Waves of Light – Colour as Information

What do you see when you look out into the world? Do you notice auric gold ribbons of sunlight dappling through the leaves of a tree and feel the warmth of a happy memory? Are your eyes satiated by the plump scarlet flesh of a summer sweetened tomato? Do you move when you see the icy optic viridian of a traffic light signalling you to go?… Everyday life is full of fleeting glances of colour, and though the smallest may seem transient or abstract, these visual signs can grant a wealth of information.

 

A question of colour

Colour has always left a tint in my life; from studying at art school and creating artworks, to communicating my research, recalling my strongest memories, and shaping the way I interact with the world. Even now as I walk the steps into Librarianship, I aid creative arts students with their contextual research, and must think seriously and practically about colour. I have encountered queries that have ranged from ‘Do you have any information on the colour red and how painters have used it?’ to ‘Do you have information on fashion designers who have subverted the use of white in bridal couture?’. Colour is a powerful visual language and a primary tool for artists to create and communicate information. So what is colour as information? Is it truthful and evidential, or is it subjective and ambiguous? By looking introspectively at the facets of colour, perhaps it can tell a better story of information itself, what it is, and how it can be communicated.

 

Splitting open the sunbeam

Before I start wandering dreamily over the shades of blue, let us first apply some exacting science. Colour is the subjective physiologic interpretation of the visible electromagnetic spectrum. As a ray of light enters your eyes, bright ambiences or images, produced in the retina, are sent to the brain and interpreted as a set of chromatic sensations. The reason different things appear different colours, are because like tides passing through the ocean, light travels in waves too. (Evans, 2017). While some things absorb some wavelengths of the visible spectrum, others are sent bounding off into the heavens. Blue light for example, is scattered in all directions by tiny molecules in the air of the Earth’s atmosphere. This light travels in short, small waves, and when it touches your eyes and your brain processes the data, the sky appears to breathe out an all-encompassing colour blue. The absence of these light waves at night is also what turns the sky into a black cauldron, enabling us to see the glitter of distant stars. In this sense, the colour we really perceive something to be is precisely the colour it isn’t, that is, just the segment of the spectrum that is being reflected away. (St Clair, 2016).

 

Colour as information

Colour is a very sophisticated neural process and the specific biochemical reaction results in the organisation of what is conveyed or represented by the arrangement or sequence of light. (Nichols, 2014). It is evidential so surely it must be information? Information is notoriously mercurial, it exists in abundance, and like running water it takes shape and significance depending on the environment and need. The father of information theory Claude Shannon (1993) was hesitant with definition, stating

“it is hardly expected that a single concept of information would satisfactorily account for the numerous possible applications of this general field”.

The different interpretations, misunderstandings, and misuses of information are more evident now we are living in such a hyperconnected and information sharing society. This is what Floridi (2014) describes as the 4th revolution, where contemporary life has become immersed within a swirling cloud of data. The news, social and digital media, technology, and analytics, all filter swathes of data and downpour us with varying types of information. Whether we like it or not, there is not a part of our lives now were we don’t get soaked in the stuff.

GDI

Floridi’s (2010) General Definition of Information (GDI) is a single map of informational concepts and this nifty model is now commonplace in fields that reify information, to be organised and disseminated, such as the library and information sciences. By applying this model across domains, we can start to decode complex information and think of it as a structure of data + meaning. Using this model, we can also start to understand non-textual forms of information, beyond the frame of the written word. Although not always obvious, images, objects, and even performances containing the same pattern of data + meaning, can be credible sources of information.

Our understanding of the many practical uses of colour to communicate, has in turn enabled us to interpret and transcribe everything, from mundane objects to the illimitable architecture of the cosmos. Even though it seems impossible to imagine a world where the colour of something could not be used to visualise, describe, inform or understand, the textual use of colour has historically entered the written language very slowly. The ancient Greeks, with all their beautiful and poetic prose, never had a simple word for the colour blue. The seas and skies of their world were described as ‘wine-dark’, ‘starry’ or ‘of lead and bronze’. (Michela-Sassi, 2017). Similarly, in the middle ages there existed no word for the colour orange, and today there are desert tribes in Africa who have six words for the colour red, and yet no single one for green. (Fletcher, 2001). Through the eyes of observation and understanding, it has become clear that every culture has its own way of understanding, organising, classifying, and communicating with colour. This is not due to varying biology of the human eye, but because colour is subtle and prompts varying emotional responses, all according to varying social, political and cultural contexts. The complexity of colours conveys numerous types of information from feeling, relationships and contrasts, dramas and tensions, to the very nature of matter and its processes and transmutations. Once understood and harnessed, colour can be used to suggest temperament, class, vocation and hierarchy, and as such can define, differentiate and blend well formed data. (ARAS, 2010). There are entire industries that use and are highly dependent on libraries of colour to communicate information; it can be applied to weave a piece of clothing as equally as a work of art, design or product, and logo or brand.

