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Index Color Taiwan is a 28-minute video, modulated voiceover, and artificially intelligent text translation.

One outcome of multi-year research, Index Color Taiwan began with a Taiwanese design institute publishing “local color” palettes derived from images of historical Taiwanese paintings — images that were made available online through the digital archives of Taiwan’s three major art museums.

While color palette generators are commonplace in design, as are infinitely transmutable files, in this instance there was a complex invisible narrative saturating the palettes with history and cultural context.

Under colonial Japanese art education, twentieth-century Taiwanese painting was to be executed “in a variety of colors, in fine detail, based on the exact observation of nature.”*

Whereas traditional Chinese painting was ink and brush depictions of three subject matter mainstays — trees, rivers, and mountains — the Japanese held contests for the depiction of “local color” by Taiwanese painters.

Trees, rivers, and mountains were present in twentieth-century Taiwanese artworks, but they were situated within scenes of everyday life on the island instead of faraway lyricism and mythology. In this way, the paintings were at once both embedded locally and exportable as representations of Taiwan in the cultural imagination.


Today, Taiwan’s museums use these same paintings in another cultural industry.

Hoping to connect with international audiences, museums have put their collections online, and a handful of the artworks have informational texts translated from Mandarin. For non-native speakers, however, most descriptions are translated via web browser. These are poetic at best, offering only further complexity to the question of what constitutes local color in the cultural sense.

Once the paintings are online, a third-party design institute extracts their palettes and provides them to the public as hexadecimal codes. The color of Taiwan is now parsed to become color for a coffee mug, color for a painted wall or a public bench, and so on.

Index Color Taiwan suggests that this derivative design process coincidentally draws the historical narrative into a circle.

In effect, these extractions of literal local color make it possible for digital artifacts of the landscape paintings to return to Taiwan’s physical environment — return to the land. A sentiment that had sparked its own artistic and political movement in the late twentieth century.*

Index Color Taiwan compresses the historical narrative and its research process into one frame: scrolling through the archives, translating the texts from Mandarin to English, and witnessing the paintings become abstract information.

While color palettes collect to fill the screen, Mandarin text is seen but its audio English is frustrated by artificial translation, heightening the already lyrical descriptions. The faint echo of museumgoers can also be heard, giving the flat scene dimensional space.

History conspires to create new artifacts in the present, and so we see forms of nature — trees, a river, mountains — emerge from the paintings.

In the end the video reverses order, returning the colors and forms back to their artworks.

* Kuo, Jason C. Art and Cultural Politics in Postwar Taiwan. University of Washington Press, 2000.