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?