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WIDEN UTSC talk series kicks off

by Kurt Kleiner

Colour can determine whether we buy a house, affect how we perceive a work of art, or even signal the explosion of an invasive species, according to speakers at a new UTSC interdisciplinary talk series who considered aspects of colour from the perspective of neuroscience, art history, and the environment.

An audience of about 50 watched the inaugural WIDEN UTSC event at the Leigha Lee Browne Theatre on Monday. Organized by Barry Freeman, professor of theatre and performance studies, and Alen Hadzovic, lecturer in chemistry, the talks will be held twice a session.

“In the Fall, Alen and I had this bizarre idea for a forum where people could get together and speak across disciplines. Since we’ve started it’s been immensely supported by the university,” Freeman told the audience.

In attendance was Jessica Duffin Wolfe, the U of T graduate student who organized the first WIDEN (Workshops for Inter-Discipline Exchange & Novelty) series on the St. George campus. WIDEN groups have since sprung up at Massey College, Ryerson University, York University and the city of Toronto.

At Monday’s event, Erin L. Webster, UTSC lecturer in art history, explained how problematic colour is for art historians. Because colours of artworks change over time, and because reproduction of colour is so problematic, art historians often study paintings via black and white photographs.

In fact, during her own dissertation defense she was unable to discuss the use of colour by the painter she had studied simply because no colour reproductions of the paintings existed at the time.

“It may seem a peculiar thing for art historians to accept a work of art based on a black and white photograph. But that's been the way that it’s done,” she says.

Black and white reproductions present fewer problems than you would guess, she says. The grey tones of a good-quality photo are adequate to reproduce detail. And qualities such as line and composition can still be studied.

In addition to the problems of colour changes and colour reproduction is the fact that perception of colour is so subjective. Webster passed out colour samples and asked volunteers to name them. Colours that were named purple by the manufacturer were perceived as brown or red, grey was seen as blue-grey, and yellow was seen as beige.

Anosha Zanjani, an undergraduate in mental health studies and neuroscience, talked about her research into the use of “warm” and “cool” colour schemes on computerized “walkthroughs” that are used by architects and real estate agents.

She demonstrated how “warm” colours like yellow and red are perceived as more exciting, and engaging, but also make a room seem smaller. “Cool” colours like greys and blues make a space seem bigger, but are also less engaging.

By showing walkthroughs with different colour schemes to research subjects and then testing their responses, Zanjani is trying to find out what combinations of colours and spaces make a walkthrough more likely to sell. She’s also interested in the walkthroughs as a tool to conduct psychological assessments in people.

Cindy Bongard, a graduate student in ecology, started off with a slide of a vivid purple field. Beautiful as many people find it, she said, it’s actually the result of an invasive species called purple loosestrife taking over a landscape.

Bongard showed how species introduced to new environments can quickly come to dominate when they find themselves without their normal predators or competition. Bongard’s own interest is in dog strangling vine (Vincetoxicum rossicum), a European import which runs rampant in parts of Canada.

She’s especially interested in how invasive species interact with fungi in the soil, and whether those interactions gives clues about their competitiveness and could even be used to control them. For instance, her work shows that dog strangling vine seems to at once disrupt the fungal makeup of soil in a way that is harmful to its competitors, while at the same time making use of existing fungi to help it draw nutrition from the soil.

The next WIDEN UTSC talk will be held on March 19 from 2:30 to 4 pm in AA160. The topic is “On Work.”


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