For Guillermo Bert, an artist in Los Angeles, it was a revelation: Looking at the patterns in Native American blankets and tapestries, he saw a resemblance to QR (Quick Response) codes, the pixelated boxes that can be scanned with a smartphone to link to a web page or reveal a brief piece of text. The QR boxes, the artist says, are also “associated with identification,” a fixture on boarding passes, business cards and the like. What if indigenous groups across the Americas could tell their stories by combining modern QR codes with traditional symbols? “These cultures have beautiful tapestries,” says Bert. “They’re all different, but they share a similar aesthetic.” His insight led to “Encoded Textiles,” a project that will soon be unveiled at galleries and museums worldwide. Though he was inspired by the North American textiles, Bert traveled first to his native Chile, where he contacted members of the indigenous tribes known collectively as the Mapuche (from mapu, “of the land,” and che, “people”). They are the only indigenous group in the Americas that waged a successful military resistance against both the Incan Empire and Spanish conquistadors, and they retained their independence until the late 19th century, when the Chilean government moved them onto reservations. Today, as younger generations assimilate into mainstream culture, Mapuche dialects and oral histories are disappearing.
Bert interviewed Mapuche elders, poets, craftsmen, farmers and activists, and then translated telling quotations from their stories into individual QR codes. Next, he worked with Mapuche weavers to incorporate the QR patterns into tapestries. “We were OK with the idea that maybe you’d just see the code and you could read about what it represented on a nearby display,” he says. “But we really wanted it to be functional.” After many attempts, it finally happened: With just the click of a smartphone, the tapestry itself would yield a quotation from a Mapuche tribe member. One tapestry, which tells the story of Machi Juan Curaqueo—the medicine man who blessed Bert’s project—is encoded with the comment, “I am always looking back to understand the knowledge of our ancestors.”
Traditional weaver Anita Paillamil and her co-workers used Mapuche symbols to create a border around the QR codes, pairing them with the tales they contained. Machi Juan’s story, for instance, is paired with Anümka, a botanical symbol that represents healing. Bert plans to use a symbol incorporating Pillán, a good male spirit, for a coded story about a young Mapuche man who grew up with an adoptive family in Michigan and is now working to build a cultural center in Chile. “These are the stories of the Mapuche of today,” Bert says of these new narratives, woven pixel by pixel, thread by thread.