Chromatic Algorithms: Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after Code

Chromatic Algorithms: Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after Code

by Carolyn L. Kane

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These days, we take for granted that our computer screens—and even our phones—will show us images in vibrant full color. Digital color is a fundamental part of how we use our devices, but we never give a thought to how it is produced or how it came about.
Chromatic Algorithms reveals the fascinating history behind digital color, tracing it from the work of a few brilliant computer scientists and experimentally minded artists in the late 1960s and early ‘70s through to its appearance in commercial software in the early 1990s. Mixing philosophy of technology, aesthetics, and media analysis, Carolyn Kane shows how revolutionary the earliest computer-generated colors were—built with the massive postwar number-crunching machines, these first examples of “computer art” were so fantastic that artists and computer scientists regarded them as psychedelic, even revolutionary, harbingers of a better future for humans and machines. But, Kane shows, the explosive growth of personal computing and its accompanying need for off-the-shelf software led to standardization and the gradual closing of the experimental field in which computer artists had thrived.
Even so, the gap between the bright, bold presence of color onscreen and the increasing abstraction of its underlying code continues to lure artists and designers from a wide range of fields, and Kane draws on their work to pose fascinating questions about the relationships among art, code, science, and media in the twenty-first century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226002873
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/13/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
File size: 62 MB
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About the Author

Carolyn L. Kane is a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University and assistant professor of visual communications at Ryerson University in Toronto.

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Chromatic Algorithms Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after Code

By Carolyn L. Kane

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-00287-3


Colors Sacred and Synthetic

We live in an age of chromophobia, argues anthropologist Michael Taussig, carrying the values and traditions of a "dark Europe" where, as Goethe once suggested, "people of refinement avoid vivid colours in their dress, the objects that are about them, and seem inclined to banish them altogether from their presence." When Europeans import bright and bold dyes from southern, "primitive" countries, they subtly integrate them back into their "more refined" tastes. Only "uncivilized nations, uneducated people, and children," Goethe wrote in 1810, "have a great fondness for colours in their utmost brightness."

Perhaps Taussig and Goethe are in part correct. Many "first world" citizens work and play in black, white, and grey, punctuated by the occasional pink work shirt, red tie, or fashionable purple scarf. A splash of vibrant color is tolerated, so as long as one keeps it under control. The same set of generally unspoken rules apply to workspaces, domestic interiors, "tasteful" material objects, and especially to Modern art, the quintessential unleashing of bold colors within a sturdy and unwavering rectangular frame. And yet one wonders, in an age of ubiquitous electronic computing and global communications, do these old world values still apply? Does the imperialistic and colonial history of chromophobia continue to thrive on one's desktop, television, or cell phone screen?

Chromatic Algorithms argues that they do not: since the 1960s the United States has embraced a new world of electronic, synthetic color. Decked from head to toe in electronic hues and digital screens, the cultural landscape abounds with color film, television, fluorescents, op art, billboards, Internet banner ads, screaming neon signs, dazzling fashion displays, postmodern architecture, luminous screen savers, and brightly colored multiscreen installations in pharmacies, shopping malls, airports, airplanes, gyms, and cars. The ongoing and accelerated struggle for consumer attention is increasingly played out through color media, further amplified by the ever-increasing size and scale of global urban centers. Chromophobia may have been valid in Western Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but today—at least in terms of the media environment—it is obsolete. How then can one account for this turn of events and explain how the longstanding tradition of chromophobia came to reverse itself in such a short period of time?

These questions are difficult to answer because color is not only difficult to see, it is even more challenging to analyze. And yet without it the world would look dim and incomplete. In 1963, Bauhaus colorist Josef Albers explained that "in visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is—as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art." Given that color behaves on its own terms, irrespective of the codes, protocols, and ordering systems that attempt to discipline and contain it, how then should one approach it? Histories of color, such as this one, must chart the failures and successes of a new color technology while also explaining what color is and how one produces it. In this chapter, I provide a historical background and context to understand color, first by describing some of the major color conundrums and paradoxes in the history of Western art, science, and philosophy and second by providing an archaeology of Day-Glo fluorescents, chemical colors that explode into high visibility at the end of the 1960s. The chapter serves as a second introduction to the book. Where the first introduction provided an overview of my themes and methods, this introduction provides an overview of color and its role in Western philosophy and aesthetics from Plato through the psychedelic 1960s. Both serve as primers to understand the emergence of luminous electronic color in the chapters that follow.

I. Classical and Modern Color: Plato through Goethe

The ancient and eternal question "what is color?" has not yet been fully answered. A preliminary set of problems arises from the fact that each individual, and group of individuals, sees color differently. Several people may be exposed to the same object—a computer screen, a can of Coke, a translucent earthworm—from the same vantage point and under the same viewing conditions, and yet each will see the object in a unique way. This is because a person's physiology, history, culture, and memory structure his or her visual perception.

