The visible spectrum of colors is only a tiny small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum, after which there is a long strip of infrared (and “red”) light that we do not see, but feel, from the sun. Red is also the longest visible wavelength. Through talking with Eric Rosenthal, expert in color vision, I also learned that red is the color we see first; red is associated with fire, in essence, things we need to react to quickly. Therefore, there are danger associations with red. However, the sun is also the life source for our planet; if you turn a plant towards the sun, it will grow towards it. Thus the sun, or the color red, gives us life.
We also discussed how on the other side of the danger spectrum, there is blue, or “Ultraviolet” light. Blue light is the shortest wavelength; it is only present in our world when the sun is high. If you get too close to UV light, your skin will burn. Thus, you want to filter this from your vision. It is also the wavelength that keeps us awake, that we fill office spaces with, that we go out into in order to wake up and feel alive. Our relationships with color are now also mediated through technology. Here is an excerpt from my interview with Eric:
Blue light’s very controversial….Your body is expecting less blue, when it wants to go to sleep, the theory being the sun has set, therefore [your body is not expecting as much light in the blue wavelength]….So, where there’s evidence, where there’s bright sunlight, where there’s Ultraviolet, you want to filter the Ultraviolet from your vision, because Ultraviolet is just like giving you sunburn, it destroys your skin cells, that’s the same kind of thing that can happen to your cells in your eye, in the retina, with cones and rods. They can be affected by too much Ultraviolet. So you wear sunglasses, ok? But there’s evidence that proves that. Whereas the blue light, there hasn’t be enough studies or evidence to substantiate.
The paradoxes involved in color psychology and nature are something I am studying here as a starting off point, which led me to study the use of warm and blue lighting in interior spaces, and this in between place between danger and nourishment. From this standpoint, I read a series of studies on PubMed at Margaret’s suggestion, and came to the conclusion that while the studies are new, it is indeed true that blue light seems to keep us up at night, and warm lighting is more relaxing. I began to wonder if these colors could be used in isolated ways in public art to draw attention to this. It also seemed natural to try to also gear these public installations for therapeutic uses, as well as to generate a conversation about colors and how we react emotionally to them when isolated, and be more aware of these wavelengths in our daily lives.
While at first I was leaning towards are didactic approach about blue lighting vs warm lighting in favor of the warmer lighting, my conversation with Tom Igoe led me to rethink this. He pointed out that in our daily lives, especially indoors, decisions have been made for a series of reasons, and it is important to understand these reasons before criticizing the choices that have been made. For example, people need blue light (or full spectrum light including blue) indoors to see, and to stay awake. Other lights have been chosen in places due to their efficiency, such as sodium lights in car parks, which also isolate yellow wavelengths. I began to steer away from seeing one as good and one as bad, and more towards a general awareness of these wavelengths in our lives, and how they could be used. Since I have also been researching in general the use of sound, color and light for therapy and therapeutic installations or uses, I began to think that I could synthesize my research into the everyday lighting into something more magical, and wind back to the idea of a public installation that could also be enjoyable for the senses, while pointing out some of the other more scientific elements of how these colors are present in our lives.
I interviewed two artists work in public art who use a great deal of color in their work. The first person was Julia Vogl, who has done a number of large or smaller scale works using color. She stressed that “Public Art has had huge benefits in giving pride and ownership to a community and an increased sense of safety” and the idea that public art can lower crime rates and enable people to be out in public more, and create a “beneficial emotional connection in a place.” She said she was inspired by using color palettes similar to a bowl of candy, or a bunch of balloons or a bouquet of flowers, in other words, using colorful, happy, engaging associations, to draw people into more serious conversations. She also discussed the cultural uses of color, and a project she did in Hong Kong which used the colors of the five elements in Chinese medicine. Julia also referenced her work with a neuroscientist, who claimed that certain colors are more calming, such as blues and purples, which are more likely to be used for a permanent public piece. They also recommended not making something too dark and thinking about the landscape around it, and what that piece is supposed to do to enliven the space but also be calming. She also described using earth tones in a piece for a bereavement center, where all reds were taken out of the colors used. She said: “The most important thing about public art is how do you engage the community that’s actually going to use it and at the same time make them feel comfortable.”
Another note that stuck me from our conversation was her saying that temporary art is very powerful. For one, structures and colors are hard to maintain in public over time. Conceptually, people also take notice of things more of they are only temporary and different from their normal landscape, versus fixed as a permanent fixture in the architecture of a place, which tend to blend in over time as they get used to its presence. My other interviewee, Graham Coreil-Allen, who works on site-specific works promoting social engagement and public safety in Baltimore, also highlighted the temporary as something powerful in this way, and how if you don’t engage through art on another level beyond visual you miss out on an opportunity to create a conversation, and described how he was trying to synthesize interests in radical situationist theory” and “change a city through intervention to improve places and affect politics,” and tying his work back to “public art was a way to synthesize interest in sculpture, art and activism.”
I ended my conversation with Julia tying back to her grad school manifesto, which she said was “Artwork has to engage, has to be site specific, art has to include an element of decor” as well as visually communicate: “Why not be beautiful and why not be effective and have a discussion about the work?”
Based on this, and my research on the psychology of color and work outside of our class in audio-visual installation, I am now coming back to my own practice in audio-visual art, and will propose an installation of an room in an outdoor space during winter that is heated, which would be lit up blue during the day and warm colors at night. This installation would provide both a refuge from the cold and a place for color/light (and possibly sound) immersion, providing public light and color therapy in our darkest months, as well as highlighting the needs for blue light or sun during the day, and relaxing colors at night, as part of how the human biology works and what it needs to feel balanced. The intention would be to have people be more aware of their everyday lighting choices, and how colors affect us, as well as create a public installation that would hopefully also create a space of wonder and new perspective on something we experience on a subconscious level every day.
I also read that blue light is better for plant growth, while red light is better for producing fruits. An analogy can be made here for humans; I will include this in an accompanying video along with a physical maquette for the installation, and possibly incorporate the image of the plant into the final installation idea as well.