object orange

ethnography of color

megan whitman

In November of 2005, The Detroiter, an online news and culture site that bears the tag line “unearthing a great American city one story at a time” received an anonymous statement in the general inbox of their editorial staff’s email account:

The statement [2]is signed by “the DDD project” and reads as follows:

In the "D", "D" doesn't really stand for "Detroit", but "Demolition." Take a look around and you'll notice a great number of buildings marked on the front with a circled "D" in faint chalk. Off to the side, many of these same buildings will also have a noticeable dot, courtesy of our own native son, Tyree Guyton. These dotted buildings have stood for so long that they have become, arguably, the most memorable landmarks of our fair city.

In addition to Tyree Guyton, Detroit has had more than its fair share of artists who have taken notice of this situation and done something about it. Recently, however, we have taken up a particular project that has actually netted results - faster than anyone, especially us, could have anticipated.[1]

The artistic move is simple, cover the front in Tiggeriffic Orange - a color from the Mickey Mouse series, easily purchased from Home Depot. Every board, every door, every window, is caked in Tiggeriffic Orange. We paint the facades of abandoned houses whose most striking feature are their derelict appearance.

A simple drive would show you some of our most visible targets.

Just off I-75, around the Caniff/ Holbrook exit, on the west side, towers a three story house, saturated so deeply in orange that it reflects color onto the highway with the morning sun. Also, on the east side of the highway by the McNichols exit, is another house screaming orange. In that same area, where the Davison Highway and John C Lodge M-10 Highway intersect, sit a series of two houses painted orange, most visible from the Lodge side. In our only location not visible from the highway, on the Warren detour between 94 and 96 on Hancock Street, sat a house so perfectly set in its color that it garnered approval from the Detroit Police Department.

Two of four locations have already been demolished. Of the four, the building on Dequindre, by the Caniff/ Holbrook exit, remains, as does the site that intersects the Lodge and Davison. There was no "D" on any of the façades, only burnt boards, broken glass, and peeling paint. Rallying around these elements of decay, we seek to accentuate something that has wrongfully become part of the everyday landscape.

So the destruction of two of these four houses raises a number of interesting points. From one perspective, our actions have created a direct cause and effect relationship with the city. As in, if we paint a house orange, the city will demolish it. In this relationship, where do the city's motivations lie? Do they want to stop drawing attention to these houses? Are the workers simply confused and think this is the city's new mark for demolition? Or is this a genuine response to beautify the city?

From another perspective, we have coincidently chosen buildings that were set to be demolished within the month. However, with so many circled "D"s on buildings, it seems near impossible that chance would strike twice.

In any case, what will be the social ramifications of these actions? Each of these houses serves within the greater visual and social landscape of the city. If the city doesn't rebuild, will it be better to have nothing there rather than an abandoned house? In addition, each of these houses served as a shelter for the homeless at some point in time. Now there are, at least, two less houses for them. Why didn't the city simply choose to renovate? Everything affects not only our experience now, but also that of the next generation.

So before they are all gone, look for these houses. Look at ALL the houses in Detroit. If you stumble upon one of these houses colored with Tiggeriffic Orange, stop and really look. In addition to being highlights within a context of depression, every detail is accentuated through the unification of color. Broken windows become jagged lines. Peeling paint becomes texture. These are artworks in themselves.

If you see a house that you would like to see painted orange, paint it. Afterwards, email the good people at thedetroiter.com at ws@thedetroiter.com.

These buildings aren't scenery. Don't look through or around them. Take action. Pick up a roller. Pick up a brush. Apply orange.

The dialogue is going. Our goal is to make everyone look at not only these houses, but all the buildings rooted in decay and corrosion. If we can get people to look for our orange while driving through the city, then they will at the same time, be looking at all the decaying buildings they come across. This brings awareness. And as we have already seen, awareness brings action.

