Wednesday, 27 September 2023

Dead Light

The starting point for this post is the article 'Ze zeggen dat de wereld kleurlozer is geworden' by Dutch artist Barbara Collé. The article is a passionate, but meandering, treatise on the increasing presence of dull and grey colours in industrial production.

While I agree with many of the observations that she makes in regards to subjective colour experience, the arguments she employs to make her points tend to be confused and disjointed.
In particular I would like to focus on one section of the article, which elaborates on the observation of Hella Jongerius that colour in design has gotten more flat over the decades. This fading of colour is attributed to 'carbopigment', established in the next sentence as Carbon Black. It isn't clear whether this attribution is made by Jongerius or Collé, but what follows are a number of wrongly construed statements that make an emotional appeal against the use of Carbon Black. 

Collé states that Carbon Black is an 'industrial product' that consists of 'soot particles of heavy petroleum and coal tar'. It seems like this phrasing is based on a poor translation from English to Dutch for various descriptions of related carbon-based compounds, because as written it's mostly incorrect. While Carbon Black is the result of incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons, it's distinguished from soot through size and chemical composition. Furthermore, both heavy petroleum products and coal tar are characterised by their high content of aromatic rings, while Carbon Black is mostly aliphatic. The harmful connotations we have with petroleum and tar are caused in a large part by their high aromatic content, which is absent in Carbon Black. Your average campfire is going to produce very similar particles and to describe Carbon Black in this way is thus misleading at best.
Collé's principal complaint against Carbon Black is that it 'kills' and 'blunts' colours when used in mixtures with other pigments. She claims that it becomes clear why this dulling effect exists if you consider that Carbon Black is also used to make 'plastic' UV-resistant. 'Because characteristic of this soot pigment is that it completely doesn't react to light', she says. 'It kills every colour. The industry loves this and calls dead 'colour-fast' and 'reliable'.'
The arguments she makes here are simply incongruent. Carbon Black is used to make polypropylene more uv-resistant, but this property has no inherent relation to colour. To see that uv-resistance isn't related to colour, simply consider your average sun cream. Sunscreens obviously have a high resistance to ultraviolet light, but most of them are transparent to somewhat white in colour, not the dulling dark grey we would expect from Collé's argument.

Collé's arguments seem to depend on a misguided understanding of what light is, how it reacts with various substances and how this affects our perception of the colour of these substances.
What we call light is more formally called electromagnetic radiation. The energy of which is related to its wavelength through the equation E = hv/λ, where E is energy, h is Planck's constant, v is the speed of light and λ is the wavelength. Because both h and v are constants that are divided by the wavelength, we can say that the shorter a wavelength is, the higher the energy will be. Through historically grown customs, we give different names to electromagnetic radiation of different wavelengths, but other than their wavelengths, x-rays do not fundamentally differ from visible light, microwaves or radio waves.
Visible light has a wavelength ranging from ~380 nanometres, where we see it as violet, and ~700 nanometres, where we call it red. The wavelengths of the ultraviolet spectrum are shorter than those of visible light, ranging from ~200 to ~380nm. Because they are shorter they are higher in energy and therefore more damaging.
The absorption of electromagnetic radiation by a compound in the spectrum of ultraviolet to infrared is important in the chemical analysis of compounds. For reasons we won't go into here, single atoms absorb light at singular wavelengths, and molecules absorb in broader 'bands' of wavelengths, related to their atomic composition. In UV-Vis absorption spectrometry, the relative absorption of UV and visible light is measured and plotted out in a graph. In such a graph, the relative absorbance of electromagnetic radiation on the y-axis is plotted against the wavelength on the x-axis in the following manner:

In order to see how the absorbance in the UV range is irrelevant to the compounds' colour, let us consider the UV-Vis absorption spectra of Carbon Black and Indigo Carmine, a water-soluble derivative of indigo that's just as blue.

