Summer 2002

Colors / Safety Orange

A synthetic realism

Tim Griffin

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

These are the days of disappearing winters, and of anthrax spores whose origin remains unknown, or unrevealed. Concrete phenomena float on abstract winds, seeming like mere signatures of dynamics that supercede immediate perception. The world is a living place of literature, interstitial, eclipsing objects with the sensibility of information, and experience floating on the surface of lexicons. Everything is so characterless and abstract as the weather: Wars are engaged without front lines, and weapons operate according to postindustrial logic, intended to destabilize economies or render large areas uninhabitable by the detonation of homemade “dirty bombs” that annihilate culture but do little damage to hard, architectural space. Radical thought is also displaced, as the military, not the academy, offers the greatest collective of theorists today; all possibilities are considered by its think tanks, without skepticism or humanist pretensions, and all nations are potential targets. Ordinary health risks described in the popular press are totally relational, regularly enmeshing microwaves and genetic codes; the fate of ice caps belongs to carbon. Everything is a synthetic realism. Everything belongs to safety orange.

It is a gaseous color: fluid, invisible, capable of moving out of those legislated topographies that have been traditionally fenced off from nature to provide significant nuances for daily living. Perhaps it is a perfume: an optical Chanel No. 5 for the turn of the millennium, imbuing our bodies with its diffuse form. (Chanel was the first abstract perfume, as it was completely chemical and not based on any flower; appropriately, it arrived on the scene at roughly the same time as Cubism.) The blind aura of safety orange has entered everyday living space. One pure distillation appears in the logo for Home Depot, which posits one’s most intimate sphere, the household, as a site that is under perpetual construction, re-organization, and improvement. The home becomes unnatural, industrial, singed with toxic energy. Microsoft also uses the color for its lettering, conjuring its associative power to suggest that a scientific future is always here around us, but may be fruitfully harnessed (Your home computer is a nuclear reactor).

Such associative leaps are not unique. In postindustrial capitalism, experience is often codified in color. During the economic surge of the past decade, corporations recognized and implemented on a grand scale what newspapers documented only after the onset of the recession: that colors function like drugs. Tunneled through the optic nerve, they generate specific biochemical reactions and so determine moods in psychotropic fashion; they create emotional experiences that lend themselves to projections upon the world, transforming the act of living into lifestyle. Something so intangible as emotion, in turn, assumes a kind of property value as it becomes intimately maneuvered by, and then associated with, products. (One business manual recently went so far as to suggest that “consumers are our products.”)

The iMac, to take one artifact of the 1990s, was introduced to the general public in a blue that was more than blue: Bondi Blue, which obtained the emotional heat accorded to the aquatic tones of a cosmopolitan beach in Australia, for which the color is named. Similarly, the iMac’s clear sheath is neither clear nor white—it is Ice. (Synesthesia reigns in capitalism; postindustrial exchange value depends on the creation of ephemeral worlds and auras within which to house products. And so, as colors perform psychotropic functions, total, if virtual, realities are located within single, monochromatic optical fields. Control of bodies, the original role designated for safety orange, is set aside for access to minds, which adopt the logic of addiction.) In fact, the 1990s boom might be usefully read through two specific television commercials that were geared to hues: It began with the iMac’s introduction in blue, orange, green and gray models, in a spot that was accompanied by the Rolling Stones lyric “She comes in colors.” Later, against the backdrop of 2001’s dot-com wasteland, Target released an advertisement featuring shoppers moving through a hyper-saturated, blood-red, vacuum-sealed field of repeating corporate logos—colors and brands were by then entirely deterritorialized, lifted from objects and displaced onto architecture—to the sound of Devo’s post-punk, tongue-in-cheek number “It’s a Beautiful World.”

Devo often wore jumpsuits of safety orange, which was, at the time, the color of nuclear power plants and biohazards—a color created to oppose nature, something never to be confused with it. It is the color of information, bureaucracy, and toxicity. Variations of orange have often played this role. Ancient Chinese bookmakers, for example, printed the edges of paper with an orange mineral to save their books from silverfish.

Times change. In 1981, the Day-Glo connoisseur Peter Halley suggested that New Wave bands like Devo were “rejecting the cloddish substance of traditional humanistic values,” comparing their work to that of the Minimalists. (All colors are minimal.) Yet the course of Devo has been the course of culture: the band’s rejection of humanistic values has become more abstract and expansive, and enmeshed in cultural tissue. Their music moved away from the specialized artistic realm of electro-synth composers like Robert Fripp and Brian Eno (who produced the band’s first music in a German studio at the behest of David Bowie) and into the world. First, it appeared for the mass audiences of the television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse, for whom the band wrote music. More recently, its band members have written music to accompany Universal Studio’s Jurassic Park ride and, most recently, Purina Cat Chow commercials. Their anti-humanism no longer approaches culture from any critical remove; there is no synthetic outside from which to unveil the bureaucratic, unnatural structures of a social façade that presents itself as entirely natural. We have entered an era of synthetic realism.

Devo is hardly alone in this kind of abstract migration. Vito Acconci has recounted a similar shift in his subjectivity, which may be traced in his shifting modes of production from poetry and sculpture to architecture and, finally, design—where his work is intended to disappear into the world. His changing taste in music is more to the point. He started in the 1960s by listening to the long, introspective passages of Van Morrison, then moved to the public speakers of punk in the 1970s. Today, he prefers Tricky, in whose music “it is impossible to tell where the human being ends and where the machine begins.” Individuals, in other words, have given way to engineers. Music by a composer like Moby has no signature sound or style; art by a painter like Gerhard Richter similarly leaps from genre to genre. Subjectivity itself is encoded for Napster. And safety orange, the color of this synthetic reality, becomes culture’s new heart of darkness.

Tim Griffin is a writer, curator, and art editor of Time Out New York. His book of essays titled Contamination, a collaborative project with artist Peter Halley, is forthcoming from Gabrius (Milan) in September. His book of poetry, July in Stereo, is forthcoming from Shark Press (New York).

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