Visual responses to color also diversify across language, gender, and ethnic divides. While only 0.5 percent of Caucasian women are red-green colorblind, up to 8 percent of Caucasian men are. (Recall gender stereotypes of women and gay men knowing how to coordinate colors better than heterosexual men.) Memory alone betrays color. After exposure to a bright red dress, when one later attempts to recall it in the mind, it is usually remembered in a hue darker than it actually is. Language and nomenclature both alleviate and exacerbate color problems. Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that the English phrase "red- green" denotes a fundamentally insecure relationship between color and language by invoking a color reality that could not possibly exist. Color is an elusive "language game" where one assumes a color consistently denotes a hue like "grey-green," but what this term actually means is "indeterminate and relative to specific contexts and situations." For Wittgenstein ephemerality and indeterminacy lie at the heart of any color's claims to sameness. As Albers put it:

If one says "Red" (the name of a color) and there are 50 people listening, it can be expected that there will be 50 reds in their minds. And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different ... When we consider further associations and reactions which are experienced in connection with the color and the name, probably everyone will diverge again in many different directions.

And yet naming colors is one of the few methods humans have for arriving at any sort of agreement as to what a certain color is. Moreover, while humans are in theory capable of seeing innumerable colors, on average, an English-speaking culture can only recognize and name about thirty different colors. While designers, color physicists, and artists train themselves to see and name more colors, these specialists are far from the majority. Seeing color is a matter of cultural and historical training.

In Western psychology, symbolic systems have been developed to decode the mysteries of color. These techniques tend to equate a color—usually one of Newton's primary spectral colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, or violet—with a number; a musical note (first attempted by Pythagoras); or a gestalt or mood, such as Charles Fère's experimental treatment of hysterics with colored lights in the 1880s under the banner of chromotherapy. The well-known color consultant Faber Birren further developed such psychologies of color in his Color Psychology and Color Therapy (1950), Color Perception in Art: Beyond the Eye into the Brain (1976), and Color and Human Response (1978). These techniques, however, tend to designate a hue, such as red, as representative of a mood like anger or rage, or a note like F sharp, but, as noted, such a correlation is culturally coded and what red means in one culture may signify the opposite in another culture. For example, in China, white—not black—symbolizes death and mourning. Or consider the symbolic value of a Western man wearing a pink suit to the office. Today this might signify fashion and style, as it may have in the 1920s, but in the 1950s, it may have suggested something quite different. While these symbolic and indexical approaches to color can fascinate color knowledge, this chapter does not, nor does this book, employ them at length.

Instead, as I note in the introduction, Chromatic Algorithms analyzes electronic color through the material history of aesthetics and the philosophy of technology. Cutting across these approaches is a fundamental polemic: on the one hand it is argued that color inheres in objects in the external world while on the other hand it is argued that color is a phenomenon of interior, subjective perception. This polemic extends back to the origins of Western thought and to the history of aesthetics in particular.

Classical Color: Two Extremes

I begin with subjective color. Following Empedocles' emission theory of vision, Plato (424–348 B.C.) approached color through the lens of subjective perception and proposed that the "pores of the eyes" consist of "fire and water" through which humans perceive white and black. In Plato's creation myth, the Timaeus, Socrates argues that "the pure fire which is within us ... flows through the eyes in a stream smooth and dense ..." and later in this same passage that "the light that falls from within [travels to] meet an external object." In this way, a subject's visual perception is mediated and shaped by what he or she sees in the world. Given Plato's metaphysical prioritization of abstract mathematical Forms, it should come as no surprise that such mediated visions proved to be fundamentally deceptive and unreliable.

On the objective end, Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) formulated an empirical theory of vision rooted in the colors that he observed in the world, which he then classified into various systems. In his discussion of the rainbow he determined that light and color must necessarily move through a transparent medium in order to be seen: "Colour sets in movement not the sense organ but what is transparent, the air, and that, extending continuously from the object ... sets the latter in movement." Color for Aristotle was not in the subject—the "sense organ"—as it was for Plato, but rather, in the objective world. In his critique of Plato's emission theory, he explains: "If the visual organ proper were really fire, which is the doctrine of Empedocles, a doctrine also taught in the Timaeus, and if vision were the result of light issuing from the eyes like a lantern, why should they not have had the power of seeing even in the dark?" For Aristotle, and many after him (namely the tradition that builds from Newton onwards), light and color exist as physical properties of objects in the external world. Herein lie the seeds of the two dramatically distinct approaches to color in the West: the subjective and the objective.

While catoptrics and dioptrics were not formally distinguished as separate fields of study until Euclid's Optics (aprox. 300 B.C.), early traces may be identified in the two above theories. Dioptrics involves the study of refraction, or, as Plato suggested, light passing through transparent or translucent bodies. The field derives from the notion of perspicere, or "seeing through" and includes such phenomena as electronic displays, whether cathode ray tubes or liquid crystal, prisms, rainbows, and telescopes. Currently dioptric methods guide research in color physics, optics, and cognitive science. In contrast, catoptrics derives from the Greek [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], meaning specular, and refers to the branches of optical research concerned with "looking at" things and objects, such as projection screens (cinematography) or reflexive surfaces (mirrors), and as such, it is more in line with Aristotelian observation. Catoptrics are bound to the "illusionizing potential of projection [and] the production of artificial reality," Siegfried Zielinski explains, associated more with artifice and play than visual or interior truth. This is also why Alex Galloway suggests that catoptrics can be associated with the Greek god Hermes, known for trickery, deceit, and the origin of hermeneutics, while dioptrics can be aligned with Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow, for whom light and color are immanent and pure. Hermetic light must be decoded and interpreted (like a commodity fetish or religious text) but Iris-based colors are innate; a Spinozistic phenomenon available for immediate visual consumption.

