Documentation of Exhibit—The Intermedial Experience of Barcodes
Dene Grigar, Washington State University Vancouver
Abstract: Windows Into Art was a month-long exhibit, held in June 2010, that placed paintings, works on paper, textile art, sculpture, video, and installations in the windows of vacant buildings in downtown Vancouver, WA. Co-curated by Karen Madsen and Dene Grigar, it was envisioned as an “alternative means of viewing art” that “turned the street into a museum and connected people with art.” The show was also seen as a way to utilize art as a means for uplifting the spirit of a community where the number of vacant windows and storefronts was a growing concern to the city’s public image. While such an approach to site-specific, civic art is not new, the show did break new ground with its use of technology: It utilized QR Codes to provide viewers with more information about the paintings, sculpture, installations, and the buildings in which the art was featured and to create an intermedial experience that connected analog art to the digital realm. Much has been written about technologies that make interacting with real world objects possible and tagging objects in ways that they can be found digitally. What interests this paper, instead, is the idea of intermediality––that is, the concept that digital and analog can come together so seamlessly that they create a new experience that is both real and virtual, augmented and extended. These are experiences that place viewers in two worlds simultaneously, offering all of the affordances available from both, thus making it possible to appreciate art in new ways.
Windows Into Art1 was a month-long exhibit, held in June 2010, that placed paintings, works on paper, textile art, sculpture, video, and installations in the windows of vacant buildings in downtown Vancouver, WA. Co-curated by Karen Madsen and Dene Grigar, it was envisioned as an “alternative means of viewing art” that “turned the street into a museum and connected people with art.”2 The show was also seen as a way to utilize art as a means for uplifting the spirit of a community where the number of vacant windows and storefronts was a growing concern to the city’s public image.
While such an approach to site-specific, civic art is not new, the show did break new ground with its use of technology: It utilized a type of barcode, known as a QR Code, to provide viewers with more information about the paintings, sculpture, installations, and the buildings in which the art was featured and to create an intermedial experience that connected analog art to the digital realm. The particular QR Code used in the exhibit is called a “Bee Tagg.” Much has been written about technologies that make interacting with real world objects possible and tagging objects in ways that they can be found digitally.3 What interests this paper, instead, is the idea of intermediality––that is, the concept that digital and analog can come together so seamlessly that they create a new experience that is both real and virtual, augmented and extended. These are experiences that place viewers in two worlds simultaneously, offering all of the affordances available from both, thus making it possible to appreciate art in new ways.
Concept and Method
Nineteen artists showed work in the windows of seven different venues targeted for Windows Into Art. While three works incorporated or focused primarily on video, the rest represented traditional art forms. This choice was not due to any technical limitations placed on the artists but rather was born out of the artists’ personal practice. Jennifer Corio and Dave Frei, for example, are a design team that produces sculpture and public art; they chose to exhibit one of their steel sculptures in the window of the former Koplan building. Local textile artist, Janice Arnold, who has been featured inThe New York Times and American Craft magazine and has created a site specific installation for Cirque du Soliel and costumes for the opera, Grendl, performed by the LA and NY City opera companies, selected one of her large hand-woven felt pieces to exhibit in the window of the Vancouver USA Regional Tourism Office.
The windows chosen by the curators for the show were those that offered the best views from the sidewalks and streets and located in prominent parts of the downtown area. All but the window at the Vancouver USA Regional Tourism Office were those belonging to vacant buildings. Owners of the buildings or the management companies handling the properties were amenable, for the most part, to participate in the month-long exhibit because the event offered a way to highlight the building and, thereby, show its attractiveness to potential leasers or buyers. With both the Democratic and Republican state conventions planned for the downtown area during the month of June, there was concern over the image the city would present to the thousands of delegates attending the conventions. Windows Into Art, therefore, arose out of an immediate need to provide a positive image for the city.
