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Mason’s Barcode Orchestra Rocks the Walmart

By Colleen Kearney Rich on May 16, 2011

Lindsay Hawks looking for barcodes

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.

Instead, Hawks and her partners in art, Alex Straub and Peter Lee, moved on to the Walmart in Burke to conduct their research. There is a video documenting the visit.

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.

This was spring semester 2010. The three were part of Edgar Endress’ interactive installation art class.

“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 in May.

They called themselves the Barcode Orchestra. Lee and Straub are both artists working in new media. Hawks is “technically a painter.” That means her concentration is in painting, but it is obvious that she too has embraced new media.

“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.”

The project was truly a collaboration. While Lee provided the technical know-how, Straub served as their 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 at Mason. “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, and since then the Barcode Orchestra has had the opportunity to contribute an interactive installation to a show at the World Bank and at a Washington, D.C., gallery in Chinatown through Hemphill Fine Arts Gallery. They also have an exhibit currently on display 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 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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