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Indigo is an organic dye—perhaps best known in the modern West as the blue of mass-produced denim jeans—but one that was discovered and developed independently by a number of ancient indigenous cultures around the world. Indigo dye can be extracted from several distinct species of plants, or synthesized in a chemistry lab, and can be applied on textiles using either traditional organic methods or modern industrial processes that generate waste products harmful to the environment. Both the indigo dye molecule and the storied dye-molecule “Tyrian purple” are made by living organisms (plants and snails, respectively) via biochemical pathways closely related to that of tryptophan—an amino acid which, according to a popular urban myth, is the substance in turkey that makes you extra sleepy after eating too much of it. Indigo-dyed textiles feature prominently in the traditional arts of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, with known examples dating back to thousands of years BCE. Indigo was combined with palygorskite clays in a pre-Columbian nanomaterial known as Maya Blue. Recently the indigo dye molecule has been studied as an organic semiconductor material for use in biodegradable photovoltaics (solar cells) and transistors.
Our aims in this IntroSem Dialogue will be to get to know indigo as a plant, as a dye molecule, as a contemporary and historic commodity, and as a focus of ancient and modern artistic practices. We will consider the complex interplay of these perspectives in the transdisciplinary aesthetics of indigo. In a hands-on component of the class at the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm, we will plant, tend, harvest, process, and utilize indigo plants for textile dyeing. You will emerge with a greater appreciation not only for indigo, but also for how diverse disciplinary perspectives can be integrated in the study of pivotal topics for cultures, societies, and technologies.