Earlier this year, a research scientist named Janelle Shane designed an experiment to see whether a robot could generate believable names for different colors of paint. Shane fed the artificial neural network more than 7,000 paint names by Sherwin Williams, from which it identified patterns and produced new colors and short names for them, based on the makeup of the inputted colors and the language used to describe them.
The results were interesting. Given that even “official” paint names can be silly and excessively poetic, the robot’s “Naval Tan” and “Ghastly Pink” actually seem fairly believable. There were misfires — “Ice Gray” is the mustard yellow of a Dwight Schrute shirt; the inexplicable “Gray Pubic” is the sea blue of an island-resort ad — but the overall project brings up some intriguing ideas about all the baggage that arises when we use words to describe colors.
#ColorPoll2017, a new collaboration between Pittsburgh-based artist D.S. Kinsel and Providence, R.I.-based conceptual artist Benjamin Lundberg Torres Sanchez, addresses that baggage head on.
The multi-faceted art piece asks participants to come up with new names for existing paint colors. Nine swatches, identified only by their Sherwin Williams four-digit code, are posted on #ColorPoll2017’s Instagram account, shared via a Twitter account, and displayed in physical form at an installation on Penn Avenue, in Garfield. The text is simple: “Pick a color; give it a name.”
The colors are all on the spectrum of human skin tones. SW 7553, for example, is a dull beige, the color of caulk or drywall. Its official Sherwin Williams handle is “Fragile Beauty,” whereas Shane’s A.I. experiment called it “Rose Hork.”
On #ColorPoll2017, suggestions for SW 7553 include “sofa in the dentist’s office,” “Kanye sunk,” “cream,” “melanin lacked” and “baby vomit.” (Just a side-note here: “Hork” has no dictionary definition, but according to a quick internet search, it can be used to mean to vomit or burp.)
The hashtag #ColorPoll2017 launched in late August — Kinsel explains the “2017” part is necessary because #colorpoll is a popular hashtag for teenagers asking for fashion advice online — but it dates back to May of this year, with Lundberg Torres Sanchez’s solo show Adaptive Shade at AS220, in Providence. It’s existed in several iterations since then, most recently at the DownStreet Art festival in North Adams, Mass., but the collaboration with Kinsel marks new ground.
“The project gets to have a life outside of the institutional restrictions of a gallery. The digital space works in a similar way to the unsanctioned street installation: creating a way to engage for people who can’t interact with the project in physical spaces,” Lundberg Torres Sanchez wrote in a press release.
In the weeks since the hashtag launched, patterns have emerged. For one, food seems to be a popular reference point, with suggestions like “salted caramel,” “cinnamon pop tart” and “almond milk.” But, maybe predictably, ideas about race and culture run throughout.
Kinsel points out that the two darkest tones, SW 6991 and SW 6097, have generated the most feedback, which he sees as a reflection of the deep-set cultural comfort in identifying, naming and owning blackness and brownness. That pattern also shows another deeply ingrained American concept of race, the idea of whiteness as a neutral, blank, default setting, and blackness as the other, as a departure from the norm.
Lundberg Torres Sanchez references the standard of painting gallery walls some form of white, which creates a sense of ubiquity and neutrality for the artworks to contrast with.
SW 6049, a dull pinkish white, generated responses like “privilege,” “Baby Spice” and “vice principal.” The first comment on SW 6097, the second darkest hue in the project, says “Mr. Hankey,” a reference to the sentient piece of poop from South Park. Lundberg Torres Sanchez says feces-related suggestions are common for the darker colors.
By contrast, the official Sherwin Williams handle for “privilege” is “Gorgeous White”; “Mr. Hankey” is “Sturdy Brown.”
While Lundberg Torres Sanchez and Kinsel wanted #ColorPoll2017 to focus on skin tones, they explain that many colors and their names are embedded with subtle cultural signals. Lundberg Torres Sanchez cites Benjamin Moore’s “Confederate Red,” which was renamed “Patriot Red” but kept the description “rich, refined red is a timeless and enduring classic.”
It may not be obvious on the surface, but the process of naming colors inevitably reflects deeper ideas about culture and race. Even if we’re not aware of the name of a given paint, we’re still receiving subtle message from the thousands of colors we interact with daily. In asking us to put words to something as ethereal and nonverbal as color, Lundberg Torres Sanchez and Kinsel are challenging the public to address signals that otherwise go unnoticed.
You can check out the physical installment of #ColorPoll2017 at Penn Avenue and Winebiddle Street, in Garfield. Follow @ColorPoll2017 on Instagram and Twitter, and use the hashtag #ColorPoll2017 to submit your own suggestions.