I am currently undertaking my dissertation titled ‘Pigment of the imagination: in what ways is colour information?’. We live in an age of multiple, overlapping ‘informations’ and there is a growing dialogue in the field of LIS on the concepts of information across different domains. (Janich, 2018). In library and information sciences the philosophies of information have a particular focus on communication and semantics. (Ibekwe-SanJuan & Dousa, 2014). Colour, which is semiotic by nature, is integral to artistic research, practice, and communication, and through this research project I hope to understand it is a form of information. Perhaps it is the artist in me too, but I have always been fascinated with colour and the cadences of the senses, and since I started the MSc I have been drawn to the idea of what information means within the context of visual arts.
As part of my own research it felt necessary to carry out some visual analysis to explore these ideas. It will also help me to understand and find any links with the philosophies of information science, colour theory, and aesthetics. I could therefore not have asked for a sweeter treat than the Olafur Eliasson retrospective at the Tate Modern. Eliasson is widely known for his interactive socially engaged art and for exploring the signals and flux of the natural world; all the while twinkling in multi-colours like the jewelled wrappers from a box of quality street. (Godfrey, 2019). Smoke and mirrors aside, ‘In Real Life’ is an important retrospective and full of intriguing ideas relevant to LIS, from immersive experiences, documenting ephemerality, phenomenology, and revealing the vital documentary and studio processes that are an important part of practice-led research.
The first time I saw Eliasson’s work was on a school trip back in 2003. I still remember the awe of standing under the ambient faux-sun of ‘The Weather Project’, the calescent colour limning the turbine hall in amber. Returning to this retrospective filled me with that same giddy schoolboy wonder I had felt over a decade ago; art meets science, technology, and illusion. Din Blinde Passeger ‘Your Blind Passenger’ 2010 was a colour work that especially stood out and got me thinking more abstractly about information, experience, and aesthetics. The installation forms a long, narrow corridor where visitors are temporarily blinded by a brightly illuminated fog, requiring them to rely on other senses to orient themselves. Stepping into the stark white mist I felt excited and afraid, immediately I thought of Stephen King’s novel ‘The Mist’. The power of the threshold should not be underestimated here in terms of creating the experience. The moment I walked through the door I was instantaneously transported into something transitory, metaphysical, and even a little sci-fi. All sense of direction and perception was lost becoming an information black-out with no point of reference other than colour. Moving forward the fog began to change, tinging slowly from powder white, flesh peach, to ochre yellow and through to the densest burnt orange. Bathing in the rusty atmosphere felt uncanny, like I was walking on Mars or through the atmosphere of an alien planet. The strangeness was marked with happiness and laughter too, not just because I could not help but smile as people bumbled past each other in a daze, but because of the overwhelming warmth the colour evoked. Like the warmth of laying under a summer sun with my eyes closed, or the feeling of being embraced by a loved one, this was a powerful and evocative use of colour.
Clearly this work is a highly subjective example of colour, my reaction to it based on my own social, cultural, and personal experiences. However, if colour can communicate an emotion, summon a memory or delight a sense, is that not then informational by nature? Eliasson’s work is interesting in that it draws this tension between feelings and facts, the invisible and communicative, and the mental and physical. During my literature search I have found a pool of interesting texts on information as a physical and fundamental aspect of the universe, information appears to be just everywhere! The physicality of information is an interesting idea in relation to colour; what is the difference between the orange colour of a star, a traffic cone light, and Eliasson’s ‘Your Blind Passenger’? The colour a star emits can indicate the complex alchemy of chemical elements present in the atmosphere, the traffic cone light beams a warning or a indicates a barrier, and the work of art is a subjective and personal experience. All are sources of colour, but what are the distinctions between them being physical, informational or purely aesthetic? Other questions also spring to mind, how do we construct meaning from the perception of colour? How integral is colour to the way we experience documents? Are all aspects of colour well-formed and processes of communication? How is information theory understood in art and semiotics?
The course of reading literature for the dissertation has been like opening Pandora’s box, each time I begin to think I am understanding and starting to answer my research question, the curiosity of engaging with research unleashes a hundred more questions. I will be carrying out a more detailed visual analysis in the dissertation itself, and to help me find my focus I will also carry out a conceptual analysis of Floridi’s General Definition of Information. The next update will coincide with a visit to the Colour Reference Library at the Royal College of Art. I will be looking at more conventional forms of colour information from colour charts and taxonomies, to colour theories and models.
Godfrey, M. (2019) Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life. London, UK: Tate Publishing.
Ibekwe-SanJuan, F. & Dousa, T.M. (2014) Theories of Information, Communication and Knowledge: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.
Janich, P. (2018) What is information? Minneapolis, USA: University of Minnesota Press.
Bell, A. (2019) Din Blinde Passeger. [photograph]. UK