Artful Green Dot

Excerpts from James Elkins’ “The Object Stares Back”

Posted in Uncategorized by Audrey Tran on January 5, 2010

I recently used James Elkins’ essay, “The Object Stares Back” in a Heliotrope post on one of the shows in Beta Spaces ’09, and while the essay discusses many different aspects of vision/perception, a lot of the extraordinary points Elkins makes didn’t relate to the show I covered. So I never got to flesh out any thoughts about them.  However, his insights certainly relate to the investigations being made here. The following is a long excerpt regarding the nature of vision for animals:

Page 65-67, The Object Stares Back

…There are many ways of seeing aside from those that can be captured by pointing photofloods at an object and documenting it in Kodachrome.  A few years ago there was a special slide film called infared, which mixed visible light with near infared to produce unexpected colors.  Pictures of autumn leaves would come out partly the way they naturally look and partly glowing pink-and-turquoise.  A picture of a hand would look a little waxy, with the surgace veins showing through as if the skin had become transparent.  The color infared film was also a way to think about the vision of other animals.  Some animals see different wavelengths than we do; this raises curious questions about how they perceive the world.  Apparently frogs can see color but tadpoles can’t:  is the metamorphosis from tadpole to frog like the change from black-and-white Kansas to colorful Oz?  Bees can see some ultraviolet, so that they can look at flowers that appear perfectly white to us and discern patterns in them.  But at the same time, Bees cannot see the other end of the spectrum–they can’t perceive red, and so their vision begins in the ultraviolet, continues up through the spectrum of purple, blue, green, yellow, and stops at orange.

 To us, the two extreme ends of the spectrum look very similar: red on one end seems to blend well with violet on the other.  In terms of wavelengths they are opposites, but in our perception they seems like a good match.  This the reason why artists have been able to bend diagrams of the spectrum into color circles, connecting the red to the violet to make a continuous (and unscientific) cycle of color.  If you think of what happens when you mix the deepest red with the deepest violet, you can only imagine a color very much like red or violet.  Most colors mix to produce new colors, so that for example, blue and yellow make green; but red and violet seem to only produce more red and violet.  That’s odd if you think of the spectrum as a number line.  Violet at one end of the spectrum has a wavelength of around 420, and red is about 660.  You might think that if they were mixed, the result would be in between—say, about 540, which is the wavelength of green.  But red and violet do not mix to produce green. Bees are different, and they see mixtures of their two extreme colors (ultraviolet and orange) as a third color, which we cannot even begin to imagine.  It is called bee’s purple, though there is no reason to assume it looks anything like purple.  Perhaps to bees it is more like our yellow or our indigo…or perhaps it’s something entirely new. We have no capacity to imagine new colors.  No matter how hard you try, each color you imagine is going to be a color that exists and probably one you’ve seen before.  You can make up a new color—the philosopher Nelson Goodman made up “grue” and “bleen”—but you cannot imagine how a genuinely new color looks.  We are stuck with the spectrum and its mixtures, but we know that other animals may not be.

Figure 9.

And what about other ways of seeing form? Animals that can change their color, like flounders, octopi, and chameleons, provide a way to think about that.  A flounder will not only change its color to try to blend in with its surroundings; it will also change its pattern (figure 9).  The flounder in these pictures has a fairly good idea of what a dot pattern looks like, even though it ends up making dots that are several times too large.  But it messes up the large and small checkerboards.  Faced with a small checkerboard, it produces some small white patches, but there are too few of them and they are unevenly spaced.  For the large checkerboard it manages larger spots, but it cannot get the evenness of the pattern, and its silhouette remains clearly visible.  In describing things this way I am of course seeing as a human, and what these pictures may show is the way that the flounder sees those patterns.  It could be that, for the flounder, those are perfect matches, and a large checkerboard really is a mottled black surface with some blotches of white.  The flounder might be communicating its vision with its body, letting us glimpse the world through its eyes.


