This post is devoted to exploring a digital phenomenon that seems to have largely eluded audiences in Europe and America despite its pervasive presence within the art world in China: the QR (Quick Response) code 二维码.
QR codes are a ubiquitous feature of daily life in China. Plastered on newspaper adverts, restaurant flyers, giant billboards, subway posters, supermarket counters, buses and even business cards, the omnipresence of this seemingly mundane digital marker speaks volumes about the dominance of mobile networks, social media and communication technologies in contemporary China.
The functionality of QR codes within China has been significantly bolstered as a result of the majority of the country’s inhabitants accessing the internet via their mobile phones rather than through personal computers. According to recent statistics, 89% of China’s 700 million internet users go online using a mobile. Mobile online networks have therefore dovetailed with the convenience of QR codes, enabling a range of activities which might seem unthinkable to users outside of China. As this recently released video demonstrates, the simple scanning of a code can be used to make online payments, join social networks, access consumer discounts, attain online information, send digital money to friends and family, as well as countless other activities and services. In short, QR codes in China go far beyond the capabilities of their QR cousins in Europe or elsewhere, where they predominantly function as a means of digital ticketing including online boarding passes etc.
The rapid adoption rate, popularity and multi-functionality of QR codes within China, however, is strongly indebted to one particular mobile app: Tencent’s WeChat (Weixin 微信) one of the country’s largest messaging and social media platforms and one of the most innovative services to have developed from the country’s mobile internet boom. In September 2012, WeChat released v 4.3 that came with a built-in QR code scanner, ensuring that every time WeChat was downloaded onto a mobile phone, so too was a QR code reader. It supported scanning all QR code formats and enabled a variety of ways to interact with WeChat. The scanner largely lowered the behavioral barrier of scanning for WeChat users, who already numbered around 200 million in 2012 (although estimates now place that figure closer to 700 million). In February 2013, WeChat strengthened its inbuilt QR code by adding more social functions to it, QR code usage therefore developed into a common practice for most users.
This development also had important ramifications for the world of commerce and e-business. WeChat’s embedded QR reader created a shortcut for a user to link directly from an offline source to an online WeChat account without the customer having to find and download a QR reader. It also eliminated the search process of looking for a brand or company in a Baidu or Qihoo 360 search. When a consumer scans a QR code offline, the brand can continue the conversation with the consumer online. Brands are limited to sending just four direct messages a month to each follower, although if the user has signed up to the brand’s official subscriber account, they will be sent personalized and targeted content. This allows brands on the platform to engage with Chinese consumers at any time, anywhere in the world and is a significant factor in explaining China’s current position as the world leader in e-commerce. While this development may sound like an ad man’s ultimate fantasy or a dystopian consumer nightmare depending on your point of view, there is no denying that the mass adoption of WeChat, with its embedded QR reader software, has made it extremely difficult for brands in China to market themselves without the use of a QR code.
While it would be easy to dismiss the appearance of QR codes in the art world as yet another manifestation of corporate culture, their prevalence across the museum and gallery sector also speaks volumes about the role of social media and the visibility of online platforms as a means to promote exhibitions, collections and artists as well as enhancing visitor experiences. In short, the ability of QR codes to facilitate O2O (online-to-offline) integration via mobile apps means that art institutions eager to widen their audience and viewer base have also embraced their technological potential.
Such initiatives demonstrate the art world’s growing enthusiasm for all things digital, where museums and galleries have come to see the internet not simply as a useful marketing tool, whose aim is solely to increase visitor figures or online sales, but where the digital realm has become another environment in which institutions can realise their aims. In this respect Museums and Art Institutions in China are leading the field with innovative digital programmes that are pushing the boundaries of audience engagement and digital exhibition making, thanks in no small part to the integration of QR codes.