While the show enjoyed much local support, it was hosted with little funding. Because printed brochures were not possible because they were cost prohibitive, the web was envisioned as the main means for promoting the event. Labor for a website and the social media used in conjunction with it were, like the buildings and windows themselves, cost-free since they represented donated time and resources. Creative Media & Digital Culture Program senior Christina Broussard-Pearson interned with the curators and helped with everything from handling the exhibit’s Facebook and Twitter sites to working with artists to install their work. But without a print catalog to explain the art, viewers had little to guide them on their walks of the exhibit. Additionally, viewers who may have been interested in knowing more about the buildings in which the art was installed had no easy way to gain access to this information. This problem was easily solved by producing posters for each piece of art and placing them in the windows where the art was found. Besides the typical information found on these posters, such as the name of artist and title of the art, they also contained general information about and contact information for the building. However, detailed information like artists’ biographical information, methods of art production for each piece, and historical background on the buildings was not possible on an 11 x 14 promotional poster.
To address this challenge, the curators devised the idea of using a particular type of barcode based on QR Code technology called a “Bee Tagg”4 to augment the data found on the poster. This approach allowed the curators to lead viewers to the artist’s website where more information about the art and artist could be gained and took viewers to the building’s management site as a way of making more, pertinent information available about the building. Artists who did not have websites already were encouraged to develop a simple and free website service available to artists for posting information about their work. Because Bee Taggs are free, this method of connecting viewers to information came without cost. Thus, the only promotional expense incurred at the show was the poster produced for each of the windows.
Since the 1960s barcodes have become part of the 20th century landscape, used for everything from automated checkouts in grocery stores, to inventory control of merchandise, to precise identification of cars. Two-dimensional barcodes, or “matrix barcodes,” like QR codes and Bee Taggs, are similar to these early barcodes, known as linear barcodes, in that they can be used to track and augment data. However, they offer more capacity for representing data.5 Created in 1994 by a subsidiary of the Toyota Corporation for use in tracking vehicles, QR codes are two-dimensional barcodes that can be read by technology such as QR scanners and smart phones. Getting its name for its “quick response” to accessing data, QR codes can be programmed to make information like words, sound, images, and video easily accessible at high speeds. Because QR codes are supported by Google, Android phones are created to read them automatically. Other phones, like Apple’s iPhone, require the use of a free reader app. But because QR codes are not optimized for mobile tagging, are limited to black and white barcode images, can only handle to 40-60 characters, and do not allow for the addition of logos, the curators elected, instead, to use Bee Tagg codes, an iteration of scanning codes created specifically for mobile phones and which afford more flexibility in its use and design, for Windows into Art posters.
Anyone who has scanned his or her own item at the grocery store and typed characters in browser windows in the limited real estate afforded by cell phones can easily understand why using barcodes on the posters rather than posting URLs made sense: It is far simpler, requires less effort, and results in a quicker response to point a cell phone at an image and automatically pull up a website than it does to type in a string of characters and hope one has not mistyped an address. Additionally, the ubiquity of mobile phones made it feasible to experiment with Bee Taggs as a mode of extending information about the show. 93% of American adults now own a cell phone, and the use of wireless phones has grown in the last decade from 34% to 89%. Put more succinctly, there are 305 million desktop computers in the developing world right now compared to 2.2 billion mobile phones. Growth in the use of smart phones, especially, is set to double from 2010 to 2013 with over 137 million users in the U.S. alone.6 In fact, smart mobile devices are expected to be the primary access point to the Internet within the decade.7 So, it stands to reason that the curators would opt to experiment with technologies surrounding mobile phones, especially ones that make using the phone easy, like Bee Taggs, for Windows into Art.
Producing numerous the Bee Taggs needed for the show was a simple task. A website to the Bee Tagg generator required the curators simply to link a URL to the Bee Tagg barcode and, then, select the desired type of code (Bee Tagg, QR Code, Datamatrix). These two steps resulted in the creation of the Bee Tagg barcode. Once completed with that task, a new page appeared that allowed the curators to select the size needed for the barcode, to position the Windows into Art logo into the barcode, and to choose among several formats (i.e. png, jpf, gif, pdf, svg, efs) for the one best suited for the posters. The final product was a downloadable barcode able to be moved to the poster.
