QR Codes and Traditional Beadwork: Augmented Communities Improvising Together





visual art, augmented reality, Aboriginal, installation, QR code, improvisation

How to Cite

Caines, R., Viader Knowles, R., & Anderson, J. (2013). QR Codes and Traditional Beadwork: Augmented Communities Improvising Together. M/C Journal, 16(6). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.734
Vol. 16 No. 6 (2013): augment
Published 2013-11-07

Artwork in the Gallery

Images 1-6: Photographs by Rachelle Viader Knowles (2012)

This article discusses the cross-cultural, augmented artwork Parallel Worlds, Intersecting Moments (2012) by Rachelle Viader Knowles and Judy Anderson, that premiered at the First Nations University of Canada Gallery in Regina, on 2 March 2012, as part of a group exhibition entitled Critical Faculties. The work consists of two elements: wall pieces with black and white Quick Response (QR) codes created using traditional beading and framed within red Stroud cloth; and a series of videos, accessible via scanning the beaded QR codes. The videos feature Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people from Saskatchewan, Canada telling stories about their own personal experiences with new technologies. A QR code is a matrix barcode made up of black square modules on a white square in a grid pattern that is optically machine-readable. Performance artist and scholar Rebecca Caines was invited by the artists to participate in the work as a subject in one of the videos. She attended the opening and observed how audiences improvised and interacted with the work. Caines then went on to initiate this collaborative writing project.

Like the artwork it analyzes, this writing documents a series of curated experiences and conversations. This article includes excerpts of artist statements, descriptions of artists’s process and audience observation, and new sections of collaborative critical writing, woven together to explore the different augmented elements of the artwork and the results of this augmentation. These conversations and responses explore the cross-cultural processes that led to the work’s creation, and describe the results of the technological and social disruptions and slippages that occurred in the development phase and in the gallery as observers and artists improvised with the augmentation technology, and with each other. The article includes detail on the augmented art practices of storytelling, augmented reality (AR), and traditional beading, that collided and mutated during this project, exploring the tension and opportunity inherent in the human impulse to augment.

Storytelling through Augmented Art Practices: The Creation of the Work

JUDY ANDERSON: I am a Plains Cree artist from the Gordon’s First Nation, which is located in Saskatchewan, Canada. As a Professor of Indian Fine Arts at the First Nations University of Canada, I research and continue to learn about traditional art making using traditional materials creating primarily beaded pieces such as medicine bags and drum sticks. Of particular interest to me, however, is how such traditional practices manifest in contemporary Aboriginal art. In this regard I have been greatly influenced by my colleague and friend, artist Ruth Cuthand, and specifically her Trading series, which reframed my thinking about beadwork (Art Placement), and later by the work of artists like Nadia Myer, and KC Adams (Myer; KC Adams). Cuthand’s incredibly successful series taught me that beadwork does not only beautify and “augment” our world, but it has the power to bring to the forefront important issues regarding Aboriginal people. As a result, I began to work on my own ideas on how to create beadworks that spoke to both traditional and contemporary thoughts.

RACHELLE VIADER KNOWLES: At the time we started developing this project, we were both working in leadership roles in our respective Departments; Judy as Coordinator of Indian Fine Arts at First Nations University, and myself as Head of Visual Arts at the University of Regina. We began discussing ways that we could create more interconnection between our faculty members and students. At the centre of both our practices was a dialogic method of back and forth negotiation and compromise.

JA: Rachelle had the idea that we should bead QR codes and make videos for the upcoming First Nations and University of Regina joint faculty exhibition. Over the 2011 Christmas holiday we visited each other’s homes, beaded together, and found out about each other’s lives by telling stories of the things we’ve experienced. I felt it was very important that our QR codes were not beaded in the exact same manner; Rachelle built up hers through a series of straight lines, whereas mine was beaded with a circle around the square QR code, which reflected the importance of the circle in my Cree belief system. It was important for me to show that even though we, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, have similar experiences, we often have a different approach or way of thinking about similar things. I also suggested we frame the black and white beaded QR codes with bright red Stroud cloth, a heavy wool cloth originating in the UK that has been used in North America as trade cloth since the 1680s, and has become a significant part of First Nations fabric traditions.

