Performance artist undertakes RFID road trip

A performance artist and UBC professor is taking RFID on the road.

Nancy Nisbet, who teaches visual art at the University of British Columbia and is an artist in her own right, is about to embark on a six-month roadtrip to educate North Americans about radio frequency identification.

The technology is quickly gaining currency in retail circles as a viable alternative to barcoding technology. RFID tags are able to hold more product and pricing information than their barcode antecedents, and don’t require line-of-sight scanning. The tags also have applications for medicine, agriculture and the military.

Nisbet’s plan is to let people know about the promise and potential pitfalls of RFID by tagging all of her worldly possessions, loading them into a truck and driving them across Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. She plans to trade away her tagged items to people she meets on the journey.

“The trades are more about a sharing experience, sharing the stories of the items; the generation of a community based on the idea of exchange,” explained Nisbet. “I could trade my television set for an old set of sneakers, or something.

“I’m taking everything I own – my microwave, my bed, my books, the whole deal.”

The items she’s giving away will be clearly marked with tags. Ideally, the tags are designed to be a conversation piece, she says. Nisbet plans to record the stories of the people she meets and upload the audio clips to a database.

The trip, which took three years to arrange, will be financed by a grant she received from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. To help her with the project, Nisbet tapped the expertise of Bartek Muszynski, president of Vancouver-based RFID consulting firm NJE Consulting Inc. “I admire people that are willing to do drastic things, so I said, ‘Sure, I’ll help you out with this project,’ he said.

Muszynski designed a database solution that could accommodate voice, RFID and pictures of the items that are given away and collected. The information is collected via voice- and RFID-enabled iPaq handhelds and will be updated regularly on Nisbet’s Web site Exchangeproject.ca. She will store the information on a local server on her truck, then upload it to a Web server whenever she can find an Internet connection.

“The aspect of integrating RFID and voice and images all into one database is a unique application here. From a technical point of view, that was both challenging and rewarding,” said Muszynski.

Nisbet said she doesn’t have a particular agenda for this project, but is aiming to highlight RFID’s role in three main areas: Surveillance and tracking; political and economic agreements like NAFTA; and personal and national identity.

“I’m certainly not anti-RFID, but it’s being pushed forward by so many powerful things – primarily economic, at the moment – so I think society needs to think about how we want to handle this technology,” she said.

“People deserve to know about it and understand how it works and understand where some risks might be and where the risks aren’t.”

Muszynski, who makes a living from helping people implement the fledgling technology, said he’s not concerned that Nisbet could potentially be fearmongering.

“A lot of the thrust of what she’s doing has to do with free trade and globalization. I have no issues with what she wants to express in those areas,” he says “I think any technology, including RFID, should be used responsibly by both government and industry.”

Essentially, Nisbet’s journey constitutes “a giant piece of performance art” – one she hopes will continue long after she drives back to B.C. The items she collects on the road could one day become part of an art installation, or the truck container itself could travel on without her, perhaps overseas.

“She’s a braver person than I am. More than most of us, actually,” said Muszynski. “She doesn’t have a chip on her shoulder.”

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