 

Shades, hues, and tints of information

Colour as information triggers different responses. It can be environmental, a cold fact, usefully and efficiently giving meaning to data. A red light is a signal or warning, a well-placed green on a topographic map distinguishes land from water, and a green banana turned yellow is ripe to eat. (Tufte, 1990). What is more interesting, particularly for the business of artists, is that colour can be a tool of subtle visual communication. It can draw from cultural knowledge and create a story, trigger or carry deeply truthful or emotive information, invoke a memory, stimulate the senses, and rouse the soul. It can also be unnatural, juxtaposed, playful, and subverted to change to the status quo. (Paul, 2017). It can be both truthful and universal as well as highly subjective and interpretive. Understanding information, and the many forms it possesses, is especially important for library and information professionals. It is after all our responsibility to collect, protect, preserve, manage and disseminate meaningful information to society. To understand information, context and critical thinking are therefore paramount. It is our ability to critically evaluate its contents, that allows us to judge its meaning, purpose, and be able to act on it. As with any language, the language of colour and information is learned. By widening the understanding and teaching of visual and information literacies, Librarians can bring clarity to a deluge of information and assist researchers with applying more creative and practical ways of giving meaning to data.

So perhaps then when you walk to work in the morning, you may take the time to notice some colour in your day and think more about what it is telling you. Let the amber corona on the edges of leaves whisper to you that autumn’s hand is near. Read the gaudy yellow billboard at the bus stop you always walk past. Stand in front of an abstract painting, or the bright cerulean sky and let the colour wash over you. Life is showered with waves of light, colours, sensations, and complexity, and you will begin to see that even in the mundane there is information to be read and little bit of magic.

 

References:

Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (2010) The book of symbols: reflections on archetypal images. London, UK: Taschen. p636.

Evans, G. (2017) The story of colour: an exploration of the hidden messages of the spectrum. London, UK: Michael O’Mara Books Limited. p14-15.

Fletcher, A. (2001) The art of looking sideways. London, UK: Phaidon Press. p53.

Floridi, L. (2010) Information: a very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p19-24.

Floridi, L. (2014) The 4th revolution: how the infosphere is reshaping human reality. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p13-17.

Michela-Sass, M. (2017) ‘The sea was never blue’. Aeon. Available at: https://aeon.co/essays/can-we-hope-to-understand-how-the-greeks-saw-their-world (Accessed: 30th August 2018).

Nichols, W. (2014) ‘The Sense, the Body and the Big Blue’, in Blue Mind. London, UK: Little, Brown & Company. p88-89.

Paul, S. (2017) Chromophilia: the story of colour in art. London, UK: Phaidon Press. p11.

Shannon, C. (1993) Collected papers. New York, USA: IEEE Press.

St Claire, K. (2016) The secret lives of colour. London, UK: John Murray Publishers. p13-15.

Tufte, E. (1990) Envisioning information. Connecticut, USA: Graphic Press.

 

Illustrations:

Bell, A. (2018) Splitting a sunbeam [photograph] UK.

Floridi, L. (2010) Information: a very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p30, diagram.

To See a World in a Grain of Sand – Filtering Fine Art with Metadata

Metadata sounds alien, complicated and like something Doctor Who would theorise about to his companion. Despite the vagueness, the nature of Metadata is to be incredibly helpful to us fellow Librarians and our service users. For those of you who like me are visually minded and enjoy a good metaphor, allow me to introduce you to the artist and oracle William Blake. Mr Blake is going to kindly reinterpret Metadata for us:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”.

What could sound more eloquent or more beautiful? To see the world in a grain of sand, this is what Metadata does for us. Imagine the expanse of a golden, sun touched desert. Within the windswept sands, there holds a numerous amount of data, molecules, and atoms. An entire microscopic world is contained within one single gleaming speck. Well, Metadata helps us see that world, with clarity, by magnifying and filtering through the sand.
Have I lost you in a world of metaphors? Ok, less prophetic poetry and more fact. Metadata is best translated as ‘data about data’ and it can be seen as structured categories that help to find, retrieve and control information. (Pomerantz, J. 2015).
For libraries, the most common example of Metadata is found in the search terms of the library catalogue, and these are an essential way of filtering through documents so that service users can find resources easily. The library catalogue is Blake’s heaven in a wild flower, it is a portal to knowledge and a place to see the entire world.

