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Finding Form in Bar-Code Function
Innovative artist blends capitalism and religion with common shopping technology.

by Andy Jordan

For artist Scott Blake, bar codes are far more than scanning devices at the local Wal-Mart. They're Jesus, Marilyn Manson, Bill Gates, Andy Warhol.

Using Photoshop, the 26-year-old San Francisco artist turns bar codes into thought-provoking mosaic elements of large portraits that meld capitalism and personality. Blake's 21st century take on bar codes is popping up at art shows around the country.

His award-winning website, Bar Code Art, generates a bar code for visitors and ranks their "worth" depending on their gender and the gross domestic product of their home country.

"Tech Live" sat down with the recent graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga. to talk art, religion, and capitalism. Meet him and see his provocative art on tonight's show.

TechTV: Dude, what's up with the bar codes?

Blake: I've always found that with bar codes, when I look at them, it's the point where the human eye can read a digital eye, or sort of where the digital intersects with the reality. The very first [piece] I did was "Bar Code Jesus," since people thought bar codes were the sign of the devil. If you actually looked at every bar code there's a hidden "666". All these Internet people have found this. There's even this scripture in the Christian Bible that everyone will have this symbol tattooed on his or her hands, or on their heads, and it'll be on every product.

TechTV: Why you dissin' on the Big J?

Blake: It just became about how Christianity is becoming a business. It's not so much a religion, it's like a country club you belong to and you pay your dues, and it really doesn't mean anything as long as you have the money. It's also about power and control, but then kind of taking it and turning its own head and saying: "I'm the one that's in control." In any religion or any sort of consumer culture, you can buy in but you can also buy out.

TechTV: From the King of Kings to the King, your work runs the gamut.

Blake: Yeah, how do we know Elvis? I really feel like I know him. I read about him in the newspaper. But really what does it come down to? I know his music, and what is his music? It's just encoded binary data on a CD, going back again to those zeroes and ones.

TechTV: But he's the King, dude.

Blake: He's our idol! Our culture is so much about, "What CD did you buy?" "What car did you buy?" "What clothes do you wear?" It's all about the products you own that make you who you are. And I'm trying to say, "I'm pretty cool because I've got all the bar codes." I've got every single Elvis bar code, but I don't have any Elvis music. I'm trying to twist that.

TechTV: So you create your mosaics using bar codes, but this is all done on a computer?

Blake: I work on computers, and I work digitally, but for the layperson and really for everyone, it's Photoshop. For artists, oil on canvas is the most celebrated medium but when you say "digital," everyone knows Photoshop. It's totally going to be in the dictionary. Even though Photoshop is a trademarked word, it means something now, beyond the package software.

TechTV: Are you railing on the corporate man?

Blake: Bar codes are not so much a social security number, but a branding that strips every company of their cool. It takes the cool out of Pepsi and Coke and makes them completely the same. No bar code is better than the next bar code.

TechTV: Is the bar code the sign of the Beast?

Blake: It's an interesting symbol, but it's nothing that apocalyptic. It's just on every product. They put 'em on babies now when they are born. They scan your bar code so you can't leave the hospital without the right bar code baby. It's the commodification of everything.

TechTV: I don't think we can use words like commodify on TechTV.

Blake: Get a thesaurus. It's how much are you worth? How much do you think you're worth, and what is that value based on? Oftentimes, we hear, "You need this product, and if you don't have this product you're not having a good time."

TechTV: Is there a larger statement here on how we look at capitalism?

Blake: It's how we look at capitalism, but also about growing up in capitalism. I don't really say it's good or bad. This is how it is. It is what it is. A bar code is just black and white. Most things in the world aren't so cut and dry, but bar codes are.

TechTV: Do bar codes make you scared?

Blake: They can be pretty scary. Wal-Mart knows when a girl's getting her menstrual cycle based on what bar codes she buys. So if she buys a bunch of bar codes at a certain time of the month, they keep a database and will send her a mailer: "We've got special tampons on sale."

TechTV: How did you come up with the idea to do this?

Blake: In San Francisco, there's the gay handkerchief code, and so depending on what your sexual preference is, you wear different handkerchiefs in different pockets in different colors. I thought it would be cool to be at a singles club walking around with bar code stickers and be like: "Oh, what's your bar code say?" So all your data is already out there so you don't have to ask someone. It kinda takes away all that initial fuzzy conversation and lays it all out there.

TechTV: What's up with your "worth" ranking?

Blake: The best guy is a 35-year-old man from Luxembourg: 6'1", 160 pounds. The middle average of the world is age 35, and so depending on how close you are to 35, that's worth more money. It means you spend more money, you've been here longer and you're gonna spend the most. It's arranged by gross domestic product. Luxembourg has the highest. The U.S. is second. Sierra Leone is on the very bottom.

TechTV: Not too good if you're living in Mississippi. What am I worth? (We enter data into Blake's online bar code tool.)

Blake: You're awesome -- you're worth $9.73. If we took your data and made you a female, you'd be worth seven bucks, 'cause women only make 72 cents for every dollar a man makes. I wanted to use all statistics, finding data on the Web. It's data we all agree on and we all understand. Everyone knows gross domestic product.

TechTV: Hey, wait a minute, aren't you, like, stealing intellectual property or something? I'm telling the RIAA or somebody.

Blake: You can't make illegal art. I'm not making art that's supposed to be judged in a jury that decides "is this art or is this theft?" It can be both. I'm trying to mess with that system. I'm trying to fuck the fuckers, in a way. I'm trying to make them be scared of what I'm doing.

TechTV: We're scared.

Blake: I made this portrait of Oprah Winfrey using all the bar codes from the books from her book club. I sent it to her and never heard a thing from her. She's put out all those bar codes for us to use, then doesn't want to be associated with them.

TechTV: I like mine. I'm worth 10 bucks.

Blake: $9.73

Originally appeared on TechTV Website, October 2003
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October 2009
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by Andrey Oaheeb
February 2006
Madonna Portraits Q & A
August 2005
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in Art Papers Magazine
by Kent Wolgamott
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September 2004
Finding Form in Bar-Code Function
on TechTV Live
by Andy Jordan
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The Body-Mined Show Catalog
by Glenn Zucman
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January 2003
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and the system

by Alessandro Imperato
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November 2002
Enrayer le code
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by Vanina Pinter
July 2002
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