Noir is a serendipitous encyclopedia inspired by 1001 names for the color black.
One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of folktales with Persian, Arabic, Bedouin, Egyptian, Greek, Jewish, Turkish, and Indian roots. The narrative is built upon a number of tales brought together under the framing story of the Persian queen Scheherazade, who tells stories to King Shahriyâr, one each night, for 1,001 nights. The tales reference one another, back and forth, throughout the book; some are framed within other tales, while others are self-contained. The bulk of the text is in prose, although verse is occasionally used for songs and riddles.
The Three Princes of Serendip, originally a Persian folktale, is constructed much like One Thousand and One Nights. Here, the unifying story involves the three princes of Serendip who travel all over kingdom and country. All the while, the princes gain fresh insight and knowledge thanks to various coincidences. They have the ability to ride the randomity, and they take advantage of discoveries made while searching for something else entirely.
Encyclopedia Britannica credits British art historian and author Horace Walpole with creating the concept of “serendipity.” In a letter written in 1754, he described an unexpected discovery he made thanks to a series of random incidents. He called this sequence “serendipity,” referring to The Three Princes of Serendip.
An encyclopedia is a compilation of knowledge, either in general or within a given domain.
Systematic approaches to colors can be found in the writings of the 4th-century philosopher Calcidius, in the 15th-century notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, and in Isaac Newton’s Opticks (1704). Based on optical experiments, Newton claimed that red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet are the primary colors, and thus the elements for the complete color spectrum. Since Newton’s time, other colors have been upheld as primary; for instance, “a slightly purplish red, a vegetation-green, slightly yellowish, and an ultramarine-blue” according to the German physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (Handbook of Physiological Optics, 1867).
From 1919 to 1923, artist Johann Itten was the leading instructor of color theory at the Bauhaus. Itten held that in subtractive color mixing, where colors are attained by blending various pigments, red, yellow, and blue can produce any other color. This is not true in practice, however, because the mixed colors will always be darker than the primary colors.
Typically, in printing, the primary colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow. Since these colors are bright, they aren’t able to create true black. The result is gray. Thus the three primary colors must be complemented with a so-called key color—black. This color system is called CMYK, an acronym for cyan, magenta, yellow, and key.
In additive color mixing, different colors are produced by blending lights. When all the lights are combined and balanced, the result is white. The absence of light is what we perceive as black.
Vantablack, a material composed of carbon nanotubes, is the darkest known* substance on Earth; it absorbs 99.96% of visible light. When light strikes Vantablack, instead of bouncing off, it becomes trapped by continuous deflection amongst the tubes, until it is eventually absorbed and it dissipates into heat. Thus the blackest black, ne c’est pas?
But our perception is that Vantablack is blacker than black. Beyond black. Outrenoir.
Perhaps it’s not black at all.
Black is a metonym for darkness. And that which is completely black is total darkness. The absence of light.
But nothing is completely black. Something completely black is an abstraction, a mathematical potential. A utopia. Or a dystopia. A color is something we can see. We cannot see darkness. Darkness is nothing. Black is something. Even the darkest object must reflect something to be something. Black. Otherwise it isn’t black; it’s simply nothingness.
Black is all the colors. Black is no colors. Black does not exist.
These multifaceted and sometimes contradictory perspectives on the physicality of the color are reflected in its symbolism.
We saddle black with darkness, death, decay, denial, evil, destruction, sin, emptiness, despair, melancholy, and silence. Hello darkness my old friend.
In the Christian church, black is used to symbolize sorrow. In Taoism, black is used to represent yin, a primitive force that is feminine, passive, and negative; it stands for shadows, cold, and damp. Kali, the aggressive and bloodthirsty Hindu goddess of death, means “the black one” in Sanskrit; she is typically portrayed with black skin. Black cats are said to be portents of coming misfortune, and black dogs have been taken as a symbol of the devil.
This symbolism is often exploited. In battle, Comanche warriors used black war paint as a sign of aggressive power and strength, and a number of elite military squads and police task forces around the world wear black uniforms. The Nazgûl in The Lord of the Rings, as well as the Star Wars villain Darth Vader, are dressed all in black. In the 1930s, paramilitary groups within the Italian Partito Nazionale Fascista, the German Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, and the British Union of Fascists wore black shirts. The fallen woman wears lingerie black as sin. The Rolling Stones want to paint it black; Amy Winehouse went back to black; and you never saw Johnny Cash wear a suit of white.
The word itself carries the negative connotations of the color.
The Black Death, also known as the Great Plague, was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, with a death toll of up to 200 million people in Eurasia, peaking from 1347 to 1351.
Black Thursday refers to October 24, 1929, when the Stock Market Crash began. The crash continued until October 29, Black Tuesday, when share prices on the New York Stock Exchange collapsed. The crash signaled the beginning of the twelve-year Great Depression.
A blacklist is a list of undesirable persons, and a black mark relates to a record of a person’s bad behavior. The black sheep of the family. Black market. Black money.
The loaded meaning of “black” sticks to the objects and bodies that are named.
A man. A black man. George Floyd.
“Niger” is Latin for “black.” For 500 years, various words deriving from “niger” have been used, and are still used, to deliberately denigrate people with dark skin.
The opposite of black—white—is considered bright, clean, fresh, harmonious, honest, innocent, peaceful. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 recognize a white cloth as a protective sign; the celibacy-sworn Vestals wore white veils; in the French Tricolore, equality is symbolized by a white band. Show me the doll that is the nice doll.
A single drop of black will spoil the white.
At the same time, black stands for power, lust, and wealth. Black was the color of rebirth and resurrection for the ancient Egyptians; Sara-la-Kali, “Sara the Black,” is the patron saint of the Romani people; in Japan, white teeth are not nearly as beautiful as blackened teeth; the cultural elite of the late 19th century were regular customers at Le Chat Noir; the black cat is seen as lucky in Great Britain, for one; businesses in the black are profitable and financially solvent; the black color on the pan-African flag, and among the Black Panthers, references skin color in a positive manner.
Text is black. Black on white.
Alongside all its loaded meanings, black also functions as a neutral symbol for, among other things, the months of December and January, the Zodiac signs of Capricorn and Aquarius, the metals iron and lead, the planet Saturn, Saturday, diamonds, anarchy, winter, earth, water, and north.
We form our worldview through words. Words have a structurizing function. Words have values. We cannot perceive, much less evaluate, something that hasn’t been given a word.
Words expose us and shape us. Words carry identity.
To title, to label, to term.
Naming is a political action.
What is “black”? How black is “black”?
Words emerge and vanish.
Words are embraced and rejected.
Words are underlined and crossed out.
Words are burned on pyres.
Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: They are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.
Words are compiled.
The act of compiling words can seem to be a simple act of reporting, or nothing more than a presentation of facts. The practice of giving a dry account. But in giving structure to a material, patterns appear—real or imagined. In the compilation, new meanings emerge.
To compile words is to control the narrative of a given domain.
But which stories emerge from what has been embraced? Which stories emerge from what has been rejected? And which stories emerge out of sheer coincidence as you page here and there in a compilation, while you are searching for something else entirely?
Noir is a story about “black.”
* It has been reported that MIT engineers have developed an even darker material, absorbing 99.995% of incoming light. (September 12, 2019)
Oscar Guermouche, 2019/2020
Text for Noir – A Serendipitous Encyclopedia Inspired by 1001 Names for the Color Black by Sandra Praun.
Praun & Guermouche
December 12, 2019