So why is Metadata important for the Fine Art practice and how can Library and Information professionals help?
In our digital world, art exists online in an abundant oasis and this provides Art and Design students with endless inspiration and pools for creativity. Websites such as Google, Pinterest, and Instagram, with their ease of access, have made it easy to build giant dunes of images. In piling up so much data, finding professional and high quality images of art can feel like you are sinking in quicksand (and not to mention the grainy pixels!).
Art is also highly interpretive, and anyone familiar with it will know that the subject matter, medium, and content are not always translated in the title of the work. In order to gain a reliable search result, an information professional with specific subject knowledge must interpret the art and go through the process of adding descriptive metadata. The very fact that we must use words to describe a work of art means that the old saying “a painting can speak a thousand words” has never been more apt. (Baca, M. 2002).

Held within the lofty aether of academic libraries, Art Librarians hold the kingdom keys to visual information with their detailed knowledge of the rapid advancements in technology, social media, and contemporary art. They are able to deliver tailored visual literacy workshops and study skill sessions that help hone the craft of locating and understanding images from across the arts. (Glassman, P. & Dyki, J. 2017).
While we are all guiltily and gluttonously using Google Images for their fast food style search service, Librarians can provide unique support that encourages users to go beyond Google, escaping the algorithm and questioning what it is they are not being shown. By assisting service users to access validated image collections and databases, like ARTstor for example, what they can guarantee is that a professional with subject knowledge has added descriptive metadata to the images and that this information is also embedded in the image file itself. Details of the copyright, date, creator and the title of the artwork are precisely defined and provide an accurate basis for service users who are referencing this visual information.

Our digital society is richly saturated with information and images. If Librarians can break stereotypes and truly inspire students and academic staff to act on natural inquisitiveness when researching, and demonstrate the boons of better study skills, then we are on the right tracks to becoming trustworthy, reliable and accurate advisors in the sandstorm that is big data.


References:

Baca, M. (2002). A picture is worth a thousand words: Metadata for art objects and their visual surrogates. ALCTS Papers on Library Technical Services and Collections. pp.131-138.

Blake, W. & Lincoln, A. (2006). Songs of innocence & of experience. Tate Publishing. London.

Glassman, P. & Dyki, J. (2017). The handbook of art and design librarianship. 2nd Edition. Facet Publishing. London.

Pomerantz, J. (2015). Metadata. The MIT Press. Cambridge. Massachesetts.


Image:

Bell, A. (2017). To hold the world. [collage]. UK.

A Sea of Information

Oceans are vast bodies of water surrounding continents and are critical to the survival of humankind. Water sustains us and the very origin of life is found in it. What would you think if I said the same about Libraries?

We immerse ourselves in oceans every day, from the deep seas of the internet to the tides and chapters of books, the ebb and flow of social media and the sweep and pull of news and television. Gone are the days of dusty tomes, inks, and quills in Libraries. In our digital world Librarians take a central role in helping navigate the torrent of information.
In the same way as water, these seas of digital information sustain and record human life. They have become vessels where human memory and experiences are documented and can exist eternally (providing no one pulls the off switch!).
In a billion years will Twitter be the bedrock in which we sift for the fossils or traces of humanity? Are the complex digital systems we have surrounded our lives with really all that different from the cave paintings of our ancestors?
Ok, let me stop there… these are huge questions and the little boat I am adrift on is nowhere near big enough to answer them, but they are certainly ideas to paddle over.

Hello! Let me introduce myself, I’m Alex. The human body is made of water, a trace of our oceanic past, so here are a couple of insights into my own sea, the very information that makes up me:
– I am currently studying Library Science MSc part-time at City University.
– I also work in a Learning Resource Centre at West Kent College supporting students with a whole range of library related services.
– Fine Art is my academic discipline and I hope to use this subject knowledge to one day work as a Subject Librarian in the arts.
– I am left handed. Interestingly there was some obscure research carried out to prove that left-handed people adjust to sight underwater better than their right-handed kin (I am sure a scientist will tell you that is hocus pocus though).

So speaking of Science, I have always thought of Science and Mathematics as my personal Loch Ness monster, a subject full of intrigue but slightly mythical and out of my comprehending. So here I am, an artist on a Science Masters! Naturally, this feels like quite the big dive, but I have an open mind and very much look forward to seeing where the tides of science, information, and art meet.
Swimming down the river of the Masters course, I hope to pursue research on developing an information literacy programme for art and design students in academic libraries, as well as research into image collections and the boundaries of art as a document.

Here is to hoping I can stay adrift, reach an island and answer some big Library related questions along the way!