Color in the crevices

25 October 2011

Color doesn’t have to be poured out by the gallon to create a sense of joy. In fact, it’s often better in small doses, as in these works by Ethan Greenbaum. When people say “good fences make good neighbors,” maybe this is what they have in mind.

There’s also a human equivalent. I’ve featured in the past the kooky performance art of Companie Willi Dorner, a troupe of artists who wear brightly colored clothes and then squeeze themselves into tight urban spaces. I recently came across these images, which I hadn’t seen before, of a performance they did in New York last year.

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Against a field of grey, color means more. It is a spark of something that has its own energy, something dynamic that has the potential to erupt, to bring more color. As Johannes Itten, father of contemporary color theory, put it: “Color is life: for a world without colors appears to us as dead.” Color, even in tiny doses, signals a desire for life.

Images: Ethan Greenbaum via the artist. Companie Willi Dorner via WSJ.

Lollipop law

18 August 2011

What do lollipops have to do with keeping the peace? Surprisingly, more than a little. A recent initiative by a city council in the city of Victoria in British Columbia offered free lollipops to drunken revelers leaving bars to cut down on noise and violence after a night out. Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe explained that the treats make it hard for inebriated partiers to be too loud, and that they minimize dialogue that could lead to brawls. More practically speaking, they also regulate blood sugar and, like pacifiers, have a calming effect.

While there’s no hard evidence that the lollipops worked, councillor Thornton-Joe says that it seemed to be so effective that the city is considering making it a permanent program. It’s a charming idea – that something so childlike and innocent could disarm a rowdy bunch. And it makes for a joyful image, to imagine adults appeased by candies on sticks.

This is aesthetics of joy at their beguiling best. Sugar, color, and a form that evokes nostalgia for childhood – these things have real power. Contrary to so much of what we are taught, they are not just styling or superficial extras. They are phrases in the language with which our stuff speaks to us, quietly shaping our desires and our behavior. It’s a joy to see them applied in a such a novel way, and for such playful problem-solving. I hope to see this idea take off in other places too.

Photo: Beautiful feather lollipops by Abbey Hendrickson of Aesthetic Outburst, via Pinterest
NPR: “Lollipops: Pacifiers for Bar Patrons?” 

Intangible color

16 July 2011

These last few weeks I’ve been steeped in color. Literally, with the effusion of bright summer hues in the city, and figuratively, as I’ve been devoting many a spare moment to researching it. Color is the subject of chapter two and, as evidenced by the colorful nature of this blog, a nearly endless topic when considering design and joy.

Right now I’m reading a very thoughtful, scientific little book from the 1980s called Colour: Why the World Isn’t Grey, which covers everything from why rainbows appear to why flames are orange to why the sky is blue. As the author Hazel Rossotti demystifies these phenomena, she’s reminding me that some color seems particularly mysterious.

Intangible color – the color of the horizon, of an oil slick on a rain puddle, of a match-strike – has a trickiness to it. We perceive the color, but it is either too distant, too evanescent, or too changeable to feel certain in our impressions. The color feels deceptive, yet tantalizing. Though we know that pursuing it will leave us empty-handed, sometimes we go after it anyway. Like burying one’s nose in a magnolia flower only to find the thrum of fragrance all around, but pale within, we find our rainbows and sunsets accessible only from afar. I suppose we should feel grateful that their photons journeyed such a long way to our eyes in the first place.

Maybe there’s more joy to this kind of elusive chroma, or if not more, then certainly a distinct kind of joy – a delight mingled with longing. And that’s of course what joy should be from an evolutionary perspective. Not perfect satiation, but satiation plus motivation to continue seeking that “passage from lesser to greater perfection,” as Spinoza wrote. With its spiritual airiness, intangible color feels something like a promise, a reminder that still greater beauty is out in the world to be discovered.

With these thoughts on my mind, I wanted to share a few works that create a similar kind of intangible color, despite being constructed from tangible materials. The first, above, is a recent piece by Andy Gilmore, whose kaleidoscopic works I’ve long enjoyed and have posted in the past. This piece seems to vibrate in those light spaces where the hues fade out in steps. It’s almost as if it’s moving, and therefore impossible to fully take in all at once.

