Scoundrel Time

The Color Cure

The Color Cure, installation by Lee Crouch
Zero Prestige through June 21
by Joy Katz

The Color Cure, an installation by artist Lee Crouch, is a room whose mood changes depending on a visitor’s skin color. It’s a little like one of those “mood rings” of the 1970s, with stones that turned from gray to yellow to orange to purple, supposedly revealing a wearer’s feelings. Except The Color Cure wants to change emotions, not reflect them.

The installation stands in a grassy lot in a residential block of Pittsburgh’s gentrifying East Liberty neighborhood, near a public high school and a busy community garden. On the outside, it looks like an innocuous visitors’ center of some sort, with large windows. Inside, it’s about the size of an average master bedroom. Aside from a furry green floor cushion, the room is empty. At least at first.

Wall colors (and other surprises) are The Color Cure’s medicine. A cure implies illness, and the illness in this case is American racism—not racism’s loud, large forms, but expressions of racial anxiety on the vascular level. A handout by the entrance cites research showing that a person’s heart rate and blood pressure increase markedly when someone with a different skin color enters a room.[i] Even if you don’t have a prolonged interaction with the other person, your pulse rises, and your breathing becomes more shallow. This disconcerting physiological response is related to what sociologist Pierre Bordieu referred to in the 1990s as habitus: ideology that lives in the body. The Color Cure wants to alter people’s “body ideology” by replacing tension with calmness.

Upon entering, a visitor registers her heart rate and blood pressure on a medical monitor and her skin tone on a complexion-matching app. The walls then gradually suffuse with a color statistically determined to be “neutrally pleasant” to that person. (When this reviewer held her pale, freckled arm to the screen on a first visit, the walls turned a soft gray. It was raining, so the effect was nice. Another time, the walls were sage green, not my favorite.) A sound system awakes, offering classical guitar, distant bird chirps, a low hum like a clothes dryer running—again, depending. The algorithm determining the room’s effects is supposedly also based on research: studies of black- and minority-owned restaurants and businesses, including places with mixed crowds; images on social media; interviews with a racially diverse mix of interior designers, composers, and musicians.

The Color Cure really gets going when a second person comes into the room, especially if it’s someone with a different skin tone. The walls turn a shade meant to be “joyfully tranquil” to both. Experiments with friends and passersby indicated that it is not an average of people’s individual custom colors, but an entirely different one. (One day, it was a luscious burgundy.) A hidden fog machine releases clouds that drift along the floor. Most improbably, swings on thick ropes unfurl from the ceiling. The Color Cure is extending an invitation. If people swing on the swings or push them, the room’s Willy Wonka-like effects continue. The swings actually rise and descend to different heights. The sounds intensify (jazzy trumpet riffs, dolphin calls). Visitors become “color collaborators” when their vitals return to normal. At that time, the exit opens. Until then, the way out is closed, and anyone trying to leave early has to operate an embarrassingly squeaky door.

On my first visit, I was alone, so the only effects were the wall colors and sounds (a cello solo and a manual typewriter with a nice end-of-line bing). The second time, a woman with deep brown skin came in holding a full coffee and reading the project brochure. She didn’t see me at first. I felt nervous. Should I say something? Oh glad you’re here! I’m white and bored. I said hello and looked at the walls, which were then a creamy cloud color. I didn’t want to seem eager or forward. This worry alone probably affected my blood pressure. I had an urge to flee, but also not, considering what my leaving, or my presence, signified. Breathe, I told myself. She saw me and nodded in my direction as she registered at the monitors. Then we stood and waited. After a moment, the walls turned a deep indigo. The swings came down. The setup instantly felt proscribed and meaningless, yet also reassuring in its meaninglessness. We weren’t going to be “cured” of anything. But the room wasn’t a big commitment, and here we both were, so we sat and swung and chatted about the city, gardening, our jobs. I don’t remember what we listened to. After ten minutes or so—time passed quickly—a beep prompted us to check our vitals. Normal. The door opened.

“So we’re cured,” said my color collaborator.

“Oh, definitely,” I said. We both cracked up.

Across the street, people were weeding the garden; chickens clucked somewhere inside the greenery. It struck me that, rather than resorting to conceptual art, Crouch might have noticed that the garden was already at work curing vascular racism. A community garden offers routine chores—if there are weeds, you pull them; if there are tomatoes, you pick them—instead of theatrical effects. The colors of nature are agreeable to everyone, or they wouldn’t choose to be there. But The Color Cure’s direct approach to race was making me think. We are so very sensitive to color, design, atmosphere. If the shape of a table affects international peace negotiations[ii] why can’t the color of a wall affect racial perception?

But—slowing the pulse: what a goal at a time when brazen acts of racism and xenophobia are on the rise. What a miniature effort The Color Cure is compared with, say, Kara Walker’s “Sugar Baby,”[iii] otherwise known as A Subtlety, which forces people to confront the scale of colonialism and the violence it inflicts on brown bodies. “Baby” is an understatement: the woman made of sugar is the size of a warehouse. “Cure” must be a deliberate overstatement of Crouch’s artwork’s mission. And the article is intentional: The Color Cure, not A Color Cure. As if to say, ‘This is it, this is what we have as a way forward.’

Crouch’s installation brings to mind other contemporary artworks that take a serenely objective approach to race. Brazilian photographer Angélica Dass’s Humanae,[iv] for example, turns people’s portraits into giant PMS color chips, assigning numbers to individual skin tones. The Color Cure’s closest historical precedent, though, may be the Colour Cure wards[v] of World War I, created for soldiers suffering shell shock. Amid walls of Sunlight Yellow, Spring Green floors, and Firmament Blue ceilings, a patient would be healed of nightmares and flashbacks—or that was the idea. The rooms were “thrilling with the Spring,” wrote the British Journal of Nursing in 1918. Their designer, Howard Kemp-Prosser[vi], so believed in color’s healing power that he spent his fortune building the wards. (One wonders if he considered building the soldiers gardens, with actual sunlight and actual sky.)

Like the Colour Cure wards, The Color Cure is flawed because color is subjective. No matter how much research the artist has undertaken, there is no wall color that can be said to “neutrally please” all, or even most, people with brown or black or yellow skin; no shade that is predictively enlivening or radiant to all, or even most, white-skinned people, in-between people, or any people.

Does it matter? Does it matter whether the color algorithm is even real? You could say that subjectivity is a subject of The Color Cure. Color is just a function of light and the human eye. It doesn’t come with associations; we impose them. Color associations come from advertising, experience, school, childhood, neighborhood, Instagram, history, family, the movies, the news, etc. Our racist associations come from the same places.

Maybe the real purpose of The Color Cure is its excuse to seek out—to need—a person with darker or lighter skin not as a nod to “diversity” but for reasons of mutual enchantment. One day, I saw children pulling each other into the room to get the swings down. You could call it an act of un-profiling: stripping away beliefs and assumptions to look at color as simply color. (You can’t “not see” color in The Color Cure.)

If the artwork’s true risk is creating a space for willingness, I am not prepared to say it doesn’t work, even if the algorithm is fake. The Color Cure did cause me to imagine, for a few minutes, what our bodies might feel like when negative race associations cease to exist. We might gauge whether our great national sickness has cleared by our ability to simply remain calm no matter who walks into the room.









Note: Lee Crouch, the social practice artist, is not a real person. The Color Cure does not exist. All of the supporting research is true.












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