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Bodies of Water

by Kate Jama & Timmah Ball

Co- Unfolded is an online iteration of Co-, curated and created by members of the Co- community. For the inaugural edition of Unfolded, Kate Jama and Timmah Ball examine the idea of borders, territories and mapping as a legal tool in relation to the Indian Ocean.

Kate Jama: I am starting to realise there is a difference between hearing and listening. Tao Leigh Goffe reminds me that ‘sound was with us before sight, in utero. We listened underwater, suspended in the amniotic fluid of our mothers’ wombs.’ [1]

I don’t always listen; to myself or to that which is around me. Sometimes I haven’t known what to listen for and, if truth be told, I don’t always want to accept what I might hear if I truly paid attention. But if I allow myself to attune to the frequencies, within and beyond me, what will be revealed?

The English word sound derives from the Old Norse sund meaning both to swim, and sea. Sound, like water, moves in waves. Waves within waves as sound travels through water. Low frequencies travel the furthest, moving into the depths of expansive bodies of water. Sound reigns supreme in the deep sea. The deeper you go; the less light there is. In the hadal zone just above the deep seabed, almost 4000 km underwater, no light is found. Yet, deep under the waves, life has adapted to the darkness, in the sonic world of fish stridulation and whales’ echolocation.

Timmah Ball: I’m really drawn to what we can’t see, imagining what it would be like to exist in the depths of Oceans, but I also feel something unnerving or unpleasant about my attraction to these places as if we are always looking to discover what isn’t ours in places we shouldn’t be. Along the coast of the Indian Ocean on Whadjak Noongar Boodjar there are multiple plaques commemorating Dutch exploration of these seas and Country. It seems as though they lost interest because they couldn’t see or hear anything in these lands and waters, instead the coast is lined with shipwrecks from their failed explorations. Yet 100 years later the British unfortunately did see something.

Kate Jama: Paying attention to sound foregrounds how acoustics influence human interaction with, and understanding of, the deep sea. In the Indian Ocean, sound waves, emitted through sonar technology, reach the deep seabed and bounce back to receivers mounted aboard research ships. Through the low hum of sonar, the deep seabed is revealed. Mineral-rich manganese nodules are ‘seen’ first through sound and then in computer-generated images.


In the deep sea, sound operates on multiple linguistic registers. While sound is that which is heard by sonar receivers, sound is also used to describe the action of measuring the water’s depth. Through the practice of sounding, the deep sea is knowable within a western imperial knowledge system of understanding the world through observation, categories and naming.

On the 21 December 1872, the steam-assisted ship called the HMS Challenger left Portsmouth docks to conduct Britain’s first survey of the world’s oceans. The journey lasted almost four years and covered more than 125,000 km. The warship built 14 years prior, was repurposed as an on-water laboratory for the collection and categorisation of marine life. A team of more than 200 people, manoeuvred trawls and dredges to collect samples of the seabed and water. Caught within large nets, marine life was brought up to air and then placed into jars filled with preserving alcohol. Kilometres of rope, with lead weights attached, were thrown overboard and submerged into the ocean’s depths to measure the depths of the ocean. On the Challenger, British naturalist Henry Nottidge Moseley wrote:


The vastness of the depth of the Ocean was constantly brought home to us on board the Challenger by the tedious length of time required for the operations of sounding and dredging in it…It used to take us all day to dredge or trawl in any considerable depth….At first, when the dredge came up, every man and boy in the ship who could possibly slip away, crowded round it, to see what had been fished up. Gradually, as the novelty of the thing wore off, the crowd became smaller and smaller. [2]

Timmah Ball: If people tried to listen rather than hear would the world look and feel different? Would we understand that the deep sea is not something that can be ‘known’ or mapped in ways that fortify the ocean as borders, convenient barriers used to assert nationhood and control?

[1] Tao Leigh Goffe, Listening Underwater: Silence as Fermentation

[2] Henry Nottidge Moseley, ‘Notes by a Naturalist on the Challenger: Being an Account of Various Observations Made during the Voyage of HMS Challenger round the World, in the Years 1872–1876, Under the Commands of Capt. Sir G. S. Nares, and Capt. F. T. Thomson, 577-578

This issue of Co- Unfolded was possible due to generous support from Yarra City Arts through City of Yarra

Kate Jama is an artist and researcher at Melbourne Law School. Kate's work is informed by her Somali and British diasporic identity and her experience working across law and public policy. Kate’s current research focuses on how international law and sonar mapping shape prevailing understandings of the Indian Ocean as a place of extraction. Kate has exhibited at Blak Dot Gallery, Kudos Gallery UNSW, and Halka Gallery (Istanbul). 

Timmah Ball is a writer, zine maker and curator of Ballardong Noongar heritage. In 2018 she co-curated Wild Tongue zine for Next Wave festival, with Azja Kulpinska, which interrogated labour inequality in the arts industry. In 2021 she created the zine publication Do Planners Dream of Electric Trees? which was developed as a participant of Arts House Makeshift Publics program. 

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