Art and Mobile Augmentation
The Brave New World of Graphical Tagging


ISEA 2009: The 15th International Symposium on Electronic Art
23rd August – 1st September 2009
Belfast, Northern Ireland

This paper, based on research for an art-practice based PhD, examines current trends in graphical tagging, particularly in art practice where it can be used as a vehicle for exploring conceptual issues such as the ephemerality of the digital medium, de- or re- materialisation of the art object and the settings in which we consume such works. Using artworks created and exhibited by the author as case study examples, potentials that the medium can offer will be explored to shed light on current challenges facing artists working with this emerging artform.

Graphical tags are 2 dimensional barcodes which can be read by “scanning” the tag/ code with the camera in a mobile phone. In most cases a url is embedded in the tag, which when scanned, links to a mobile optimized website. This way, the user does not have to deal with the frustrating task of typing urls on small keypads to access mobile websites. A number of graphical tags are currently in use, many resembling pixelated squares which can be easily read by consumer end camera phones which have a reader installed. Common graphical tags include QR-codes, datamatrix codes and Beetags.  Many phones now ship with readers, and for those which don’t, readers can be downloaded from the internet.  In theory, this makes the technology cheap and easy to roll out to large audiences.

Graphical tagging has been used in Japan since 2000, and has growing audiences in Europe for advertising, tracking parcels, and providing discount e-vouchers for products and services. However, there is little evidence to suggest that it is yet being used in innovative ways which exploit the creative scope provided by a practice that sits across both print and interactive media. Recent high-profile adopters of the technology include Harrods (Richards, 2008, NMA, 2008) and The Design Museum in London (April 2008), but even they have not stretched the boundaries of conventional advertising use. 

Artists working with embedding graphical tags in their artworks have the potential to explore relationships between the physical, tactile world and that of virtual, digital media through the notion of mobile augmentation, which can then mediate elements of co-presence in the viewer.  Artworks which employ graphical tagging can have a physical presence in the “real” world where the graphical tag is displayed, whilst simultaneously leveraging the interactivity of the mobile medium to augment the viewer’s/ user’s experiences of the works with additional digital content.  

Banksy, Michel Pred and The Petshop Boys have experimented with graphical tagging however these are early works in the field, yet to fully capitalize on the rich potential to augment co-presence and enable users to explore physical and the virtual spaces at the same time.  The scope for imaginative, playful and questioning artworks is huge, however graphical tagging is still a very new tool for artists to work with. In this paper, practical, methodological and conceptual aspects of engaging creatively with the technologies are considered and discussed. 



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