Imma Modja, Sudan Archives, Fela Kuti and The Kronos Quartet. While the book concludes, if read in alphabetical order, with the entry Zong! and an excerpt from M. Nourbese Philip’s book-length poem Zong! about the infamous ship Zong captained by a Luke Collingwood, which leaves the West Coast of Africa in 1781 with a cargo of 470 enslaved men and women and sets sail for Jamaica. Nourbese Philip writes:

As is the custom, the cargo is fully insured. Instead of the customary six to nine weeks, this fateful trip will take some four months on account of navigational errors on the part of the captain. Some of the Zong’s cargo is lost through illness and lack of water; many others, by order of the captain are destroyed: ‘Sixty negroes died for want of water… and forty others… through thirst and frenzy… threw themselves into the sea and were drowned; and the master and mariners… were obliged to throw overboard 150 other negroes.’

In relation to this entry, the playlist includes two tracks in succession. First The Deep by Clipping, followed by Dehydration by Drexciya. Experimental hip-hop group Clipping’s ‘The Deep’ has been called a dark sci-fi tale about the underwater-dwelling descendants of African women thrown off slave s,hips, based on the mythology created by Drexciya. The song was originally commissioned for a This American Life about Afrofuturism in 2017. The track earned Clipping a nomination for a 2018 Hugo award, and the band constructed a sound installation based on ‘The Deep’ at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

A moral disclaimer in lieu of a conclusion

Our Glossary of Water playlist is on Spotify, the largest and most commercial of the many streaming services available today. In their provocative 2019 book Spotify teardown: Inside the Black Box of Streaming Music Maria Eriksson and her colleagues show that the contemporary interface of Spotify is no longer organised around music tracks and community-activated options but, on the contrary, that its interaction design ‘reorganizes music consumption around behaviors, feelings, and moods, which are channeled through curated playlists and motivational messages that change several times a day’. Revenue from playing music on Spotify goes primarily to the record labels, while Spotify keeps about 30%. About 5% goes to the songwriter. It is estimated that the Big Three record labels, Sony BMG, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group make up almost 80% of the music market. As Eriksson shows, a large number of these playlists are created by third-party playlist services such as Filtr, Topsify, or Digster, owned by Sony, Warner, and Universal, respectively—the three major record labels that, in turn, own stakes in Spotify’.

As Ignacio Siles and colleagues argue, playlists in streaming platforms, stress ‘the dynamic and ritual work involved in producing, capturing, and exploring moods and emotions’ where the platform is turned into ‘an obligatory intermediary in the establishment of a utilitarian relationship between users and music’ and the playlist becomes ‘the basis of collective experiences that serve Spotify’s political-economic project’. For Eriksson, Spotify’s playlists are container technologies that sometimes act as an ‘unruly transport device’. Spotify is certainly not alone in the contemporary ecology of music streaming services, with their aggressive neoliberal strategies conforming to a voracious music industry dominated by three conglomerates. But it definitely has mastered the tactic for channelling and simultaneously commodifying ‘the aura and ethos of the mixtape as forerunner of the curated playlists’, in Gleeson’s words. This moral disclaimer for choosing a playlist on Spotify to accompany the Glossary of Water book may never be enough to claim that this curated playlist for rīvus wishes to play homage  to the ethos of early mixtapes.

An impossible mixtape lives on a playlist that took hundreds of hours of love, curiosity, and care to shape up, in an attempt at reclaiming the culture of active listening, so often lost in how playlists are ‘consumed’ today. While not fully a ‘technology of life’ as Edgar Gómez Cruz describes technologies that mediate almost all aspects of social life, this playlist is intended to mediate almost each aspect of the Biennale experience, both in terms of the exhibition rīvus itself as well as the Glossary of Water book.

Listen to the Glossary of Water playlist here.

This is part of a series of essays commissioned as part of a partnership between Western Sydney University and the 2022 Biennale of Sydney, titled rīvus, that respond to A Glossary of Water, an artist book, scholarly reference and beautiful object, published as a companion to the Biennale.

Works Cited

Bates, Badger. “Barka”. In rīvus A Glossary of Water (Eds. José Roca and Juan Francisco Salazar. Biennale of Sydney, 2022 52-53.

Biennale of Sydney. Curatorial Statement. José Roca, Paschal Daantos Berry, Anna Davis, Hannah Donnelly, and Talia Linz

Cabrera, Lydia & Josefina Tarafa. ‘Havana & Matanzas, Cuba, ca. 1957 sound recording: Batá, Bembé, and Palo songs.’ Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings. Smithsonian Libraries and Archives.

Eriksson, Maria, et al. Spotify teardown: Inside the black box of streaming music. MIT Press, 2019.

Eriksson, Maria. “The editorial playlist as container technology: on Spotify and the logistical role of digital music packages.” Journal of Cultural Economy 13.4 (2020): 415-427.

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Farrokhzad, Forugh, ‘Bathing.’ In Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, translated by Sholeh Wolpé, University of Arkansas Press, 2010.

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