The Palace Museum 故宫博物馆 in Beijing has been at the forefront of this embrace of the digital with the release last year of their latest app 故宫陶瓷馆 ‘The Palace Museum Ceramics Gallery’. The app offers a detailed description and images of all the ceramic artefacts located within the Museum’s (Wenhua dian文华殿) ‘Hall of Literary Brilliance’ . It has also categorized them in an easy to view format with accompanying information detailing each object’s exact dimensions, a 360 degree view and even individual close ups of ceramic glazes and manufacturing processes. As the press release further elucidates: “All the pieces are chronologically organized by a timeline, which clearly presents users with period characteristics of Chinese ceramics, from the plain earthen pots of remote antiquity to the sumptuously glazed vases of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).” As well as being available for download via iTunes, users can access all this information on their mobile phones by simply scanning the QR code attached to each object within the exhibition hall.
Similarly the National Museum of China 国家博物馆, one of the country’s largest Museums with more than forty galleries housing a permanent collection of over one million artworks, has launched digital applications and implemented QR codes throughout its exhibition halls. As a host of numerous national and international exhibitions, the data collected as part of this QR code initiative is providing the museum with extremely detailed viewer statistics. Instead of relying on factors such as postcard sales in the Museum Shop to gauge which works were attracting the most audience attention, the implementation of individual QR codes for each work makes this entire process instantaneous. For example, the museum reported that during the exhibition Nature in Western Art – Masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art 大地、海洋和天空，西方艺术中的自然 (February – May 2013), QR codes generated more than 410,000 scans, including over 17,000 for a single Van Gogh piece (Cypresses, Oil on canvas, 93.4×74cm, 1889), the most scanned work in the exhibition.
Using QR codes, visitors to the National Museum can access a dedicated website where they can find information on the exhibition and the artwork, as well as multimedia content. By saving the website, museum goers can also review the information after they leave the museum; sharing it with friends on social network platforms like WeChat or Sina Weibo with a simple click. Beyond this functionality, QR codes have an additional economic benefit for museums, a consideration which could be pertinent for many institutions in the UK and beyond facing major budget cuts. As Huang Chen, Head of the museum’s public education department, explained to China Daily, “In the past, we often had to spend a lot of money to develop or purchase hardware to help visitors. Now we only have to focus on the content displayed on the visitors’ terminals. Internet, mobiles, and social networking platforms allow us to reach our audience at a lower cost.”
Museums throughout the country have therefore been quick to capitalize on the power of QR codes and social media to expand their audience bases. The Shaanxi History Museum, Liaoning Provincial Museum and Sichuan Museum all have WeChat accounts, as do the majority of contemporary art institutions and galleries. Surpassing their initial function as a corollary of the commercial arena, these developments illustrate how technological advancements, including QR codes, have been adapted to the art world as a successful means of bolstering the country’s burgeoning ‘cultural industries’.
Outside of more established Museum settings, other cultural institutions and historic landmarks have been quick to exploit the popularity of QR codes to promote their own projects. In 2014 the 圆明园 ‘Garden of Perfect Brightness’, (more commonly known as the Old Summer Palace) presented the results of its digital restoration project via a new app entitled 再现圆明园 ‘Reconstruction of the Yuanmingyuan’. The app enables 3D models of palaces, pavilions and towers which were destroyed by British and French troops in 1860 to appear on a computer screen with 360 degree views thanks to the use of scannable QR codes. Through its combination of 3D modeling, virtual reality technology, reality augmentation techniques and traditional architectural methods, the project enabled visitors not only to gain a better understanding of the Palace’s history and scale, but also sought to bring the Palace to life by mapping the digital models to their real life locations.
