Televised, interpersonal substance
“Some quite other medium, you now want to say, when all along you had thought it was color, just color, good old color, useful for wrapping up reality as a gift. Some quite other medium? But what could it be, this curious light lightness that floats, that passes, that radiates across the valley like the breath of dying sun? What could it be? Is it a substance or is it an action? Is it something out there in the extra-personal world, or is it “merely” part of the human imagination? Or could it be all these things, and such questions are irrelevant, as color mocks our usual categories of understanding?” (Taussig, 47)
What colour wraps, or what it’s allowed to wrap may give us insight into the imagined complexities of colour. It tends to fall to the realm of the tacky (from the perch of high culture), but is a banner, a symbol of the underclass. Categories of understanding? Are there categories beyond what we see? What connections do we have to reality anyway? Specifically, what connection of reality to colour. Michael Taussig thinks of colour as a “polymorphous, magical substance,” intoxicating and corrupting our perceptions, correlated with perceptions of class and civility. Colour, so the culture prescribes, is for the lower classes, for the uncivilized.
Uncivilized poses itself in the imagination of colonialism, and I will address this substantially another time. The desire for today is to look at a few contemporary anecdotes. Imagine for a moment the colour of the financial district of New York City. What colours come to mind? Workers here dress in grey, brown, black, and blue suits, driving black and grey cars. The buildings are black and grey concrete and glass structures, living in fear of the “red.” Red is the colour of debt, of loss. Bleeding. Red is the enemy of the desired colour, disdained for the favorable, the “black.” Now imagine the Grand Bazaar, located in the walled city of Istanbul. Constructed in the 15th century in the heart of the Ottoman empire, it’s one of the largest covered markets in the world. The walls are vibrantly painted, with rugs, fabrics, lanterns, tea, and spices coloured all spectrums of the rainbow. Both are dealing in a supposed market, one money one commodities, with drastically different approaches to colour. The distinction need not be across borders; Imagine a poorer New York City borough in Brooklyn or Harlem. Perhaps you imagine neon signs, graffiti, red brick buildings, schools, etc. You may anticipate a local mall full of mom and pop shops, restaurants, and services. There is little polish, just people looking to live a life. In a gentrifying neighborhood, what happens? The polish is applied, the colour is purged, and so too ways of life. The association with colour and class crosses borders and boroughs, staking a place in the divide of rich versus poor, colonizer and colonized. Colour is either the symptom or the product of the so called “civilized.”
Take the image below of a condominium complex that borders the Rio favelas. Favelas have existed since the 19th century, but became widespread in the 70’s when rural citizens began moving to the city. These are shanty-town slums, certainly, but also neighborhoods of Rio’s poor, where 20% of city population lives. They are also under threat, thought of as an encroachment, something to be eradicated. Although the city has a policy of favela preservation (primarily for reasons of tourism), the lead up to the 2016 Olympics saw the largest amount of favela eviction in Rio’s history. Colourful, vibrantly lived neighborhoods tore down for the serious business of the Olympics, for roads, or whatever the ruling class deems important. The trojan horse of the Olympics was the push for unrelated real-estate projects, encroachment on the lower class for the benefit of the wealthy. The sick irony is that on the land where favelas once stood, the Maracana stadium sat mostly empty for the eyes of billions of Olympic spectators. This was paired with a narrative of corruption. In the years following, Brazil has been plunged into political and economic crisis, electing a president with open contempt for the colourful, the poor, the indigenous, and women. He promises human rights violations, to crack down on crime, and longs for the days of the military dictatorship. And at whose expense will these reforms be targeted?
I have written before on the changing home interior, linking it to changing relationships to the economy. A thread through my thinking is the internalized connection we seem to have with colour as an intoxifying force. Colourlessness appears to be the desirable, in our cities, in our living spaces, in our coffee shops, and in our businesses. More and more colour is evaporating from our lives (see my other posts on the home interior from 1965-present), being purged with the marching of time. What magical substance is colour, that we must try to avoid? Which is simultaneously the thing and a coating on the thing? What of colour and the thing itself? What of colour and ideology?
There are a few instances where colour roams freely, unquestioned, and I will expand on more of these in the future. I’d like to look at perhaps the most permissive and liberal use of colour, which combines the western penchant for consumer goods with the intoxifying appeal of colours being. Of course, I’m talking about the Price is Right.
I used to watch it when I was home as a child, mesmerized and confused about the adults who looked like my parents, my caregivers, and my teachers, who were screaming among a sea of vibrant colours, flashing lights, stoves, motorcycles, and screens. It was compelling and delightful. The colours were so… much. The games looked fun. The sets, the people, the lawlessness of it all. Screaming and yelling were not only allowed but somehow rewarded. Why are they spinning the big wheel? Why is a dollar so important in this world? It was a child's paradise, enjoyed mostly by adults.
The set of the game has changed drastically throughout the years. The initial season (image below) aired in 1972, and featured sets that had odd shapes and were floored with shag carpets. The palette was brown and muted orange (what the painter would call “neutral” colours). The audience is smaller, and the contestants are relatively tame. The selected contestants delay their excitement, taper their expectations. The applause lags behind the events. The enthusiasm waned. Most contestants are dressed in some kind of semi-formal attire, and the model (there is only one) dresses regularly. It feels like the price is right could be playing out in an over-the-top1970’s living room after church.
