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Color as Escapism
By Rosie Flanagan
“The new defines itself in response to what is already established; at the same time, the established has to reconfigure itself in response to the new… Tradition counts for nothing when it is no longer contested and modified. A culture that is merely preserved is no culture at all.”– Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism 
The new millennium was heralded as a time of infinite possibility, the year 2000, as the future. Two decades on, and retrospect tells a different story – not of flying cars or self-tying shoelaces, but of cultural inertia and a growing sense of global unease. The business of escapism is booming, and so too are the colors of nostalgia and distraction that define it.
The latest prediction from Coloro, a sister agency of world’s largest trend forecaster WGSN, is evidence of this. The key colors forecast for A/W 21/22 are Bloodstone, Dark Springs, Golden Harvest, A.I. Aqua and Electric Magenta. To Coloro, they reflect the increasing popularity of horror, our gluttonous desire for nostalgia, and the further rise of technology: “These are tones with a strong presence, chosen for a time of change and unpredictability. Ranging from the natural and authentic to the digital and saturated, they connect with the world around us, and also offer a window of escape from it.”
Historically, collective anxieties take narrative form in the entertainment we seek and in the trends that we follow. Coloro’s focus on escapism seems apt when considered in this context: “When we were doing our research, we realized just how negative almost all of it was,'' explains Joanne Thomas, Coloro’s head of content. “Globally, people seem to be in a state of anxiety; whether politically, environmentally or otherwise.” Coloro’s forecast accurately reflects these feelings of lassitude and panic, while also illustrating the difficulty we have in imagining a future without them.
The 21st century has seen the popularity of horror increase exponentially; 2017 was the genre’s most profitable year ever, with the 2010s labelled accordingly as horror’s ‘golden age’. As Joanne explains, the horror trend is due to the distinct form of escapism that it offers: “At this particular moment, people have so much pent-up emotion… and going to see a scary movie allows them to get rid of that anxiety in a controlled environment.” Where once the genre’s darkness was maligned, it is now widely acknowledged as a necessary reflection of the turbulent time in which we live.
While such critical esteem is new, the colors of horror are not: dark red (Bloodstone), neon blue (A.I. Blue) and deep veridian (Dark Springs) have been common to the genre since the ’80s. Horror is not immune to the creative inertia of contemporary culture, and the popularity of ‘remakes’ is evidence of this. In the past decade there has been a resurgent interest in the early works of Stephen King: Pet Sematary (novel 1983, film 2019), It and It Chapter Two (novel 1986, films 2017 and 2019), The Mist (novella 1980, film 2007). Along with an increasing number of surreal and supernatural series produced in the present, but situated in the past: Stranger Things (2016-present), Riverdale (2017-present), and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018-present).
Such retro-nostalgia is not unique to the period in which we live, but its prominence is. The creative irruptions that once shaped the landscape of popular culture have been superseded by practices of pastiche, repetition and citation. “This is something we have been watching since selecting colors for the new millennium,” Joanne explains. “2020 always felt very future-forward, as if the world is going to be a different place… but there are definitely retro-feels of the future continually coming through in trends.” If the future is this prescriptive, are we perpetually forecasting our past?
“A.I. Blue and Electric Magenta are looking into the rise in digital and our relationship with technology, and how that is going to progress in years to come,” Joanne tells us. These hyper-saturated, digital tones might be commonly associated with the future – they are the colors of esports arenas and the cult hit Black Mirror – but that doesn’t mean they’re new. Cyberpunk, a speculative genre with its basis in ’60s New Wave science fiction, has been using a palette that is not dissimilar to that of the A/W 21/22 forecast since William Gibson’s Neuromancer was first published in 1984.
The dystopian world that cyberpunk proposes is formulaic: against a landscape of highrise buildings, flashing neon lights and endless rain, we witness the ruinous nature of technology, the ever-increasing divide between rich and poor, and likely, Keanu Reeves in a long coat and small sunglasses. One only needs to look at the covers of Blade Runner 2019 (1982), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), The Matrix quartet (1999-2021), AKIRA (1982), Tron (2012), the video game Cyberpunk 2020 (1990), and the soon-to-be-released Cyberpunk 2077 (2020), to see that our conception of this kind of future, and the colors that define it, remain largely as they were in the ’80s.
What is interesting about these renderings of the future, is that they are unique to late capitalism: “Once, dystopian films and novels were exercises in such acts of imagination – the disasters they depicted acting as narrative pretext for the emergence of different ways of living,” wrote cultural theorist and philosopher Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism. This is no longer the case. Contemporary renderings of dystopian worlds feel more like an “extrapolation or exacerbation” of our own world than an alternative to it. While it has never been fiction’s responsibility to predict the future, our current cultural torpor has lead us to believe that there are no genuine alternatives to the system in which we live. If the colors that are forecast for the years to come are those of the period that we are so desperately seeking to escape, the shape of our future depends on how we decide to write the present.Nina Muro is a Berlin-based graphic designer and art director.
Rosie Flanagan is a Berlin-based writer and editor.
1. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (Hants: 0 Books, 2009), 3.2. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 2.