Rey Akdogan, AWC, 2011, poster, paper, scenic paint, cotton string, lighting gel, tape, 94 1/2 x 26 x 7".

FOR AN UNREALIZED 1937 PROJECT, Fernand Léger proposed to bathe Paris in colored light. “I asked for 300,000 unemployed to clean and scrub the facades,” the artist recounted in his 1946 essay “Modern Architecture and Color.” The goal was to “create a white and luminous city,” and “in the evening the Eiffel Tower, like an orchestra-leader,” would play “the most powerful projectors in the world upon the streets.” Léger conceived of his project, collectively scaled in both production and reception, as a way to trump the alienation of modern life by maximizing its effects. “What, in the end, makes advertisements so superior to criticism?” Walter Benjamin had asked some ten years prior. “Not what the moving red neon sign says—but the fiery pool reflecting in the asphalt.” Following Benjamin, Léger imagined a media architecture that would turn advertising’s seductive surfaces toward other, “postcritical” purposes. Color had the power to alter environments, create ambience, and mobilize affect, and all these things were crucial if art was going to maintain its relevance in the face of an increasingly overwhelming commercial culture. If Léger’s project envisaged the co-optation of advertising’s techniques in order to exceed them, however, today such tactics have been assimilated to more ambivalent ends. In her recent book Kissing Architecture (2011), Sylvia Lavin describes how “color, reflection, pattern, and texture” have now transformed architecture into a complete “sensory apparatus” that responds to “the full range of affective demands made by culture.” Rather than provide a respite from current forces, or an attempt to collectivize them, architecture, too, now contributes to an environment that bodies forth sensation at all times.

In the past few years, the artist Rey Akdogan has begun picking apart our contemporary mediascape by examining the connections between ambience and affect, and their relationship to color and collectivity, in a studious, idiosyncratic, and poetic manner. Armed with devices borrowed from the worlds of stage design, commercial photography, architectural scenography, and the everyday—among them fluorescent rods, lighting gels, and various forms of packaging—she has put together assemblages that literally objectify the elusive elements of environmental stimulation while never quite cohering into things sturdy enough to be called sculptures. In AWC, 2011, for example, various items simultaneously come together and stand apart in a tentative encounter. A sheet of crinkled yellow lighting gel is suspended on the wall with magnets while a cylinder of black kraft paper and a rolled-up poster reading ART WORKERS WON'T KISS ASS stand on the floor as if ready to be laid out or shipped off. Taking its title from the Art Workers’ Coalition, the work strikes an uneasy balance between the desire for a politicized role for artmaking and its embeddedness in contemporary design. Similarly, the title of Yanber 12850, 2011—an illuminated fluorescent light positioned at the base of a wall next to a vintage pressed-tin tile and a host of other props including “Cinegels,” lens tissue paper, and colored plastic—has a geopolitical association: It is taken from the name of a Costa Rican company that produces packaging for bananas and other produce. Where Dan Flavin used similar materials to create environmental and immersive installations full of exalted halations and radiant glows, Akdogan lays her materials bare, treating them more like castoffs and leftovers of some larger project. Her interest is not in enveloping the viewer but in allowing him or her to regain a modicum of critical distance. One is invited to gaze at the devices of theatricality from a welcome remove.

As part of her investigations into the mechanisms of contemporary visual stimulation, Akdogan has also produced several sequences of handmade slides that she displays with the help of a standard Kodak projector. Though using photographic technology as her support, Akdogan creates these projections without the involvement of any photographic technique. Pulling apart a standard 35-mm slide, she creates a composition within its aperture that she then clicks into place by fastening the cartridge back together; no glue or adhesive is used. Fusing the haptic and the optic into shallow reliefs, Akdogan creates a precarious tension between these two modes of apprehending. In addition to lighting gels, the objects that go into these tiny image-sculptures include various pieces of refuse, which, printed according to the CMYK color model, are not meant for projection. When light is shot through them, their colors change, producing alternate, if not opposite, effects. White turns into brown, and yellow fades into black. Material is pushed against the grain.

Rey Akdogan, Yanber 12850, 2011, fluorescent light, pressed tin, lighting filters, lighting gel, lens tissue paper, colored packaging, 19 3/8 x 36 1/4 x 10".

When these slides are submitted to the timer of the projector, they present a variety of permutations and variations as well as hiccups, gaps, and seams. In Carousel #4, 2010, red parallel lines cross and crumple, and a yellow grid closes in on itself, while the most recent of the slide pieces, Carousel #6, 2011–12, presents a vast assortment of geometric abstractions and bruised monochromes. (The latter is currently on view at Andrew Roth in New York, where the gallery’s lighting sources have also been submitted to a series of alterations, modifying the colors and thus viewers’ experience of the other works in the space.) One cannot absorb such works in a state of distraction, but rather is compelled to pay them special attention. In their dissection of colored material, one sees how the language of affect—the heightening of sensation—has become ingrained in everything from the smallest crevices to the largest habitats of our daily lives. By both blowing up and reducing these fragments of professional lighting equipment and late-capitalist detritus into studies of equal size, Akdogan exposes the pervasiveness of sensory technologies and effects, while at the same time seeking to divert them to different ends. Though her goal is perhaps the opposite of Léger’s, in her insistence on projection Akdogan nevertheless hints at a form of public address—even if it can no longer be seen as an explicitly collective one. Rather than intervening in public, one now deconstructs from the inside, and among Akdogan’s achievements is the opening up of new pleasures and forms of attention that result from this private pulling apart. Circumscribing her work’s audience by showing her projections in gallery settings (though she has also offered them for rent in a store), Akdogan addresses not a mass public impressed by spectacularly scaled color but analytic individuals focusing on it indoors.

Akdogan’s response to this historical shift might be compared to her use of the antiquated technology of the Kodak slide projector in a way that is neither melancholic nor nostalgic, but rather forensic, engaging, and reanimating. In the carousel works, the translation of the small, concrete reality of a single slide into a larger image, for example, is crucial to their effect, yet at the same time they do not celebrate the photographic apparatus as much as they point to the importance of materiality at large. By creating a tension between physical things and abstract environments, Akdogan’s work insists on the very materiality of the immaterial. If our current economy is one of experiences, in other words, they are nevertheless constructed ones—and ones that might be constructed differently at that.

Yet if Akdogan’s art is itself posited as a mediation of two seemingly contradictory states—inhabiting the site where materiality and experience collide—it also suggests that its own condition is provisional and subject to revision. The artist’s Pamplemousse Rouge, 2011, a pouch containing a drop cloth and colored packaging hanging from a wooden paint stirrer, makes the point explicit. It’s a bizarre off-the-shelf kit, ready to go, yet at the same time totally dysfunctional. It offers tools to work with, but the variety of scales implied makes for a weird and slightly pathetic-looking package. Like much of Akdogan’s work, Pamplemousse Rouge appears hesitant about the prospect of opening up and putting on a show, preferring to hang in a state of conflicted potential. If there is something of a mistrust of the power of affect in the artist’s practice, it has its roots in a wariness regarding the uses to which it has been put by the experience economy. Like Léger, Akdogan has a desire to push through such techniques—to “right” them instead of simply critiquing them. If another world is possible, her work implies, it will have to be built from the ruins and scrap of the one in which we live. It will also have to be in color.

Alex Kitnick is a 2011–2012 fellow at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.