        Yours Truly,

        the DDD project

At the time of this letter’s submission, the DDD project had painted four houses two of which had been torn down by the city of Detroit within weeks of the orange transformation.  As of September of 2006 there were over eleven orange houses standing with four torn down by the city. 

More than just introduce DDD, its process and goals, this letter articulates a tension deeply embedded within the project itself, it is a tension that I find has to do with the way we commonly think of color and the way color can actually function in lived experience.

My presentation aims to look at the orange houses of the DDD project from within the urban, social landscape of a shrinking city, where we might say the action of painting derilict houses orange is a response to a certain set of circumstances.  Additionally, and quite critically, I would like to look at color as a thing that produces action that reveals notions of color’s scientific, symbolic and material capabilities.

on detroit: de-twah, dee-troit, destroyed? [3]

Detroit’s biography as a city can be traced backed to the founding of fort Detroit by French officer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac in 1701.  In contemporary minds, the city of Detroit is synonymous with the rise and fall of the American automobile industry.  Henry Ford established his first automobile factory in Detroit in 1899.  The success of this industry afforded Detroit staggering population growth.  Between the years of 1900 and 1930 the city’s population rose from 265,00 to over 1.5 million.  This impressive growth and the strength of the city’s industry began to temper in the 1930’s with the rise of labor disputes between Detroit’s automobile workforce and the company owners.  It is during these years that “hometown union leaders such as Jimmy Hoffa” enter the city’s political and social landscape.  During the 1960’s and 1970’s Detroit suffered a destructive riot and subsequent court-ordered bussing of threatened city inhabitants, and increased drug and crime rates, so high in fact the city was more often than not at the top of national rankings for such activities. [4] 

So what does this history look like? Since 1950 Detroit has lost 48% of its peak population—over 900,000 people have left the city for new spaces, most often suburban neighborhoods.  The city has been left with empty buildings.  Houses, schools, offices, stores, and institutions have been abandoned and left by both citizen and state.  The abandonment of buildings as described in a The Detroit News column in 2001 occurs in a likely cycle where “an owner would default [on his property payments]; the property would fall into the hands of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development [commonly called HUD]; HUD would give it to the state [of Michigan], which would then give it to the city [of Detroit]; and the city would demolish what by then had become a dangerous vacant building.” [5]

In his essay titled, “Disappeared Detroit,” Jeff Byles writes:

In an extraordinary series of reports in July of 1989, the Detroit Free Press counted 15,215 empty buildings in the city, a cancer the paper called “an infection more pervasive than ever documented” and testimony to the exodus of middle-class families that is “both the cause and result of the of the economic decay that has crippled many Detroit neighborhoods.

A 1958 city-issued survey estimated that the cost of razing these blighted buildings would be near $1.2 billion, which Byles notes is $60 million a year for twenty years.  Moreover, every year since 1958, Detroit averaged an estimated 2,400 newly abandoned structures. [6]  The point becomes clear: buildings are abandoned at a faster rate than they are being torn down, renovated or re-inhabited.  The cityscape becomes one littered with decay: homes turn into whorehouses, dangerous dens for drug lords, gang activities, rapes and molestations, and nests for unsightly and dirty rodents.  “‘I want to live in a safe community, with safe houses and no blight,’ said Pamela McWilliams, an unemployed carpenter who lives on Detroit’s east side [quoted in The Detroit News].  ‘All around me, there is nothing but abandoned houses and empty lots. Give us some factories. Give us some houses. Give us some jobs.’” [7]

Though the city’s ability to offer it’s population housing and means for economic livelihood has ebbed and flowed, the arts community of Detroit has offered consistent reactions to such desires for homes and employment, the most notable being the work of Tyree Gutson and the Heidelberg Project. Recently, the city of Detroit’s housing issues have been responded to brightly and boldly with strokes of a somewhat otherworldly orange, a tiggerific orange in fact.

who or what is the DDD project?

