Color Rx: In Retrospect


"What's your favorite color?"

... a standard childhood inquiry, yet somehow it always presented more internal strife than it did successful small talk. So, a few months ago, I decided to explore that passionate, colorful love affair of mine a little further. After a summer long internship at metaLAB, with an independent research project included, I produced Color Rx as an interactive installation at the Harvard Art Museums on August 12th, 2017 - and here's why:

First, as a minor synesthete, I grew up feeling strongly that colors had personalities. I remember always being asked to pick my favorite in elementary, and struggling internally to say one I loved without hurting the “feelings” of all the other colors. I also remember owning an extensive collection of pens and highlighters in middle school, and when being asked to name one of the more peculiar and original shades that Sharpie had just released, I instinctively blurted out Electric Salmon.

Second, growing up, as much as I loved colors, my mom loved the Universe – specifically the power of numerology. A fond believer of “everything happens for a reason” my mom taught me how to trust in the Universe and its healing capabilities. From pursuing alternative methods to medicine like homeopathy to frequently finding ourselves in stores that have extensive collections of crystals and sage, I soon learned how capable colors also were in the healing process. And when she gifted me a coffee table book called “Colorstrology” in which you can look up your birthday and read about the color that best suits you, I was amused and intrigued and realized that color’s history, its substance, and its context link inextricably to our perceptions and experience.

So, with the support of my team at metaLAB, countless visits to the Straus Center to view the Forbes Pigment Collection, and some troubleshooting help from the DIET team, I devised a simple algorithm to serve as a tactile manifestation of this conversation between belief and truth, projection and reality, and color and illusion. And, given that I am both the artist behind this project and the author of this summary, let me just quote myself from my Artist's Statement:  

"Color is ephemeral and complex. An installation in the Lightbox Gallery at Harvard Art Museums, Color Rx contended with the individuality of perception, while maintaining that the experiences in which perceptions are grounded can be traced back to, and tethered together by, a common, colorful trend. Drawing inspiration from Harvard Art Museums’ Forbes Pigment Collection, scholarly texts, and the artist’s knowledge and intuition, the piece explored lines between truth and belief, color and illusion. And yet its prescriptions, unconventional and mysterious though they may be, made connections and produced impacts in the world, for gallery visitors and others.

Color Rx used a computer algorithm to diagnose a viewer’s inputs and “prescribe a color” in response. The piece was grounded in questions about trust in, or benefit from, “smart” systems, often in contexts where the algorithms are opaque—even when the output is very concrete. What does it mean for machines or systems to drive our behavior? Can we adequately assess the benefits and risks?"

Video by Bardi.

Set up as a pop up installation in the Lightbox Gallery of the Harvard Art Museums, visitors were able to approach a keyboard and type in a response to the provocation, "Think about what you need and tell me in 1-3 sentences." The thinking behind that phraseology was simply that I wanted to elicit a thoughtful, heartfelt response from my viewers - one in which I could attempt to "detect their mood" and provide them with a color to supplement it or just to make them smile. 

The white walls of the space itself lit up as the 9 screens flickered with changing color prescriptions, and the visibility of the pigment collection on the floor below allowed the visitors to directly understand the relationship I was drawing for this project. 

Friends, colleagues, and museum visitors alike all found their way to my gallery and engaged with the algorithm. After receiving their virtual "prescription," visitors could pick up a tactile "print out" of their Rx, cleverly attached to a paint chip of their prescribed color. 

How did I match the colors to the emotions? Well, I took the 36 most "emotionally resonant" pigments in the Forbes Pigment Collection (for me), matched all of the pigments to commercially found paint chips, and drew associations between hues and affect. With this comparison, I did not attempt to provide a direct correlation between the pigments and paints I chose, rather I used the paint chips as physical proxies for the pigments in hues that, to me, behave similarly.

Color Rx proved to be not only amusing and uplifting for visitors, but instrumental and enlightening for me. I know those are rather sweeping claims, but when you have the opportunity to exhibit your own creations in a space you never thought you'd get to make your own is truly a remarkable feeling. So thank you to everyone who helped make it happen, from metaLAB to the museum to my mother - my young life just got a lot more colorful.

Xx, Maia