Only in Palo Alto could an inventory of real estate be mistaken for a work of art. But that pretty much sums up The Color of Palo Alto, a seven-years-in-the-making quest on the part of artist Samuel Yates to photograph every last one of Palo Alto's 17,725 property parcels and then to use those photographs to determine the peninsula suburb's signature hue, which, until Yates showed up, was something the city had not realized it lacked.
On April 25, 2008, Yates's computer will begin grinding its way through a program written by a fellow artist named Eli Schleifer, whose software will, according to Yates's website, "calculate various color traits about each digital photograph, including numerous average pixel colors (mean, median, mode, HSL, Gaussian, etc.); the unique pixel color (which pixel the photo contains that no other photo contains); the cream-of-the-crop (top row of pixels); and center square (center four pixels), etc. In a democratic manner, each parcel in the city will contribute one 'vote' of 'average mean color' toward the final color of Palo Alto." Actually, there won't be just one color but many: Some colors will be named for neighborhoods like Professorville, others for streets. The current plan is to reveal the official Color of Palo Alto, as well as the colors of its neighborhoods and thoroughfares, on August 5, 2008, the anniversary of the project's inception. In the meantime, Yates photographs -- all of them -- are on view through the summer on the side of Palo Alto City Hall.
From the street, looking up at all those thousands of photographs, the color of Palo Alto is unmistakably blue, since so many of Yates's images feature a generous background of sky in them. Of course, my human eyeballs and analog brain are not tuned to the implications of Gaussian distribution, as Yates' computer will be, so we'll just have to wait until the actual color is unveiled to learn the answer to this weighty question.
The impulse on the part of artists to inventory finite corners of their worlds is hardly new. Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha shot a photograph of every building on the Sunset Strip in 1966, which he self-published as a book and titled Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Unlike Yates, Ruscha felt no need to mediate his cataloging impulse for his audience. For Ruscha, it was enough of an artistic statement to simply pay attention to something that most people took for granted. His was a straightforward act of observation, which he quietly shared with anyone who was interested. As it turned out, not a lot of people were.
Yates's piece is a three-ring circus by comparison. It was not enough for him to merely drive or cycle around the city and take his pictures. It was imperative that his means of transportation be a zero-emission electric scooter (on his website, Yates tells us that he got 32 miles per charge) and that his scooter, and sometimes himself, be housed in a solar-powered garage made of salvaged building materials, which, except for the salvaged building materials part, is a nod to a nearby garage where David Packard famously founded the company that still bears his name (surprise, surprise; HP is a major underwriter of the Yates project). And then there are the photos on City Hall. It required 256 three-by-seven-foot perforated vinyl panels, each encompassing about 84 photos, to get the job done. When the public display is over, the panels will be rolled up and stored in a two-by-two-by-three-foot time-capsule-like box, to amaze and delight future generations.
My obvious reservations about the piece aside, there is something undeniably charming about Yates's quixotic adventure. Hats off, first of all, to anyone willing to spend a year taking pictures of anything. And I like the look of all those resulting photographs on the side of City Hall, although perhaps not for the reasons the artist hopes. Yates suggests that residents bring binoculars with them to City Hall to search for their street and house, especially for those whose homes are reproduced in panels mounted on the building's upper floors. But are people these days really that impressed by such childish confirmations? Certainly not since Google launched its Street View feature at maps.google.com, which lets anyone do the online equivalent (for the record, Google missed one or two sections of Palo Alto, whereas Yates's inventory is as complete as a time-restricted exercise in documentation can be). More interesting, I think, than the narcissistic opportunity the piece presents to viewers who happen to live in Palo Alto is the impressionistic impact of all those photos lined up between the building's vertical exterior columns, as if reduced to so many dots in a Seurat. As a work of conceptual art, it is, ironically, this rather traditional aspect of Yates's piece that succeeds best.
That would have been enough for me. In the end, I guess the thing I still fail to fully appreciate is why this work of conceptual art is so focused on the very unconceptual desire to create a product, even if it is a color. Come August 5, Palo Alto-philes around the globe will be able to take Yates's and Schleifer's paint chips to their local hardware stores so that the colors of Palo Alto can be splashed proudly on their walls. "We did the kids rooms in Embarcadero, but the kitchen is pure Middlefield!" You can see why this conceit was so appealing to the city officials who gave this project the green light, but will a line of furniture at Restoration Hardware be next? I suppose that's exactly the sort of paradigm today's conceptual artist must rise to in the age of Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, which I also suppose makes me the one who ought to be put in that time capsule.
The Color of Palo Alto by Samuel Yates will be revealed on August 5, 2008. Photos from the project are on view on the side of city hall, 250 Hamilton Avenue, through the summer of 2008. For more information, visit thecolorofpaloalto.com.