Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after Code
Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after Code
Publication supported by the Neil Harris Endowment Fund
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.
"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
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