Sunday, March 30, 2008


I have been interested in inadvertent art for years, the way that sound and vision not created for the purposes of aesthetic enjoyment can sometimes be delightfully beautiful. The minimalist tapestries of printer self-tests. The voice synthesizer announcements in subways. Warning signs and hazardous-waste labels. I remember being fascinated by industrial signage catalogs at a young age. Tibor Kalman's book (un)Fashion is a great document of these principals applied to clothing. There seems to be a sort of subconscious aesthetic at play in the most pragmatic of designs, almost as if even in our most mechanistic, problem-solving artificing there is a dream of beauty that we cannot help but express.

I've used the word "testpattern" in my e-mail address for something like eight years now. Television test patterns, or test cards, were created for the most pragmatic of purposes: to tune and align the images being sent by a television station. As such, they are very rationally ordered images, clearly presenting elements of contrast and detail, focus and alignment, and of course color and hue, once those became important factors in broadcast. I'm sure that all of the test patterns used over the years by various TV networks all had designers. In fact, the original art for perhaps the most iconic test card of all, the RCA Indian Head was discovered in 1970, and now belongs to a private collector of historical television ephemera. Nevertheless, each one seems to be somehow undesigned, created for single-mindedly optical purposes, with little real consideration of aesthetics. I think that in this purity of purpose they manage to become almost like secular mandalas, abstractions that draw the mind in and allow for the cessation of thought. I spent this morning collecting a few images of test cards that I found particularly appealing, and I thought I'd share them with you. I don't propose to make any analysis of the images, or provide any historical context. If that interests you, this is one of many good starting places. And if you long for the comfort of a piercing sine wave tone to accompany them, go here or just search for test cards on Youtube

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