Love Letters – Let Me Take You There

I like to think that someone, perhaps a number of people, have traveled to the field in Calderdale central to Paul Rooney’s ‘Let Me Take You There – A guide for a field in Calderdale.’ The piece starts with instructions on how to get to the field and the work was exhibited in Artranspennin03, so presumably this live mode of viewing was encouraged during that exhibition. However I saw the work at Site Gallery in 2004 as part of a joint exhibition of work by Paul Rooney and Susan Phillipsz. Since then I have also listened to it online. You can access it through the Artranspennine03 website.

To my mind it is successful as an artwork where you travel only in your imagination to the snowy field depicted in the work’s only image. This image is paired with a monologue audio piece, listened to through headphones. The audio loops and diverges to cover numerous topics, but always returning to the field and its image. It gives a detailed description of the photographer Charlie Meecham taking the featured photograph, as recorded by a Granada TV documentary, and conveys a strong sense of both the cold, crisp day and the process of choosing and framing a section of the landscape to depict.

I love the idea of creating an audio guide for a field. It’s a place that, notwithstanding the location of of the battle of Culloden (where I know you can listen to an audio guide), is unlikely to be a tourist attraction. This field is one of many in the Yorkshire/Lancashire hinterland, general and yet – as we hear here – specific. We are told that Meecham’s image was used on the cover of an album by the band Joy Division and about poems by Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath written in this locality, evocative of its atmosphere.

I enjoy the sense of there being a logic to this artwork, a kind of puzzle to how the disparate stories are connected but one that I can’t quite keep up with. As well as referencing events directly linked to the field and its image, the narrative uses leaps of association. The snowy scene reminds the narrator of a diary entry about Trotsky’s last train journey; the photographer’s blanket recalls a blanket used by a singer at a gig (by Paul Rooney’s erstwhile band ‘Rooney’) who shouts out words to a Russ Abbot song ‘Atmosphere.’ Snow is compared to the icy sound of synthesizers on a particular Joy Division track or to to white sheets of Sylvia Plath’s hospital bed.

We are told at the start of the guide that some of its themes are: winter, the photographed moment – it’s frozen time, and the rebirth of spring. This along with the theme of atmosphere, gives a tenor to all the stories and how they are told. I like the detail, the texture of the telling. It’s at once quite a sad work, where we are repeatedly reminded of death by war and by suicide, and an optimistic one that describes creative ventures – a band, songs, poems, photographs – that can come from small beginnings to give substance and meaning to many people’s lives.

Good Teeth

Last week I went to a talk in Leeds as part of a series based around items in Special Collections at the Brotherton Library. Entitled ‘Dialect in the Museum‘ the talk involved Dr Fiona Douglas from The University of Leeds English Department telling us firstly about the scope of the libraries Archive of Vernacular Culture and secondly talking about a project with her students to embed materials related to the Yorkshire dialect in 3 museums around Yorkshire. Shibden Hall, Rydale Folk Museum and the Dales Countryside Museum all house material objects from rural Yorkshire that tell the story of a way of life that has become partially obsolete. The project aims to preserve language contemporary to the objects alongside them.

A large part of the Archive of Vernacular Culture pertains to the Survey of English Dialects. This was a nationwide survey of the vernacular speech of England, undertaken by researchers based at the University of Leeds from 1950 to 1961. I was interested to hear that the first interviews undertaken as part of the survey were not audio recorded (as recording equipment would have been cumbersome and impractical at that time) but written down in the international phonetic alphabet. Researchers would also draw pictures in their notes if they did not have a word for the item being described. I think there’s a kernel of something interesting here (a possible art project?!) as regards to the relationship between objects, words and pictures.

My favourite fact from the talk was that, when selecting subjects for the survey, the ideal candidate was an older man with good teeth. Apparently men typically adapt their manner of speaking less readily to the influences around them than women. Older men would take the researchers as far back as possible in terms of past dialects and, well, the good teeth part is obvious. Gaps and gums would not influence their pronunciation.

Found poem

Found on Monday 9 January 2015 on the 22:56 Leeds to Skipton train.

Please keep your feet off the seats.
Putting your feet on train seats
is a habit that other customers
find particularly annoying.

This is what some of them said:
Dirty, inconsiderate, anti-social,

Please show consideration
for your fellow customers and
respect for train seats.
Thank you.

Love Letters – The Black Tower

The Black Tower, by John Smith, film still.

