Gray Rainbows

by Antonia Hirsch

The color of anger, the color of language, the color of Facebook, the color of freshly cut grass.

“Gray Rainbows” was published as part of Triple Canopy’s Internet as Material project area, which receives support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts. Antonia Hirsch gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. “Gray Rainbows” is part of “Common Minds,” a series of essays and conversations on the contemporary infatuation with the brain coedited by Dawn Chan.

Antonia Hirsch: I wanted to ask you about something that I think you have a special perspective on. I’m particularly interested in colors. But to start, I’d like to ask: When we look at a concrete object in this room [picks up a green plastic toy], do you think that it makes a picture in your head when you look at it?

Theo Dehler: Yes.

AH: And if I look at the same thing, is it the same picture in my head?

TD: Yes.

AH: And how can we know that your picture and my picture are the same?

TD: Because it is simply the same, because we see the same.

AH: But really, we would at least have to talk about it, so we can ascertain that it’s the same, don’t you think?

I mean, we would have to say, the shape looks like this or like that. And then we compare it. And then we can also say, because it’s there in front of us, and you can see it, and I can see it, it’s real. It exists.

TD: Yes.

AH: But how about emotions? Do you think they’re real?

TD: Uh, yes.

Sometimes the expression color blindness is misapprehended as meaning the total inability to see color—achromatopsia, a very rare condition. The most common types of color blindness, protanopia and deuteranopia, involve an inability to distinguish red and green (simulations of both conditions tend to appear very similar to the layperson), whereas tritanopia, which is much rarer, involves an inability to differentiate, or see, yellow and blue. Most instances of color blindness are congenital and are associated with the X chromosome, meaning that men are more prone to the condition. In fact, one in ten men is believed to be color-blind.

AH: And what makes them real in your opinion? I mean, when I’m sad or something, how do I know that’s real? Does it have any effect?

TD: Yes, because you can feel it.

AH: So let’s say you’re happy; you feel that, and then what? For example, … what does make you happy?

TD: If someone gives me a gift.

AH: And how are things different then, I mean, does the world look different when you’re happy like that?

TD: Yes, I think so, a little.

AH: So, when you go home with your gift, let’s say, and your way home is always the same …

TD: Well, it’s not always the same. Sometimes it’s a bit different.

AH: How so?

TD: Sometimes it seems longer and sometimes it seems shorter. I think when I want to get home it seems longer.

AH: And when you go home with your present, is the way home different, too?

TD: Yes, sometimes. It can be nicer then.

AH: Do you see things you didn’t see before? Or do they look different?

TD: Actually, I see things that I didn’t see before.

AH: So emotions are real for you, because you experience the world differently through them. But does your world also change if someone else is happy—let’s say your sister?

TD: Yes.

AH: And how? How does that change your reality?

TD: Well, when she is happy, for example, she is totally different from being normal.

AH: You mean she acts differently around you?

TD: Yes.

AH: So with feelings we have a direct effect, and we also pick this up from another person. But how about colors? Are they real?

TD: Yes.

AH: But I was told that you see red and green a little differently from, for example, me.

TD: Yes.

AH: And yet there are a lot of people who see the way you do, right?

TD: Yes.

Do the normally sighted and the color-blind have the same concept of color-blindness? The color-blind cannot merely learn to use our color words. They can't learn to use the word ‘color-blind’ as a normal person does. They cannot, for example, establish color-blindness in the same way as normal people do.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Color

Red and green are complementary: When combined, they produce neutral colors like gray, white, or black, depending on the color model being employed. Correspondingly, red evokes intensity, while green elicits equanimity. The emotional (not just perceptual) landscape of those who cannot see either color must be fundamentally different, even if that difference is not always remarkable, or even noticeable.

AH: Do you know of anybody who sees colors the way you do?

TD: No. I mean, I haven’t met anybody.

AH: But maybe you can’t tell immediately when meeting someone.

OK, maybe we say this color [points to the toy from the beginning] is green, but perhaps you see something different than what I see.

TD: Well, not right now. I see green, a light green.

AH: And how about that bench over there? [Points at a red bench.] Are we seeing the same color there, too?

TD: Red.

AH: But what I don’t really understand … you don’t see red and green like most others, but you know that this [points to the green object] is green.

TD: Yes, because it’s light green.

AH: And light green you can see better than dark green?

TD: Yes.