Below is a kind of 3D counterpoint to Gilmore, from artist Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus 4 and Plexus 5 series. These are similarly vibratory, almost spatial rather than material, like a dense chromatic fog. You almost feel as if you could walk right through them, though in fact they’re constructed from thousands of strands of thread. Like many natural examples of intangible color, these installations seem to radiate their own light, making them even more ethereal and compelling.

I hope you’re out enjoying a colorful weekend somewhere, intangible or otherwise…

Xx Ingrid

Joyful sidewalks, joyful cities

3 May 2011


They look almost like brightly colored mosses, don’t they? Like some new form of street lichen. Or a kind of chromatic filling compound. A rainbow grout.

This set of sculptures by artist Juliana Santacruz Herrera is a particularly striking example of yarnbombing, a form of knit or crochet-based street art that frequently reacts to the urban environment. In Herrera’s case, this means applying braided fabric in looped forms to cracks in the sidewalks of Paris. Like the pothole gardens and lego repairs I’ve written about in past posts, Herrera’s works use delight to call attention to the breakdown of infrastructure in the city. Like other yarnbombing projects, they work with maximal contrast – in color, contour, density, and texture – to catch our eyes and make us take notice. While they don’t actually fix the problems they’re addressing, it’s possible that inducing this kind of positive affect makes people more inclined to act to change their environments. More than an angry letter or a protest, these works create a desire to share with others, creating a kind of social momentum.

Herrera’s works are one more example of a phenomenon I call joyful repair – the act of mending or calling attention to a damaged element of the environment using color, texture, playful gestures, and other aesthetics of joy. It’s a form of joyful activism, which tries to bring about change through positive emotion, and it’s one of my very favorite applications of aesthetics of joy.








Here’s another example I’ve had in my files for awhile. Working at a slightly smaller scale, London artist Ben Wilson uses chewing gum splotches as a canvas for tiny, brightly colored sidewalk art. Wilson has been creating the paintings since 1998, and estimates he’s made over 10,000 of the little works! Interestingly, not long after he began his gum-painting endeavors, people began making requests for particular designs, often commemorative. So what began as litter has become an odd little system of tribute, like plaques on park benches or in front of newly planted trees. People want to be associated with something they feel good about, and with a little color and charm, that even could be improperly discarded chewing gum. The sidewalk at first seems an unusually mundane place for this sort of personal connection, but maybe not. After all, the sidewalk is the most intimate of transitory spaces in a community, the backdrop for so many of our daily dramas and spontaneous joys. Filling its holes, reclaiming its blemishes – in some way these are a deeply integral form of reconstruction.

Chewing Gum Art by Ben Wilson

Ben Wilson

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There’s something else here, too. Projects like this are a signal that someone cares about a place, that the condition of that environment matters to someone. Someone is paying attention to the details. To make something beautiful is to invest time and energy in it, and these two are the most valuable, limited resources we have. We perceive this signal of caring and passion, often unconsciously, and we typically follow in kind. We read our landscape for cues about how to treat it, we draw inferences about the inhabitants, and we subtly alter our behavior to maintain this condition – or enhance it. These aesthetic signals often become a discourse of community, a conversation between the denizens of a place that leads, via a subtle form of one-upmanship, to the organic growth and improvement of our favorite places to call home. Alain de Botton has written (I’m paraphrasing here) that one of architecture’s purposes is to inspire us to be better people, and I would say the same for any of these urban interventions. We see improvements, and they unconsciously motivate us to improve ourselves.

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Joyful repair projects can serve as jumpstarts for this process. This project, though not new, is a great example of this principle applied over a large scale. Called “Favela Painting,” this brightly colored village is the work of Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn. Working in a slum outside Rio, their goal is to use art “as a tool to inspire, create beauty, combat prejudice, and attract attention.” The care and passion embodied by the murals effectively transforms the favela from outside in. Some really thoughtful words about the effects of this project, on the Magical Urbanism site:

‘Favela painting’ affects the aesthetic order of how favelas are perceived from within and outside its natural embryonic growth. Colour brings hope. It brings a different understanding of space and its people, inviting others to co-create and co-represent much more constructively and positively life here. It appeals to our senses in a way that we do not reject but embrace these places and the potential for better life. It articulates a different discourse of social change; of engagement, contributing to improve life for favela dwellers.