Once the posters were distributed to the exhibit venues, it became incumbent upon the curators to educate viewers of the show about how to use Bee Taggs. To accomplish this task, the curators provided a detailed explanation about Bee Taggs on the exhibit website and made a link to the Bee Tagg site available. Visitors to the webpage could easily download the Bee Tagg reader if they did not yet have one available on their smart phone, and learn how to use the codes at the exhibit. During the show the curators and other volunteers were available throughout the exhibit and stationed at the various sites to help viewers on the spot with accessing the reader and information.
For the viewers Bee Taggs worked this way: Viewers could walk up to the art from the sidewalk and view the art. The poster providing basic information about the work and building as well as two Bee Tagg barcodes (one for the artist and another for the building) was located on the window where the art was displayed. Viewers could, then, read the poster, and if they wanted to access more information, such as the artist statement, see additional work by the artist, read the artist’s bio, or learn about other shows the artist participated in, they could, using their smart phone, launch their Bee Tagg reader, point their phone at the artist’s barcode on the poster, and position the barcode within the frame. Once the phone read the barcode, the phone simultaneously vibrated and, then, took viewers to a new interface that allowed them to choose among “go to web,” “open in Safari,” or “save.” Choosing “go to web” or “open in Safari” both resulted being taken to the website hardlinked to the barcode, while “saving” allowed viewers to name the link and “add to favorites” to be opened and examined later. In this way, viewers were able to bring together the material art object and the digital data about the object found on the web through the barcode located on the analog object––the poster. This experience differs from the way we have come to use the web to access information.
Before the advent of web-enhanced mobile technology, we would see an object and, then, return to our computer to look up more information about that object. The separation of time and space between viewer and object could impact memory and experience, and, thereby, the extent by which we could make discoveries about the object. The object themselves would come to us as digitalized reproductions of the analog objects about which we wanted to learn. However, in the way the curators envisioned the use of the web with smart phones and Bee Tagg barcodes, the act of discovery generated directly from the act of viewing the art via the barcode located on the poster and, then, seamlessly to the web, without much disruption of time, space, or action. The only challenges encountered with the technology came about due to an individual’s lack of experience with the camera function of his or her phone or understanding about how to download an app. Once again, the curators and docents were available to help with such issues.
Experiencing information in this way raises questions about the relationship between the digital and analog, the real and virtual, and the augmented and extended––in essence, it prompts a discussion about the intermediality of the experience that Bee Taggs and other type of barcodes used for interacting with art.
Theory and Experience
While the term, “intermedia,” is a broad one that focuses on the art object itself whether it is a work produced with multiple genres or within multiple mediums, the adjective intermedial and the noun generating from it, “intermediality,” are concerned with the relationships of those genres and mediums, “those co-relations . . . that result in a redefinition of the media that are influencing each other, which in turn leads to a fresh perception.” It suggests a “both-and approach” to understanding information rather than an either-or perspective.8 In fact, three basic perspectives are accepted for understanding intermediality:
First . . . [it] is the combination and adaptation of separate material vehicles of representation and reproduction, sometimes called multimedia. . . . Second, the term denotes communication through several sensory modalities at once. . . . Third, [it] concerns the interrelations between media as institutions in society, as addressed in technological and economic terms such as convergence and conglomeration.9
Out of this broad understanding of object and experience emerges basic qualities associated with intermediality, such as interconnectedness, syncretism, interactivity and playfulness, and dislocation.10 Using these characteristics of intermediality, we can gain much insight into the experience Bee Taggs may have offered viewers of the Windows Into Art exhibit.
One of the pervasive characteristics of digital culture is the way in which media work together in a system to accomplish “communicative strategies.” 11 In fact, the term, intermediality, suggests “the interconnectedness of modern media of communication (my emphasis).”12 Video games that incorporate sound and image are but one example of the way in which elements of media objects connect with one another in order to present a unified vision––in this case for creating gaming experiences. But this relationship extends beyond the connection among elements to that between user and object. In this sense, as soon as the user––or in the case of the exhibit––viewers begin interacting with the information found via the Bee Tagg, they too become elements in the experience. While rhetorical, communications, and linguistic theories offer insights into the relationship between viewers and information, they do not address the complexities that arise when linking analog objects, such as those represented by the physical body of viewers, the art, and poster, to the digital media, like sound, images, video, and words, found on the web. Moreover, intermediality stands in stark contrast to the separation of human and objects so prevalent in epistemologies where knowing is an act that requires a move across a wide divide between knower and the object of knowing. The immediate use of the smart phone to engage with information via the Bee Tagg––like its contemporaries, cyborg theory and posthumanism––suggests a fundamental shift in the relationship between humans and the digital technologies they engage with in that it lays bear our potential to connect and become part of a feedback loop, thereby influencing and being influenced by information––in fact, becoming expressed as information ourselves. And while it is understood that “all discourse [is] ‘mediated,’”13 it is equally realized when connecting via and to digital media that the membranes that seemingly contain the elements as unique, discrete units are actually exceptionally thinned and extraordinarily permeable in this flux of information exchange.