AH: Oh, OK! I didn’t realize that. Where does it become difficult with the green then?

TD: When it’s a bit darker.

How can I know [for example] that another person is truly in pain? In Stanley Cavell's surrealistic restatement of the problem, let's imagine that I am a dentist drilling a patient’s tooth and the patient suddenly screams out as a response to what seems like the pain caused by my clumsy drilling. And yet, in response to my embarrassed show of remorse, the patient says, “It wasn't hurting, I was just calling my hamsters.” Now, how can I know that the other person is being sincere, short of his hamsters scuttling obediently into my dental surgery? The point is that ultimately I cannot. I can never know whether another person is in pain or simply calling his hamsters. That is to say, there is something about the other person, a dimension of separateness, Thingly secrecy or what Levinas calls “alterity” that escapes my comprehension. That which exceeds the bounds of my knowledge demands acknowledgement.

—Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (2007)

For people with red-green color blindness, both colors appear as brownish gray. So are feelings traditionally associated with red, such as love or anger, associated with the same brownish-gray color of a springtime lawn? Does this somewhat less exhilarating color experience influence how one registers feelings that are culturally associated with a color category? Does love feel muddy rather than fiery?

AH: Like … the trees outside?

TD: Yes.

AH: And the red bench, do you know that it’s red, or can you see it, because it’s also relatively light-colored?

TD: I know that it’s red.

AH: And now in the fall, when the trees change color, do you perceive that, do you see it?

TD: Yes.

AH: Because many trees change from green to red, although some also turn yellow.

TD: Well sometimes I can distinguish it.

AH: So then I have what may be a difficult question: Let’s say there is something you know most people call dark green, but you and a significant number of other people don’t actually see it as dark green, you just know that the majority of people say, “That’s dark green.” Does that make sense?

TD: Not really.

AH: OK, let me rephrase that. Let’s say there is a tree, and I say, “That tree is dark green,” and you then think to yourself, “Ah, OK, she thinks this tree is dark green,” and then somebody else comes along and says, “But that tree isn’t green at all, it’s red!” And for you the tree also has a color of some sort, but you perhaps can’t say exactly whether it’s red or green. Perhaps what you see fits into neither of those two color categories, or perhaps the color you see includes both categories.

TD: Hmm.

AH: Shouldn’t you actually have a name for that color, for example, “gred” or “reen” (green plus red)?

TD: Not really.

AH: Why not?

TD: Because I just don’t have one.

AH: But if there were someone else who would say, “Yes, that’s ‘gred,’” then you could talk about all the stuff in the world that is that color, right?

TD: Yes.

AH: Let’s say you’re on the street and someone says, “Back there is a red car.” Would you know which one is being referred to?

TD: Depends on how dark or light.

AH: And let’s say you’re in school and the teacher says, “Take out your red crayon.” How does that work?

TD: Sometimes it works, but once, I had to think a bit.

AH: And how did you solve the issue?

TD: Because I have an order, a system. I put the pen in a particular place and then I know.

AH: Ah! So you know where the pen is.

TD: Yes.

AH: And what is your favorite color?

TD: My favorite color is blue.

AH: And which color do you not like?

TD: Uh, brown.

AH: And why?

TD: No idea. I just don’t think it’s very beautiful.

When we first met with Mark [Zuckerberg] and Sean [Parker] to discuss the identity, Sean was leading most of the conversations. When Mark was brought into the project, he and Sean visited our office where Mark posed several questions about what our company did and what design was [to us]. For me to articulate an answer, I asked several questions of my own, such as, “Why did you make blue?” and, “Why did you space the content like that?” He mentioned his color blindness and he also said that he did what he could to “make it feel right.” So, in his terms, I told him that as a design company we made things that “feel right to most people most of the time.”

—“Facebook: Why is Facebook's logo blue?,”

AH: OK, I have another question: Do you still play I Spy With My Little Eye, or are you too old for that already?

TD: Yes, sometimes.

AH: And how do you do that? Do you use colors, like “I spy something with my little eye that is brown?”

TD: Yes, exactly, that’s how we do it. We always start with colors.

AH: And if you look at the color of this little crocheted satchel—did you make this?

TD: Yes.

AH: What color is it?

TD: Red.

AH: And you see it as red?

TD: Well … a little bit like brown.

AH: And can you show me a red around here that you don't really see? Sorry that I’m so persistent with this, but I’m just really curious how you see. Does that bother you?