Since we were approaching this piece as a cross-cultural one, I chose the number seven for the amount of stories we would create because it is a sacred number in my own Plains Cree spiritual teachings. As such, we brought together seven pairs of people, including ourselves. The participants were drawn from family and friends from reserves and communities around Saskatchewan, including the city of Regina, as well as colleagues and students from the two university campuses. There were a number of different age ranges and socioeconomic backgrounds represented. We came together to tell stories about our experiences with technology, a common cross-cultural experience that seemed appropriate to the work.

RVK: As the process of making the beadworks unfolded however, what became apparent to me was the sheer amount of hours it takes to create a piece of “augmentation” through beading, and the deeply social nature of the activity. We also worked together on the videos for the AR part of the artwork. Each participant in the videos was asked to write a short text about some aspect of their relationship to technology and communications. We took the short stories, arranged them into pairs, and used them to write short scripts. We then invited each pair to perform the scripts together on camera in my studio. The stories were really broad ranging. My own was a reflection of the profound discomfort of finding a blog where a man I was dating was publishing the story of our relationship as it unfolded. Other stories covered the loss of no longer being able to play the computer games from teenage years, first encounters with new technologies and social networks, secret admirers, and crank calls to emergency services. The storytelling and dialogue between us as we shared our practices became an important, but unseen layer of this “dialogical” work (Kester).

REBECCA CAINES: I came along to Rachelle’s studio at the university to be a participant in a video for the piece. My co-performer was a young woman called Nova Lee. We laughed and chatted and talked and sat knee-to-knee together to film our stories about technology, both of us focusing on different types of Internet relationships. We were asked to read one line of our story at a time, interweaving together our poem of experience. Afterwards I asked her where her name was from. She told me it was from a song. She found the song on YouTube on Rachelle’s computer in the studio and played it for us. Here is a sample of the lyrics:

I told my daddy I'd found a girl
Who meant the world to me
And tomorrow I'd ask the Indian chief
For the hand of Nova Lee
Dad's trembling lips spoke softly
As he told me of my life twangs then he said I could never take
This maiden for my wife
Son, the white man and Indians were fighting when you were born
And a brave called Yellow Sun scalped my little boy
So I stole you to get even for what he'd done
Though you're a full-blooded Indian, son I love you as much as my own little fellow that's dead
And, son, Nova Lee is your sister
And that's why I've always said
Son, don't go near the Indians
Please stay away
Son, don't go near the Indians
Please do what I say

— Rex Allen. “Don’t Go Near the Indians.” 1962.

Judy explained to Rachelle and I that this was a common history of displacement in Canada, people taken away, falling in love with their relatives without knowing, perhaps sensing a connection, always longing for a home (Campbell). I thought, “What a weight for this young woman to bear, this name, this history.” Other participants also learnt about each other this way through the sharing of stories. Many had come to Canada from other places, each with different cultural and colonial resonances. Through these moments of working together, new understandings formed that deeply affected the participants. In this way, layers of storytelling form the heart of this work.

JA: Storytelling holds an incredibly special place in Aboriginal people’s lives; through them we learned the laws, rules, and regulations that governed our behaviour as individuals, within our family, our communities, and our nations. These stories included histories (personal and communal), sacred teachings, the way the world used to be, creation stories, medicine stories, stories regarding the seasons and animals, and stories that defined our relationship with the environment, etc. The stories we asked for not only showed that we as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have the same experiences, but also work in the way that a traditional story would. For example, Rachelle’s story taught a good lesson about how it is important to learn about the individual you are dating—had she not, her whole life could have been laid out to any who may have come across that man’s blog. My story spoke to the need to look up and observe what is around you instead of being engrossed in your own little world, because you don’t know who could be lifting your information. They all showed a common interest in sharing information, and laughing at mistakes and life lessons.

