Art Students Find Barcodes Make ‘Beautiful’ Music

Posted: May 16, 2011 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: May 24, 2011 at 6:45 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Most students are used to struggling for their art, but getting kicked out of Target is a different matter entirely. Still, Mason senior Lindsay Hawks was not at all troubled by the store’s request to vacate the premises.

Instead, Hawks and her partners in art, Alex Straub and Peter Lee, moved on to the Walmart in Burke, Va., to conduct their research as part of Edgar Endress interactive installation art class last spring.

Their work involved scanning the bar codes on merchandise in the store to see what a candy bar or a bottle of shampoo “sounds” like. Lee had developed an algorithm to convert bars from a Universal Product Code to musical tones or, more specifically, MIDI (Musical Instrumental Digital Interface) notes.

The group also captured their interactions with the merchandise and customers throughout the “performance” on video.

“We had to come up with a final project, and it had to be collaborative. This is what we came up with,” says Hawks, who will graduate with a BFA in art and visual technology this week.

They called themselves the Barcode Orchestra. Lee and Straub both work in new media. Hawks is “technically a painter.”

“It was Peter’s idea to take the interface we built and go to Walmart to do live performances,” she says. “As soon as we did that, we realized that whatever was happening wasn’t what we expected it to be, but it was still interesting.”

While Lee provided the technical know-how, Straub served as the sound engineer. Hawks soon found that she excelled at interacting with the shoppers.

All considered the project a success, but did they get a good grade?

“I loved the project,” says Endress, who is an associate professor in the School of Art. “I think it is really relevant work and ties into current use of technology in communities and public spaces. It is one of my favorites.”

Others agree with Endress’ assessment. Over the past year, the Barcode Orchestra has contributed an interactive installation to a show at the World Bank and at the Hemphill Fine Arts Gallery in Washington, D.C. The team also has an exhibit on display through Aug. 31 at Artisphere in Arlington, Va.

What does the future hold for the Barcode Orchestra?

Well, graduation, of course. Straub has already graduated, and Lee and Hawks are finishing up their course work.

“We could push it some more,” says Hawks of the project, but it all depends on what is going on in their lives.

Endress believes they all have great careers in front of them.

“They transcend the idea of a student artist,” he says. “In my mind, they are already working artists.”

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