(OU)VERT – ‘open green’

The research project (OU)VERT (2017-2018) undertook interdisciplinary art, cultural and media studies, and natural sciences based research to investigate the exceptional role of greenness as colour, perceptible physical phenomenon, biological agency, material medium, semantic construct and ideology.



(OU)VERT systematizes relevant aspects in scientific disciplines across different cultures of knowledge related to green as medium, in order to strengthen the Humanities in the light of rapid technological advances and related worldviews. The project examines green as the most anthropocentric of all colours, indeed perceived as ‘natural’ and employed to evoke homo faber’s antithesis, and investigates how greenness is increasingly being constructed.

To humans a plant appears green because its chlorophyll absorbs high-energy red and blue light photons for photosynthesis, but reflects the middle spectrum as its ‘waste’. This spectrum with a wavelength between roughly 490 and 565 nm, useless for plant’s photosynthesis, corresponds precisely to the largest spectrum visible to humankind. Greenness, despite its proxy function to stand in for the ‘natural world’, has become a technical colour for visualization – lasers, GFP biomarkers or night vision devices – as well as a discursive and political tool for greenwashing greenhouse effects away. On the other hand, ironically, pigments able to technically fix green colour are reported to be the most difficult to obtain, and the most toxic in art history. (OU)VERT analyses greenness’ permanent tension between the technicality of its aesthetic staging, its cultural connotations, its biological and physiological materiality, and mediating qualities.

Carried out in parallel at the Department for Arts and Cultural Studies and the Department of Health and Medical Sciences, the project networks Danish and international researchers to create an interdisciplinary research cluster, maps bibliographic, iconological and epistemological sources, organizes art and sciences events, academic courses and workshops, interdisciplinary conferences, seeking to impact both on public policy making and on the creative economy. (OU)VERT is made possible thanks to a two years grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Research fields and methodology

(OU)VERT maps and combines knowledge from the Humanities and the Arts, from the Natural and the Medical Sciences, to reflect on green-ness’ uncritically eulogized pervasiveness in our society. It traces back how techno-scientific and epistemological developments have affected the specific role of this colour that is so central in human evolution and culture, and in humans’ drive to reassure themselves through the conceptual construction of ‘natural’ otherness. Drawing on art theory, aesthetics, perception studies, STS, and contemporary philosophy, both the epistemic objects of investigation and the ontological condition of the perceiver are considered – not asking what is green, but rather wherewhenwhy and for whom is green? How is greenness constructed? (OU)VERT  comprises four inter-related sub-studies:

The methodology is grounded in a ‘German’ materialist media theoretical approach and ‘French’ mediology – hence the pun in the title. The first observes epistemological changes in contemporary culture by meticulously dissecting the “discourse networks” (Kittler 1985) and “materialities of communication” (Gumbrecht/Pfeiffer 1988) beyond hermeneutics and iconology, implying a media archaeological point of view “in deep time and space” (Zielinski 2002) and non-linear ways of understanding of the epistemic effects technical media and mediation bring about. The latter as a “discipline that treats of the higher social functions in their relations with the technical structures” (Debray 1994) emphasizes the materiality of media, multiple functions of mediation, and medial intersection with institutions, politics, and economics. A mediology of greenness encompasses material techniques and systems, milieus from the lived environment to the social life of media systems, including social codes and subsequent symbolic processes.

Each of these focus areas is paralleled by research into historical and contemporary art practices: Rather than being considered mere illustrations, they serve as significant indicators of epistemological shifts, often in counter-cyclic and critically subversive ways. But why is it that no monochrome art exhibition was ever dedicated to green?

1. Physics, chemistry and biology

How are physics, chemistry and biology shaping the cultural understanding of greenness? This sub-field comprises a historically situated examination of studies in optics, physics and chemistry of coloured materials. Colour theories by Young, Helmholtz, Clerk-Maxwell etc. have always influenced artists and scholars. Goethe viscerally opposed Newton’s Opticks and his explanations of light’s refrangibility, but his own colour theory not only implied perception but also chemical studies: Fascinated by minerals such as kalium (lit.: ‘ashes of plants’) manganese which, placed in water, turns from green into its opposite red, he made this into an argument in favour of his theory of complementary colours. Green is “chemically unstable and thus has come to symbolize everything changeable or capricious. It’s a middle colour” (Pastoureau 2013), a medium per se, an ou-vert chameleon colour. Ironically, to portray ‘nature’, the most corrosive colour pigments were employed instead of plant derivatives, such the noxious ‘Schweinfurt Green,’ also used to kill rats. In evolutionary biology the epistemic nexuses of greenness unfold in the photosynthetic functions of chlorophyll, camouflage, mimicry etc. and play a role in the emergence of complexity and  biosemiotic tricks increasing “semiotic freedom” (Hoffmeyer 2008).

