Not Only RGB (Decentraland, October 2022-June 2023) is a MoCDA group show supported by Decentraland DAO featuring works created by Kevin Abosch, Matt Kane, 38‰ (Mattia Cuttini and Luca Donno), Sarah Meyohas and Mathieu Merlet-Briand. This is the curatorial introduction by Chiara Braidotti and Anastasia Pineschi.
Life began to evolve the ability to perceive and differentiate colours 90 million years ago. In some ways, it is one of life’s oldest defining characteristics, perhaps rivalled only by a capacity for movement and a sense of time. It enables the ability to differentiate unique presentations of our environment, to categorise, to know when food is fresh or rotten. We ascribe meaning to our environment based on the harrowing red dawn of a sky before a storm at sea, the laden grey of clustering rain clouds, the peace felt by the glow of a golden evening.
A fascination with the meaning of colour has led to endless explorations of colour’s mechanical origins. Although the physics of colour has long been a fascination of scientific circles, Isaac Newton was one of the first to codify its relationships. Building on light-focused investigations from Ptolemy, Ibn al-Haytham, and Descartes among others, Newton isolated independent wavelengths through the use of a prism and mapped the relationship between these wavelengths in a proto-colour wheel in his book Opticks (1704). By ‘[separating] from one another the heterogenous Rays of compound Light’, Newton developed a foundational theory for the construction of colour, by which the combination of two differently hued lights could produce a third hue, culminating in the combination of all colours to produce white.
Indeed, although many of light’s properties have been refined since Newton’s initial investigations by other experiments such as those by James Clerk Maxwell, a fascination with the ability to isolate and combine colour emerged in critical artistic movements around the turn of the 20th century. This fascination followed Goethe's psychology of colour, which was significant in the artistic context of the time as it emphasised the emotional and aesthetic qualities of colour and its effect on human perception, challenging the prevailing scientific approach of Newton dominant in physics and optics, and encouraging artists to explore the expressive potential of colour in their work. Most notably, pointillistic works employ a subtractive colour mixing theory as a branch of a wider divisionist movement, where the focus in artistic representation during this neo-impressionist period pivoted towards constructing optical interactions between colours. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884-1886), arguably one of Georges Seurat’s most famous works, eschews the mixing of colours on an artist’s palette to instead present minute dots of paint on a canvas that blend within the viewer’s eye. Pigments are constructed in the initial selection of paint, but the selection, spacing, and vibrancy of these paint dots is what creates elements like the shimmering folds on a woman’s dress and rolling shadows on green grass.
In the age of the digital, however, colour has become purely an optical exercise. The additive theory of colour has guided the construction of electronic images as pixels on a computer screen balance their red, green, and blue phosphors to provide a visual gateway into a constructed online world. The screen has become a futuristic form of divisionism as complex colours are constructed by optical illusion through dithering, an operation by which image processing algorithms produce illusionary shades through a combination of limited colours. And behind the electronics, colour has become a dataset, codified into binary strings that alert these phosphors when to illuminate or dim.
The work of Nam June Paik is some of the most poignant to explore the semiotic meaning behind colour on the screen. In Video Flag (1996), 70 CRT monitors flash imagery of American politics and technological advancements, coordinating the footage across the screens to invoke a massive, volatile American flag. Each individual screen displays tinted, stuttering footage, but it is only when the screens are seen as a whole work can the final composite image be perceived. Although not depicting an aspect of the natural world, Video Flag encapsulates the ways in which colour can be isolated, modified, and recombined onscreen as a new iteration of the outside world. The semiotic meaning of the flag, when stripped to its component parts of red, white and blue and overlaid on panicked footage, becomes distorted by the world depicted on the screen, each monitor acting as an experimental chamber that can only be understood in aggregate. America, the true America, feels more real through these amalgamated stories.
So what can the digital world offer in an understanding of the natural world? Housed in circuits and datapoints, is it too far removed from the blood and water of biological life? It is a bold question, but ultimately one in need of refinement. The dichotomy between ‘natural’ and ‘digital’ falsifies real experiences received from virtual worlds. Naturally we are not nourished by the water from a virtual lake or shaded by the leaves of a digital palm tree, but the physical mechanics of light’s interactions with our eyes, the emotions we receive from two-dimensional images, the status and purpose we gain from maintaining digital assets; these are all elements of biological life influenced by our time online. The computer must be seen not as a replacement for the natural world but as a tool for isolating and transforming its components. The teleology of art places digital tools at the rightmost edge, something altogether new yet with deep roots in historic art practice. The icons in Photoshop are still brushes despite the lack of paint.
As a meditation on one of humanity’s most fundamental curiosities, the Not Only RGB exhibition explores the transposition of colour from the natural world into the multispectral realm of the digital. Each of the works in the exhibition explores different angles of investigation: emotional, mechanical, geological, algorithmic, astrological. Placed in conversation in the exhibition, Kevin Abosch’s Sun Signals and Matt Kane’s Gazers depict astrological bodies, but to different purposes. Where Abosch’s series constructs scenes from solar data with the express purpose of evoking the viewer’s emotional reactions, and hopefully action, Kane stacks each dataset to explore colour as autobiographical aggregate, continually moulded by the interplay between layers. Italian duo 38‰ (Mattia Cuttini & Luca Donno) offers a different interpretation of colour. Their work ColorSeeds, created in response to the exhibition, explores the geometric qualities of colour, using digital code (metaphorical ‘seeds’) to generate colour palettes that explore fundamental laws of nature like symmetry, order and randomness.
Other works in the exhibition explore questions of Big Data and its role in the preservation and categorisation of our natural world. Mattheiu Merlet Briand, through a work that was created for the exhibition, recreates a purple amethyst-like mineral in a virtual sculpture, commentating on the play between geological and digital eternity. In a similar vein, Sarah Meyohas uses the dissection of roses to reduce rose petals to natural datapoints, which are then easily recombined and regenerated through an algorithm in the face of a new evolutionary selection tool: that of human preference. Digital and algorithmic tools have reduced colour to a new class of computer-stored information, one that can be categorised, stored, amplified or erased.
The fundamental laws that govern our emotional and physical relationships to colour are often dissected and recombined through the digital lens. In fact, drawing on philosopher Luciano Floridi's concept of "onlife," which describes the interconnectedness of online and offline spaces, we could consider that the environment in which we live is substantially extended into the digital realm. As the newest platform in a longstanding artistic tradition fuelled by an obsession with colour, the digital world prompts us to question what purpose it serves in representing nature. Yet, when we consider the complex impact of colour both on and off the screen, it might be better to ask why we see them as separate entities in the first place.