QR matters

I am trying to get a handle on materialism.

In the midst of QR_U (an open school) which is essentially a virtual and event-driven --a no-thing-- project, I keep thinking about the relationship of art and things. It's a bit like an irrepresible itch. Big things and little things. My things and other things that I can't seem not to notice. Even things that are not present. Maybe the absent things are the most interesting, come to think of it.

QR_U is a collaborative project that began when Emily Carr University MAA Candidate Elisa Yon asked Heidi May, Adam Stenhouse, and me to help her to launch something that would reflect the Emily Carr community of students and faculty during the upcoming W/HERE Symposium. Early in the design of this project that aimed to produce  an open school within (and without) a school, we looked to QR code technology as a way to invite exhibition participants to actively use the virtual school from the gallery, and for the gallery to be marked by the activity on line.

The QR code has some appeal as a printed thing. The tools needed to create it are free and easy (http://qrcode.kaywa.com/) but the tools to use it are far less so. To access the meaning behind the symbol, you need an internet-enabled smart phone or ipod upon which to load the free QR code reader app. Like the bar code scanners at retail check-out, the scanner on the phone will work to focus on the ancoring black squares until it registers about 60% of the image at which point it will bleep and begin to process the link to the url or other message hidden within the arrangement of tiny squares.

376516_283127705062611_100000961518100_787408_555854069_nIs the QR code a thing? does it signify a thing? does it make things happen? Those are the questions that the wall-sized QR codes that we hand painted into the QR_U exhibition space might be asking. The codes simply are a link between data and the material world. At QR_U their over-sized reproductions become the stage for an accumulation of ideas in the form of questions, responses and unofficial conversations that are enbaled through the events (open classes) in the exhibition and through the pages of running dialogue in the virtual school at qruopenschool.ca.

Adam Rothstein, in "City of QR Codes," Rhizome, September 15 2011, lets the appearance of QR codes on the streeetscape seduce him into a more and more attentive awareness of the marks and scars that the city wears in its undersurfaces and crevices. He is disappointed by our lack of imagination for the potential of this technology to hold enormous quantities of data, when all we use it for is to direct the user to a URL that could have just as easily been typed into the toolbar. He asks, why do things need to re-declare themselves? Why do we continually use technology to brand, re-brand and re-iterate? He is much more intrigued by the possiblity of becoming the scanner --what would it be like to decode everything, every scar on the surface of the street?

In class at QR_U today, we scanned and drew things. Dr Monique Fouquet and Heidi May's class reviewed how Emily Carr students have been taught creative processes and colour theory through various means like correspondence courses, TV and video education, and now internet-based courses. After that discussion, Matthew Isherwood (UBC Curriculum Studies MA Student) led us through a learning experiment: two still life drawings - first, we drew from a 'digital surrogate' then the actual thing was set in front of us to do again. I have not had many drawing classes, so it all seemed to be a lot of attention put onto a simple concept. Clearly, the two dimentional surrogate was much easier to draw, since it had already been compressed into a flat thing. When the actual thing--a chipped and stained hippie bean pot--came out of Matthew's bag it looked very strange -- much smaller and more irregular than our eyes and minds had formulated it, after the predictability of the digital photo.

With the second phase of the experiment, I can assure you that I really sweated to make that strange thing into a flat image... Thinking back on it now, it was something like Rothstein's experience of scanning not just the QR code markers but the neglected cracks and surfaces of the city. I started feeling a stirring --a love for that strange thing in front of me. An untranslatable bean pot -- frustrating and desirable, in the way it makes obvious my lack of technology to store it with a scan and a bleep.

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In Late Late Summer

I should have dug this recipe out a month ago, but what a late summer it has been in Vancouver. These first three figs will not make it into a cake, but here's hoping that they signal the ripening of a few more (I am still sceptical). If you are luckier, here is recipe that is inspired by my Russian Mennonite grandmothers and by the plethora of fig trees planted by Greek and Italian families in Vancouver, BC Canada.

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FIG PLATZ, Lois Klassen - From Flavours of Vancouver: Dishes From Around the World, Sheila Peacock and Joan Cross, ed., Douglas & McIntyre and CBC, 2005.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp baking powder

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup butter, cold & cubed

2 large eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

3/4 cup milk

2 tsp orange or lemon zest

ripe fresh figs (about 20), cut in half (top to bottom)

PREHEAT oven to 350' Prepare a 10x15 in jelly-roll pan by greasing and flouring it lightly (or use a non-stick pan).

In a large bowl mix flour, baking powder, 1 cup of the sugar and alt. Cut in butter until the pieces are size of small peas. Set 1 cup of the crumbled mixture aside for the topping. In a small bowl, mix eggs, vanilla and milk. Stir the wet ingredients into the crumb mixture. Stir in the zest. Spread mixture in the pan.

Arrange the figs with the open side up in rows. They should be close together but not touching, so that the cake can be cut into individual pieces after baking. Make the topping by mixing the reserved crumb mixture with the remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Sprinkle the topping evenly over the fruit.

Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until browned and a toothpick comes out clean. Once cool, it can be served with ice cream or yogurt sweetened with a little brown sugar. I have drizzled a tiny bit of brandy into the centre of each fig before baking, with pretty good success, but it is not necessary.

The green figs that grow in my back yard have a surprising effect when they are baked - they produce a smoky flavour that does not come out otherwise. They also turn a beautiful deep purple and seem to moisten the rest of the cake perfectly - not soggy, like platz made from other fruit seems to get on day two. This cake looks fantastic on the plate and holds its shape for a few days.