I am keen on a lot of films by John Smith, but my favourite is ‘The Black Tower.’ When I think of this film I envisage the ‘black tower’ of the title silhouetted against a bright blue sky. Then the textures of a London suburb – brick walls, railings and the odd bit of greenery. Immediately I love this work on a visual, visceral level. All of the shots are beautifully composed and the colours – a slightly heightened version of reality – are gorgeous.

Then I love its structure, its conceit. It is neat and clever. The film depicts an empty urban landscape but we hear, on the soundtrack, a monologue voice-over that tells the story of a man who inhabits these streets. We see what he sees and what he sees is the black tower (an industrial structure – possibly a water tower – that looks part minimalist sculpture and part archetype house). At first it is innocuous. He just notices it in passing. Then he becomes consumed by it, obsessed that it is following him. Over a period of several months he sees it everywhere he goes and we follow him and his descent into madness.

The tower has been filmed from many different angles and locations and the way shots are cut together makes the tower appear as if it is moving. I enjoy imagining the filmmaker walking the streets, seeking out vantage points. I like the thought of him alighting on the tower as a motif and then constructing the work around this. The pacing of the film is perfect – starting slowly and then becoming fast and tense as the man becomes unsettled. As I write I can imagine the soundtrack of running feet and multiple, fast cutting shots of the tower at the film’s mid-point climax.

Each time I watch the film I notice something new; a word/image interplay that had eluded me before. Or I remember an element I’d forgotten. It’s a work that’s very simple in concept but complex and multi-layered in execution.


‘Type Motion’ at FACT Liverpool from 13 Nov 2014-8 Feb 2015 is a strange beast, a kind of survey show of animated type, ranging from concrete poetry to contemporary pop videos.

LYMS (original 2009) from ottar ormstad on Vimeo.

On entering the first exhibition gallery, where 24 works are shown across 7 screens, I felt as if I’d entered the futuristic city of Ridley Scott’s ‘Bladerunner.’ Mirrored walls add to the visual and auditory cacophony of 7 simultaneous works. This curation is intentional, I realised, as I read the gallery hand out which describes typemotion films that create ‘virtual architecture reminiscent’ of ‘cities flooded with adverts.’ The trouble is, a lot of selected works – to my mind at least – don’t invite or benefit from this visual overload. Films such as ‘Text/Image’ by Josef Linschinger and ‘ICI’ by Stephen Groß are subtle and slow. The works are installed without attention to their individual nuances and the set up made it hard to watch them without distraction.

An attempt to deal with this was made in the second, upstairs gallery where you could explore an archive of over two hundred films on an ‘interaction station’. This station – developed by xm:lab – was quite a technical wonder with films organised chronologically in different categories, including ‘Music Video’, ‘TV avant-garde,’ and ‘Fluxus,’ all operated by touch screen. It was a great resource with information provided about each film. However there was only one station controlling projections on two screens. I overheard a staff member showing a group around explaining that at any one time, there could be up to 10 people adding films to the two playlists. She suggested that this installation plus another interactive piece (where you could fly across a virtual cityscape to discover films) were aimed at a younger, teenage audience. I couldn’t help thinking that as a teenager I’d have been annoyed to select films only to have them cancelled or skipped by another visitor, even if they were my friend or classmate – just as I do now. Thankfully I visited on a quiet day when snow was keeping many people away from the gallery. So I had the luxury of spending a couple of hours viewing films from the archive, with only the occasional interruption. The joy of this format is that you can navigate to what interests you; so I spent my time watching Dada, concrete poetry and experimental artists’ video with a few forays into film titles and advertisements. I watched some great pieces including ‘Word Movie’ by Paul Sharits and various works by Len Lye I’d seen some of before as well as many new discoveries such as work by Paul Glabicki and FluXus Heidelberg.

The collection of work is remarkable and a huge amount of research has evidently gone into putting this project together. It’s a shame the archive is not accessible outside the gallery – although apparently a publication/catalogue is forthcoming. For now, at least, I have a long list of names of artists and designers to research further in the relative quiet of my home.

Love letters – Measures of Distance

Last week I had a conversation with a friend about the programming of an arts organisation whose work I am generally interested in – I find it enjoyable but, as I said to her, “I do not love it.” This prompted me to ask myself the question: “what works of art do I love?” and I started to make a list. If I manage to keep it up, I am planning to write a series of blog posts about the works over the coming weeks.

