Barcode DJs Are Sound-Bombing Grocery Stores

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep beep beep beep beep. Beep. Aaaand your new track comes to $62.37, cash or credit?

Jan 27 2014, 9:40pm

Inspired by the incessant beeps of a cash register, Košice-based artist Jakub Pišek gathered his friends for a DIY grocery store performance called Barcode DJ. By scanning all kinds of stuff in the aisles while armed with a cart full of speakers, they make music by scanning barcodes. And they won’t leave the grocery store until the sound art is finished (that is, when they’re approached by store management).

Pišek also does a project called trashcan symphony where three trash bins explode with a different sound every time you open them (canned laughter, techno, clapping sounds). Just as Slovakian new media art is on the rise, the music has also caught our attention. The artist spoke to us about how he gets away with spontaneous sound bombing sessions in grocery stores. Pišek truly is the king of weird in Slovakia.

Barcode DJs sound-bombing a grocery store in Košice, Slovakia.

Noisey: When did you start doing Barcode DJ?
Jakub Pisek: At an event called Nuit Blanche in Košice. In 2010, they invited us to participate. They offered us some places to choose and we received a list with possibilities. There was a shopping mall and it seemed so crazy that we went for it. It was a challenge, we started to think about it. By "we," I mean Bea Kolbašovska (my girlfriend and frequent collaborator), and old time fellow Erik Bartoš. We had more projects in store that night, but barcode DJs appeared to be much more important than we thought.

What inspired it?
For Nuit Blanche in 2010, we had a place to do something, but we didn’t know what, or how. Sound was always very important to me, and the loud beeping of the cash registers is [a distinct] sound in grocery stores. They are monotone, but rich in rhythm, changing all the time, and there are lot of them, so it is truly multi-channel sound piece. Maybe we just wanted to enhance it a little bit.

The first Barcode DJs event at Nuit Blanche in 2010. The crowd reaction is priceless.

How does the barcode scanning work in the sounds that are made?
In the first venues, we had to connect each sample to each item, one by one. We tried to find some associations between products and sounds, but it always took lot of time, and it was not possible to use it again, or without this long preparation. Then I met one guy building mobile sound systems, and we realized that we can do non-announced performances as a surprise for grocery store. I had to change the algorithm to get rid of long process of associations between barcodes and samples. Now we have a list of samples and every time a new code is scanned, it connects with next sample in the list. I also added some special barcodes with special features and effects, and I’m planning to build a serious sequencer.

Have you ever been kicked out of a supermarket for doing Barcode DJ?
Of course. I think it is very important to finish a sound bombing performance in-store. Until the shop realizes what’s going on, we are almost done, and waiting for them. Usually, they say that we are disturbing customers. After our unannounced session in Bucharest, I think people working there really enjoyed it that time because they gathered, smiled and took a few pictures of us! Finally something interesting was happening in their store.

Do you actually collect data of the products in grocery stores?
We always end up with list of scanned codes with associated samples. I never took the time for this research, but I think there is not a lot of useful information for us hidden directly in barcodes. I know what country and where each item was made, maybe some number series, or number of distribution system. With a database in the shop, you can gather prices and expiration dates, but I’m not sure what to do with that and you have to communicate with the shop. They are always very afraid of non-standard situations, so we gave up, and did unannounced attacks.

Have you taken Barcode DJ to clubs or has it influenced your other work?
Yes, we played in SWST during LiWoLi, a festival of open-source based tools in Linz. It was great! It was the second show we did with barcode DJs, and we were not sure if it could work also on stage. We spent our whole budget on barcode readers and a big shopping party, we needed at least 100 different items, so we bought lot of different crazy stuff. It was perfect, we were offering items to the audience: beers, chips, candies, pasta, whatever. This summer, we performed at a summer festival, but there was no budget, so we went for trash! There are barcodes everywhere, even on trash. My good friend who invited us has a bar, so I asked him to collect different empty packages for us. We had like, 50 different bottles and plenty of plastic packages from chips, cigarettes, and fruit. We ended up with three big bags of trash. I still remember the surprised face of the artist supposed to play after us.

Trashcan Symphony by Jakub Pisek

How does the trashcan symphony work?
There are three trash cans, and when you open them, random samples play. This way, you can play together with your friends on trash cans just by opening it. Normally, you see a lot of homeless people around trash cans, but we wanted to see common people looking for luck inside of trash cans. There is also a mirror on top of the technique inside, so you hear the sound, and see yourself, how you look when looking into the trash cans. It makes you think about what you are doing.

What inspires you to combine contemporary art and experimental music?
Hard to say. I never decided that I want to combine these. It just happened. Interactivity was always very important in my work, and it should be fun, so why not?

What else do you have coming up?
The beginning of the year is always very calm for me, not a lot of stuff happening and I usually try to learn something new. These days, I’m also going to help Stanley Povoda with his robots to prepare for a show. I’m also preparing a techno party with my friend, just to invite a few friends and have fun.