2. Perception and physiology

The field of perception and physiology includes knowledge about after-images, post-receptoral mechanisms, neurophysiological subjectivism (Thompson 1995), and colour constancy, but also addresses post-anthropocentric approaches which appear in art and philosophy – e.g. dogs cannot see green, and, as expressionist painter Franz Marc asked, “how does a horse see the world?” While human perception of green depends on the reflection of the middle spectrum “colour perception and colour language give us anthropocentrically defined colours and not colours themselves;” they need to be addressed as “anthropocentric realism” (Hilbert 1987). While Impressionism and Pointillism “emphasize perception as the act of excitation of the perceiving eye itself” (Imdahl 1987), increasingly multi-modal approaches to greenness, including smell and taste, appear. Artistic interest shifts greenness from optical information to physiological or hormonal one.

3. Semantics and politics

Discourse analysis and investigations into performative semantics and politics concern cultural and disciplinary differences in etymology and the metaphorical political use of greenness. While in the Western context, it is rooted in Middle English and Latin to signify growth or sprout, green is indeed across cultures associated with nature, vegetation, fertility, spring, youth, renewal or hope (Heller, 1998). This section concentrates on how greenness is used to symbolically compensate for anthropogenic effects and to become a “metaphor we live by” (Lakoff & Johnson 1980): We are even “greening the media” (Maxwell & Miller 2012), continuously hiding away the polluting production and waste culture of information and communication technologies behind the image of being clean and ecologically benign.

4. Science and technology studies, or ‘green STS‘

Science and technology studies of man made green, or green STS, investigates the role of greenness both as technological and biological signal. It researches cases where green serves as technical colour for visualization, such as in lasers, Green Fluorescent Protein or luciferase biomarkers, night vision devices or early computer screens, to fit the limited frequency range of human’s perceptive apparatus. Greenness’ ambivalent status between comforting nature and alarming toxicity are analysed in the light of apparently paradoxical new disciplines such as ‘Green Chemistry’ or ‘Green Biotechnology’.

Debray, Regis: Manifestes Mediologiques. Paris, 1994.
Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich & Pfeiffer, Ludwig K. (ed.) Materialität der Kommunikation. Frankfurt a. M., 1988.Heller, Eva: Wie Farben wirken. Farbpsychologie – Farbsymbolik – Kreative Farbgestaltung. Hamburg, 1998.
Hilbert, D.R.: Color and Color Perception: A Study in Anthropocentric Realism. Stanford, 1987.
Hoffmeyer, Jesper: Biosemiotics. An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs. Scranton/London, 2008.
Kittler, Friedrich A.: Aufschreibesysteme 1800/1900. Fink, München, 1985.
Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark: Metaphors we live by. Chicago, 1980.
Maxwell, Richard and Miller, Toby: Greening the Media. Oxford/New York, 2012.
Pastoureau, Michel: Vert. Histoire d’une couleur. Paris, 2013.
Thompson, Evan: Colour Vision. A Study in Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Perception. London/New York, 1995.
Zielinski, Siegfried: Archäologie der Medien: Zur Tiefenzeit des technischen Hörens und Sehens. Reinbek, 2002.

Conference Green SLSA

The SLSAeu Conference 2018 was centered on the theme of green, providing a resolutely cross-disciplinary platform to explore one of the most pervasive and broadest tropes of our times. Alongside this central theme, the organizers also welcomed provocatively un green and prismatic proposals from experts in all academic disciplines and professional fields.

How to define and understand greenness is an urgent political, societal, philosophical and economic question not only in academia – yet there is much confusion about its meanings. Green is often positively connoted. It has become pervasive across a broad range of disciplines, but far from having universal meaning, it marks a dramatic knowledge gap prone to systematic misunderstandings: Engineers brand ‘green technologies’ as ecologically benign, but climate researchers point to the ‘greening of the earth’ itself as the alarming effect of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. ‘Green growth’ aims to reconcile economic and ecologically sustainable development, while in philosophy ‘prismatic ecology’ rebukes the use of green to represent binary ideas of the other-than-human world as an idealized nature. More concept than color, green is often being reduced to a mere metaphor stripped of its material, epistemological and historical referents.

SLSAeu 2018 was organized in collaboration with the University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Humanities and the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences/Medical Museion, with support from other UCPH departments, and Aarhus University. The main conference site was the UCPH’s South campus, other events and keynotes happended at the Medical Museion, and at the National Gallery of Denmark.

The conference was supported by Novo Nordisk Fonden and the Carlsberg Foundation.