The DDD project is made up of four anonymous Detroit based artists. They refer to themselves as “Object Orange” at times and their project of painting derelict structures as “the DDD project”.  The three capital-case ‘D’s stand for: Detroit. Demolition. Disneyland.  Object Orange members attack with paint brushes at night to ensure their anonymity.  The city of Detroit considers their activities illegal (trespassing and perhaps tampering with public property).  The group has a video that can be viewed online which was produced by Good Magazine, which also features an in-print brief story on the DDD project in the premier issue, September/October 2006.  So what are we to make of these orange houses? Object Orange calls our attention in their statement made to thedetroiter.com that these houses are works of art and agents of social change.  They state emphatically that these houses are anything but scenery: a structure in the DDD project is not simply newly added hue aimed at brightening a dreary landscape, rather it is a call to action:

pick up a brush.

apply orange.

Though the members of Object Orange are requesting that people paint facades, this request is made with the intention, or at least, a firm hope for and belief that this painting of a façade will in fact cause the city to respond. Thus far, the city’s response has been to demolish these buildings.  No new buildings have been erected, rather the orange structures are torn down and their rubble cleared away. Clearly there is something to this tiggerific orange that when it is applied to derelict houses sparks some movement: official movement, from the government, subversive, from the people who act criminally, continuing to trespass to paint city property, but also the movement of recognition and acknowledgement from the expanding audience of this work.  I would like to investigate another part of Object Orange’s statement:    

Just off I-75, around the Caniff/ Holbrook exit, on the west side, towers a three story house, saturated so deeply in orange that it reflects color onto the highway with the morning sun. Also, on the east side of the highway by the McNichols exit, is another house screaming orange... In our only location not visible from the highway, on the Warren detour between 94 and 96 on Hancock Street, sat a house so perfectly set in its color that it garnered approval from the Detroit Police Department.

Color is commonly thought of and discussed in terms designated by color science, which is based on the Newtonion paradigm where “color is dematerialized into light…a surface appears red because it reflects more red light than any other: ‘every body reflects the rays of its own Color more copiously than the rest, and from their excess and predominance in the reflected Light has its Color.” (Newton)  Modern color science, with its Newtonian legacy, dematerializes color into wavelengths of light, which is both geometrically precise and empirically quantifiable.” [8]  We hear this legacy in Object Orange’s statement where the orange house reflects color onto the highway like the morning sun.  Diana Young in her article “The Color of Things,” writes

…Modern popular accounts of color… begin with an account of the perceptual apparatus that are deemed to conjure it, the eye and the brain, something which is not apparently necessary for an account of form…color can [therefore be conceived of as] a secondary quality of objects in contrast to form…Color science has created a measured system metaphorically called ‘color space’ because color has been given three dimensions: hue (identification of what color), tone (the measurement of how much grey the color contains), and saturation (or how pure a hue is, how intense it is). [9]

In these terms Tiggerific Orange has a hue that blends red and yellow, a bright tone (small amount of grey) and a deep saturation, meaning it is an intense color.  But to my mind, this type of discussion fails to account for why this orange causes so much human movement and so I turn to the symbolic capabilities of color.  “In symbolic theory colors are transcendent, they stand for something else beyond and in this sense are representational…[in this type of conceptualization] color cannot have influence in itself but must always be subordinate to form and substance, and meaning is learnt through this route.” [10]  The color orange is pervasive in nature, seen everywhere from fish, flowers, fire, animal and human hair.  However, orange was nameless in Europe until the eleventh or twelfth century when the fruit was introduced to markets and human diets.  Orange is now considered a color of safety with life rafts, traffic cones and hard hats often coated in its tone.  The correlation of orange and safety is ironically used in the DDD project where the color is used to draw people towards these dangerous sites, reminding us that the word color originates from the Latin word ‘celare’, to conceal or deceive. [11] The brand and name choice for the color also exemplifies the symbolic quality of color: tiggerific orange is a paint manufactured by Behr’s Disney paint series, purchasable at some Home Depot stores and online through Disney’s website. On the one hand, Object Orange selected an easy to find and memorable paint most likely to encourage Detroiters to take on a house of their own.  But this choice also begs to be analyzed for its connections to a register of the Detroit imaginary, where tigers and fires have played significant roles in the housing market.  

