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We Celebrate the Birthday of the Barcode with Barcode Artist Scott Blake [Exclusive Interview]

Coincidentally, it’s his birthday too.

In honor of the 61st birthday of the barcode, we spoke with Scott Blake, an artist based out of Omaha, Nebraska, who creates portraits of public figures, as well as various other media out of scannable UPC and QR barcodes.

The Creators Project: Would you say you're most notoriously known for your barcode portraits?
Scott Blake: Yeah, I'd say I'm more notorious for other things, but I've been doing barcodes for 12 years now. I did my first one in 1998, so I'm in my 12th year. I feel like I haven't made any new faces, but I've been going back and working with the interactivity. I didn't get a scanner I think until 2007, and then took the Marilyn Monroe that I made in 2003, and just bought all her movies. Marilyn Monroe is only in 22 movies, so I was like I'm going to get the finite amount. I don't buy paint, I don't buy canvasses, I buy data.


Is it usually that easy to collect the codes that you use in those projects?
I went to Barnes and Noble and and just looked all this stuff up. I could copy the number —I didn't actually buy the stuff until 2009. Now, when you scan the barcodes, [a computer] plays a clip from whatever movie you scan. So you scan one barcode, and she opens a door, then you scan another barcode she closes a door. And as you're scanning barcodes, she's going from her first movie to her last movie, from color to black and white. I was scanning it the other day and she walks out of one movie kind of depressed in black and white and then I scanned another one and she comes back in color with champagne.

It's also cool because it's against the law. I'm taking the copyrighting to the nth degree. You know at first, I was just breaking the law by taking the face, which I don't have the rights to. I don't ask permission to make my art. Now I'm actually going and taking the movies apart. It's totally illegal, but when you see the editing, when you see all the door scenes I think it's pretty original. It's all stealing, but cleverly. I've been working on this portrait alone for eight years, and there's like four or five different things going on. It's just tweaking my work. That's one thing about digital stuff, you can just go back and make it better. The paint really never dries.

Do you think that "stealing cleverly" will have any implications at some point, or are you not even really focused on that?
I think right now I'm definitely under the radar for better or for worse. I'm not that well-known. The Elvis Foundation is following me on Twitter, after I tweeted one of my Elvis portraits. I think they're aware of what I'm doing, but I think if I were to try and sell some of these pieces or at least put a price tag on it, then maybe. It's sort of like being an Elvis impersonator, they don't need permission, they don't have to pay royalties. It's just like I'm doing a performance, it involves copyrighted material, but it's done with my computer. If I got in trouble, it would basically be free publicity. I can say, "Elvis basically told me to stop this." All my flipbooks would go up in price, all the postcards I've ever sent out would be worth more. I actually got a letter from the Warhol Foundation, saying they like what I do, but don't make T-shirts. They said if I made T-shirts, then I'd be in trouble. Or I would need a licencing agreement and they wouldn't be interested in talking to me about it. But if they ever told me to stop making art, that'd be great. A letter from the Warhol Foundation saying you cannot do what you're doing…I think my work's original enough to where it's also experimental.


Do you write your own software for these pieces?
It's so low-tech. The faces are done in Photoshop, I'm pushing Photoshop to it's limit. I'm doing some stuff that's pretty unorthodox, but still using what came in the box. I kind of like using just the box, not getting too geeky, and then the scanning part is all done in a web browser. It's basically just like a google search on my hard drive for that barcode and then I have an .html page that has that movie's enter or exit door scene. But people who are afraid of computers are just like, "Oh my God." I kind of feel like I'm using duct tape, digital duct tape to put everything together. But I get the job done, and I'm getting better at hiding the seems.

You custom make barcode merchandise for people and have this application on your website where you enter your gender, height, etc. and a very personal barcode is generated…is that how you create all your custom codes?
There's a barcode language out there that's free for anyone to use, so I'm just taking it and making it my own. So if someone gives me their birthday or their name or social security number, which I get quite often, I take the number and the way the spacing is and put it into a barcode.

