Seductive Technologies and Inadvertent Voyeurs
 Dr Simone O’Callaghan, 2013

Leonardo Electronic Journal of Practices and Technologies 19(4) · November 2013

In recent years there has been a rise in the ubiquity of QR codes, which are 2 dimensional, square barcodes, read by “scanning” the tag/ code with the camera in a mobile phone to link to online content. Although primarily the domain of advertising, the use of QR codes is becoming more prevalent in art. Knowing that scanning a code can unlock hidden aspects of the artwork, can make the urge to scan quite seductive and often irresistible. What happens, though, when the code reveals content which may be disturbing, or evokes strong emotional responses?

This paper is based on research undertaken to examine the use of QR codes in print-based artworks. The artworks created for this study were a series of cyanotypes and etchings called Coded Moments. They were open works authored to set up open interpretations, where the content explores universal life experiences with the expectation that that most people could relate to the works. Each artwork (see image) had an image space which was evocative of the digital content, and a large scale QR code enabling audiences to scan it and access the digital audio content it conveyed.

In order to understand how people interact with and respond to such artworks, the author set up an artwork – gallery – participant framework that could be subject to rigorous, in depth methods for gathering data about the reception of artworks using QR-codes. The aim was to do this in a way that captured unguarded and candid responses to the works, whilst allowing for participants to later qualify and explain those responses. Evaluation methods, such as video cued recall from HCI were adapted for use in this context. In this paper, discussion of HCI methods in the evaluation of artworks draws from precedents set by researchers at the Creativity and Cognition Studios at the University of Technology Sydney, where a dedicated space called, Beta_Space was set up in collaboration with the Powerhouse Museum as a gallery based usability testing lab for interactive artworks. The work of Michael Hohl at the University of Hertfordshire is also examined in relation to user testing of the interactive artwork RadioMap.

In this research the data analysis revealed two key findings about Coded Moments:

1. A surprising number of participants showed strong emotional reactions to the works and revealed confidences unexpected in a user testing scenario.

2. Because the content that a QR-code leads to is “hidden” until the moment of scanning, there is the opportunity on behalf of the artist to exploit this, and surreptitiously entice audiences to engage with content that is taboo or issues that may take people out of their comfort zones.

In this study, the delivery of the audio content via mobile phones, which are considered an affective technology - one through which we mediate the expression of emotion, and in turn become emotionally attached to (Lasen, 2004) -   was found to make the works feel more personal and create a sense of intimacy, to the point that some participants actually reported feeling voyeuristic. This use of affective technology in the artworks along with examination of co-presence is discussed in the context of how people responded to the perceived intimacy of the works, leading to possible reasons why such strong reactions occurred.

The second finding is examined using the example of one particular artwork (see image above), which featured content that some participants found taboo or embarrassing. The implications of opening this pandora’s box are discussed in the wider framework of affordances and freedoms that become available to artists working with QR codes, and the ethical responsibilities to be considered when manipulating the emotions of audiences through the mediation of co-presence.



LASEN, A. 2004. Affective technologies - emotions and mobile phones  vodafone receiver [Online], 11. Available: http://