Fast forward to a taping from 2017. Everyone is dressed in fantastical colours, and the studio is lit brightly. The broadcast is in high definition, while the colour palette shows lack of sophistication, like a child’s crayon drawing. Neutral colours are absent, just a spectrum of pure colours, unsupported by browns, fewer greys, and little black. Colour is unleashed, untethered, and so are the people. Each contestant seems to dance down to the stage, cheer uncontrollably, the opposite cousin of a prison riot. The fans are coloured, literally through dress and metaphorically through colour, like the set they inhabit. Watching the show on a 4k television made me feel sick, the movements were too much, the camera panned so rapidly. Yet the Price is Right remains mainstream, perhaps the most popular show on daytime T.V.. In an age where colour is purging from our every day, the Price is Right doubled down.
There is a mediator, however, in the colourless host. Game show hosts are thought to be excited, taking on the role of a used car salesman. But Drew Carey like Bob Barker before him is drab, awkward, and speaks in a monotonous way. Carey regularly trips over his words, and adds odd inflictions. Screaming fans are often more articulate. The colourless host is a supposed fair arbiter. We get the sense that the host is not indigenous to the space, instead playing as a rule keeper, something to remind us of the societal norms being broken in the excitement. A calmness to the noise, a force in a regular grey or black suit, uncoloured by the world around him.
As a point of comparison, let’s look at a gameshow for kids. Uh Oh! Was a Canadian game show that aired on YTV from 1997-2003. The show features three children at a time who are all between the ages of 8-12, a punisher dressed in full black garb, a host who appears to be high on cocaine. The colours were every bit as vivid as contemporary Price is Right, but the show is incredibly camp. In the opening credits, the punisher breaks out the wall of a cage, antagonizes the children, and is tamed with cookies. Kids play gross games to earn points for their teams, answer questions, and spin a big wheel. The entire function of the punisher is to subject losing children to a slime bath, where some blended concoction is poured over their head. The prizes are all youthful- CD and tape decks, bubble gum, nerds, video games, gizmo watches, etc. Surely the children are excited. It’s not hard to crave material gains, and the whole studio is set up like an amusement park. But even with the coked out campy hosts, the behaviour of the children pales in comparison to the adults on the Price is Right. The kids are awkward, aliens to the set. They act like adults in comparison, and in the topsy turvy world of colour, something has to mediate the noixicity. They ironically ground the madness.
In his book The Luminous and the Grey David Batchelor reminds us of Dorothy, who while at home in Kansas wakes up in the night to a commotion in her closet. Upon opening the door, she encounters a fantastical world of wizards and witches and scarecrows. Oz is nonsensical, fun, whimsical, but ultimately “there’s no place like home.” This is contrasted with what he calls a “whitescape,” a home “purged of colour.” The home is every layer of grey, black, and white, with the only colour present is that of the people, who themselves seemed unwelcome in the space. The book is literally called chromophobia (the fear of colour), but Batchelor comes to the idea as a skeptic. Why is colour something to be feared, something forcefully excluded from serious affairs?
More intellectual game shows such as Jeopardy! or Who Wants to be a Millionaire? are noticeably monotone, less spectacular. Measured comes to mind. On Jeopardy!, the opening credits sprawl a slew of “smart” things, showing an animation featuring neo-classical busts, the Wright Brothers Airplane, the periodic table, a toucan, paintings, and plants. The sharpest colour on the set is blue, which finds itself grouped on stage with the aforementioned “mature” browns, greys, and blacks. The host and contestants wear formal attire, and although contestants may win thousands of dollars, they remain measured as they benefit from focus, sharp wit, buzzer strategy and intellectual prowess. Contestants pose questions to sophisticated “answers,” and are rewarded for advanced knowledge on many topics. Contestants match the colours, the colours match the tone. The most radical colour in the show is the little Oxford press logo that rolls in the credits, offering a subtle stamp of purple legitimacy to the quiz show.
Perhaps all we can have is correlation rather than causation, the peculiar phenomenon of game shows as a microcosm into the ideology of colour’s usage. The intellectual contestant of the quiz show embodies a supposed seriousness reflective in the sets built environment. Nothing in this case ought to distract the seriousness of “knowledge.” The Price is Right offers little subtlety but the mediator of the law, the neutral host keeping the intoxication centered. Intoxicated while external colour trends sober to the ideology of the timeless worker, the condominium drone. Perhaps we fall into colour to escape, to be uncivil, to dismember us from our serious lives. Perhaps the ideology of colour is that of tackiness, the economic idea that colour is for the savage among us, for the less developed, for the lower classes. Does the condominium worker even enjoy the Price is Right, or question it? If Jeopardy! Is for the sophisticated, then Price is Right appeals to our desire to be lawless, corralled by the awkwardness and neutral suit of Drew Carey.
But we need not lose sight of the classist nature and capital’s prejudice of all forms of colour. From the perch of high culture, colour may be something fallen in to, something to bathe in for a “cultured” vacation, but perhaps it provides a dis-identified identifier in which to persecute the lower classes. Perhaps it’s an easy way to define sin, to identify one who lives through colour as one to shun. But maybe we all need to live through colour, and maybe colour is part of our humanity. Something proper company suppresses (or at least doesn’t discuss) like sex and shitting. But why must our humanity be suppressed? And what perpetuates the stigma around colour?