It’s hard to say it any more succinctly than “color brings hope.” It suggests energy, and as such it has an uplifting and an attractive power. It’s a harbinger of better things to come. As I think about the phenomenon of joyful repair, I’m reminded of the root of the word repair, the Latin parare, “to make ready.” By repairing things, we are making them ready again. By repairing them joyfully, we’re making them ready for wonderful things to happen in the future.

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Favela painting 3

Favela painting 4

Images: Juliana Santacruz Herrera on Flickr via designboom; Ben Wilson via Inhabitat; Favela Painting via The Fox Is Black.

{Thank you Maggie and BD}

The joy of illegal rainbows

2 January 2011

A wonderful find, from my dear friend Mara of Neither Snow, is this “rainbow warrior.” The warrior is a street artist working in Albuquerque, using spilled paint to pour rainbows off the tops of buildings. He (or she)’s really got some people riled up (see newscast, here) and it strikes me as remarkable that people can be so dour in the face of rainbows.

The charm of the story is in how the community has rallied to the warrior’s defense. This Facebook page has drawn 1,492 fans “in support of the Rainbow Warrior, whomever s/he may be.” And the soul of the story is in the warrior’s own words. This is the warrior on his/her inspiration for painting the rainbows:

About three or four years ago … I was feeling really depressed and I had this notion that if I went out and painted a rainbow, maybe someone would see it and feel what I was feeling or feel anything as intensely as I was. The first one I did, I just literally dumped the paint over the side of a pretty ugly, abandoned, alleyway building.

And this is the warrior on street art:

I want to inspire other people. That’s part of all my art; it’s always positive. I think I chose street art to inspire somebody else in a way that’s outside of the box. Like somebody who wouldn’t normally be exposed to street art, somebody who would just walk past it. Street art really saves a lot of people who are down in their lives and on their luck. This is their one and only outlet. Plus, you get an immediate response from people. A lot of times it’s just, Look at that graffiti on that freeway wall. But maybe the graffiti on the freeway isn’t the ugly thing, maybe that’s not what they’re angry about. Maybe they’re angry about how for the last 10 years you’ve been driving through this prison freeway with these big ugly gray walls and it just took the graffiti to point out the ugly that was already there.

I find this tension – between the forbidden act of graffiti, technically vandalism, and the delight people are discovering as a consequence – acutely compelling. Is an illegal rainbow still joyful? Here’s a letter writer commenting on the rainbow warrior situation:

So, somebody lays down a rainbow on the thing, a piece of art (and yes, it is art, even if it is “free,” and maybe especially so) that pokes fun at the mess, that makes me grin and say, “That’s a little better!” As a life-long citizen of Albuquerque, as someone who has had his very personal property damaged by genuinely malicious individuals: this isn’t the same thing. Is it graffiti? Yeah. Is it the same as somebody tagging a vulgar word on the car my parents gave me when I went to college? No. The intention of the rainbows is perhaps mischievous, but it is definitely not malicious. The intention, and the execution, is a wink, a laugh, a little unexpected burst. Worth a slap on the wrist and a good talking to, nothing more.

(Ok, and now I’m going to pause, because the 400 words and 45 minutes I just spent finishing this post have vanished into the ether that is this charming second day of the new year. [Deep breath and a moment to convince myself it will come out better the second time around.] Ok…)

I like this distinction between mischief and malice. The mess the writer refers to is the Anasazi building, the most public of the warrior’s targets, a high-rise which had recently been taken over by the Albuquerque government because the developer was charged with fraud, (a crime with no discernible aesthetic value). I like the idea that the rainbow has in a way recast an unfortunate incident for the citizens of the city. Redemption, via transgression.