Contemporary Galleries and Artists: Visibility and Connectivity
Online platforms such as WeChat are also being used by contemporary galleries to promote young artists, discuss their work with other collectors, and boost the value of works by exposing them to a mass audience. Artists themselves have responded to the rise of digital technologies, QR codes and online platforms in creative ways. It has become extremely popular for artists to generate their own personal QR codes to identify themselves on social media platforms and then print this QR code onto their name cards (or even artworks, as shown above). With Wechat offering a range of customisable QR codes to users within their profile settings, scanning someone else’s code has become integrated into social rituals (QRs can be scanned by clicking on them on screen, not just by using a camera reader). For China’s growing class of young artists, QR codes can also help bridge the gap between professional and social networking opportunities as they are increasingly cross-promoted across social platforms from Weibo to LinkedIn. Providing a simple way to boost their followers, QR codes are viewed as a powerful means to kick open the online-offline gateway, increasing their online exposure and facilitating potential exhibition, networking and patronage opportunities.
The O2O aspect of QR codes is definitely something which galleries and other companies in the arts sector are utilising in order to provide users with the most up to date information regarding exhibition openings, press releases, special events and even the latest art world gossip. Where previously a gallery or arts centre would have collected your personal information by having you fill out a form or by asking you to sign up to a mailing list or become a ‘friend’ of the institution, the scanning of a QR codes facilitates this connection instantaneously. In short, for a whole host of contact activities, QR codes lend themselves to better and more direct visitor (and customer) engagement.
Criticism that QR codes were not visually appealing has also gradually been eroded due to advances in digital technology, with stylized designs that integrate animations, GIFS and videos ensuring that these pixellated black and white squares have become more creative in both content and design. Some designers and artists have even playfully recast them as contemporary 印章 ‘seals’ for the digital age, drawing parallels between their shared formalism and their function as a marker of authority and identification.
A critique of QR codes
While these developments may seem to signal an unashamed techno-triumphalism surrounding the use of QR codes, the incursion of digital technologies into the art world is not without its critics. While viewing detailed digital reproductions of paintings and prized artefacts on mobile devices can be an effective tool in enhancing visitor experiences, some would argue that it can never supplant the primacy of the viewing experience; the tangible rewards reaped from interacting with an object in physical space.
By embedding digital content with the help of QR codes, curators, artists and designers in China have sought to create new experiences in museums and galleries that bridge the gap between abundant digital information and fragile physical objects. While there is no denying that these digital initiatives have granted new visibility to China’s extensive museum collections, they have also ushered in a new era in which the the ethos of user-centred design and the rapid iteration associated with digital projects is crossing from the digital realm into the physical environment.
The implications of this shift have even formed the basis for works of contemporary art. Qiu Jia’s 仇佳 ‘Faithfulness’ 精确 (2015), which I saw last year as part of the extensive group exhibition 非形象 ‘Non-Figurative’ at M21 ( 21st century Minsheng Art Museum) in Shanghai presented viewers with a wry commentary on the ubiquitous presence and cooption of QR codes into the contemporary art world.
In ‘Faithfulness’ Qiu filmed himself drawing a QR code by hand onto a blank sheet of paper. Exploring the abiding contradictions between the digital and the physical, the hand drawn code resulting from Qiu’s performance was displayed within the exhibition hall without any accompanying information or explanatory labels. Viewers of the exhibition were therefore left in a state of uncertainty as to whether the code was an artwork or a strategically placed marketing logo. Attempts at ‘scanning’ the work with mobile phones to ascertain whether it would unlock any further content ensured that Qiu’s work was transformed into a continuous ‘performance piece’ as viewers’ attempts were continually frustrated by the code’s refusal to be read.
While many digital artists are interested in exploring how computers break down reality through pixelation and programming code, Qiu Jia’s work examines how humans corrupt ideas through imperfect reproduction. Reclaiming the QR code not as a gateway to more digital content but as an empty signifier, ‘Faithfulness’ subverts the implacable quality inherent in this ubiquitous icon of the information age. In an environment where digital content can be perfectly cut and pasted, and where the system of informational impulses dominates, Qiu’s work could be read as an imposition of messy humanity upon an online world of pixelated precision and Autocorrect. While QR codes have been lauded for their ability to turn the physical world into an interactive surface, Qiu highlights how this culture of relentless information exchange exposes the mechanisms by which networks of individuals are bonded by the online content they both consume and create.