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The Barcode Orchestra

Barcode Orchestra is a work created by three George Mason students Lindsay Hawks, Peter Lee, and Alex Straub. Perhaps the first question the piece raised for me was “is this really art?”

A barcode is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a code consisting of a group of printed and variously patterned bars and spaces and sometimes numerals that is designed to be scanned and read into computer memory and that contains information (i.e. identification) about the object it labels.” An orchestra is defined as “a group of musicians including especially string players organized to perform ensemble music.”

This piece is both improvisational, or performance, and conceptual but it still is not clear whether or not it can be considered art. It is improvisational in that the prompts that the performers gave the customers shopping at Walmart got different responses from each person, and conceptual because there is definitely a clear concept trying to be conveyed. Without the customers shopping and the reactions they gave to the experimenters, this documentary would not have been interesting. However, the role that the shoppers play is not extremely important, it is actually interchangeable. If we were to consider this an orchestra, despite the fact that there is only one instrument, the people are not actually the players. The work, in this case the playing of the instrument, is happening artificially, by the computer’s output. There is no actual instrument, just a simulation of an instrument, and that simulation is translated by the computer using an algorithm. There are three parts to the making of music or noise: the hand (that holds the stick to beat the drum), the drum (that without the hand holding the stick beating down on it does not make sound), and the stick (that is the medium to beat the drum with). In the case of the Barcode Orchestra the hand would be the algorithm, the drum would be the barcode, and the stick would be the scanner. Each drum sounds different, as each barcode sounds different.

The barcode itself, in this case, would not be the work of art, just as one note on a keyboard, or one bang on a drum wouldn’t be a song. The combination or compilation of complimentary barcodes might be the beginning of a work of art, but the idea itself is not art. One stroke of a paintbrush would not be considered a painting, just as a lump of clay would not be considered a sculpture, to call this Barcode Orchestra a work of art would be misleading.

The Barcode Orchestra seems to be a work in progress and in order for it to be considered a work of art a few things need to be changed. It feels incomplete, more like an experiment, a creation in the making. The concepts that the barcode scanners bring up are those that have been discussed many times before, especially when the economy suffers. The idea is clever but not new, perhaps a new take on an old idea but nothing incredibly original. If an entire song had been composed using shorts or canned food items both the concepts and an original work would be there to analyze but presently there is no real substance just pieces waiting to be assembled– simply a medium waiting for the artist to create the art . Barcode Orchestra