The polemic between refracted (dioptric) and reflected (catoptric) light can also be extended to lux and lumen, concepts that derive from theological sources like the Bible, the work of Abbé Suger or the history of Western optics. In the early seventeenth century, Jesuit mathematician Franciscus Aguilonius argued that lux characterized the properties of light from an opaque body while lumen connoted light activity in a transparent body. Opacity and transparency then concern two modes of mediation that, in their modern form, appear as "additive" and "subtractive" color systems. Additive color systems, such as television sets, rainbows, neon signs, and computer displays, generate and emit light. The primary colors of an additive system are red, green, and blue. When these primaries are combined, they produce transparent white light. In contrast, subtractive color systems like paintings, books, apples, and cars, are chemically based color systems that reflect color from a material substrate. Blue, red, and yellow are the primary colors of a subtractive system—often referred to as cyan (C), magenta (M), and yellow (Y)—and when they are mixed together they produce black (figure 1.1).

In sum, color is and has always been a highly ambivalent phenomenon, perpetually oscillating between the extremes of spirit and matter; light and pigment; white and black; subject and object; and the sacred and the synthetic. A number of color's mysteries and ambivalences remain active and unresolved in Western culture; however, in the age of Reason and the Enlightenment many of their ambiguities and uncertainties were seemingly frozen, split, and solved under the reifying gaze of technics, industry, and modern science.

Clear White Light

The clarity of modern Reason appeared to lift the cloudy veil cast over sacred color. Complemented by developments in optical technologies, Reason became a metonym for pure light and truth that, together, restructured the conditions of possibility for (visual) knowledge. In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries alone Giovanni Battista della Porta (1537–1615) developed the camera obscura; Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) developed the first theory of optic lenses; Galileo Galilei (1564–1643) advanced work with telescopes; and René Descartes (1596–1650) employed geometry to illustrate the principles of light refraction in dioptric media. As light and space were territorialized through carefully crafted optical experiments, that complex and unreliable thing called color became a mere subordinate to pure and true white light. The shift was furthered through the work of Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727), who, working in a dark chamber sealed off from the (life)world, demonstrated in 1704 that all spectral colors combined into white light (figure 1.2). As a derivative of light, color could be measured and quantified into seven distinct hues, a theory that laid the foundation for future color science and the physical study of color.

There are, however, problems with Newton's theory of color and his account of white light. Despite the fact that he was well aware of the subjective aspects of color, his thesis—at least the way in which it has been repeated through history—disavows many of the paradoxes and ambiguities that make color a dynamic and contextual phenomenon. Any pursuit of pure "transparent" knowledge, it has long been acknowledged, is doomed from the start, clouded by its own ideals and abstract methods. Such misguided beliefs in anything like a readily available "pure white light" or "transparent truth," Heidegger has argued, applies to the Enlightenment at large, and to Descartes and Kant in particular. In this paradigm the production of (theoretical) "knowledge" and (calculated) "truth," while connected to empirical vision and optics, were so abstracted from the lifeworld and lived experience that they ultimately blocked rather than enriched one's capacity to access truth, in a phenomenological sense.

And yet beliefs in pure white light and scientific truth remain intact. Moreover, pure white light continues to carry anachronistic theological associations with the brilliance of the rising (Apollonian) sun, a Christian God, and the transcendental (masculine) spirit. It's symbolic value runs so deep into the practices of Western, patriarchal, Caucasian culture and its claims to authenticity, origin, innocence, and truth that it has become "natural" to view color as its dirty and degraded counterpart. Where light comes from God and the divine universe, color seeps in from the discarded residue and waste of the fallen, material world.


Excerpted from Chromatic Algorithms Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after Code by Carolyn L. Kane. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction. How Color Became Code


Part 1. Chromatic Visions (400 B.C.-1969)

            Colors Sacred and Synthetic

                        Classical and Modern Color: Plato through Goethe

                        Industrial Color: Synthetics through Day-Glo Psychedelics

            Synthetic Color in Video Synthesis


Part 2. Disciplining Color: Encounters with Number and Code (1965-1984)

            Informatic Color and Aesthetic Transformation in Early Computer Art

            Collaborative Computer Art and Experimental Color Systems

            From Chromakey to the Alpha Channel


Part 3. “Transparent” Screens for Opaque Ontology (1984-2007)

            Digital Infared as Algorithmic Lifeworld

            The Photoshop Cinema

            Postscript. A New Dark Age






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