Color codes are the subject of a lecture Vilém Flusser gave in São Paulo in 1988 at a conference which was part of a series on the A Casa da Cor [The House of Color] project to study color from the perspective of a variety of scientific disciplines and to build a “house of color.” In his epistemological approach to this theme, Flusser first advanced the hypothesis that in the future different color codes will be the vehicle of technical, scientific, and artistic thinking and could even replace today’s linguistic or algorithmic communication. If we assume that access to most of the information codes of old civilizations has been lost forever, we must conclude that we, too, have no access to the true content of the coded information that has been handed down (for example, in colors or forms). “We have lost the keys to the coded codes.” (A Casa da Cor, lecture, August 10, 1988; translated from the Portuguese)
From the first gestures of communication and the first attempts to preserve information – for example, cave paintings – up to the age of computers, Flusser distinguishes between five different strategies: First, images and language were the means that prehistoric humans developed to create a new world of information. This also entailed a movement toward abstraction. The second process consists of transforming the images into reality and making the world a pretext: “People orient themselves within the world not by means of the images but in the images.” (ibid.; translated from the Portuguese) That was the step toward idolatry. The countermovement was characterized by a trend toward iconoclasm, which emerged from a close relationship between thoughts and words. In this process, not only the images but also the colors were sacrified to purism. In the context of this fourth strategy, color was banned from the discourse and the word mystified.
Flusser’s lecture targeted this imperialism of the word by defending the denotative power of colors. A renaissance of colors – the fifth and final strategy – has been made possible by the invention of the computer, since it can perform the transcoding or recoding of thought both from letters into numbers and from numbers (equations, logical thinking) into forms and colors. Colors were formerly used to capture and articulate the symbolic world. In today’s computer age, colors are employed to complete the transcoding of ideas and create new worlds. As Flusser noted at the end of his lecture, unfortunately we do not know very much about color codes. Thus the need to work on a new transversal theory of colors is all the more urgent.