To start off with, I thought I’d post a link to piece of writing I wrote a few years ago about the artwork ‘Measures of Distance’by Mona Hatoum. It’s a little bit of an unresolved piece, slightly awkward, but I still like parts of it. I think of it as a kind of love letter to Hatoum’s work of art. It was written for the publication RITE, 2010, published by Open Dialogues and New Work Network.The design/layout is by Wood McGrath.

Most of the works I can think of that I love are artists’ films or videos. This could show that I’m working in the right way myself, making videos at the moment. Or it could just be that I have video on the brain!

Review: Anand Patwardhan – A Cinema of Songs and People

This review was first published in “The Mirrored Hammer” – a newspaper of Music, Art, Culture and Critique for Leeds and Bradford in November 2014. The exhibition was at Gallery II from 18 Sep-23 Oct 2014.

Image: Jai Bhim Comrade, (2012), film still courtesy of Anand Patwardhan & Gallery II.

Near the start of Anand Patwardhan’s 1985 documentary “Hamara Shahar/Bombay: Our City ” a female interviewee says: “without money I have no voice.” Then the film cuts to a shot of three musicians, singing a protest song. It begins: “Listen to our Story, listen to this workers’ tale” and it continues – threading throughout the film’s 75 minutes – to recount a story of power, corruption and oppression. The lyrics echo the words of slum dwellers interviewed in the documentary who speak about their struggle to live in Bombay in the face of persistent demolitions and attempts to move them on by the city authorities. Along with 3 more recent shorts by Patwardhan, made in slum communities, “Hamara Shahar/ Bombay: Our City” strives to give voice to impoverished inhabitants and workers who have been essential to Bombay’s (now Mumbai’s) economic development but who have been marginalized and ignored. The films have a social-political objective intertwined with a concern for the politics of representation. How can the filmmaker give voice to the slum community and what potential do artistic representations have to enfranchise people and affect political change?

“Hamara Shahar/Bombay: Our City” unfolds slowly through interviews and via footage of daily life in the slums, counter-posed with images of high-rise, glitzy Bombay. A shot pans around the lavish home of the city commissioner whist he inveighs that others cannot just put up homes where they like. Later we hear from slum dwellers that work in construction, building swish apartments for a meager salary whilst their own makeshift homes are repeatedly destroyed. We witness a meeting of city advertisers being cajoled into making positive representations of the city, as if the hutments are only a problem of image. A slum dweller retorts, they want to “push us into a corner, [to] make it shine.” There is no voiceover monologue to cohere what is depicted, the films’ success is its pointed juxtapositions and multiple voices.

Running in parallel with the interview and documentary content is the protest song and several scenes of street theater by Vilas Ghogre, a Dalit musician who Patwardhan collaborated with. The film periodically cuts to Ghogre’s band and to street performances watched by a large, amused crowd. For slum residents – for whom access to education is difficult and literacy presumably low – these performances are likely to have served a communicative role in addition to their entertainment value. For the film viewer the humor and creativity of these scenes humanises the slum dwellers. They act as a counter to depressingly familiar comments made middle class city residents who bemoan that slum dwellers don’t mind living in sewer conditions so long as they can buy a fridge or TV, that they have too many children who they can’t look after or that they should go back to the villages they came from. Ghogre’s music is intricate, the lyrics reflective and the theatre is darkly comic. In one sketch the distress of a man with diarrhea at a broken community toilet is interrupted by a visit from an electoral candidate. The candidate says he brought taps to the slums last year and if they vote for him again, he will bring water to those taps.

Patwardhan’s use of song and rhyme continues in the two shorter films “We are Not Your Monkeys” (1996, 5min) and “The Children of Mandala” (2009, 5min). The former is structured around an anti-caste song co-written with Dalit poets that criticises the Hindu epic Ramayana. The latter shows children from Mandella slum playing, learning the alphabet and chanting a message of support to children in the Swat valley. For me “We are Not Your Monkeys” was harder to get a handle on because I am only superficially familiar with the epic, however the film’s inclusion made me conscious of the possibility for misinterpretation or simplistic interpretation of unfamiliar cultures. I had previously assumed the Ramayana to be a straightforward representation of historic Hindu beliefs; this film suggests that it is contested. Watching Patwardhan’s works I am aware that my understanding may only be partial. It is clear, for example, that the Dalit songs are much more musical in their original rhyming Hindi and some of this is lost on me as I read the subtitles on screen for their meaning. Having said this, the films’ strength is in the empathy they elicit and where “We are Not Your Monkeys” looks to the past and the importance of a specific history “The Children of Mandala” foregrounds the universal experiences of childhood and play, with children in one situation reaching out to children in another.

