If you've ever had difficulty opening, say, a .docx file, you can imagine the trouble inherent in retrieving files off of Commodore floppies.
Image: Andy Warhol, Andy2, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visuals Arts, Inc., courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum
The world got more Warhols this week, as the 20th century American artist's most futuristic works—by 1985 standards—have been recovered from floppy disks and shared by the Andy Warhol Museum.
So strongly associated with the oft-mythologized 1960s, those outside of the art world can be forgiven for forgetting that Andy Warhol lived and kept working until 1987. With a bit of scrutiny, Warhol emerges as a total 80s dude, too:he did commercials for Braniff airlines with Sonny Liston; he showed up in a room with Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and Mr. T at Wrestlemania; and now it's clear that he was an early adopter of the personal computer as an artistic medium.
Warhol had been gifted a Commodore Amiga in order to demonstrate the computer’s graphic arts capabilities. There's a video of him “painting” Blondie's Debbie Harry, and that piece had been part of the Warhol collection for years. But ever since the museum acquired the rest of Warhol's disks in 1994 as well as his two Amiga 1000 computers, their contents were inaccessible due to the obsolete file format and aging hardware. It took a nagging interest from artist Cory Arcangel, the help of the Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Mellon's Golan Levin, and the Carnegie Mellon Computer Club, to bring the images back from the digital depths.
Arcangel was an old friend of Levin's. "When he had the idea to do the project, he first secured permission from the Warhol Museum to see if it would be possible to look at the computer," Levin explained via email. "Then he came to visit my lab, and he asked me if I knew anyone with this kind of expertise. I immediately connected him to the CMU Computer Club, and provided those folks with a grant so that they could purchase the necessary bits and bobs to do the work."
Image: Commodore Amiga computer equipment used by Andy Warhol 1985-86, courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum, used with permission.
If you've ever had difficulty opening, say, a .docx file, you can imagine the trouble inherent in retrieving files off of floppy disks for computers that time has rendered unusable. I called up Keith A. Bare II, of the Carnegie Mellon Computer Club, who was sort of the “Amiga guru” on the project, and asked about the digital excavation of the works from floppy disk to a modern PC.
The process involved using their own equipment, including the “KryoFlux,” which is designed to let modern PCs interface with obsolete formats. Using the KryoFlux, the computer club was able to take disk image files and run them using an Amiga emulator— E-UAE, if you're curious.
Initially it seemed like it was a fool's errand.
“When we first went to the museum just to see what they had, we weren't very optimistic at that point,” Bare said. “Nearly all of the floppies looked like they were system software or other forms of software. Having briefly lived in the era of floppies, I remember everyone had 50 or so floppies with handwritten labels saying that it had some file on it. We didn't see that from Warhol.
“But as it turns out, most of the software he was using wouldn't allow him to save onto other floppy disks, so he just left it on the software.”
Image: Andy Warhol, Campbell’s, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visuals Arts, Inc., courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum, used with permission.
And this is where the .pic files were uncovered, with unmistakably Warholian names: “campbells.pic,” “marilyn1.pic,” etc. The club uncovered 28 heretofore unseen images that the Warhol Museum is fairly certain were done by the man himself, 11 of which were signed.
Warhol of course always seemed like he'd be a natural for digital art: it's endlessly reproducible, it's new and experimental, and one can imagine his wry take on the “everyone's face is everywhere” ubiquity that computers facilitate.
Image: Andy Warhol, Venus, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visuals Arts, Inc., courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum, used with permission.
Just as the new medium gave birth to new art, it also gives birth to new scholarship: digital art history, and digital archeology. The new philosophical questions that accompany the new technical ones are at least partially why the computer club's Michael Dille was so excited to get the fruits of their labor into the world.
“I'm very excited that our efforts are finally seeing the light of day,” Dille told me in an email. “Because we're blazing new trails with such data recovery, there really doesn't exist much in the way of precedent here. Intellectual ownership, authentication, assurance of the works' integrity, archival format, proper exhibition medium... these are just some of the many questions we've had to answer and are still answering.”
In addition to adding to the Warhol canon, the uncovering has yielded a documentary Trapped: Andy Warhol’s Amiga Experiments, which will be screened in the Carnegie Lecture Hall in Pittsburgh on May 10, will be available online May 12.