As you can see, there is a lot of absorption in the UV spectrum for both compounds, but only Carbon Black absorbs light evenly throughout the visible spectrum, as one would expect from a grey or black. Indigo carmine, on the other hand, only shows strong absorption between 550 and 650 nanometres for visible light. We perceive light in this range as green to red and as those wavelengths are absorbed, indigo carmine appears to us as blue.
These observations are in clear contradiction with both claims of Collé that Carbon Black 'kills' colour because it is UV-resistant and that it doesn't react with light.
Both Carbon Black and indigo carmine readily absorb UV light. Yet as you may or may not know, indigo fades relatively quickly with exposure to UV radiation and is therefore the opposite of UV-resistant. Resistance to ultraviolet light is thus not related to how much UV radiation a compound absorbs, but instead how it will release that energy afterwards. Indigo is more prone to chemical decomposition through its central double bond, while Carbon Black is a larger, more stable molecule that is more likely to dissipate the absorbed energy through a process called vibrational relaxation.
Furthermore, from Carbon Black's absorption throughout the spectrum we can infer that it does in fact react to visible light of all wavelengths. To put it more succinctly, this reactivity is precisely what makes it black. Carbon Black's reactivity to light, as Collé calls it, thus doesn't affect the appearance of mixtures with Carbon Black in the way she supposes.

She further claims that 'carbon' 'kills every colour' when it's added to paints 'to make other pigments darker'.
To make a pigment darker is to increase the absorption of the range where the pigments normally emits, or doesn't absorb, light. Say we have a pigment that absorbs all light from exactly 200 to 575 nm and from 585 to 800 nm. This would make it very yellow. If we were to darken this pigment, ideally we would add a substance that only absorbs light between 575 and 585 nm, a kind of anti-yellow. Such a substance does not exist, for any colour. No two pigments will have exactly complementary absorptions and even if they did, mixing them perfectly will be essentially impossible. Thus you can't uniformly darken a colour, but the best alternative we have is adding black pigments, of any sort, which absorb throughout the visible spectrum. They increase the absorption of all wavelengths, thereby relatively increasing the absorption of previously unabsorbed wavelengths more. This is thus the closest to what one could call a strict darkening of a colour.
Collé instead describes an alternative process, which 'every classical painter knows', where pigments with other colours, like red and green,  are added to yellow to achieve an olive green colour. Which is fine, but in that case you haven't darkened your original yellow, you simply selectively increased the absorption of red and blue light. This will naturally give a more complex absorption spectrum, but it will also be one that has unrecognisably transformed your original yellow. You might get a mixture that can 'play a game with light' in such a case, but it won't be a darkening of yellow. In her argument she is thus comparing apples to oranges.

Collé's text ultimately is a rationalisation of her opinion that duller colours are less beautiful than brighter, more 'complex' ones. On the whole I would agree with that sentiment, but I can't abide when people use scientificly sounding rethoric to make a point that at its core is emotional and psychological.

Tuesday, 5 September 2023

Briefly Unavailable for Maintenance

Having owned and operated a number of websites over the years, I particularly noticed the difference in maintaining my personal website, this blog and the website of my gallery.
From it's first conception, my personal website has been difficult to me. Even when choosing the url, I considered many different options before eventually settling on '', a drawn-out spelling of my initials. This name is a compromise, as my full name seemed too corporate and self-promotional, while anything else seemed like trying to hard to be clever. Maybe it still is. The content of the website itself has also been ever changing, with its appearance as well as the works shown on it never seeming to be in a fixed state. There are always works, categories and exhibitions disappearing and re-appearing, depending on what I want to focus on. This makes my website a highly curated presentation of specific information, rather than an archive where one can find basic information about me or my work. 

This is in sharp contrast with the website of the gallery. The primary function of the gallery's website is to provide information about the gallery's activities, both past, present, and future. Barring any major changes to its functional structure, new information is simply added in chronological order, as it occurs. Upkeep is simple, if time-consuming, and once something is added, it's almost never reconsidered. 

In that sense the blog is a kind of hybrid between these two. Texts are added chronologically and in that sense it is a simple record of thoughts at the time they were fully formed. Yet although nothing ever gets removed from this blog, things are expanded, re-read and re-worked in minor ways over time. At any given moment there are also dozens of half-written posts waiting in the wings, ready to be finished, or started. They are also occasionally grouped in categories for easy retrieval and of course these categories are constantly scrutinised. So even though I made these three websites primarily to document and present my own activities, each requires its own approach. I had often felt these differences subconsciously, although they didn’t became explicit in my thoughts until very recently.

Wednesday, 19 July 2023

A Change is Gonna Come

A few months ago I read the news that the Dutch Mondriaan Fund was working on a Fair Practice Code for galleries. Starting July this year, any commercial gallery that wishes to apply for funding at the Mondriaan Fund has to implement this code in order to be elligble. The code was made in consideration with the Dutch National Gallery Association and one of the stipulations in the code is that a gallery has to have written contracts with their artists.
As writing a contract can be difficult, the Mondriaan Fund futher states on their information page that various model contracts can be found on website of the NGA.