Patwardhan acknowledges the potential for his work to objectify impoverished people – one woman in “Hamara Shahar/Bombay: Our City” reprimands him saying: “you take photos to make your name…don’t take photos of the poor.” But his films are nuanced and though they represent a particular situation the questions of power, wealth and corruption raised by the films transcend a specific place or time period. This makes them affecting and important even 30 years after “Hamara Shahar/Bombay: Our City” was produced.

The final short film “Occupation Mill Worker” (1996, 22 min) has a particular resonance in Bradford, bearing in mind this city’s textile history. Bombay – we are told – had a thriving textile industry until mill owners discovered they could make more money by closing mills and selling off their land. The film documents events from 1992 when workers forcibly entered Bombay’s New Great Eastern Mill after a four-year lock out. Workers hold protests, watch film screenings and attempt to clean old machines. They are confronted by police and some are arrested, then after a two year struggle they achieve a court order to reopen the mill. The film finishes here and we do not know whether they were ultimately successful. Nonetheless Patwardhan’s choice to end on a positive note demonstrates optimism about the potential for change via collective action.

The question remains: can the films themselves be agents for social change? A 1986 press release, included in the exhibition, suggests uncertainty. In the release Patwardhan struggles with whether to accept a national award for best non-feature film for “Hamara Shahar/Bombay: Our City” because he is aware that the film has not changed the situation of the slum dwellers depicted. We know today that slums persist and it is hard to watch the film without thinking about the subsequent children who have grown up in these dire conditions. This ambivalence – around the films’ impact – makes this exhibition more complex; it does not pretend to present simple answers to the complicated problems of global capitalism. Patwardhan’s films have not been widely seen in the UK and I think it is important that they are shown here. Bombay’s slums may seem remote from us but the issues foregrounded in these films ought not be.

The films may not directly help slum dwellers however they can – like Ghogre’s street theatre – raise awareness and influence opinion. In “Hamara Shahar/Bombay: Our City” we learn that some of the police mobilsed to demolish slums are former slum dwellers themselves. The security of a municipal job and the resulting ability to support their families compels them to act against their peers. Similarly we all, as global citizens, make individual choices complicit in the oppression of others. We try to push poverty into a corner, out of our minds, in order to live comfortable lives. Patwardhan implores us to look and to listen. “Hamara Shahar/Bombay: Our City” is harrowing but it too finishes with a call to action and a glimmer of optimism. Ghogre’s song ends: “When the workers rule, there will be food for everyone” and, as he sings, the camera pans along lines of police men, stopping for a moment from their job of demolitions and simply listening.

Reflecting on RECON

A few weeks ago it was RECON, a festival of experimental art and music in Leeds and Bradford. I attended some of the festival events and since then have been mulling over the question of audience. Specifically how or whether an artist or musician thinks about their relationship to and interaction with an audience.

I know this isn’t a novel question and it’s certainly not particular to this festival, yet my experiences of RECON raised it foremost in my mind. Perhaps this was because Yvonne Carmichael’s silent gig with That Fucking Tank was explicitly concerned with how audiences usually behave at gigs. Or perhaps it was the starkly different approaches shown by David Thomas Broughton and James Yorkston at their gig at the Howard Assembly Rooms. Whatever the reason, here are my reflections.

Yvonne Carmichael & TFT Silent Gig

The set up for the silent gig at Bradford’s Delius Centre (there was another instance of the gig in Leeds that I didn’t go to) had the two members of That Fucking Tank playing their instruments in the centre of the room, surrounded by us, the audience. Interspersed with the audience were some dancers – trained and untrained – who had been to a series of workshops to prepare for this event. Oh, and we were all wearing headphones. The music was unamplified (a la silent disco) so you could tune-out and just watch if you wanted to. The dancing didn’t begin immediately and there was an initial frisson of anticipation about who was a plant and who a regular audience member. Soon though it became quite clear who was who. The dancers formed a kind of circle around the band and, although they flowed in and out of more tightly choreographed moves, they were quite distinct from the head-nodding, drink-holding attendees. I found myself ever-so-slightly taking on the moves of the dancers. My muscles would twitch in line with their actions and I considered throwing caution to the wind and breaking into the circle, but I didn’t. One woman did. Good for her. The rest of us nodded away but with an added awareness of each other. What I liked most about the set up was how enjoyable it was to watch, not just the band and the dancers but also the other audience members. In Bradford the event had a very convivial atmosphere. The audience size was limited by the number of sets of headphones available (25 I believe) and I think that most people attending probably knew the performers or knew someone who did. Audience was explicitly thought about and the event was designed with an audience, although a limited one, in mind.

