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Scott Blake: Behind Bars
by Jason Filipow & Anne Keehan

In 1998, a 22-year-old Scott Blake was in San Francisco, smack in the middle of the youth-centric dot-com boom. It was the era of twentysomething techie millionaires. Fueled by coffee (the ‘90s saw the rise of the Starbucks-led coffee culture) and the prospect of striking Internet gold, generation X’ers in flip-flops and t-shirts buzzed around offices stocked with Nerf balls and pinball machines. But, as the year 2000 loomed on the horizon, the economy took a sudden dip, and Y2K panic spread throughout the geek revolution.

Blake worked on the artsy side of the tech boom. He was a special effects assistant at XO Digital Arts under Bruce Walter—an industry veteran who worked for several years at the George Lucas’-founded Industrial Light and Magic. “The city was going nuts,” Blake recalls. “Fill up your bathtub and drain your ATM. I was getting into Photoshop and starting to do special effects on film, being immersed in the pixel environment. When Y2K came, it was like the floor was going to fall out on all of it.”

It was against this threat of what Blake called a “digital apocalypse” that he made Bar Code Jesus, a portrait of Jesus’ serene face rendered from the parallel lines of bar code patterns. The portrait has a jolting quality, like seeing an inanimate object suddenly come to life. It was the first in a long series of bar code pop culture portraits—he has since depicted Oprah, Madonna and Elvis, among others. Blake stumbled upon the idea of making art from bar codes when he was digitally doodling on Photoshop, “experimenting with halftone patterns inspired by Roy Lichtenstein’s Benday dot paintings.” Years later, after creating a system to translate text into bar codes, Blake made a second portrait entitled Code 128/Jesus/Book of Revelations compiled from digitally interpreted words from the Book of Revelations.

There is perhaps no symbol more synonymous with our digitized consumer culture than the bar code. Only slightly younger than the very first supercomputers, the first prototypes date back to the mid 1950s. Around 1973, a few years before Blake was born, the first Universal Product Code (UPC)—one of the most widely used bar code languages—was put into use. Soon, other bar code systems were developed, like the ISBN and ISSN codes for published materials, and Postnet, which reads zip codes for the U.S. Postal Service. As the world has become more digitized and—to paraphrase Blake—pixilated, our daily lives are increasingly immersed in bar code technology. Even our state-issued ID cards and driver’s licenses are tagged with them.

Blake compiles countless smaller bar codes to create one big bar code image—like a snake eating its own tail. Joseph Campbell, whose philosophies inspired George Lucas’s Star Wars series, said that the symbol of the self-eating snake “gives you that primary sense of shock… Life lives by killing and eating itself, casting off death and being reborn.” In interviews, Blake often quotes religious passages that meditate on this idea. Like the Zen Buddhist phrase “All is One,” or the ancient Egyptian Emerald Tablet text which says “That which is above is like that which is below.” To ABC news, Blake said he is fascinated by the bar code because “it represents itself, everything and nothing.” Exploring the cyclical nature of consumerism, technology and art, Blake’s work, by extension becomes a spiritual reflection on life and death itself.

Blake came of age in Tampa, Florida, some time in the late ‘80s amidst a jumbled culture of skateboarding, punk rock and computers. When he was a child, his mother gave him a pile of dead rotary phones to play with. “I would take them apart and plug them back in and get them to ring,” he recalls. When he was nine years old, he got his first skateboard. “Skateboarding is a sort of technology,” he says. “It allowed me to not be afraid and just go and approach things.” And when he was 12, around 1988, Blake got his first computer. It was a basic PC, and it had a black and white screen.

As a teenager, he used every tool at his disposal to make posters and fliers for his friends’ punk bands. At first, he compiled his graphics at Kinko’s. But by age 16, he splurged on an image scanner—the kind that you picked up and rolled over objects. “It was one of those where you could roll it over your face,” he says. “I had to save up to get that.” Blake did the graphics for his high school’s student-produced TV news program and made extra money screenprinting t-shirts for local baseball teams.

As time went on, “computers were being used more and more” in these endeavors. But it wasn’t until his discovery of the Adobe Photoshop program that Blake found a medium that channeled all his passions: the daredevil excitement of skateboarding, the D.I.Y. ethic of punk rock, and the technological challenge of computers. “Photoshop symbolizes this whole technological revolution,” Blake says. “It is an artistic medium.”

He set to work learning how to unleash the hidden power of Photoshop. “Every time I’d go to the bathroom, I’d pick up the menu of keyboard shortcuts,” he says. He memorized the whole manual. “A lot of people think Photoshop is mysterious, and ‘How do you unlock it?’ I write these action scripts,” he continues. “It’s like a player piano where the computer operates itself. The mouse doesn’t move, but you can watch Photoshop creating the whole image on screen. The first Bar Code Jesus took four days.”

In 2001, Blake’s Code 128/Jesus/Book of Revelations won First Place Most Creative Illustration at the very first Adobe Design Achievement Awards. The annual competition honors students who use Adobe software to create original art and design.

With his artwork, Blake uses the tools of the information age to find— so to speak—the ghost in the machine. He reveals the beating human heart behind the wires of our seemingly impersonal technological age. “The world has changed so fast. It’s kind of scary,” he says. “I always wanted to be alive during the ‘70s, but ever since the millennium I feel like it’s my time.”

Printed in Swindle Magazine Issue #10, March 2007
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