A few months ago I looked on that website and I found only one model contract. This was an 'Artist-Gallery Consignment Agreement' that was about as useful as a piece of toilet paper. I was thus preparing this post as a step-by-step consideration as to why it was a document that nobody should ever use, when I checked the NGA's website again today and found the agreement wasn't there anymore.
So then I checked the most recent backup of their website on, which dates from December 2021. On this archived page there is no mention of any model contract. I can thus only surmise that somewhere in 2022 somebody at the NGA hastily wrote and uploaded a 'model contract' to their website to appease the Mondriaan Fund in their preparation for the upcoming regulation change. Now that this change has been implemented it seems like there are other people who were critical of the proposed model agreement and I can only assume that the previous agreement was therefore taken down to be rewritten.

If that's the case I'm curious to see the results and I am hopeful that I can finally give some praise at one of these attempts of the art world to get its act together from a legal point of view.

Update 5-9-2023:
It has indeed been the case that a new model agreement was uploaded to the website of the NGA. This time it was called a 'Cooperation Agreement'. It's a workable document, broadly speaking, that mainly codifies the current common practices in the artist-gallery relationship.
It nevertheless fails to (re)consider particular points in these common practices that are or may be problematic. For example, there are some assumptions about what it means to be a 'primary gallery', which as it stands is about as legally useful as saying you'll be 'best friends forever'. A definition of this term with a legal basis would thus have been welcome.
For the rest the agreement has some inconsistencies, and inconsistencies can lead to legal disputes. Under article 2, for example, the duties of the gallery are outlined in what is roughly in accordance with a principal-agent agreement, like would be the case in an independent insurance agent and a insurance firm. Article 3 then goes into detail into how 'Unless agreed otherwise, the Artist’s work which is provided to the Gallery will always be on consignment in the Gallery'. Which is an odd thing to specify in relation to article 2, because an agent doesn't really have anything under consignment. A consignment agreement is always about specific works, while agent - principal agreements generally pertain to all activities of the agent relating to the principal in a certain geographical area. Which works 'are provided to the gallery' is thus more a question of physical storage and possession, not a different legal structure that wouldn't be covered by the agent-principal relationship.
Under article 5.1 it is also stated that 'The sales price will be the same for sales inside or outside the Gallery', which is fine enough. However, it is then stated in article 5.3 that 'The Gallery may allow any discount of up to 15% without the Artist’s permission.'. Which is something I would be interested in to see how it would play out in court, especially with the use of the words 'discount' and 'permission', as well as it being 'shared equally between the Gallery and the Artist'. That in this agreement the gallery, who as the agent is legally speaking working for the artist, unilaterally decides who can and can't deviate from the agreed upon sales prices is odd to me. For the same reason it is iffy that the gallery doesn't need to provide client information to the artist under article 6. As the gallery is a representative for the principal, legally the artist is providing the gallery with said client information, not the other way around.

All in all this new document reflects current practices fairly accurately and is therefore better than the absolute garbage they had before. Yet it still fails to comprehensively reflect on the legal nature of the relationship between the artist and the gallery , the different kind of risks artists and galleries bear, and the difference in the power relationship between the parties, which may shift over time or per subject.

Monday, 3 July 2023

Understanding Your Own Position

This week concludes the lenghty saga of the dismissal of Ranti Tjan as the facility director of the KABK, an art academy in the Hague.
At the heart of this story lay a conflict between Tjan and his supervisors that was presented by news outlets such as NRC, de Volkskrant and Metropolis M as Tjan being punished for his opinion that the executive board of the overarching Hogeschool der Kunsten Den Haag ought to consist of more than one person.
This seems like a solid standpoint and it understandably gave Tjan a great deal of support from the media and the public, but this viewpoint is in fact a gross misunderstanding of the situation.
So let me explain briefly why Tjan's position makes it impossible for him to perform his duties as facility director and why he was rightly relieved from his position.

For this we first need to understand a bit about the school's recent history.
From 2014 to 2021 Marieke Schoenmakers fulfilled the directorship role at the KABK. During this time the facility directors of the KABK and the Royal Conservatory were also the only two members of the executive board for both institutions. This in effect meant that they were supervising themselves, as the principal task of a facility director is the daily managment of an organisation, while the executive board is tasked with monitoring the facility director and managing larger institutional concerns. This is nevertheless a common situation with a few advantages, but also brings with it considerable risks of mismanangement. Indeed, there were many abuses under the tenure of Schoenmakers that can partially be attributed to the fact that she supervising herself during that time.