Frozen Music
The intimacy of this event contrasted with the very public ‘Frozen Music’ by Amorphous Orchestra which happened two nights running outside Leeds Art Gallery. I attended on the first evening when a moderate crowd gathered on Victoria Gardens to watch. I wasn’t sure what to expect, the event was described as a live music and projection event using “the realtime scanning of performer’s brains to melt and morph the architecture of Leeds Art Gallery.” I wondered, how long would it be? Would it be linear, designed to be watched from beginning to end or a looping drop in-drop out affair? There wasn’t the usual framing provided by being in a particular type of venue or by being clearly either a) an art installation or b) improvised music. This was some kind of melding of the two. In the event it seemed to be a linear piece, with the music and projections both building over a period of time. So I was compelled to watch it in its entirety and I found it an enjoyable visual and sonic experience. Yet I remained a bit confused about its structure and about exactly what its purpose was. One thing I noticed was that very few passers by stopped to watch. I expect that to some extent this was due to the time of day, when commuters just wanted to get home. However I also wonder if it was partially because it wasn’t very clear how, as an audience member, you might interact with the work.
I’ll give a brief description. Firstly, you could see a group of men in white coats in a mini poly-tunnel with lots of electronic equipment, laptops and some musical instruments. They were playing some music, combining electronics and live elements. Placed nearby was a kind of dentist/barbers chair (rather Sweeney Todd) in which sat a woman, also in a white coat, with a contraption on her head. She was facing a large projection on the external wall of the art gallery. If you read the festival literature – as per the description above – then you would know that there was a relationship between the music, the woman’s cerebral response to it and the projections. Her brain waves would be used to manipulate the projected images. Was it a performance or was it a science experiment? For me it fell between the two. If it was a science experiment then I wanted more explanation of how the projections related to the subject’s brain activity. If it was a performance, then I wanted more consideration to be given to what the visuals conveyed. I liked the white coats and the look of ‘science’, plus the theatrical chair but was irked that it was always a woman in the chair, whilst men twiddled nobs. At times the projections looked sort of brain shaped, sometimes they looked like graphical representations of electrical activity but at other points there were recognisable images. I wondered, was there a logic and mechanism to this? An occasional electronic voice said things like: “entering phase 2, phase 2 – scanning the [insert a brain area]” which provided some explanation and guidance to the structure of the work, but it was a bit obtuse. The work could have benefited from an introduction or people on hand who were obvious guides. I felt that – in working out how to combine all the visual, acoustic and technical elements – an overall consideration of the audience’s experience was lost. Having said this, the premise of the piece is interesting and I hope there’s potential for its collaboration to further develop.

James Yorkston & David Thomas Broughton
The last event I want to talk about was a gig at the Howard Assembly Rooms, within Leeds’ Grand Theatre. My experience of this began with a similar framing anxiety. I was out for dinner and time was getting tight. At a gig doors usually open way before the music begins, but at the theatre or at a classical concert you’re expected to be there before the stated ticket time. What would the etiquette be here? Luckily our food arrived promptly and we got to the venue 5 minutes before start time. The next dilemma was where to sit. At the back of the room there was raked seating but at the front, cabaret style circular tables with surrounding chairs. Like most people we automatically headed towards the safe distance of the rows. Then in a moment of abandon I said: “let’s sit at the front” and we did. Right at the front. It turned out to be the best viewing spot for the first act David Thomas Broughton but not a great one for the second act James Yorkston, when I wished I could sneak away.

I lack the musical reference points and adequate vocabulary to describe music very well. As with the acts I’ve mentioned earlier in this post you’ll have to search online if you want to hear what these musicians sound like. However I think it’s safe to say that James Yorkston is fairly straight-down-the-middle contemporary folk with a somewhat pop sensibility. He is very competent but I found the songs rather dull. His saving grace was his audience patter. Between songs he told endearing stories. He may well tell the same stories every night but it worked.