Augmented Storytelling and Augmented Reality

RC: This work relies on the augmented reality (AR) qualities of the QR code. Pavlik and Bridges suggest AR, even through relatively limited tools like a QR code, can have a significant impact on storytelling practices: “AR enriches an individual’s experience with the real world … Stories are put in a local context and act as a supplement to a citizen’s direct experience with the world” (Pavlik and Bridges 21). Their research shows that AR technologies like QR codes brings the story to life in a three dimensional and interactive form that allows the user a level of participation impossible in traditional, analogue media. They emphasize the different viewing possible in AR storytelling as:

The new media storytelling model is nonlinear. The storyteller conceptualizes the audience member not as a consumer of the story engaged in a third-person narrative, but rather as a participant engaged in a first-person narrative. The storyteller invites the participant to explore the story in a variety of ways, perhaps beginning in the middle, moving across time, or space, or by topic. (Pavlik and Bridges 22)

In their case studies, Pavlik and Bridges show AR has the “potential to become a viable storytelling format with a diverse range of options that engage citizens through sight, sound, or haptic experiences… to produce participatory, immersive, and community-based stories” (Pavlik and Bridges 39).

The personal stories in this artwork were remediated a number of different ways. They were written down, then separated into one-line fragments, interwoven with our partners, and re-read again and again for the camera, before being edited and processed. Marked by the artists clearly as ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘non Aboriginal’ and placed alongside works featuring traditional beading, these stories were marked and re-inscribed by complex and fragmented histories of indigenous and non-indigenous relations in Canada. This history was emphasized as the QR codes were also physically located in the First Nations University of Canada, a unique indigenous space.

To view this artwork in its entirety, therefore, two camera-enabled and internet-capable mobile devices were required to be used simultaneously. Due to the way they were accessed and played back through augmented reality technologies, stories in the gallery were experienced in nonlinear fashions, started part way through, left before completion, or not in sync with the partner they were designed to work with. The audience experimented with the video content, stopping and starting it to produce new combinations of words and images. This experience was also affected by chance as the video files online were on a cycle, after a set period of time, the scan would suddenly produce a new story. These augmented stories were recreated and reshaped by participants in dialogue with the space, and with each other.

Augmented Stories and Improvised Communities

RC: In her 1997 study of the reception of new media art in galleries, Beryl Graham surveys the types of audience interaction common to new media art practices like AR art. She “reveals patterns of use of interactive artworks including the relation of use-time to gender, aspects of intimidation, and social interaction.” In particular, she observes “a high frequency of collective use of artworks, even when the artworks are designed to be used by one person” (Graham 2). What Graham describes as “collective” and “social,” I see as a type of improvisation engaging with difference, differences between audience members, and differences between human participants and the alien nature of sophisticated, interactive technologies. Improvisation “embodies real-time creative decision-making, risk-taking, and collaboration” (Heble). In the improvisatory act, participants participate in active listening in order to work with different voices, experiences, and practices, but share a common focus in the creative endeavour. Notions such as “the unexpected” or “the mistake” are constantly reconfigured into productive material. However, as leading improvisation studies scholar Ajay Heble suggests, “improvisation must be considered not simply as a musical or creative form, but as a complex social phenomenon that mediates transcultural inter-artistic exchanges that produce new conceptions of identity, community, history, and the body” (Heble).

