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Chromatic Algorithms

Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after Code

Publication supported by the Neil Harris Endowment Fund

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.

Listen to a two-part interview with the author: Part 1, Part 2.

328 pages | 114 color plates, 15 halftones, 3 line drawings, 1 table | 7 x 10 | © 2014

Art: Art Criticism

Computer Science

History: History of Technology

History of Science

Media Studies


"Thrusts color aesthetics into the realm of computer technology, uncovering surprising connections among color theory, chemical mixes, and contemporary digital light applications. . . . [Kane] explores complicated relationships among standardized dyes, Day-Glo shades, and the synthesis of color television, mirroring the sixties counterculture of psychedelic images, a recharged surrealism, and the emerging youth culture. Kane juxtaposes cool, controlled, computer design with the 'dirt style' of the collective Paper Red, whose works in video, web design, and installations bring into collision bright hues, composite color blends, rainbows, psychedelic peace signs, a healthy sense of satire, and an investigation of media design protocols. However, underlying modern color experiments are submerged political concerns regarding conformity, corporatism, and a growing uniformity of web 2.0. Kane describes present color as the 'photoshop cinema'—an era of processed, determined, mediated art, such as Jeremy Blake’s time-based paintings and the highly saturated film experiences of Pleasantville (1998) and Speed Racer (2008).  They appear extravagant and bright but suggest a dark culture of color used to obscure and provide opacity to smooth, inscrutable surfaces. . . . Recommended."


"In documenting how we came to standardize and codify color, Kane opens up new ways of seeing our algorithmic culture as a whole. . . . There is a great wealth of material in this book that scholars of the digital, well beyond art historians, will find valuable."

Jill Walker Rettberg, University of Bergen, Norway | New Media and Society

"A gorgeous and fascinating study of color, technology, visualization, the digital, and beyond."

Carla Nappi | New Books in Science, Technology, and Society

"Interrogating the histories of our ever more colorful interfaces, Kane makes an important contribution by recognizing that the organization of the sensible is both pleasurable and ethical. How we are trained to see in the present also conditions how we will design technology and, perhaps, our relationships with each other in the future."

Design and Culture

“To read Chromatic Algorithms is to dive into a hidden history of wild inventions and dramatic standardizations, of artist-engineers whose names are treasured by too few, and of corporations whose norms are praised by too many. Using media archaeology to unpack the mystery and commerce of electronic color that now dominate twenty-first century-perception, Kane communicates lucidly and with passion the joy of discovering lost art and lost ideas, and the euphoria of thinking through them with the most brilliant of contemporary thinkers and artists. From Frieder Nake and Shuya Abe to Eduardo Kac and Jeremy Blake, the book bursts with the struggle for and over color that formed the new digital sensorium. Chromatic Algorithms is a history whose pages could be written only by a scholar who cares equally and passionately about past and future color.”

Sean Cubitt, Goldsmiths, University of London

“Theory is gray, said Goethe, but in Chromatic Algorithms, a secret history of how computers and art came together since the 1960s, Kane begs to differ. This jelly bean bowl of colorful and flavorful characters, ideas, and facts promises to cure us all of colorblindness.”

John Durham Peters, University of Iowa

Chromatic Algorithms promises to set the fields of color study and new media in a completely new direction. Not only does Kane offer us an important history of the development of digital color technologies and their uptake in video art, she also tells a remarkable story of the relation between art and commerce in her finely detailed study of Bell Labs, which is importantly identified as a site of radical aesthetic experimentation. Kane’s study upends the facile oppositional logics of the relation of art and industry that plague so many discussions of the avant-garde and aesthetic autonomy. Moreover, the digital color aesthetic that Kane elaborates here—which moves from historical accounts of technological development to broader ontological considerations of media, mediation, and aesthetic experience—makes clear the complications of both color and code that any general theory of aesthetic experience in the twenty-first century will have to account for.”

Brian Price, University of Toronto

“Kane’s fascinating book is the perfect example of what twenty-first century media history and theory should be—wide-reaching; attentive to the details of media and software technologies; bringing into conversation art, science, and code; and combining analysis of particular artifacts and artworks with institutional history. This is one book you must read, both for its methodology and ideas and the histories Kane uncovers. A fantastic achievement from a brilliant young scholar.”

Lev Manovich, Graduate Center, City University of New York

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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