Fields of Indigo

by Teresa Lynch

Right now, sitting on the ground in an indigo field near Tokushima, Japan there’s a microphone.  Rain or shine, day or night, the microphone is there.  It’s covered in several layers of cold shrink wrap to protect it from the elements as it captures the sounds of the area.  Norbert Herber is responsible for the placement of that microphone as well as one capturing audio in an indigo field here on campus.  The two recording devices are part of an audio-visual installation titled Fields of Indigo, which is the product of Norbert’s collaboration with IU School of Fine Arts faculty member Rowland Ricketts.

Norbert and Rowland’s installation at the University of Illinois.

Rowland specializes in indigo cultivation and dyeing, specifically in the Japanese tradition.  His focus on Japanese cultural practices captured the attention of the director of Japan’s 2012 National Cultural Heritage Festival, which is being held in Tokushima this year.  Since the land in the Tokushima area is not suitable for growing rice, locals historically turned to indigo as a primary cash crop.

The audio captured in Japan is being streamed over the Internet to an art gallery at the University of Illinois, where visitors will hear the sounds of the far-away indigo field as they walk across harvested indigo strewn on the floor under the textiles suspended overhead.  Their presence will trigger motion sensors that will generate a dynamic sound space and their footsteps will crush the indigo leaves – a process essential for creating the dye.  In effect, the installation reflects the process through which indigo is utilized by dyers in Japan and beyond.

Rowland’s process of growing indigo, harvesting it, processing it, and ultimately dyeing has a similar organic quality to Norbert’s process of capturing sound and creating generative audio.  As Norbert notes, “there’s this core idea that both of us have in place and really very similar.  So, we can both do the stuff that we want to do and even though we’re working with completely different media and even though we don’t talk very much about some of the – or, we talk about what we’re doing, but mostly in terms of planning and the very final details –  but, everything that happens in the middle is up to us because there’s just this understanding that it’s just going to come together.”

The interface of the generative audio program Norbert is utilizing in this project.

In the end, both men leave some of their art to chance – and that’s part of the beauty of it.  According to Norbert, “these processes – processes by which he [Rowland] makes the textiles – he’s taking what starts as a seed through a process to become a finished piece that’s hanging in a museum.  And he’s involved every single step of the way, apart from the points at which Mother Nature intervenes and causes certain things to be outside of his control.”  Norbert thinks of his generative musical process in the same spirit.  “I think in very similar terms when I’m doing what I do with sound … where I record the sounds, I prepare them for the final piece, get them into the system and out they come in whatever way the system is going to allow that to happen.”

Although quite a bit of fun, the process isn’t quite as smooth as it all sounds.  Certainly, there have been times along the way when Norbert felt a bit overwhelmed by the amount of technical and logistical variables involved with each step.  “At some points I felt as if I was playing whack-a-mole,” he said with a laugh.  But, he enjoys being out of his comfort zone, a place where many artists feel energized.  The final portion of the installation is about to be put together in a warehouse in Japan.  The portion housed at the University of Illinois features 25 pieces of Rowland’s textiles and six speakers streaming Norbert’s sound.  The installation that will be housed in a warehouse in Japan will feature 250 pieces of textile and nine speakers along with additional motion sensors to create dynamic sound space.

The warehouse on the Shinmachi River where the Japanese installation will be housed. (Photo from

Visitors to this gallery will hear audio streamed from Bloomington and a set of LED lights provided by a company in Tokushima will make the suspended textiles glow.  In recent years, LED light production has been a thriving industry in Tokushima area.  Rowland and Norbert are utilizing the lights in the installation as another way to connect the piece to the area.  Norbert leaves the US to set up the final component of the installation on October 13.  This final component will offer aural and visual experiences that reflect the tradition of the indigo dyeing in both American and Japanese locations.

For more specifics on the installation, visit Norbert’s site here.

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