Intermedia Art

New Media, Sound and Performance

The systematic arrangement of the senseless  2000

Matthew Fuller

There are several ways of specifying colours for computer screens. Monitors themselves use Red, Green and Blue, the primary colours that added together create white, piecing together an image pixel by pixel in combination of the three. The browser software used on the World Wide Web adopts another system on top of this. Colours for areas of a web site, the text, the background and so on, are specified using a string of six digits and characters in Hexadecimal (a system of counting in base sixteen rather than the more usual base ten in which letters are substituted for numbers between 10 and 16).

It is this system for specifying colour that Simon Patterson is working with in Le Match des couleurs, an example of his ongoing Color Match series. A textbook grid of sample colours and their respective hexadecimal equivalents provides the first layer of the site. Clicking on one of the grid of squares, the user launches a seperate window which slowly cycles through a sequences of colours. At the same time, what for many will be the familiar voice of Eugéne Saccomano, the announcer of football scores in the French League for Radio France 1, reads through a list of match results. As each team is named, they are assigned a hexadecimal number and perhaps one of the sixteen predefined colour names along with a goal score.

In a previous version of Patterson Color Match released as an audio CD, the names of past and current teams in the FA are read out along with a selection of numbers from Pantone, a proprietary system of ink colour specification used in print. The voice of Tim Gudgin, worn into Saturday afternoon memory as the results announcer on Grandstand steadily beats out the rythmn of scores and incongruously involved colour codes.

Theories of colour, its organisation and meaning, provide routes into many cultures of representation, including histories of art. Prior to industrialisation the difficulty of acquiring the material components to paint certain colours, often rare minerals, added to the power of their use. Paintings of the Rennaissance were often in this sense feats of mercantilism as much as of symbolism, religiousity or technique. Later, as more colours became available, through for instance extraction from coal-tar, their newness still continued to dazzle and enthuse. Mauve, which eventually opened up a whole deeper chemistry set of purples, was for instance first produced by this means in 1856 and heavily favoured by Queen Victoria - hence the lugubrious dollops of that shade to be found on the palletes of the pre-Raphaelites.

When photography deposed painting as the technology of realistic depiction, colour provided painters with a means of articulating momentary patterns of light, the internal, emotional states of their subjects a subject for painting in and of itself and so on. Colour became perceived and mobilised according to the exigencies of its time.

Whilst colour becomes mutable according to the political, associational, aesthetic and other schemas through which it is parsed, it also arises as an unstable concept at a physiological level. This phenomenon has several layers to it. Seeing different colours, recognising them in the eye, depends upon the mixture of light of different wavelengths reflected from different parts of what is being seen. There has to be something to be seen, light to allow the seeing and something to do the seeing. Together, the eye and the brain then construct a representation of what is being seen. Colour is thus not merely a property of the seen object, nor simply of the light reflecting from the object but a dynamic quality that is as much a result of the slippery quantity, mind.

How, through the multiple layers of elements in composition do we attempt to communicate the experience of seeing 'blue'? Pantone colour codes refer solely to precise combinations of chemicals in inks. Hexadecimal equivalents to combinations of 'red', 'green' and 'blue' are understood by the computer as variable electrical charges to the phosphour on the inside of a screen. The names we give to colours in either formal or natural languages can ever only miss the mark. But it is in this inevitable failure, this attempt to pin-point something that was never there, that colours are experienced as being so multiply evocative.

Synaesthesia is the production from a sense impression of one sort, of an associated mental impression of another. Your nose becomes hot with colour, ears tingle and release saliva. Words make your spine crawl. Chromaesthesia is a particular variant of the phenomenon in which speech, music, writing, movement are experienced as being inflected with sensations of colour. In talking about his work, Simon Patterson points towards Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory: an autobiography revisited in which he famously describes the way in which, "The colour sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline."