This intermedial connection does not result in “hybridity” since this idea “sometimes implies a hierarchical relation”14 but rather “syncretism”––that is, “a heterogeneous front of distinct [elements] in altered relations to each other.”15 As Robin Nelson explains, such syncretism can result in a “new cultural way of seeing, feeling, and being in the contemporary world.”16 If the human genome project and coding in HTML have taught us anything, it is that all objects––tangible and intangible alike––can be expressed with code. The challenge is not only bridging the wetware of the human body with the dryware of the computer interface, but also our understanding of the place humans hold in this relationship. Communication models that attribute human interaction as instigator of discourse or hierarchize human interaction as the prime mover behind the message miss the possibility that the relationship between human and information is not so easily delineated. Automation of computer processes aimed at beginning a dialogue with humans, like the alarm set on a digital calendar or the prompt given by a software program asking the user to make a choice, offer two such examples. The media accessed via Bee Taggs have the potential to behave in a similar fashion and place viewers in a connection where they do not always have complete control over the experience much less the data they access. It is this quality of syncretism that has the potential of causing discomfort among viewers used to controlling their method of coming to knowledge, closing the divide between knower and the object of knowing, and controlling the object of knowledge itself.
The ability to engage in the media system as one of the entities involved in the give and take of communication is what makes the interactivity work and results in playfulness, for it is difficult if not impossible to play if one’s position remains one of separation and control. Play, as Johan Huizinga tells us, is a “significant function” (author’s emphasis) that always “means something.”17 It is a “civilizing function” that is part of all culture18 and provides a mechanism for helping us come to know.19 All of the “great archetypal activities of human society” from language, to myth, to ritual, according to Huizinga, begin with play.20 With play comes risk since it requires the giving over of one’s self to the system whether it be the rules of the game or the conduct of the other entities in the game in order to play. This concept can be applied to analog board games like Monopoly where players allow the luck of the dice to determine where they land and what property they can buy, as well as to digital media like Bee Taggs where viewers allow themselves to be taken to unknown virtual spaces, trusting the curators to lead them on a path that helps to make sense of the viewing experience and accepting the possibility that their journey may be disrupted by a bad connection, a low battery, or a broken link.
And so the play itself “require[s] a fundamental reconfiguration of temporal and spatial relationships” resulting in “dislocation.”21 As Nelson points out, the term “glocal” has been used to describe the simultaneous experience of being here and there, local and global.22 Canadian artist-theorist Steve Gibson talks about the telebody as the site of multiple simultaneous locations in a telematic performance experience.23 In a sense, whenever we engage with media that, like Bee Taggs, extend us beyond the native space of our bodies and place us in a relationship with other entities in a dialogue, we always are both geotemporally dislocated and relocated in what can be described as a playful dance with new knowledge.
When devising the idea of Bee Taggs for the exhibit, the curators understood that they were not merely extending knowledge to viewers via smart phones but setting up a dynamic among the art, artist, building locale, mobile device, viewer, and information that could come together through the intermedial experience of the Bee Tagg barcode. Following the success of the exhibit, other art and educational groups in Vancouver have utilized barcodes for connecting constituents to information. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, for example, placed Bee Taggs to the symphony website in their concert program for the 2010-2011 season, and the Washington State University Vancouver’s newspaper team has been experimenting with QR codes in its newspaper. It makes sense to take advantage of this digital technology, for each time viewers take the time to access the websites and interact physically and intellectually with the work represents a level of commitment and engagement, and it offers a simple yet eloquent way to draw viewers in a dialogue about and with art––and knowledge of any type.