Yorkston’s approach was a complete contrast to David Thomas Broughton who had no chit-chat verbal engagement with the audience but whose set was much more of a performance, interacting with the audience and the situation of the particular venue. Broughton’s music is also ‘folk’ but more ramshackle and more interesting. He records and loops sections of his voice, guitar and other noise makers such as an attack alarm and – in this instance – the creaky floorboards of the stage. He had 3 backing singers/performers who contributed not only gorgeous vocals but also interesting visual diversions such as tangling themselves up in microphone wires and wandering off in to the audience. Rather like Yvonne Carmichael’s dancers, I got the impression that they were improvising within certain set rules. Though I am sure that Broughton has tropes that he repeats at different gigs, it felt like a one off and this made it exciting. His attitude to the audience came across as conflictingly a little diffident and a little belligerent (compared to Yorkston’s friendly stories at least). He sang out above our heads and then walked amongst us, he stood on the front of the stage playing a buzzer on his belly (this was very funny) with a scowl and essentially imbued the gig with a whole lot of character.

I was reminded of a section in the film about Nick Cave “20,000 Days On Earth” where Cave talks about being a performer at small gigs where he picks out individuals from the crowd by making direct eye contact with them. The film shows footage of this; a packed, standing audience cram against the stage and are obviously loving the intensity of the encounter even though, to me, it seemed quite aggressive. This is juxtaposed with footage from a much larger concert at the Sidney Opera House. Here the audience is seated and Cave is on stage behind a piano and accompanied by a choir in addition to the band. It is a completely different dynamic yet he finds a way to relate to the audience in each. In the end I guess there’s no right or wrong way for performers to interact with their audience, but it is important for them to think about what works in a particular, given context. RECON’s experimental remit and boundary-crossing between art and music provides and extra challenge for audiences who may be experiencing unfamiliar work in an unusual setting. Hence it raises a challenge also to the performers, to consider and to orchestrate the type of encounter that they want.

Splendours and Miseries of The Brain

A few years ago I read ‘Splendours and Miseries of The Brain’ by Semir Zeki. Zeki explores what our appreciation of art and music might tell us about the brain. For example I recall a section where he writes that we enjoy works that are somewhat unfinished because it leaves room for our imagination to fill in the gaps. As far as I recall the writing is backed up by studies using brain scans to monitor people’s reception of artworks.

I haven’t looked back at the book since reading it, but I remember that although I found parts of it interesting, I ended up thinking “so what”? If we explain our experience of looking at art in terms of what is happening in the brain, it does not seem sufficient to encompass the subjective experience of art. I am not suggesting that there is something mystical about art (or love, which is the other topic of the book) but I am mindful that art is a satisfying, multimodal experience, whilst an explanation of what art does to the brain is not (well not in the same way at least). I write this as a reminder to myself, not to get bogged down in theories of language and perception. I write it as a reminder to play.

In the article by Robert Finlay that I referred to in my last post he quotes a poem from Keates. I also thought it worth repeating here.

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow. . . .

(John Keats, “Lamia,” in The Complete Poems of John Keats (New York: Modern Library, 1994), p. 155.

Basic Colour Terms

A second video I am doing research for at the moment concerns colour; specifically colour perception and colour terminology. I am interested in several related aspects, but haven’t quite worked out how (if!) they will come together into something coherent. This blog post is an attempt to summarise and work out where I’m up to with this research.


The development of colour terminology:

In ‘Through The Language Glass’ Guy Deutscher writes about colour terminology. He tells the story of how William Gladstone noticed a paucity of colour terms and their apparently erratic usage in the writing of Homer. Gladstone’s conclusion was that Homer had an underdeveloped ability to perceive colour, compared to present day colour perception. His idea was that colour perception had evolved over time. Deutscher goes through various twists and turns from this story but the upshot is that Galdstone was wrong to suggest a deficit of colour perception, but he was onto something when he noticed an underdeveloped language for colour.

Colour perception and terms for colour description do not develop together, people may be able to see colour as well as we do, but not have the need for the number of colour terms that we use. Deutscher makes the point that we live in a world saturated by synthetic, single colour items whereas the natural world is filled with things that are more variegated.

