Douglas Coupland interview

The artist and author on QR codes and the rise of smartphones

Artist, author and cultural clairvoyant Douglas Coupland is in Shanghai for a group show at Art Labor. He talked to Sam Gaskin about decoding and recoding the post-everything milieu. Portrait Yang Xiaozhe

‘If a UFO landed on Earth and it had one of these on its roof you wouldn’t know what it meant, but you’d know it meant something. We could even go into some sort of Mad Max future where all the scanners are dead but you’d still wonder what it said. That’s what I like about them. There’s wonder in these things.’

These ‘things’ are the Quick Response (QR) codes upon which Douglas Coupland has mapped his Memento Mori series of paintings.

On one level, the works are colourful abstracts reminiscent of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings, Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie and TV test screen patterns. Using a smartphone app, the paintings can also be scanned to reveal encoded messages. This fusion of image and text brings together two Couplands: the conceptual artist who got his start at a Tokyo art school and the novelist and aphorist who wrote Generation X and jPod.

Just the look of the QR codes, Coupland says, ‘depending on the chunkiness, can be really beautiful. It can have a sort of Mayan feel to it. The QR Aztec generator, which has one square in the middle, really does look like something you’d find in a temple in Yucatan or something.’

There are several websites (, for one) where you can generate the black and white codes simply by inputting text. To make sure the coloured paintings function, though, Coupland had to establish whether the computer would read each colour as white or black.

‘What you do, as a short cut, is squint so there’s barely any image coming through, and that turns off the cones and leaves only the rods.’ The cone cells in the retina receive colour, whereas the rod cells, which work better in low light, only read light and dark. ‘Greens always go dark,’ Coupland says, ‘but I try not to use green because people don’t like it. Green is for trees.’

‘One of the great joys of being alive is colour,’ he says. It’s hard to disagree, despite those art aficionados who dismiss bright colours as naive. Coupland laughs at this idea. ‘I think people who talk like that probably don’t get colour. You’d be amazed what people get and don’t get. You’d be amazed how many people who read books are not visual thinkers. You’d be amazed how many people don’t have an emotion unless you say the protagonist is very sad.’

The names of the Memento Mori works do offer explicit emotional cues, but they’re deliberately misleading. ‘You have these titles – “100 years of Joy” – that sound really cheerful, like a Chinese restaurant in Richmond, British Columbia or something. Then if you scan them they’re all quite dark, actually,’ Coupland says. ‘100 Years of Joy’ reads, ‘You’ll be dead before I write these words. I tell you, you are going to miss a world of wondrous changes.’

Several works share the same ‘100 Years’ naming structure, and yield messages meant for people living a century ago. ‘One hundred years is deliberate because you can almost but not quite touch them,’ Coupland says. There’s no overlap between your life and theirs, and thus trying to say something meaningful to them ‘kind of squeezes something out of you,’ he says. ‘What did being alive on Earth mean to you? What made an impact? What didn’t? What advice do you have for someone coming down the pipe?’

Thinking across centuries, Coupland has zoomed out from the generational cohorts on which he made his name. ‘That just seems really passé to me now,’ he says. ‘My dad’s brain is now being wired up the same as my mother’s, the same as yours. There’s this whole sort of global mono-generation coming up.’

‘By 2000 I’d been using the internet for a while and I did feel my brain beginning to change. Writing by itself wasn’t enough anymore for my brain, which was rewiring and is continuing to rewire. Do you know those Hitler in the bunker parodies? There’s a new one where Hitler gets an iPhone 4S when he thought he was getting a 5. “But sir, it has this voice recognition software!” To me that’s the real creativity of the modern age. If you do something like that and it hits, you’re surfing the right wave of your age.’

After showing me some of his works on his phone, Coupland says, ‘where would we be without our iPhone cameras?’, but he sees downsides to the omnipresence of smartphones too. During our interview Coupland swears at his interrupting iPhone several times and hammers the table beside it as a reprimand. Although he never turns the thing off, he’s concerned about the long term implications of having our attention spans reduced ‘to the length of a Beatles song’.

‘Our perception of time really is changing because of the number of interruptions we have in a day,’ Coupland says. ‘That shatters your organic sense of time perception and it sort of industrialises it in a way, and you really do end up with less time. You also lose your sense of being adrift in some sort of current of time, of being on a voyage.’ Consequently, he says, ‘lives are no longer feeling like stories.’

That our lives get meaning from the stories they provide has been one of the dominant themes of Coupland’s novels. But isn’t that notion beginning to feel a bit too contrived? ‘Well totally, and it’s embarrassing,’ Coupland says. ‘But if life’s not a story, it can be an adventure. I do think there’s that.’

The death of life stories is the latest in a series of real and metaphorical apocalypses Coupland has conjectured, starting with his obsessive imagination of nuclear attacks in the early ’90s. Today, it’s technological changes like the rise of smartphones and QR codes that are changing us and putting an end to earlier ways of being, but Coupland is far from pessimistic.

‘I’m curious and I look for patterns, and I think those are two very good strategies for keeping sane and staying creative. As long as you look for patterns and stay curious you’re never going to be fucked.’

Douglas Coupland’s paintings feature in By Sea, Land & Air We Prosper, a group show of Vancouver artists at Art Labor until Friday 18 November. See our event details here.

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