After reading about historical African American waterways, Norman W. Long took his own deep dive into the Little Calumet River.
“I thought: This is fascinating,” said Long, 49, of Chicago’s Jeffery Manor neighborhood. “Little Calumet River is right where I am. It’s also part of a larger African American community.”
Further research led him to learn about communities along the river such as Altgeld Gardens, the longtime home of the late activist Hazel Johnson, an early leader in the fight against environmental racism.
The learning curve eventually culminated in Long’s creation of an art installation called “Calumet in Dub,” on display through Feb. 17 at Columbia College’s Glass Curtain Gallery in Chicago. The exhibit features an eight-channel speaker setup that gives voice to the ecology and soundscapes of the Little Calumet River.
“I try to get people to engage and relate to their environment through culture, history and sound, as well,” Long said. “I think it engages people in a different way. When you’re just looking at pictures or data, sometimes you might not feel as connected to it as if you’re hearing it in an environment.”
Calumet in Dub allowed Long to examine the intersection in that area of hot button issues such as housing, labor, activism, population demographics, ecology and pollution, he said. He used some of the raw data he collected to create soundscapes, while also incorporating field recordings he captured across the region.
Through places such as the Ton Farm, a prominent Underground Railroad site and Great Migration destinations like Robbins, Riverdale and Chicago, the river is a common link for multiple generations of people on the move, and Long wanted to capture some of that history, incorporating public domain samples such as early field hollers and ring shouts.
“I feel like you can put yourself into this migration, this flow of data in memory of history and culture,” Long said. “When you’re here in the space, you’re hearing echoes of a cultural history of the space, as well.”
Calumet in Dub came about through Long’s history of working with Mark Porter, senior exhibitions coordinator for Columbia’s Department of Exhibitions, Performance and Student Spaces. Porter in 2020 curated a group exhibition that included Long’s work. But the pandemic shut down the exhibit after only two days, and Long ended up releasing the materials for his sound installation through Bandcamp.
The college approached him about a solo show, and “Calumet in Dub” came from those discussions. In addition to the eight-speaker installations, different rooms showcase Long’s process, data, inspiration and information about the communities along the Little Calumet River.
“The rest of the exhibition was developed to shed light on the significant research he undertakes to make this work,” said Cecilia Vargas, Columbia’s director of exhibitions. “We wanted the audience to get a sense of the layered ideas, references and issues that are at play within the sound piece that is also titled ‘Calumet in Dub.’”
Following his research, Long brought recording equipment to Calumet Harbor, Steelworkers Park, Indian Ridge Marsh, Beaubien Woods and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s Sidestream Elevated Pool Aeration Station. He looked at the landscape and listened deeply before turning on his recorder, trying to find the unique spaces of the area and their “signature sounds.”
“I definitely want those sounds to stick out and engage you,” Long said. “I was listening for what makes that area sound the way it does. What is unique to that area? How does sound define that area?”
He used a handheld recording device and an underwater microphone. He also employed a contact microphone, which — similar to a pickup on a guitar — registers vibrations.
“I’m hearing small things like anthills or bugs or movements of branches on trees or the movement of tall grasses in a prairie area,” Long said.
Some of the sounds were manipulated, mixing certain elements together, Long said. Electronic sounds and music were generated from the data sets such as pollution levels he acquired from MWRD to complement and reinforce the recordings.
Vargas said it all comes together for a unique experience that is engaging, showcases a Chicago artist and brings light to different artistic practices.
“Galleries predominantly show visual works, and the Glass Curtain Gallery is no different,” she said. “We are absolutely thrilled to help present Norman’s sound work that creates a very different experience. The main space in the gallery is mostly activated through the sound installation and therefore results in a visually minimal presentation. The gallery is filled with sound, and every time I walk through it my experience is different.”
Long also records music, performs and tours, but he said exhibits such as “Calumet in Dub” allow him to venture down new artistic paths. They definitely take longer: He worked for nearly half a year to put together Calumet in Dub. But that him more time to experiment, as well as be patient and critical, he said.
“I can be a little more patient with my own particular idiosyncrasies and things like that,” he said. “It allows me to explore sounds a little bit more, or techniques … or new equipment.”
That includes a new device called PlantWave, which purports to turn the biorhythms of plants into music.
“Now, I’m thinking about how I’m designing sound that’s going to be put in a space that would immerse people, that would give people a sense of space or weight or something like that,” Long said.
He’ll give interested patrons a personal sense of the installation from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Jan. 31, when he presents an artist talk at the Glass Curtain Gallery, 1104 S. Wabash Ave., Floor 1, in Chicago. A viewing of the exhibition will take place for the first half-hour, followed by an hourlong talk in the Conaway Center next to the gallery. A closing reception and catalog release party are slated for 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 16 with planned experimental performances with Allen Moore (electronics) and Aquarius Aquarius (voice and movement). More information is at colum.edu/long.
Bill Jones is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.
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