In the 60s Berlin and Kay studied speakers from 20 different languages directly and collated evidence from 98 languages over all. Their research suggested that colour terms are adopted in a consistent order. First black and white, then red, next yellow then green or green then yellow. Then blue and then brown. They suggested an order for up to 11 terms (next including purple, grey, orange and pink). Later experiments have not supported these 11 basic colours, but some evidence seems to support the order of black & white, red, yellow, green and blue acquisition. (For example, this colour order is used as the structure for this course about colour). The logic for this order of acquisition is to do with things in our natural environment – day/night, light/dark, blood, plants etc.

Deutscher is more measured in his remarks as to whether such an order can be considered universal. He notes that there is not necessarily equivalence between colour terms in different languages. Colour terms split up a continuum and they may vary in terms of what their focus is (what is taken to be the prototypical example of a colour) and in terms of where they set the boundary between one colour and another. He raises a potentially more interesting point about whether colour terminology can actually influence what we perceive.

The influence of colour terminology on perception:

Deutscher describes several experiments that investigate whether colour words actually influence colour perception. For example Russian has two distinct colour terms for colours for ‘blue’:  ‘siniy’ (dark blue) and ‘goluboy’ (light blue). In one experiment Russian and English speakers were shown 3 blue squares; 1 alone on a top row and a row of 2 below. One of the squares in the bottom row was identical to the upper square and participants had to indicate which one by pushing a button as quickly as they could. The reaction time of Russain speakers turned out to depend not just on the objective distance between shades but also on the borderline between siniy and goluboy.

If the mis-matching square was 2 shades along in the light direction (thus across the border into goluboy from the 2 identical squares) the average time it took Russians to press the button was shorter than if it was 2 shades along in the dark direction (thus all squares would be described as ‘siniy’). When English speakers were tested with the same set up there was no skewing effect. Here’s a better explanation from New Scientist.

Colour perception, light, the eye and the brain.

LIGHT: Isaac Newton was the first person to demonstrate colour as ‘original and connate properties’ of light. Previously it was thought that light was illuminent (white) and that it could take on other properties through its interaction with matter. From his work we know that colour is not inherent in objects, but seeing colour is to do with the quantity and kind of rays that objects reflect. Colour perception occurs with the interaction of light, our eyes and our brains.

THE EYE: Thomas Young (1773–1829) proposed that all color sensations could be derived from three processes in the retina that are sensitive, respectively, to blue, green, and red and James Clerk Maxwell who showed mathematically that light interacts with structures in the retina to give rise to the sensation of sight.

THE BRAIN: We perceive colour when photons received on the retina send nerve signals to the brain. I haven’t done much research around this process although have come across the suggestion that colour is interpreted differently by different parts of the brain (e.g. system 1 thinking – largely unconscious and automatic, and system 2 thinking – conscious and requiring more effort). The brain is where colour associations are elicited, where we draw upon prior knowledge and experience.

Newton was criticised by Goethe in his ‘Theory of Colours’. I have yet to read Goethe’s book but in an article “Weaving The Rainbow, Visions of Colour in World History” by Robert Finlay writes that: “For Netwton colours are in are heads and for Goethe colours are in the world.” Finlay traces both the physiological development of colour perception and the development of its cultural significance, exploring an interrelationship between what is in the world, what happens in our eyes and their interface with the brain. He suggests that the two can never be completely separated. (As an aside Finlay mentions how Newton identified seven primary colours in the spectrum to make it match with the seven notes in the musical scale at that time. Newton saw this correspondence as confirmation of the divine harmony of nature, thus cultural assumptions influenced his work too). As well as writing about Newton and Goethe, he cites Wittgenstein’s later book ‘Remarks on Colour’ (1950) which he says “took place upon a fault line dividing the followers of Isaac Newton (1642-1727) from those of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1727).” Finlay’s article is in some sense an attempt to answer Wittgenstein’s question about whether it is possible to establish a natural history of colour.

Deutscher adds another dimension – language – to the study of colour and perception. It is in our minds that language and vision interact and this, I think, is the crux of what I am interested in. So my next step, perhaps, is to read Goethe and Wittgenstein’s ‘On Colour.’ I know the latter is meant to be notoriously difficult to read (I have seen some of the video where Gary Hill films his daughter reading it out loud!) But perhaps with the help of Deutscher and Finlay it will enable me to think through the relationship between language and vision a little bit more. We shall see!