You said in a previous interview that the barcode is a symbol for the fusion of art and technology, is that why you chose to work with it?
It still is a combination of so many things I find fascinating. It has a utilitarian purpose and function, but it also has a real aesthetic appeal, and mixing them —what they're supposed to do, what they look like. It's just playing with what we think they are. In the beginning they kind of represented language that only computers could understand. There're not many tools you can kind of take and kind of make into your own, but I feel like they really allow me to do things on the computer that I can't do with a painting. It's weird, I think when I started making my art, in 1998 it used to mean something, and now what it's become…it's sort of neat how it deceives.


How does your artistic philosophy come through in your work?
I'm kind of an iconclast. I'm fascinated by destruction and breaking things apart, but then putting them back together. There's a certain thing with sort of challenging the copyright laws and making fun of art. Capitalism is certainly a theme in a lot of my work, buying and selling and the idea of buying and selling artwork. That's what art is, we basically take something put a little magic wand over it and suddenly it's worth more. You sign it and it's worth even more. You can download all my portraits for free. I give away the .png files, and people have actually started to print the work and they bring it over for me to sign. It's bascially pay what you want, but they do all the dirty work, they printed it, and they framed it. All I did was sign it. It's sort of like an extension of Warhol's Factory where people made his work. I want people, if they really like my work to do it themselves and then go with that Radiohead model: pay what you want. I hate that it's all about the limited-edition prints. I just don't like the idea of limiting work. I think a reason why a lot of us are attracted to the digital world is that you can copy files and nothing bad happens. We're used to sharing. You can't share a painting like that, you can't share a sculpture like that.

What else besides barcodes are you working on?
I made a flipbook about September 11th in 2007 and I remember thinking people are going to think differently about it when the 10 year anniversary comes, and sure enough it's happening. People are totally thinking differently about it. I don't get the mean responses anymore. I was also recently called out to Atlanta…I was the entertainment at a barcode conference for all these hospitals. I'm being used to show how fun barcodes can be.

So you got into doing QR code stuff in 2009?
Yeah, I do the buttons and the tattoos, so when QR codes came out…it was actually one of my top sellers. I just got an order for somebody's Facebook profile. If you scan the QR code with your phone it will take you to their Facebook page, where you can add them as a friend. I did 30 QR code packages of about 50 for a company in Chicago, that when you scan them it goes to a a stupid human trick on YouTube…it was for a party. I was just in Paris and in London and they have QR codes on all the billboards. I'd get on the tube or the public transit and everywhere on the billboards would be a little QR code. The Obama ones don't work out there… but it's crazy with the Obama button, people just mess around. They're like, "Hey, what's that?! It's a QR code, why not scan it," and then the other line says, "Hello the White House?"

QR codes are so blind. As an emerging "replacement" of the UPC barcode how are they affecting your work?
I just did this show in Grand Rapids, and it's the first time I've had a show where I've had barcode scanners at a gallery where I'm not standing around the entire show, basically performing, and I feel comfortable now. Now that there are the QR codes, they're used to that. I got an iPhone two years ago and I was able to go up to the Elvis portrait I made 7 years ago, scan it with an iPhone, and it told me "Blue Suede Shoes." It just totally reinvented my work.

Do you think you would move away from the UPC code because of datedness?
My whole thing with barcodes is that eventually a computer will be able to recognize if a barcode is Marilyn Monroe's Monkey Business. I still feel like my work will have represented that turn from where there was no computers to now there's computers everywhere. I think it's important in that sense. I'm not going to try and keep it updated, but just make sure it stays in the history books. I'll never get tired of barcode stuff…I feel like no matter how much time goes by, I just feel like there's other themes I'm interested in..flags from around the world. I feel like the next thing after barcodes would be flags. And the way you can mess with them. All these people are really attached to them. People have died for flags, and I just think they need to be played around with some.