Research – University of Copenhagen

Research fields and methodology

(OU)VERT maps and combines knowledge from the Humanities and the Arts, from the Natural and the Medical Sciences, to reflect on green-ness’ uncritically eulogized pervasiveness in our society. It traces back how techno-scientific and epistemological developments have affected the specific role of this colour that is so central in human evolution and culture, and in humans’ drive to reassure themselves through the conceptual construction of ‘natural’ otherness. Drawing on art theory, aesthetics, perception studies, STS, and contemporary philosophy, both the epistemic objects of investigation and the ontological condition of the perceiver are considered – not asking what is green, but rather where, when, why and for whom is green? How is greenness constructed? (OU)VERT  comprises four inter-related sub-studies:

  1. physics, chemistry and biology;
  2. perception and physiology;
  3. semantics and politics;
  4. science and technology studies / ‘green STS’

The methodology is grounded in a ‘German’ materialist media theoretical approach and ‘French’ mediology – hence the pun in the title. The first observes epistemological changes in contemporary culture by meticulously dissecting the “discourse networks” (Kittler 1985) and “materialities of communication” (Gumbrecht/Pfeiffer 1988) beyond hermeneutics and iconology, implying a media archaeological point of view “in deep time and space” (Zielinski 2002) and non-linear ways of understanding of the epistemic effects technical media and mediation bring about. The latter as a “discipline that treats of the higher social functions in their relations with the technical structures” (Debray 1994) emphasizes the materiality of media, multiple functions of mediation, and medial intersection with institutions, politics, and economics. A mediology of greenness encompasses material techniques and systems, milieus from the lived environment to the social life of media systems, including social codes and subsequent symbolic processes.

Each of these focus areas is paralleled by research into historical and contemporary art practices: Rather than being considered mere illustrations, they serve as significant indicators of epistemological shifts, often in counter-cyclic and critically subversive ways. But why is it that no monochrome art exhibition was ever dedicated to green?

1. Physics, chemistry and biology

How are physics, chemistry and biology shaping the cultural understanding of greenness? This sub-field comprises a historically situated examination of studies in optics, physics and chemistry of coloured materials. Colour theories by Young, Helmholtz, Clerk-Maxwell etc. have always influenced artists and scholars. Goethe viscerally opposed Newton’s Opticks and his explanations of light’s refrangibility, but his own colour theory not only implied perception but also chemical studies: Fascinated by minerals such as kalium (lit.: ‘ashes of plants’) manganese which, placed in water, turns from green into its opposite red, he made this into an argument in favour of his theory of complementary colours. Green is “chemically unstable and thus has come to symbolize everything changeable or capricious. It’s a middle colour” (Pastoureau 2013), a medium per se, an ou-vert chameleon colour. Ironically, to portray ‘nature’, the most corrosive colour pigments were employed instead of plant derivatives, such the noxious ‘Schweinfurt Green,’ also used to kill rats. In evolutionary biology the epistemic nexuses of greenness unfold in the photosynthetic functions of chlorophyll, camouflage, mimicry etc. and play a role in the emergence of complexity and  biosemiotic tricks increasing “semiotic freedom” (Hoffmeyer 2008).

2. Perception and physiology

The field of perception and physiology includes knowledge about after-images, post-receptoral mechanisms, neurophysiological subjectivism (Thompson 1995), and colour constancy, but also addresses post-anthropocentric approaches which appear in art and philosophy – e.g. dogs cannot see green, and, as expressionist painter Franz Marc asked, “how does a horse see the world?” While human perception of green depends on the reflection of the middle spectrum “colour perception and colour language give us anthropocentrically defined colours and not colours themselves;” they need to be addressed as “anthropocentric realism” (Hilbert 1987). While Impressionism and Pointillism “emphasize perception as the act of excitation of the perceiving eye itself” (Imdahl 1987), increasingly multi-modal approaches to greenness, including smell and taste, appear. Artistic interest shifts greenness from optical information to physiological or hormonal one.

3. Semantics and politics

Discourse analysis and investigations into performative semantics and politics concern cultural and disciplinary differences in etymology and the metaphorical political use of greenness. While in the Western context, it is rooted in Middle English and Latin to signify growth or sprout, green is indeed across cultures associated with nature, vegetation, fertility, spring, youth, renewal or hope (Heller, 1998). This section concentrates on how greenness is used to symbolically compensate for anthropogenic effects and to become a “metaphor we live by” (Lakoff & Johnson 1980): We are even “greening the media” (Maxwell & Miller 2012), continuously hiding away the polluting production and waste culture of information and communication technologies behind the image of being clean and ecologically benign.

4. Science and technology studies, or ‘green STS‘

Science and technology studies of man made green, or green STS, investigates the role of greenness both as technological and biological signal. It researches cases where green serves as technical colour for visualization, such as in lasers, Green Fluorescent Protein or luciferase biomarkers, night vision devices or early computer screens, to fit the limited frequency range of human’s perceptive apparatus. Greenness’ ambivalent status between comforting nature and alarming toxicity are analysed in the light of apparently paradoxical new disciplines such as ‘Green Chemistry’ or ‘Green Biotechnology’.


Debray, Regis: Manifestes Mediologiques. Paris, 1994.

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich & Pfeiffer, Ludwig K. (ed.) Materialität der Kommunikation. Frankfurt a. M., 1988.

Heller, Eva: Wie Farben wirken. Farbpsychologie – Farbsymbolik – Kreative Farbgestaltung. Hamburg, 1998.

Hilbert, D.R.: Color and Color Perception: A Study in Anthropocentric Realism. Stanford, 1987.

Hoffmeyer, Jesper: Biosemiotics. An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs. Scranton/London, 2008.

Kittler, Friedrich A.: Aufschreibesysteme 1800/1900. Fink, München, 1985.

Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark: Metaphors we live by. Chicago, 1980.

Maxwell, Richard and Miller, Toby: Greening the Media. Oxford/New York, 2012.

Pastoureau, Michel: Vert. Histoire d’une couleur. Paris, 2013.

Thompson, Evan: Colour Vision. A Study in Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Perception. London/New York, 1995.

Zielinski, Siegfried: Archäologie der Medien: Zur Tiefenzeit des technischen Hörens und Sehens. Reinbek, 2002.