TD: Nah. For example, this here. [Pulls a green book from the shelf.] This I see as a bit brown. I mean, green-brown.

AH: And this? [Pulls a red book from the shelf.]

TD: Uh, red.

What tools do we have with which to formulate questions? We are constrained by personal experience and imagination; moreover, the common terrain of the language we use may or may not coincide with that experience and imagination. In fact, we are more likely to learn something outside of our own spheres of experience not by asking, but by being asked, since the questioner inevitably reveals the particular parameters, limits, and thus, shape of her own universe.

In asking a question, we must be somewhat definite, circumscribing a set of possible outcomes. We only see what we are prepared to see, though slippages and misunderstandings permit information to travel into our consciousnesses like stowaways—undetected until it is too late to stop them.

Consider the most famous example of perceptual blindness: When the Indigenous Australian population was confronted with Captain Cook’s ships arriving on that continent’s shores in 1700, they reportedly showed no sign of perceiving the colonizers’ naval vessels at all. As the reasoning goes, they did not deem such objects possible, and so did not see them. “Not one was once observd to stop and look towards the ship,” wrote Joseph Banks, a naturalist traveling with Cook on the HM Bark Endeavour, in his journal. “They pursued their way in all appearance intirely unmovd by the neighbourhood of so remarkable an object as a ship must necessarily be to people who have never seen one.”

AH: And this handle here? What color is that? [Points at the red handle of a suitcase.]

TD: Also red.

AH: And this? [Points to a green book.]

TD: Green.

AH: Huh. But then you see quite accurately, don’t you? Or do you simply know what color these things are?

TD: No, I don’t know.

AH: And when you get dressed in the morning, do you think about what color you’re going to wear?

TD: No.

AH: So how do you decide?

TD: I look at what things look like.

AH: What do you mean by “what they look like”?

TD: I mean, whether something’s striped, … often also what the weather is like, whether it’s cold or warm.

… I must here consider that I am a man, and consequently that I am in the habit of sleeping and of representing to myself in my dreams those same things, or sometimes even less likely things, which insane people do when they are awake … Let us suppose then, that we are now asleep, and that all these particulars, namely, that we open our eyes, move our heads, hold out our hands, and such like actions, are only false illusions; and let us think that perhaps our hands and all our body are not as we see them. Nevertheless, we must at least admit that the things which appear to us in sleep are, as it were, pictures and paintings which can only be formed in the likeness of something real and true; and that therefore these are general things at least, not imaginary things … but are real and existent. For indeed painters, even when they study with the utmost skill to represent Sirens and Satyrs by strange and extraordinary shapes, cannot attribute to them entirely new forms and natures, but only make a certain mixture and compound of the limbs of various animals; or if perhaps their imagination is extravagant enough to invent something so new that we have never seen the like of it, and that, in this way, their work presents us with something purely fictitious and absolutely false, at least the colors of which they have composed it are real.

—René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, in Which the Existence of God and the Real Distinction Between the Soul and the Body of Man are Demonstrated

AH: Well, actually, I have the feeling that you can see colors really well. But perhaps I’m wrong. When I asked earlier whether you see colors differently, you said, “Yes, I see them differently.” So what makes you think that you see them differently?

TD: Well, with my sketchbook, I once was wondering where my red crayon was, but it was there, lying in front of me the entire time, but I somehow saw it as brown.

AH: And the green?

TD: Not as often.

AH: You don’t notice that as often?

TD: Only dark green. But sometimes also yellow and orange.

AH: You mean you mix up yellow and orange?

TD: Yes.

AH: But that’s a bit difficult around colors, right? Because they kind of merge into each other, so it’s difficult to say here is where yellow ends, and there is where orange starts. It’s not like a thing, or an object, where you can say it ends here. Color just kind of goes on.

Another thing I wanted to ask: Do you dream in color or black and white?

TD: I think in black and white.

AH: Really? And do you have any idea why you might be dreaming in black and white?

TD: No.

AH: Do you remember what you dreamt last night?

TD: No, I often can’t remember my dreams.

This conversation took place between Theo Dehler and Antonia Hirsch in Berlin, September 28, 2012. Antonia Hirsch is an artist living in Berlin. Theo Dehler is a fourth grade student, also living in Berlin. He was diagnosed with color blindness in 2008. All photographs are by Dehler.