The Acoustics of Water Consumption

Waaw Centre for Art and Design
Saint-Louis, Senegal
April 3 - 26, 2013

When visitors come to Saint-Louis, Senegal, they generally purchase 10 litre bottles of filtered drinking water to consume during their time in the city. The locals drink filtered tap water from Lac Guiers.

A daily recording was taken for three of the four weeks I was in Saint-Louis. Each day a site was selected and the sound captured from the object of the bottle and the changing water level inside. A contact microphone was attached to the outside of the bottle with a hydrophone immersed in the water inside. The resonant character of the bottle changed with my daily water consumption. When one bottle was finished, another was purchased and used.

Each day I would walk, carrying the water bottle to a new location in the city. Once set up and recording began, I was often approached by people asking what I was doing. In my poor french I would try to explain. Early on I realized it was a much easier to describe by simply handing people the headphones so they could listen. This in turn lead to many interesting discussions of sound and the city, often with me asking people what their favourites sounds were. These exchanges can often be heard, faintly, in the recordings as well.

In the context of being in residency in Saint-Louis, I was trying to find a way to expose myself to the city in a way that felt open. Something of me being at least a little bit vulnerable. Something that forced me out of my shyness and usual desire to be in the background and unnoticed. This was impossible with this project as a white person walking around town carrying a 10 litre water bottle and then setting up some modest recording equipment wearing clunky headphones. There were a couple of times where it was made known, firmly but without aggression, that I wasn't welcome to record. In these instances, without question, I would pack up and move on. In most cases these sessions included much friendly discussion but I do not challenge any of the reactions to my presence or process.

One woman who worked with the Senegalese Directorate for Cultural Heritage shared her story of not being able to fall asleep for a month after the surface of the Faidherbe Brdge was re-done. Missing the droning vehicle traffic at all hours of the night, it took practice to be able to fall asleep with the new, quieter surface.

Having my body be present in the recordings; by way of moving through the city with this equipment, location, and the changing resonance of the bottle through my water consumption, brought a new level of awareness to me of my impact, of my presence, of my work, of the fact that it was uninvited, and perhaps even unwanted in some cases, raises questions and makes links to ethnographic work that is, and has been, loaded with issues of racism, colonialism, power imbalances, tourism, and working site-specifically as a field recordist. I find I am still thinking about this project in 2021 and questioning my intentions and whether the project, by including my body as a vulnerable entity into the work, and therefore some level of risk and exposure, and of the dialogue that usually ensued by this gesture, shifted this away from colonizing practices? Or is it really just another example of white intrusion and complicity in a racist history? To consider my risk is ultimately to consider a very small risk. So microscopic it may not even be worth mentioning in the larger scheme of things. And while it felt significant to me at the time, I understand this awkwardness, that of a shy person being exposed is not 'risk' in the true sense of the word. Or the world. And so the questioning is circular. And perhaps endless.

Thank you: Waaw Centre for Art and Design, Staffan Martikainen, Jarmo Pikkujämsä, Dieylani Sow, Johanne Teigen, Greg Pritchard, Riitta Liede, Nelson Henricks, and the Canada Council for the Arts.