The Next Street Art

Say there was a place that had some special meaning to you. It could be the alcove where you had your first kiss, the alley where you were mugged, the square where you participated in an important rally, or the location of an historic uprising. Good or bad, we all infuse places with our memories. This is what makes physical places so powerful, and why peoples' opinions and experiences of the same place can be vastly different. Places are what people make of them. Now, technology could be making it easier for tech-savvy street artists to etch their own experiences and opinions onto physical places, communicating the artists' own sense of a place to others who pass through it.

Barcodes are most commonly used in retail environments, but their size and informational storage capacities make them ripe for adaptation for more inventive uses. In Japan, barcodes are now being applied to gravestones to store and transmit information, when scanned, about the deceased. The idea here is that family members will, through videos, photos, and stories, be able to reconnect with the deceased in a less mournful, more celebratory way. Imagine "a sort of gravestone based, family fueled, wiki of the dead."

This technology could easily be used in public spaces to represent a political viewpoint or a historical event. Imagine walking down a street for the first time and noticing a bright green barcode sticker affixed to the facade of a building. Using a scanner-enabled mobile device, you could access a website loaded with the history of the building site, or a series of short stories about the surrounding blocks, or photos of a lifechanging event that a stranger experienced in the very spot where you are standing. Reading or viewing material like this would give the place a new gravitas, and would change your perception of what might otherwise be a mundane stretch of asphalt and brick.

RFID tags are another method of remote-storing information that, thanks to increased range, provide the opportunity for a bit more mischief. With the technological know-how, a clever street artist could program a chip to send a text message or photo to any wi-fi enabled mobile device passing by. Imagine again: you're walking down a street and you pass a hidden RFID tag; your phone rings. You answer. An audio recording plays, recounting a woman's personal account of a riot that took place across the street a decade earlier. Later, walking through a park, your text alert sounds. You open the message to find a set of coordinates and the time of an upcoming event, perhaps a flash mob or a constructive riot. Or, perhaps, a photo of the view from the very place that you are standing, hyperlinked to a database of stories and photos of places around the city (along the lines of Invincible Cities, linked below).

While they would only be accessible to those with the proper devices to read the information that they stored, RFID tags and barcodes have distinct advantages over more traditional forms of street art like posters, graffiti tags, and murals. For one thing, they are smaller, and less intrusive. While this could be seen as a weakness (especially for barcodes, which require direct interaction), it is also a strength in that RFID tags and barcodes are less likely to prompt their own removal than more readily noticeable artistic interventions. These tiny storage units can also provide more vivid, personalized accounts of events or viewpoints, and have the potential to be more impactful on their viewers.

RFID and barcode street art has the potential to turn the urban environment into a virtual minefield of information. While the potential for abuse by malicious hackers or marketing drones is there, the idea of being able to literally "tag" a place with multimedia information is an exciting one. Perhaps it's already being done. Anyone know of some examples?

(Photo from Flickr user cloverst. The original full-color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

Barcodes on tombs to connect with the dead (The Inquirer)

Invincible Cities (Thanks, Pete!)


Anonymous said...

There is something to be said for these barcodes and tags - it's an interesting idea, but there's something about street art and how it connects you to the place/space in the present. In other words it becomes an identifier of the space.

I worry that these barcodes will start to take away from that recognition. Instead of appreciating and experiencing the space on its own, on your own, the barcodes force you to experience it through somebody else's eyes, thoughts, feelings. Or maybe I just don't like the infringement the receiver will have on the experience of the space - it becomes a secondary experience.

I don't know, pretty interesting though.

Anonymous said...

Three things:
One, here is a similar idea of embedded meaning on corners of space. Capitol of Punk.


Two, the Minnesota Historical Society has developed a wiki that allows you to upload images, stories, audio, etc about any place that is meaningful to you. This is an effort to get away from the dominance of the National Register of Historic Places. It's a way to allow all places to be significant and worth saving - or at least remembering...


Finally, i was just in a meeting with one of the heads of the Library of Congress American Memory site. In conversation she was saying (literally no more that 10 minutes before i read this feed) that she wants to tag historic road markers with RIFDs so that cars that whizz by and don't stop can pick up the audio through their car's GPS. Fun idea.

Anonymous said...

@anonymous, above....I read an article in the guardian the other day about a similar scheme in the UK here


(a little different as this one used comdey sketches and seemed quite lame, but I get the promise that this stuff may hold).

Also, barcode sticker/tagging is kinda common here in Tokyo...e.g. this one


I appreciate the potential they have, but they suck as any type of aesthetic statement (obviously).
RIFDs I can appreciate (once all mobile phones/media players read them...)

Brendan Crain said...

RFIDs are especially exciting, I think, because sound could be used to tag a place in a way that still connects you to that place in the present and become an identifier of the place, as bp described, but in an entirely new medium...

Thanks for the links, guys. These are all great.