Video: Keynote speakers

Brigitte was born in 1963 in Bogotá, Colombia, and born again in 1998, after 35 years of living as Luis Guillermo. By then she was already a biologist and scholar working on biodiversity management by local communities in her country, and held a MA in Latin American Studies from the University of Florida. Married to Adriana, she lives as a couple with two girls aged 16 and 14, who do not make a big deal of the gender trouble of their parents. As a professor in landscape ecology at the Bogotá Jesuits University, Brigitte has contributed for many years to the creation of its faculty for environmental and rural studies, and brought voice to the idea of both biological and cultural diversity to her classes in architecture, design and science. Despite her failure to complete a PhD in environmental economics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, in 2009 she was appointed general director of the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute, the national facility for biodiversity research in Colombia, supposedly the country with the richest biodiversity in the world. As such, she has been developing environmental policies for Colombia’s post-conflict areas, raising awareness that cultural diversity is part of nature’s diversity. The author of 15 books, a popular TV series, and regular newspaper columns on fashion, economics and ecological thought, as well as a social media activist, Baptiste is a much-respected figure throughout Latin America whose innovative research and alternative narratives have eroded prejudice, built bridges and generated social change. At the same time a scientist, an advocate of gender diversity and an inspiring public intellectual, she was awarded the Prince Claus Fund for culture and development prize in 2017. www.humboldt.org.co

Natasha Myers is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at York University, the convenor of the Politics of Evidence Working Group, director of the Plant Studies Collaboratory, co-organizer of Toronto’s Technoscience Salon, and co-founder of the Write2Know Project. Her book Rendering Life Molecular: Models, Modelers, and Excitable Matter (Duke UP, 2015) won the 2016 Robert K. Merton Prize from the American Sociological Association’s Science, Knowledge, and Technology Section. It is an ethnography of an interdisciplinary group of scientists who make living substance come to matter at the molecular scale. Myers’ current projects span investigations of plant-people conspiracies in a range of contexts, including studies on the arts and sciences of vegetal sensing and sentience, the politics and aesthetics of garden enclosures in a time of climate change. Most recently, she has launched a long-term ethnography on restoration ecology and enduring colonial violence in Toronto’s High Park oak savannahs. Myers is also experimenting with the arts of ecological attention through a research-creation project with award winning filmmaker and dancer Ayelen Liberona. Becoming Sensor engages art and anthropology to design protocols for an “ungrid-able ecology” grounded in decolonial feminist praxis. natashamyers.org & becomingsensor.com

Olaf L. Mueller studied philosophy, mathematics, computer science, and economics in Göttingen (Germany) and Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1996, he was a research fellow at Jagiellonian University (Kraków), in 1997 at Harvard University. Since 2003, he holds the chair for philosophy of science at Humboldt University (Berlin). On invitation of the Japanese Society for Goethean Natural Science, he worked as a guest professor at Keio University (Tokyo). In his books, he argues against skepticism à la Matrix (2003); in favour of good old metaphysics (2003); in favour of moral observation (2008); and in favour of Goethe’s attack on Newton’s optics (2015); at present he is writing a book about the role of beauty in physics (2019). In his papers, he defends freedom against the neurosciences, pacifism against adherents of just war, individual justice in climate ethics against Western egoism, and mind/body-dualism against materialism. His main concern is a humanistic interpretation of modern science and technology: Both ought to be achievements of humans for humans. farbenstreit.de

The keynote lecture by Olaf L. Müller is organised in collaboration with the Center for Modern European Studies (CEMES) and supported by Goethe Institut Dänemark.

Thomas Feuerstein is a Vienna based artist and writer whose work oscillates between the fields of fine art and media art. Born in 1968 in Innsbruck, he studied art history and philosophy at the University of Innsbruck, and obtained his doctoral degree in 1995. In 1992 he founded the office for intermedia communication transfer and the association Medien.Kunst.Tirol, and was the co-editor of the magazine Medien.Kunst.Passagen from 1992 to 1994. After research commissions from the Austrian Ministry of Science on art in electronic space and art and architecture in 1992 and 1993, he has been a regular lecturer and visiting professor at numerous universities and art academies. As an artist, Feuerstein bridges the interface of applied and theoretical science. His projects combine complex bodies of knowledge from philosophy, art history and literature, to biotechnology, economics and politics. His artistic narratives examine the interplay between individuality and sociality, and aesthetically translate research into molecular sculptures, and the aesthetics of entropy. His artworks comprise the most diverse media, including installations, drawings, paintings, sculptures, photography, radio plays, net and biological art. Feuerstein focuses particularly on the interplay between verbal and visual elements, the unearthing of latent connections between fact and fiction, as well as on the interaction between art and science. At the core of his practice is an artistic method he calls “conceptual narration.”


Jens Hauser
Jens Hauser


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