Bequer, Marcos and José Gatti. “Elements of Vogue.” In The Subcultures Reader, 2nd ed. Ed. Ken Gelder. NY, NY: Routledge Press, 2005.
Bee Tagg QR System. http://www.beetagg.com/. 15 Oct. 2010.
CTIA: The Wireless Association. http://www.ctia.org/advocacy/research/index.cfm/AID/10323 (accessed October 14, 2010).
Gibson, Steve. http://www.telebody.ws/telebody/index.php. 16 Oct. 2010.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1950.
International Encyclopedia of Communication Online. NY, NY: Blackwell Publishers. http://www.communicationencyclopedia.com/public/tocnode?query=intermedia.... (accessed14 Oct. 2010).
Madsen, Karen and Dene Grigar, Windows into Art. Vancouver, WA, 4 June-3 July, 2010.
Nelson, Robin. “Introduction: Prospective Mapping and Network of Terms.” In Mapping Intermediality in Performance, ed. Sarah Bay-Cheng et al. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010.
“Number of Smartphone Users in the U.S. from 2010 to 2016 (in Millions). Statista. http://www.statista.com/statistics/201182/forecast-of-smartphone-users-i.... (accessed September 5, 2012).
Smith, Gene. Tagging: People-Powered Metadata for the Social Web. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2008.
Wilson, Stephen. Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002.
Windows Into Art. June 2010. http://windowsintoart.org. 13 Oct. 2010.
1 Karen Madsen and Dene Grigar, Windows into Art (public exhibition, Vancouver, WA, 4 June-3 July, 2010).
2Windows into Art. http://windowsintoart.org (accessed October 13, 2010).
3 Gene Smith, Tagging: People-Powered Metadata for the Social Web (Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2008).
4 Bee Tagg QR System. http://www.beetagg.com/ (accessed October 15, 2010).
5Stephen Wilson, Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002), 609-610.
6“Number of Smartphone Users in the U.S. from 2010 to 2016 (in Millions). Statista. http://www.statista.com/statistics/201182/forecast-of-smartphone-users-i.... (accessed September 5, 2012).
7 CTIA: The Wireless Association. http://www.ctia.org/advocacy/research/index.cfm/AID/10323 (accessed October 14, 2010).
8 Robin Nelson, “Introduction: Prospective Mapping and Network of Terms,” in Mapping Intermediality in Performance, ed. Sarah Bay-Cheng et al (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010). 14-15, 19.
9International Encyclopedia of Communication Online. http://www.communicationencyclopedia.com/public/tocnode?query=intermedia... (accessed October 14, 2010).
12 International Encyclopedia of Communication Online.
13 Nelson, 15.
15 Marcos Bequer and José Gatti, “Elements of Vogue,” in The Subcultures Reader, 2nd ed. Ed. Ken Gelder (NY, NY: Routledge Press, 2005), 447.
17Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1950), 1.
21 Nelson, 19.
22 Nelson, 17.
23 Steve Gibson, http://www.telebody.ws/telebody/index.php (accessed October 16, 2010).
Biography: Dene Grigar is Director of, and Associate Professor in, the Creative Media & Digital Technology Program at Washington State University Vancouver. She works in the area of electronic literature, emergent technology and cognition, and ephemera. She is the author of “Fallow Field: A Story in Two Parts” and “The Jungfrau Tapes: A Conversation with Diana Slattery about The Glide Project,” both of which have appeared in the Iowa Review Web, and co-author of When Ghosts Will Die (with Canadian multimedia artist Steve Gibson), a piece that experiments with motion tracking technology to produce multimedia networked narrative performances. Other projects like The 24-Hour Micro-Elit Project experiment with micro-fiction and participatory literary art forms. She is now completing "Fort Vancouver Mobile", digital stories about the history surrounding the Fort Vancouver National Historical Site that will be delivered via mobile technology, and will curate an exhibit of electronic literature at the Library of Congress in April 2013. She serves as Associate Editor for Leonardo Reviews and Vice President of the Electronic Literature Organization.
© 2012 Dene Grigar, used by permission
Technoculture Volume 2 (2012)