Bar Code Hotel - Perry Hoberman

Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff - June 17 to July 16, 1994

exhibition text by Tim Westbury

In the course of its short history, virtual reality has been widely characterized by the image of a solitary cyberspace voyageur, wearing an unwieldy head-mounted display for entry into the computer-generated universe and equipped with a data glove that permits some kind of interaction with it. Perry Hoberman's Bar Code Hotel, while based on virtual reality technologies, presents a compelling alternative to this stereotype; it is an interactive environment accessible to a number of participants - or guests - simultaneously. By covering the entire gallery space with printed bar code symbols, Hoberman makes almost every surface responsive, creating an immersive interface to a computer-generated, three-dimensional, stereoscopic world, projected in real-time.

In this installation, an artificial world is not simply substituted for the more familiar actual one; the real and virtual worlds co-exist and are interdependent. As an interface, the ubiquitous Universal Product Code connects this virtual reality with the commercial reality of everyday life, making explicit the connection between technology and consumerism. Bar Code Hotel reflects Perry Hoberman's interest in what he has termed "debased technologies" - technologies that are unglamorous, ridiculous, obsolete or ominous.

The Universal Product Code represents a technology that organizes consumable objects into an exhaustive digital hierarchy, conspicuously displayed on the surface of most saleable items in the western world. Ever-growing networks of computer systems rely on bar codes to track everything from vast warehoused inventories to the details of individual consumer preferences. Bar Code Hotel enlists this technology, made up of both the printed symbols and the laser devices used to scan them, for much less practical purposes. Hoberman inverts the intended use of this technology so that rather than controlling information, the bar codes unleash unpredictable behaviours. In the gallery space, these symbols provide points of access to a virtual space where a chaotic environment appears to exist; the real room exists only to be mapped onto the virtual one.


Upon entering the gallery, guests find themselves on the observation deck. Beyond this platform, you are surrounded by bar codes within reach of one of five wands - lightweight laser pens hanging from the ceiling that transmit information instantaneously into the computer system. Each bar code can be thought of as a simple input device, like a switch or a letter on a keyboard, that performs a specific function.

There are, however, essentially two types of bar codes. First, scanning the codes on the white cubes in the gallery space causes a new object to be "born" into the virtual environment, where it will appear as a 3-D model projected on the screen; this object is controlled by the wand that created it. Then, bar codes on other surfaces can be scanned to trigger specific modifications in existing objects, which can expand, contract, breathe, tremble, jitter or bounce. Certain bar codes trigger motion commands such as: drift (move slowly while randomly changing direction), dodge (move quickly with sudden unpredictable changes) and wallflower (move into the nearest corner). Other bar code commands affect relations between two objects: chase (pursue nearest object), avoid (stay as far away as possible from all other objects), punch (collide with the nearest object) and merge (occupy the same space as the nearest object). Some bar codes have more general effects such as changing the lighting or point of view. Settings in the background can be switched; even brief earthquakes can be created, leaving all of the objects in a state of disorientation.

In Bar Code Hotel you will find familiar and inanimate items from everyday life: eyeglasses, hat, suitcase, paper clip and boots, for example. As characters, the objects behave tentatively, their actions contingent on movements and interactions created by users. However, they are semi-autonomous as well. Between moments of human contact, when no bar codes are being scanned, the paper clip, for example, will behave according to its own set of rules. Programmed to both act and react, objects appear to express behaviours, capabilities and personalities; they can be mutated, merged, killed or reborn. They have their own life spans (on the order of a few minutes): younger ones tend to respond very quickly to bar code scans; as they age, they become more and more sluggish and begin to malfunction - flickering and short-circuiting. Finally, each object dies, entering briefly into a ghostly afterlife.

Objects can also interact with each other in the virtual world in ways ranging from coquettish to friendly to downright nasty and, in the course of their actions and interactions, they emit a variety of sounds. "Depending on the behaviour, personality and interactive 'style,' each object might at various times be thought of as an agent, tool or costume, a ghost or pawn or slave, a nemesis, a politician, a relative, an alien ... but perhaps the best analogy would be that of an exuberant and misbehaving pet," the artists explains.

Hoberman's virtual environment allows for a variety of different styles of interactivity since you can choose if, when and how often to scan a bar code. Guests can choose to stay in contact with an object, scanning in directives almost continuously or may decide to exert a more remote influence, watching to see what happens and occasionally offering a bit of "advice" to it. Also, since the interface is the room itself, you are free to interact with other guests as well.

Whether played like a game without rules, or conducted like a musical ensemble, this artwork is affected by the changing participants and autonomous behaviours of different objects. Though familiar in day-to-day life, the bar codes in this environment lead to unpredictable results, making the Bar Code Hotel a lively destination on the digital frontier.

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