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Guillermo Bert's Encoded Textiles
Humans are wired to communicate, through whatever means technology makes available to us. Ancient peoples set down their stories in a visual language of symbols. Today we pack untold amounts of data into barcodes – first UPCs, and now the latest generation of QR and Aztec codes, those squares of intricate digital markings you see everywhere now.
Los Angeles-based artist Guillermo Bert noticed striking similarities between these new barcodes and the geometric patterns seen in traditional textiles of native peoples of the Americas. Both were visually arresting as graphic images; both functioned as carriers of information and meaning. Sensing a rich artistic and conceptual vein to mine, he embarked on a project he calls “Encoded Textiles” – the first result being a series of six large tapestries on view at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (through February 24).
Inspired by time spent among the Mapuche people in his native Chile, Bert designed the pieces based on their stories and engaged handweavers from the community to execute them in locally-sourced wools and dyes. About eight by four feet apiece, each work offers a perspective on the tribe’s struggle to retain its cultural identity amid displacement and global modernization, with an ingenious (and ironic) hi-tech twist: an actual QR as the central design element, created by Bert using special software. Scan any one with the NeoReader app on your smartphone, and an embedded message is revealed. (It’s actually pretty fun; imagine if we could do that with all abstract artworks.)
"Somos prueba de que existe aun en el Siglo XXI un pueblo ancestral” (“We are the proof that in the 21st century, an ancestral nation still exists”), reads the QR of one work. Another says, "Tenemos las mismas necesidades del arbol, no podemos vivir sin tierra" (“We need the same things that a tree does, we cannot live without land”). They are the words of various Mapuche tribe members – a shaman, a woodcarver, a poet, a weaver, a bird caller, a filmmaker – whom Bert spotlights in accompanying documentary videos.
“Using bar codes raises issues of data storage, information exchange, and the protection of identity,” Bert writes on his website. “With this new technology, our identities are digitized and, in the process, may be stolen or lost – parallel, perhaps, to the identities lost by indigenous peoples or immigrants. This project intends to poetically reverse this process, using bar codes to symbolically reclaim and restore identity.”
Joyce Lovelace is American Craft's contributing editor.