Neil Harbisson. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
A high-definition video wall projects a series of resplendent images: ants scurrying, then pausing; the red caps of milk bottles; yellow tram lines painted down the edge of a street. And then, suddenly, the screen goes gray.
This montage marks the end of “Colour and Vision,” an exhibition that opened last week at the Natural History Museum in London (NHM), which explores the evolution of color and its perception. The video considers how people experience color in different ways, and includes the observations of the British-born artist Neil Harbisson, who was born with achromatopsia—he sees the world in grayscale.
“To me, seeing in grayscale has advantages,” Harbisson tells me during a Skype call, “including that I have better night vision.” He’s also able to see farther distances—“because color doesn’t interfere”—and has a keen understanding of light and shape (he notes that many people’s preference for grayscale portrait photography is due to the way that light and shape are accentuated over color). “I can also memorize shapes more easily,” he adds.
Harbisson’s perception begs interesting questions about individuals’ different experiences of color. While it is assumed that people might have different emotional or perceptual relationships with colors, relatively little attention is given to those with visual disorders or differences. So what do these differences mean for artists? And for those perceiving their work?
One only has to mine the author Alexander Theroux’s impressive series of essays on color, “The Primary Colors,” to begin to understand how color changes in different contexts. “The blue-black sky of Vincent van Gogh’s 1890 Crows Flying over a Cornfield seems to express the painter’s doom,” he writes. “But according to Grace Mirabella, editor of Mirabella, a blue cover used on a magazine always guarantees increased sales at the newsstand.”
Artists have long dealt with the notions and side-effects of differing visual perceptions—from William S. Burroughs’s hallucinations to William Blake’s visions—as well as vision disorders. Claude Monet’s cataracts led to his losing his ability to see certain colors, for example, while the 19th-century French artist Charles Meryon, known for his etchings of Paris, was colorblind.
To deal with his colorblindness, Harbisson has implanted an antenna into his skull, with technology that allows him to sense color as audio vibrations. As a cyborg artist, he produces Op Art-style paintings based on music, which mimic the frequencies he perceives, as well as sound portraits, for which he translates the colors found in people’s faces into chords of music. “To me, it’s about sharing an experience and sharing an intention, so people can feel the intention of the artwork, or the expression,” he says. “It’s not creative art to me, it’s revelatory.”
The flipside to this is how colorblind individuals perceive art. Personally, as someone who is mildly red/green colorblind, my own perception of a light-faded green in a landscape, or a grid of subtly differing dots in a spot painting, will be different than yours. Last year, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago began to pass out EnChroma colorblindness-correcting glasses, as part of a wider initiative to make art more accessible to visitors.
Wall of Eyes © Trustees of NHM, London. Photo courtesy of NHM London.
As the NHM exhibition explains, the experience of color differs for various reasons. Indeed, color perception—the effect of different wavelengths across the light spectrum on light-sensitive cells—varies wildly between species. Bees can detect ultraviolet light, whereas whales and seals are colorblind. According to the exhibition’s organizers, one theory about color vision’s origins in humans is that our ancestors needed it in order to seek out ripe fruit. “You have primates and marsupials and we think we’re wonderful,” says Suzanne Williams, a color evolution researcher at the NHM. “But you go to the invertebrate world and they can see so much more than we can.” While there are numerous causes, those with color blindness may differ in the structure of their photopigments, the molecules in their retinas that change shape when they absorb light, whereas achromatopsia can have genetic or cerebral origins. Beyond the limits of our biology, the possibilities of technological implantation will only widen the spectrum of artistic experience.
“To me, seeing grayscale was always an advantage,” concludes Harbisson. “Sometimes just focusing on light and shape is better. But perception is unique to each person; it is incomparable.”
“Colour and Vision” is on view at the Natural History Museum, London, Jul. 15–Nov. 6, 2016.