Notes on Blocks
I learnt colour but did not understand it
This piece came out of one of our “ Walkthroughs,” during which four people take us through a particular channel and some of the things they’ve collected in it.
A still from the film Gabbeh. [Two hands, one dyed blue and one dyed yellow, face the camera with palms out. Behind them is a field of grass, and between them is the word "green."]
I happen to work in the color standard industry, the industry of color forecasting for apparel and interiors specifically. This one type of perspective means I am often forced to think about color as other — that color is attached to things like seasons and linear time; that color can be designed and measured for consumption and distributed for capitalist gain. When I think about the overwhelming amount of content about color that presently exists, I immediately feel adrift at sea, periodically disoriented but inevitably inspired. I wanted to create a channel that I could add to without pressure while exploring color through as many tinted lenses as possible, with no attachment to strict temporality or the heaviness that usually accompanies deliverables. This channel, I learnt colour but did not understand it, named after a beautifully loaded sentence by Derek Jarman from his book Chroma, is open to all users to add to it, creating space to build diverse connections about color, through all kinds of media, academic studies, articles, cinema, literature, art practices, and other playful methods, ad infinitum.
"Life is color. Love is color. Man is color. Woman is color. Child is color…." These are some of the culminating words to one of the most visually captivating and poetic films I have ever seen. Both simplistic yet profound in its lessons, the depths of sonorous color, texture, and song awaken the spirit. I’m sharing a reel composed by Spectacle, a small theater in NYC, as a way to welcome everyone into the fantastical world of Gabbeh (Persian: گبه) a 1996 Iranian film directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf with cinematography by Mahmoud Kalari. One of the most significant threads in the film is the concept of time, a sort of anthropological surrealism woven into each scene. Between the myths, customs, and craftwork, time and color become the overarching narrators. I don't think I realized my fascination with this relationship between color and temporality until selecting these blocks for the walkthrough.
Heidi Gustafson is a self-proclaimed “recovering philosopher and hermetic artist” based in Washington state in the U.S. She writes about foraging for pigments, which is super intriguing as a concept but more so as a practice. Not only is her practice visually gorgeous, the frequencies and array of color that sedimentary rock and organic pigment yield differ significantly from synthetic color. They also create an exciting discourse around what Heidi calls “aesthetic reception.” She writes, “Our images leap forth from more basic earth elements. This is true of everything that surrounds you right now. …All of this is to say, there is a material supply chain for color. A deep, geomorphic time chain, as well as a continuous and sprawling human chain gang of mining and distribution projects. Color is not some design spec Pantone or Munsell swatch floating in vague digital space. Color is social, behavioral, messy, tangible stuff. No matter how abstracted, eventually our colored worlds harken back to very specific somewheres and several somebodies bludgeoning the rainbow. …”
“Colour acts in us” is a quiet observation that gets louder each time I reread it. The prolific writer Siri Hustvedt wrote it in an essay on painter Giorgio Morandi about his rather well-documented verbal declarations about embodied perception. This writing helps capture something of the ephemeral for me, as color so overwhelmingly swings between the objective and subjective. In a 1957 radio interview, Morandi said this: “For me nothing is abstract. In fact, I believe there is nothing more surreal, nothing more abstract than reality.” This assuredness is oddly comforting and harkens back to the anthropological surrealism seen throughout Gabbeh.

Before we can even name a hue, we have felt it as a sensory reality in our bodies. Blue and green affect us differently from red and yellow. As Kym Maclaren argues in an essay on embodied perception, 'That the stimuli of short duration produce an effect in in persons’ bodies before a colour is explicitly sensed, suggests that it is our sensitive-perceptual motor body, and not a knowing, thinking subject, that sense colours.' Colour acts in us.

∆ Siri Hustvedt, from The Drama of Perception: Living, Thinking, Looking

ref: _In 1969, two Berkeley researchers, Paul Kay and Brent Berlin, published a book on a pretty groundbreaking idea: Every culture in history invented words for colors in the exact same order.

They reached their conclusion based on a simple color identification test, where 20 respondents identified 330 colored chips by name. If a language had six words, they were always black, white, red, green, yellow, and blue. If it had four terms, they were always black, white, red, and then either green or yellow. If it had only three, they were always black, white, and red, and so on.

The theory was revolutionary, and it shaped our understanding of how color terminologies emerge. But the idea comes with a few caveats, since all languages do not treat colors the same way grammatically as English does.

ref: The Himba tribe - Because of the ways in which their colours are categorised, it influences the way Himba’s perceive the colours/ The findings supported the claim that language can in fact affect the way in which you see colour._

Here is a partial review by Lauren Moya Ford for Hyperallergic about, Oh, to Be a Painter! “which collects nine of Virginia Woolf’s published art reviews, catalogue essays, and experimental texts from 1920 to 1936. In them, Woolf focuses mainly on the tensions between painting and writing, but also addresses the act of looking, the possibilities of cinema, and the gender inequalities of her day, among other themes. As in her short stories and novels, Woolf analyzes paintings and films with unleashed imagination. Her writing on art is a space to reflect, conjecture, and explore, and offers a fascinating glimpse at a period when art’s look and meaning were shifting rapidly.” In the walkthrough, I referenced several quotes from one of the essays in the collection on the painter Walter Sickert, “First, on entering a picture gallery, the violent rapture of colour; then, when we have soused our eyes sufficiently in that, there is the complexity and intrigue of character. ...Sickert is among the best of biographers. ...Not in our time will anyone write a life as Sickert paints it. Words are an impure medium; better far to have been born into the silent kingdom of paint.” I find Woolf’s dialogue between what is said and what is felt to be completely endearing.
This final block focuses on another book that I happened to stumble upon called,I Send You This Cadmium Red… “it is a book of correspondence between two friends, John Berger and John Christie. It began in February 1997, when in response to an open question from Christie: ‘What could our next project be?’ Berger replied: ‘Just send a colour….’ A painted square of Cadmium Red crossed the Channel.” Although the material book is out of my price range, unsurprisingly, its tender contents have inspired countless expressions of creative interrogation and performance. Gratefully, I was able to find a recorded compilation by Gavin Byers from 2010 of some of the exchanges within the book. After listening to Byers’ recordings, I can’t help but reorganize my labyrinth of thoughts around performing color. Further proof that color can be perceived and communicated in infinite ways, often with language as the mode for limitation or expansion.
Tess Murdoch is a color trend analyst and consultant based in New York. She works at the cross-section of curation, research, and development. Personally, Tess fosters a quiet practice centered around hand-centric disciplines like weaving and dyeing while championing the use of repurposed materials and crude fibers. She is currently thinking about the future of handcrafts, their legacy, and their capacity to create community. Blog
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