So towards the end of 2021, the supervisory board of the Hogeschool der Kunsten set out to rectify this situation, by appointing a new facility director of the KABK and installing a seperate person to function as the executive board. They expressed their intentions and described their proposed governance structure in the following document published in december 2021:
It is worth noting that an executive board with a maximum of three members is mentioned as a distinct possibility and it is also noted that 'an executive board usually consists of two or three members'. The supervisory board is therefore not fundamentally dismissing the possibility of an executive board consisting of more than one person.

A few months later Ranti Tjan was appointed facility director at the KABK and a short while after that Huug de Deugd was appointed as the sole member of the executive board.
Quickly after that Tjan expressed his dissatisfaction with the organisational structure, even though it could and should have been known to him that this structure was explicitly chosen to increase the accountability of the facility director. In various media Tjan is described as saying that he wished to expand the executive board from one person to three people, as an executive board with a single member is in conflict with the 'diverse and inclusive direction of the KABK'. What all of these media left out is the simple fact that what Tjan actually suggested, and kept on suggesting even during the court case, is not a general expansion of the executive board, but a specific composition of the executive board, where he and the director of the conservatory would be the other two board members next to de Deugd. This of course essentially brings back all power into the hands of Tjan and the other facility director, inherently returning to the previous and unwanted situation whereby the facility directors can freely make decisions that go unchecked for a long time.

At best this can be seen as a fundamental misunderstanding on Tjan's part about his own job description that was, or should have been, known to him from before his appointment. At worst this can be interpreted as a blatant attempt at gaining more autonomous power by employing political pressure on his supervisors.
Simply put, by proposing his own inclusion in the executive board, Tjan wished to re-instate an unwanted situation that the supervisory board explicitly sought to correct with the current structure. That Tjan has claimed he 'hasn't been presented with an argument why a three headed executive board would be impossible', is thus nothing but an obvious indication of his own lack of understanding of his role within that structure. If a facility director is unclear about what aspects of the organisation he has decision power over and, rather than informing himself, he seeks to gain political traction through the media, then he is indisputably unfit for such a position.
It is therefore no wonder that a court has held the same view and ordered the dismissal of Tjan, despite the misguided public outcry at the situation.

Monday, 26 June 2023

It leaves the whole world blind.

Ok, so.
I very recently found out that I don't have a visual imagination.
No wait, let me rephrase that.
I very recently found out that almost everybody else is able to 'picture' things. I've always kind of known that my imagination is essentially blind, I just never thought that this was a rare occurrence. That idea seems so absurd to me that I feel uncomfortable writing that it is somehow possible for other people to close their eyes and 'see' an image.

This doesn't mean that I don't remember things I saw, or that I have no imagination whatsoever. It's just that when I imagine or recall things, I simply don't see any images.
When I do imagine things, I do so in terms of causal relationships, spatial relationships, abstract qualities and perhaps most importantly, movement and proprioception. But from what I understand other people just kind of see shapes and such.

I don't feel this has hampered me in any way in my life, but it does help to explain why I do certain things the way I do, or perhaps why most people don't.
This is especially true for my own understanding of art. I've often jokingly said that it's easy to understand my views on art and that all you have to do is forget everything you think you know about art. But I never understood just how true that was.
Because unlike most people, it's quite literally impossible for me to have a superficial understanding of an artwork. When I think about an artwork, I truly can't imagine what it looks like. The only things I can think about are how it's made, its context, some characteristics of details and so forth, anything 'below the surface'. Whichever understanding I could have about an artwork can only come from meticiously noting every single aspect of an artwork that doesn't involve its appearance.
Consequently, in order to make any sense of art at all, I had to develop a cohesive theory of art that necessarily precludes images. While for nearly everybody else in the world, the image, the visual, is the central part of art. It's even exactly the aspect that seperated the 'visual' arts from all the others. As I'm only able to reason about art without those visuals, if my thoughts about art are comprehensible,  then the visual aspect axiomatically, and perhaps paradoxically, can't be a significant part of art.
Thus, while I was joking when said you have to forget everything you think you know about art, it's exactly what most people will need to do. To be able to see what I see, so to speak, you have to develop an understanding of how it's possible to have informed thoughts and arguments about art without knowing what it looks like. While for me this is the only available option, I don't think it is an easy task for most people.