How important is this element of transgression in the joy we feel from street art? Is there something inherent in the violation of boundaries that fuels our pleasure when we look at it? The carefree disregard of the strictures of private ownership and the numbing conventions of urban aesthetic culture? Maybe our delight is less about the vibrancy of the color, and more about the irrepressible spirit that put it there.

I’ve been wondering this in the wake of a visit last week to Wynwood Walls, a collection of murals in an artfully dingy Miami neighborhood. Wynwood brings together works by a range of street artists, well-known names like Futura, Shepherd Fairey, Nunca, Space Invader, etc. under the sanction of gallerists and developers, in a project that dropped out of Art Basel 2009. I really like a number of these works (particularly the piece by Nunca, below), and I recognize that the mainstreaming of street art gives these artists a chance to make a real living, but I can’t help but wonder: Is some of the joy lost by bringing these works into this kind of walled garden? Tamed by the light of legality and legitimacy, are they just a bit less vibrant, a bit more inert?

Maybe my previous question – Can an illegal rainbow be joyful? – had it backwards. Maybe it’s precisely the illegality that touches us. Mischief, with its attendant unpredictability and freedom, makes us feel vicariously free.


By the way, if you find yourself in Miami, definitely make your way over to Wynwood and see it for yourself. Have lunch at the Wynwood Kitchen and Bar and wander the zillions of galleries which seem to have sprung up, perfectly distressed-looking, practically yesterday. It’s a nice day out, and a welcome departure from the excess of the design district.

Rainbow Warrior images via Patricia Austhoff and The Fibe Squad. And again, thanks, Mara.

Art, sexual selection, and renewal

5 June 2010

Feeling arty today, inspired by a semi-monthly art outing tradition I have with a couple of friends this afternoon. Most of the time this blog focuses on explaining joy, but today I just feel like sharing some. These paintings are by Berlin-based Barcelona artist Yago Hortal.

Ok, I changed my mind. I was going to just post some art, but as the title of this post suggests, I can’t help but noodle this a little more. Why do colorful swirls of paint make us feel so stimulated and uplifted? Why does art move us so? This question is especially significant in abstraction, where there’s no subject matter to react to, no inherent narrative, just pure sensation dancing about on our rods and cones. I’ve offered up a bunch of ideas on this blog about color, curves, and so on — why specific aesthetic elements may have evolved to make us feel joy. Recently I’ve come across a theory that puts our desire to make and view art in a more macro evolutionary context. In his book The Art Instinct, philosopher Denis Dutton contends that art arose as a (rather sophisticated) way of attracting a mate. He connects art with evolution through sexual selection, the aspect of evolutionary theory that deeply troubled Darwin before he was able to explain it, because it fostered the success of traits at cross-purposes with survival. (The peacock’s tail is the classic example here: Large and brightly colored tails may make a peacock more vulnerable to predators, but they’re selected for anyway because peahens prefer them. Research suggests this is because they indicate a peacock carries a lower parasite load than his dull-plumed buddies.)

Making art may once have said, “I’d make a good mate because I’m clever and creative,” selecting the desire to make and appreciate art, music, literature, and performance into the human genetic makeup. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the link between art and sex is persistent, that our current appreciation of art is akin to artist-lust, that a gift of a painting is foreplay. Evolutionary theory doesn’t offer explanations for our reasoned behavior in the present; it merely gives us origin stories, roots that help explain the common ancestry of our universal predilections. Rather, for me, it’s interesting to know that when we view art, somewhere deep in our brain may be the trace of a neural connection that links such apparently purposeless beauty with the desire that fuels our renewal. That our joy in art is not detached contemplation, but visceral, emotional, and vital.

Yago Hortal via but does it float

Joyfully uninviting

3 June 2010

Can something say “Keep Out!” and still be joyful?

This was the question that popped into my head as I considered the Razzle Dazzle Sculptural Security object, the angular plywood contraption jammed in the window of the house pictured above, by Detroit-based Design 99. The purpose of the Razzle Dazzle (more examples of which you can see below) is to protect empty houses from squatting and vandalization, a common problem in Detroit neighborhoods. An alternative to boarding up doors and windows, the method signifies that someone is interested in looking after a place.