I watched at the opening as audience members in Parallel Worlds, Intersecting Moments paired up, successfully or unsuccessfully attempted to scan the code and download the video, and physically wrapped themselves around their partner (often a stranger) in order to hear the quiet audio in the loud gallery. The audience began to help each other through the process, to improvise together. The QR code was not always a familiar or comfortable object. The audience often had to install a QR code reader application onto their own device first, and then proceed to try to get the reader to work. Underfunded university Wi-Fi connections dropped, Apple ID logins failed, devices stalled. There were sudden loud cries when somebody successfully scanned their half of the work, and then rushes and scrambles as small groups of people attempted to sync their videos to start at the same time. The louder the gallery got, the closer the pairs had to stand to each other to hear the video through the device’s tiny speakers. Many people looked over someone else’s shoulder without their knowledge. Sometimes people were too close for comfort and behavior was negotiated and adapted. Sometimes, the pairs gave up trying; sometimes they borrowed each other’s devices, sometimes their phone or tablet was incompatible. Difference created new improvisations, or introduced sudden stops or diversions in the activities taking place. The theme of the work was strengthened every time an improvised negotiation took place, every time the technology faltered or succeeded, every time a digital or physical interaction was attempted. Through the combination of augmented bead practices used in an innovative way, and augmented technology with new audiences, new types of improvisatory responses could take place.

Initially I found it difficult to not simplify and stereotype the processes taking place, to read it as a metaphor of the differing access to resources and training in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities, a clear example of the ways technology-use marks wealth and status. As I moved through the space, caught up in dialogic, improvisatory encounters, cross-cultural experiences broke down, but did not completely erase, these initial markers of difference. Instead, layers of interaction and information began to be placed over the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal identities in the gallery. My own assumptions were placed under pressure as I interacted with the artists and the other participants in the space. My identity as a relative newcomer to Saskatchewan was slowly augmented by the stories and experiences I shared and heard, and the audience members shifted back and forth between being experts in the aspects of the stories and technologies that were familiar, and asking for help to translate and activate the stories and processes that were alien.

Augmented Art Practices

JA: There is an old saying, “if it doesn’t move, bead it.” I think that this desire to augment with the decorative is handed down through traditional thoughts and beliefs regarding clothing. Once nomadic we did not accumulate many goods, as a result, the goods we did keep were beautified though artistic practices including quilling and eventually beadwork (painting too). And our clothing was thought of as spiritual because it did the important act of protecting us from the elements, therefore it was thought of as sacred. To beautify the clothing was to honour your spirit while at the same time it honoured the animal that had given its life to protect you (Berlo and Phillips). I think that this belief naturally grew to include any item, after all, there is nothing like an object or piece of clothing that is beaded well—no one can resist it. There is, however, a belief that humans should not try to mimic perfection, which is reserved for the Creator and in many cases a beader will deliberately put a bead out of place.

RC: When new media produces unexpected results, or as Rachelle says, when pixels “go out of place”, it can be seen as a sign that humans are (deliberately or accidently) failing to use the digital technology in the way it was intended. In Parallel Worlds, Intersecting Moments the theme of cross cultural encounters and technological communication was only enhanced by these moments of displacement and slippage and the improvisatory responses that took place. The artists could not predict the degree of slippage that would occur, but from their catalogue texts and the conversations above, it is clear that collective negotiation was a desired outcome.

By creating a QR code based artwork that utilized augmented art practices to create new types of storytelling, the artists allowed augmented identities to develop, slip, falter, and be reconfigured. Through the dialogic art practices of traditional beading and participatory video work, Anderson and Knowles began to build new modes of communication and knowledge sharing. I believe there could be productive relationships to be further explored between what Judy calls the First Nations “desire to bead” whilst acknowledging human fallibility; and the ways Rachelle aims to technologically-augment conversation and storytelling through contemporary AR and video practices despite, or perhaps because of the possibility of risk and disruptions when bodies and code interact. What kind of trust and reciprocity becomes possible across cultural divides when this can be acknowledged as a common human quality? How could beads and/or pixels being “out of place” expose fault lines and opportunities in these kinds of cross-cultural knowledge transfer? As Judy suggested in our conversations, such work requires active engagement from the audience in the process that does not always occur. “In those instances, does the piece fail or people fail the piece? I'm not sure.” In crossing back and forth between these different types of augmentation impulses, and by creating improvisatory, dialogic encounters in the gallery, these artists began the tentative, complex, and vital process of cultural exchange, and invited participants and audience to take this step with them and to work “across traditional and contemporary modes of production” to “use the language and process of art to speak, listen, teach and learn” (Knowles and Anderson).


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