Synaesthesia, a way of jumping the firewalls between the senses, is an effect in varying ways of many hallucinogenic drugs. As well as being available on the street for a few quid, it is - as in Nabokov's case - often popularly associated with creativity and the cultural 'exception' of genius: luminaries in various fields are often said to have reported the experience. Synaesthesia provides an image of the sensation of creativity, a chance of overcoming the division of labour of the body into senses. Whilst all of the 'five senses' can actually be dis-organised into a widened concept of touch, (The interaction of various nerve cells and membranes with molecules or vibrations of matter) this is an image that many cultural forms, like the drugs that sometimes go with them, attempt to evoke.

Often this is worked through a collapsing of the disciplinary boundaries between various cultural forms, or by their poaching from one to another. Happenings, gesamptkunstwerk, the four arts of hip hop, raves, and the now 'lost sector' of multimedia all have this as something immanent to, if not actualised in, their operations. Synaesthesia, then provides an ideal for forms that tend towards the 'Open Work', but perhaps it can also be experienced as a disturbing lability of the senses, of the organs turning in and flooding each other with stray information, as a form of repression.

Patterson's work doesn't appear to conform to either of these typologies however. What is apparent is that watching the colours on the screen gradually shift in and out of each other as the commentator delivers the either meaningless or bitterly crucial information of the football results is again, the subjective nature of colour. Color Match in this version effectively turns the web into TV. Whereas Interaction Design would labour over the screen, pixel by pixel, the user clicks at some point on the grid and the sequence rolls. Whilst the hexadecimal equivalents of the colours may be specified in the javascript that makes up the bulk of the page's code, even the platform on which you watch the work on makes a difference to how it looks. On a slowish connection, you can see the pixels shifting in formation across the screen to different colour values.

Color Match suggests that its components are taken, not literally, but seriously in the way in which they occur. If rather than their formal literal sense, we attend to their coupling, their mutual articulation it suggests we may also begin to sense how our senses are inscribed and also confounded in the different ways we have of ordering them: is it possible to interpret the way the announcer reads out the scores? Did his favoured team win? Do the colours correspond to a team kit? Can their ocurrence alongside certain results be used to predict the next in the sequence? Does the goalkeeper of the Brest team have magenta pyjamas?

The schematic nature of hexadecimal descriptions of colours, designed for a readership composed entirely of machines, is notable in its conjunction with a more complicated form - football. Even the simple listing of the matches seethes with the archaisms, loyalties and localities inherent in team names, competition, the aleatory nature of the result. At the same time, the flat nature of the description, the search for inflection in its mundane, repetitious delivery couples with the lushness of the succession of colours on screen. Each of the two elements of Color Match, the colour sequence and the commentary has one side to it that is minutely restrained and another that billows out beyond those constraints.

Ever since the Surrealists opened up the source code of their simple recipe for art - bunging a sewing machine and an umbrella together on a table top - artists have been able to resort to contradictory, awkward, random, juxtapositions of objects and forms drawn from different typologies as a way to reliably pluck something out of their hats, or rather, the capacity for association evident in the people who come to view the work.

Patterson works this capacity on many ocassions. Something that seems to be a repeated method is to take two semiotic, classificatory, or topograhical systems, to mesh them into one representational form, but allow them to remain unresolved into a singular system. Thus in The Great Bear (1992) the familiar map of the London Underground has the names of its stations replaced by those of philosophers, footballers, engineers, saints, filmstars, etc.; in First Circle (1996) he superimposes a map of the solar system onto a wall size depiction of that part of the electromagnetic spectrum visible to the human eye. Color Match, of course meshes two already familiar systems.

What is interesting though is that in all these cases there is no real attempt to resolve the two components he brings together, to unify them. Perhaps it is the gallery that provides the resolution. (This would explain the difficulty a recent, and splendid, public art proposal - the installation of a giant, openly accessible, periscope inside the central glass atrium of an open plan office belonging to BT - had in being accepted. This is a piece of work that literally sees-though the miserable grind of the 'transparent office'. In such a context, anything unresolved is awkward, unpredictable, improper in atria.) In the context of the gallery, and in this case the web site of the Tate however, the work is coolly not looking for any kind of sense of the synthetic, it simply aims to be there.

Matthew Fuller, 2000

Le Match des couleurs

Net Art commission by Simon Patterson exploring colour theory, its organisation and meaning - as part of his ongoing Color Match series.