A visit to the Exploratorium is a mind-expanding experience on any day, but this summer the tightly focused programming of ColorFest brings your very perceptions under scrutiny. The right rear corner of the museum is currently filled with an array of exhibits that address the question: "Is color 'out there' or inside your head?" The interactive displays, along with a series of screenings, performances, and seminars, reintroduce color as a wonderfully complicated and often overlooked aspect of life.
The light and optics zone is darker -- ironically -- than the rest of the museum, but this only serves to heighten the impact of the visual experiments ColorFest allows visitors to put themselves through. Glowing control panels draw visitors from station to station as they gaze at colored light, manipulate filters, press buttons, and call their friends over to compare opinions.
In the eerie "Monochromatic Room," a visitor's ability to perceive color is put to the test. Lit with low-pressure sodium lights (think street lamps), everything in the room appears at once yellow and strangely colorless. Unlike white light, which is a combination of wavelengths from the entire spectrum, sodium light contains only yellow wavelengths. Without red or blue light bouncing around the room, there simply is no red or blue. Hanging flashlights reminiscent of deep-sea anglerfish illuminate the room's 'true' colors, revealing hidden quotes, a wallpaper pattern, and the side of a San Francisco hill, complete with its requisite vibrantly-hued homes.
Nearby, "Bright Black" seeks to prove that color is not necessarily a constant, but rather relative to its surroundings. A control board offers up four buttons. Push the first and what appears to be a light gray colored square pops up ten feet away, comically, like a set piece in a Michel Gondry film. Subsequent buttons and colored squares reveal the 'light gray' to be, in actuality, a shockingly bright black. Repeated attempts to crack the illusion prove only how easily the eyes -- and mind -- can be tricked.
ColorFest does dwell extensively on the science of seeing color, but at least two exhibits offer a different take on the subject. "Color Your Judgment" uses different colored dyes to challenge the nose. Mismatches between color and smell (say, a yellow liquid that smells like bubblegum) make it harder for visitors to pinpoint a scent. In "Mood Lighting," an astronaut-like helmet suffused with colored light prompts visitors to ponder the relationship between color and emotions.
While the museum's hands-on exhibits provide hours of enjoyment and gleeful discovery, visitors to ColorFest would be remiss to skip out on the supplementary programming. Ron Hipschman's hour-long talk, "How Physicists Make Color," was the glue that pulled much of ColorFest together in my mind. It's one thing to sit in front of the "Spectra" exhibit pressing buttons, and quite another to have Hipschman plug in a hydrogen bulb while wearing your own pair of diffraction grating glasses. Additional film screenings and demonstrations push the exhibition into welcome artistic, cultural, and historical territories.
Most important to ColorFest are its multiple analyses of color: as a matter of perception, relative to its surroundings, and unique to individuals. The real success of the exhibition is its ability to maintain all these truths simultaneously and without causing confusion. ColorFest blends just the right amount of wonder with "aha!" moments to keep visitors thinking about color well into the outside world.
ColorFest is on view at the Exploratorium through September 5, 2011. For more information visit exploratorium.edu.