on tigers

The Detroit Tigers are Detroit’s major league baseball team.  Since 1911 they played at Tiger Stadium, located in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit. However, in 1999 the Tigers stopped playing at the Stadium due to the unsafe, deteriorating physical state of the structure.  The city spent $4 million maintaining the structure from 1999 until 2006, notably in the Tigers absence.  In 2006 it was announced that Tiger Stadium would be demolished.  On Valentine’s Day of this year, 2007, the city said the stadium would be demolished in the upcoming spring.

on fires

For those fans of rapper, and Detroit native, Eminem’s first group, D12, “Devil Night” might be a familiar term—it was apparently the title of their first album. It refers to the festivities on the night before Halloween, October 30, which most often involve Detroit youth in acts of vandalism and arson.  On Devil’s Night in 1984 however the festivities reached an all time destructive high with over 800 fires set to abandoned buildings.   Following this the city established an event called “Angel’s Night” where sanctioned demolitions of vacant buildings took place on a large-scale. Jeff Byles notes that,

On the one hand, officials deplored the wanton torching of their urban assets, while on the other they privately corroborated the arsonists illegal activities by developing, funding and implementing one of the largest and most sweeping demolition programs in the history of American urbanism.  The upshot was painfully clear: Vast portions of Detroit were erased through this combination of unsanctioned burning and subsequently legitimized demolition. [12]

It could be that the unexpected success of Object Orange’s DDD project has to do with the color’s ability to tap deep into the symbolic registry of the city’s mind, where Tiger’s have been displaced and unsanctioned fires are privately celebrated as they burn down the disregarded edifices of peoples lives.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote in 1962 in his work The Phenomenology of Perception that:

We must stop... wondering how and why red signifies effort or violence, green, restfulness and peace; we must rediscover how to live these colors as our body does, that is, as peace or violence in its concrete form…a sensation of redness and its motor reactions [are not two distinct facts]…we must be understood as meaning that red, by its texture as followed and adhered to by our gaze, is already the amplification of our being. [13]

Diana Young, again her work “The Colors of Things,” responds:

Red as the amplification of being is a beguiling concept.  At the same time, the emphasis on individual’s sensation offers little to an understanding of colors as social practice... On the other hand, being color, literally wearing color or consuming it, may be an immediate and emotional response to a social situation. [14]

I return to Object Orange statement: “every detail is accentuated through the unification of color. Broken windows become jagged lines. Peeling paint becomes texture.” The houses undergo a transformation in the DDD project in which they stop being derelict houses and become orange objects, they are ‘being orange’. Young suggests,

...That colors can be a compelling, exact and calculated medium for producing and reproducing power and for transmitting knowledge…Further, colors have agency and can communicate and also effect complicated ideas and relationships instantaneously…but colors are also able to convey and embody a sense of becoming and being…the color of things may change…rendering such networks both unstable and dynamic. Land is apt to pass through changes in color with seasonal variation…producing and concealing analogies as they transform…A color change might also be thought of as the transformation itself not just as symbolic. [15]

An example of a color change that is thought of as the transformation and not symbolic of a transformation of mind or spirit is found in C.A. Bayly’s ethnography ‘The Origins of Swadeshi (home industry): cloth and Indian society1700-1930’.  Bayly notes (as quoted in Young) that color is not “‘merely an accident of matter’ but rather an independent manifestation of the spirit that is part of the make-up of red cloth. ‘Thus the spirit of red cloth, or redness, can combine with the moral substance of a particular person and transform it.’ A man dressed in red was something more than this, he was red man, a sorcerer.  His costume did not symbolize a status acquired by other means; it was an essential component of the very transformation itself.” [16]

