Term: Winter 2023
Section: 2
Class Number: 409
Credits: 3
Required: No
Elective: Yes

/ ARCH 409

From Prisms to Pantone: Color, Race, and Technology

In 2015, a Tumblr user posted a seemingly innocuous image of a two-toned bodycon dress, asking others to weigh in on whether the dress was blue-and-black or black-and-gold. Within 48 hours, the post had over 400,000 notes, and at its peak, was getting fourteen thousand views a second. That same week, more than 1.8 million people participated in a Buzzfeed poll revealing that 72 percent believed the dress was white and gold, while the other 28 percent claimed it was blue and black. This photo-turned-meme, which is now known as #TheDress, was the first documented incident of color ambiguity gone viral – many articles described it as having “broken the Internet.” Despite the Internet’s treatment of #TheDress as a unique incident, the questions it raised about technology and color perception actually rehashed debates about color that have plagued artists, scientists, and philosophers for centuries. 

In this class, we will take a deep dive into the rich, fascinating, and sometimes overwhelming topic of color as it is mediated by technology, culture, and politics. By doing so, we’ll open up a larger conversation about how technology shapes our perception of the world and ourselves. A major conceptual thread running throughout the course will be around the complex relationship between color and race. Throughout the semester, we’ll look critically at the ways in which color technologies from photography to biometrics have historically been calibrated in a way that privileges whiteness perpetuates racial bias. 

With readings from media studies, critical race studies, anthropology, the history of science and technology, and architecture and design studies, some questions we will grapple with include: Is color an objective or subjective phenomenon (or both)? How does the way we perceive and understand color change with the emergence of new technologies? Is digital color really all that distinct analog color? How does one go about mediating color on screen, and what kinds of technological and social compromises are involved? Who benefits from these compromises, and who is left out? Film and television screenings, as well as video artworks, paint charts, and memes, will help us flesh out ideas using concrete examples. 

In addition to our readings and screenings, hands-on activities such as Photoshop tutorials and Bauhaus color theory exercises will give you the opportunity to engage with color through a practitioner’s eyes. Students will have the option to propose a creative or hybrid theory/ practice final project in lieu of a traditional written paper.


Tue, Thu 11:30am-1:00pm  1339 MH