Digital Colour: Saturation as Control

Carolyn Kane

A garishly loud web page with colours so bright they make one’s eyes hurt seem to say nothing of human creativity or control. But to the contrary, this super-saturated palette offers a new framework of heightened command and control. As such, digital colour opens gateway for a new understanding of digital media aesthetics. In this brief essay, I discuss this notion in regards to American new media artist Jason Salavon’s work.




1. Jason Salavon Spigot and Spigot-Phenotype (2010)
2. Jason Salavon Impressionist Painting (2010)
3. Jason Salavon Baroque Painting (2010)

In digital colour systems, form and colour are inextricably bound in “macro-blocks” of pixels, used to make compression and file transfer faster and easier. But this also means less colour, less changes between colours, and colours that adhere to strict codes and protocols. Salavon’s Spigot (Babbling Self-portrait, Phenotype, 2010), and Spigot (Babbling Self Portrait, 2010) [fig.1] illustrate this point. Both are dual-channel video installations using a computer, real-time custom software, a video system, and internet connection run on a continuous loop. The content is taken from over 10,000 search queries captured from Salavon’s personal search history since 2007, a record that Google has kept on file. This information is reconstructed in the installation to appear in either an abstract coloured squares with other coloured squares moving concentrically from the inside out. As the squares slowly move into and outside of each other, while also changing colour, they give the impression of a once orderly data-stream gone cyber-psychedelic. Spigot (Babbling Self Portrait, 2010) performs a similar function with a slight variation in the data visualization parameters. Both installations are accompanied by soundtracks, which involve overlapping voices reciting the name of the web pages, in the order that they were found. The result is a confusing “babble” where some terms can be made out while others cannot. Seeming to contradict this confusing babble, however, is Salavon’s orderly colour palette, which has, significantly, been chosen for their indexical value, not their optical or phenomenological qualities. Such is the status of colour in the digital age: it exists as a code and index to particular signal processing commands.

It is one thing to simply observe this new status of colour as code in digital media, it is yet another to bring this relation back into older media, like painting. And yet this is precisely what Salavon does in Baroque Painting (2010) and Impressionist Painting (2010) [Figure 3]. In these pieces Salavon borrows the complete colour palette from a Peter Paul Rubens and Claude Monet painting, respectively, and then determines a finite palette representative of each work. He then re-orders the colours according to saturation levels and paints them into a new composition in concentric squares. The result is a series of coloured squares, gradually increasingly in saturation. Classical views of colour as nuanced and embedded in the world are herein translated into rigid tools of data visualization. However, by abstracting the palettes of the Monet and Rubens, without the content or implied forms, Salavon visualizes the way in which technical constraints and ordering systems have always governed creative expression (even if these are the rules and limits of saturation). While digital colour has not yet become a popular area of study in new media, it is sure to become so in the years to come. Salavon’s body of work offers two perspectives to begin this research.

Carolyn Kane writes about the history and philosophy of digital technology. Her book, Chromatic Algorithms: Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after Code is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press in 2014.