It seems to me, after spending many hours staring at the photographs of the DDD houses, that a transformation occurs, and not simply an artificial one of a changed façade.  These houses, to my mind, are more than edifices painted in bright orange, they are in fact the result of a transformation which required the spirit of orange, or ‘orangeness’, to combine with the degraded moral fabric of the people that are unaccounted for in the urban landscape.  I offer these images as the best examples of such a transformation. They seem best described as the attack of an orange-paint virus that as it spreads physically transforms surfaces, eventually causing the total collapse and disappearance of the original structure, in addition to any traces of its own material existence.

Perhaps in conclusion I should offer a comparison, one that I believe may help in coming to terms with the materiality of the color orange.  This is the blue building in the Delfshaven borough of Rotterdam, Netherlands.  It is a work done by artist Florentijn Hofman commissioned by the city of Rotterdam once the building was slated for demolition.  The artist writes on his website: “The agreement with the neighborhood is that the block will remain blue as long as there isn’t a new plan for the area.” [17]

Though the blue building was born of the idea of its own demolition and in that sense met the same fate of some of the DDD houses, the project’s sanctioned and controlled rise and fall keeps the blue building from ever transforming into a blue object.  The blue is used for its symbolic capabilities, maybe its ability to contrast with neighboring buildings and blend in with the sky, drawing never before experienced attention the structure.  However the blue merely changes the appearance of the site. The blue’s encounter with the building does not produce a transformation: the transformation of the site was set in motion before the Hofman brought his paintbrush. The plan for the future of the blue building is not a result of the building’s blue transformation.  Michael Taussig in his essay “What Color is the Sacred?” wrote:

Civilized nations and civilized people have long felt strange about color- meaning bold colors- being drawn to them yet at the same time uneasy, even repelled, wanting them less wild, less bold and less free to wander away from the ghettoes of men…Truth on the other hand comes in black and white for our philosophers as much as for us. Shapes and forms, outlines and marks, that is truth.  Color, to tell the truth, is another world, a splurging thing, an unmanageable thing... [18]

The blue building remains just that, a blue building, until its demise. In contrast the orange in the DDD project is treated as a thing, a splurging thing nonetheless, with agency and social power, so much so that the derelict houses are transformed into orange objects.


[3] Lewis Dickens, architect of the now destroyed J.L. Hudson Company department store spoke similar words as these words in his attempts to save his building from the wrecking ball as quoted in Jeff Byles “Disappeared Detroit” in Lost Magazine January 2006, No. 2.

[4] Wikipedia.org. These high crime rates dropped in the 1990’s when three casinos moved in to the downtown area.  Tiger Stadium was torn down and replaced with Comerica Park in 2000 and Ford Field, erected in 2002, allowed the city to reclaim the football team, the Detroit Lions.

[5] Cameron McWhirter, “Wrecking Homes Standard Practice,” The Detroit News, June 19 2001.

[6] Jeff Byles, “Disappeared Detroit,” in Lost Magazine January 2006, No.2.

[7] David Josar, “Demolition of Detroit Homes Slow” in The Detroit News, June 27, 2005.

[8] Diana Young, “The Color of Things”, in Handbook of Material Culture, edited by Chris Tilley, Webb Keane, Susanne Kuchler, Mike Rowlands and Patricia Spyer.  London: Sage Publications, 2006, 173-185.

[9] Young, 176.

[10] Young, 178.

[11] Michael Taussig, “What Color is the Sacred?” in Critical Inquiry Autumn 2006, 32.

[12] Byles, 11.

[13] Maurice Merlaeu-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith. London: Routledge, 1962, 211.

[14] Young, 174.

[15] Young, 180.

[16] Bayly, C.A. “The origins of Swadeshi (home industry): cloth and Indian society 1700- 1930,” as quoted in Young, 181.

[18] Taussig, 32.