AKT: If other animals had to examine human sight, what would they use to describe the way we envision the world? I realize this question is too big for a blog post and certainly too large for a comments thread. Even Eilkins didn’t seem completely finished with his contemplations on the “nature of [our] Seeing” when he ends this book. In his closing, he  writes, “this book could have been five hundred pages long or five thousand. Vision is inexhaustible…” …and the investigation of sight reminds us that life is not the same in every place; nor is it the same for every being.

The excerpt comes from Elkins’ book, The Object Stares Back .

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The View From Above

Posted in Uncategorized by Audrey Tran on December 27, 2009

Bird’s Eye View in Fairfield, CT

Originally organized and conceived by Ryan Dean with the help of countless others around the world.

Participants in the Bird’s Eye View have a unique way of petitioning for the reduction of carbon emissions through collaborative installations built on rooftops across the world.  Upon these rooftops, collaborators unload pounds and pounds of plastics, paper, fabric, and other used materials, which they then arrange into the number, “350,” a massive 350 that can be seen from airplanes.

These installations call attention to the reduction of carbon emissions in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, which is a level prominent scientists (i.e. NASA’s James Hansen) have identified as “the only safe level of carbon dioxide in the air.”

The following images come from Birds Eye View pieces around the globe:

Maine, USA


Democratic Republic of Congo

Brooklyn, USA


Bushwick, NY (Beta Spaces ’09)


BEV installations are not just piles of material forming signage. Those working around the BEV think of these collaborations as “nests,” and like birds, these nests require a collection process.

For example, in the installation at Fairfield University, students started a campaign to collect old bed sheets from members of the community. At Beta Spaces, collaborators used recycled materials to create art pieces to form the numbers. In Maine, Ryan Dean (the original creator of BEV) organized lumber yards to donate tarp-like materials for the projects.  For the piece in the Congo, stalks of bark from Banana trees formed the numbers.  At Brooklyn College, people used recycled art work (old paintings) and tarps for the 350. In a sense, each of the nests reflect bits of the surrounding environment.

The Bird’s Eye View has also joined networks with other groups across the world. In China,  participants from an environmental effort known as Greening of the Beige created their own nest using old magazines. Another eco-minded group known as Reverse Garbage in Australia also collaborated with BEV.

These billboard-sized nests attract attention in a fashion similar to the desperate signaling employed by those trapped on uninhabited islands.  I find this very fascinating, but more importantly, the idea behind BEV is to capture 350 from a perspective that allows one to absorb the surrounding environment in such a way that we can actually see the spread of houses, buildings, and other human detritus growing across the Earth.

For many of us, this BEV portrait of Earth isn’t something we confront on a daily basis, for we approach the architecture of our cities and suburbs on the ground. We move in and out of buildings, across streets, and through one city’s end to another city’s end without that ever-present view from above.

In a recent email exchange, one of the collaborators wrote, “Sometimes you have to look at things from a broadened perspective to see them clearly. It is in a global perspective that we may begin to change things together.”

Bird’s Eye View originally began under the direction of Ryan Dean from Cranston, RI. Since its inception during the winter of 2008, people such as Laura Marie Marciano and a network of individuals  have assisted Dean by writing proposals for the project, traveling with him to spread the mission, and putting in hours to construct/document the installations.   I had the pleasure of meeting Laura Marie on a rooftop where she displayed a Bird’s Eye View piece during Beta Spaces ’09.

About this Blog

Posted in META by Audrey Tran on January 31, 2009

This blog follows society’s growing consciousness of the Green Movement via the Art world and other visual cues.  Scientists, journalists, and politicians stand at the forefront for pushing the concern for this Earth into a national dialogue, but there are a number of social thinkers who deserve credit/critique too.  Artful Green Dot will strive to understand how artists have helped shape the movement, as well as provide some history and a bit of foresight for the next steps in enviromentalism….

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