A strong thread of joyful activism runs through all of Design 99’s projects: the brightly-painted Power House, a community space cum sculpture made from a previously empty house, or the Neighborhood Machine, a similarly hued Bobcat with trailers that can be appended for various urban renewal tasks, such as gardening and collecting found material. For these projects, aesthetics of joy such as bright color, stripes, and other patterns catch the eye and raise awareness for urban renewal projects. They also telegraph the spirit of the movement, and offer an exuberant energy that might inspire volunteers and invite onlookers to join in. The aesthetics visually convey the intent of the artists behind Design 99, Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope:

The Power House intends to be a stimulator and not an end in itself as a singular art object. The Power House is a broadcaster of potential ideas and a place to plug those ideas into. The Power House will be used as an interactive site, by us and by our neighbors. The Power House will become a symbol for creativity, new beginnings and social interaction within the neighborhood.

But while the house and the machine seek to invite, the purpose of the Razzle Dazzle is entirely different. It’s a three-dimensional “No Trespassing” sign. So there’s an inherent tension between the spiky, angular form, which articulates (and enforces) the “stay away” message, and the vibrant pattern, which is a visceral enticement. There is also a tension in the way the piece is crafted. The Razzle Dazzle’s form is haphazard, seemingly cobbled together from debris — something you might expect to see at an abandoned site. It looks like it might itself be an act of vandalism. But the deliberate color treatment transforms the meaning of the piece. It says, “Someone put me here on purpose,” and therefore, “Someone cares about this place.”

In this way, the Razzle Dazzle is inviting. Through a splash of color, it offers the promise that a space will be inhabited by people who will care for it and restore it. It’s an invitation to return, suggesting that next time you visit, it may not be an abandoned shack, but a lively business, a vibrant community gathering space, or a home. It’s a joyful “Keep Out,” because it’s also a “Come Back Soon.”

{via Core77}

Power House and Neighborhood Machine

Neighborhood Machine with solar panel trailer attached

Gardening trailer for Neighborhood Machine

Razzle Dazzle Sculptural Security objects

Worrying, joyfully

18 May 2010

In case you missed it, this Idea Lab visualization from Sunday’s NYT Magazine made me smile, and made me think.

It’s interesting to me the way aesthetics can transform the emotional tenor of content. Though the subject matter has a negative slant (partially genuine, partially comic), the circular shape, colors, and stripes emanating like rays of light from the center make the whole thing kind of delightful. But why? I think it’s because our emotions react to aesthetics before they process content. Even when the aesthetics and content are dissonant, the aesthetics guide our reactions, I guess because in most circumstances, aesthetics are an accurate shortcut to understanding content.

What are other good examples?

Ice cream trucks around the world

29 April 2010

Ice cream trucks from around the world! What is it about trucks that lend themselves so readily to decorating?

via Let’s Color

The joy of jumping on the bed

4 April 2010

Yes, that is Desmond Tutu in the midst of all those children jumping on a bed! For a project called Play Jump Eat, Kelly Wainwright of Messy Monkey Arts managed to coax not just the Reverend Archbishop, but also fishermen, surfers, schoolkids, and others to let go of their inhibitions and be photographed in odd situations, bed-jumping.

Jumping on the bed is an example of a joyful pleasure at its most democratic: an activity that is accessible to nearly everyone. It’s a childish pleasure, one we associate with being small in the expanse of our parents’ beds, but it can be rediscovered at any time. (Confession: I sometimes can’t resist a jump or two in a hotel room.) There’s just something so totally liberating about jumping; it’s a slightly transgressive, freeing feeling that brings laughter and optimism up to the surface. Even just looking at these photos evokes a vicarious burst of delight!

I hope the full series will eventually be posted online. Read more about the project here.

{Via @vpostrel}

Update: Kelly pointed out to me that prints are available here and that a portion of the proceeds benefit the Tertia Kindo Arts Project, a children’s dance school. The comments also made me realize that I failed to credit Inge Prins, the photographer on the project. Lovely work!