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Digital excavation project uncovers experimental works by Andy Warhol




Native son Andy Warhol was an incredibly early adopter of digital technology and may have been the first major artist to explore such mediums as digital photography, video capturing, animation editing and audio composition. 

Now, upon realizing that they had access to digital art produced by Warhol, the Andy Warhol Museum has unearthed several digital doodles created by the artist from floppy disks that were sitting in the museum's archival storage.

In 1985, computer manufacturer Commodore International hired Andy Warhol to produce several artworks using the Amiga 1000 to demonstrate its sophistication and accessibility as a conduit for creativity. A team of artists, curators, archivists, and technologists recently retrieved Warhol’s experimental images, which have been inaccessible since the Andy Warhol Museum obtained the collection of floppy disks in 1994.

The idea to retrieve these digital sketches was birthed in 2011, when New York-based artist Cory Arcangel came across a fuzzy YouTube clip of Warhol promoting the Amiga 1000 in 1985. Arcangel contacted the Andy Warhol Museum with the idea of restoring the Amiga hardware to catalog and exhibit the digital files. The digital excavation was performed by members of the Carnegie Mellon Computer Club, which is known for its collection of obsolete computer hardware and retro-computing expertise, working in cooperation with Archangel at the Andy Warhol Museum throughout three months in 2013. The team received support from the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry (FRSCI) at CMU, which support atypical, anti-disciplinary and inter-institutional research projects at the intersections of arts, sciences, technology and culture.

“I am both a serious Warholfanatic and lifelong computer nerd, so to have the opportunity to help uncover this history, i.e., dig through Warhol's dusty disks, was a dream come true on both counts," says Arcangel. "What's amazing is that by looking at these images, we can see how quickly Warhol seemed to intuit the essence of what it meant to express oneself, in what then was a brand-new medium—the digital."

Out of 41 Amiga floppy disks in the collections, 10 disks were found to contain at least 13 graphic files believed to be created or modified by Warhol. The files show the mature artist struggling with digital imaging tools, and encountering a learning curve familiar to anyone who remembers picking up a mouse for the first time: squiggly lines and haphazard paint-fill.

According to a report by the CMU Computer Club, the disks were in excellent condition, allowing easy data retrieval. However, several were found to be corrupted, allowing access to only partial versions of some files. Raw low-level disk images and physical low-level copies of the disks found to be corrupted were made and may provide a starting point for future study. In addition, the team recovered several copies of pre-release or unreleased software that may also be of great historical interest. 

Michael Dille, who just completed his Ph.D. in robotics at CMU and is one of the computer club members who helped “crack the code” and uncover the files, says the project is an excellent reminder of the seriousness of digital decay. 

“Do you really think that important document you're working on right now will be accessible in 10 years,” Dille asks. “Will the media you've stored it on still function? Will you find something to plug it into? Will that cloud provider still be in business or not have quietly expunged it for you? Will you still have the software?  . . .  These aren't simple questions to address, yet they are ones everyone is left to solve for themselves with very little guidance, and software/service providers have very little motivation to help.  A good starting point, certainly, is the use of standard well-documented widely-implemented open formats, which is something of which we've naturally become very strong proponents.”

The team's efforts are documented in the Hillman Photography Initiative's new short film, Trapped: Andy Warhol's Amiga Experiments. It is the second part of "The Invisible Photograph" documentary series that investigates the expansive realm of photographic production, distribution and consumption by way of the hidden side of photography, whether guarded, stashed away, barely recognizable or simply forgotten. The film premieres at 7PM, Sat., May 10, at Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, and will be available online at nowseethis.org on May 12.
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