It’s not every day that new works are discovered by one of the most famous artists of all time. Perhaps that’s why the recent recovery of Andy Warhol’s early digital experiments on an Amiga 1000 has been one of the most important art stories of the year. In addition to adding an important new twist to Warhol’s canon, the story of their recovery has become a catalyst to a growing conversation, both about digital conservation and also the nature (and value) of images in a media-saturated world.
It’s incredibly fitting that the driving force behind the recovery was artist Cory Arcangel. One of the first artists to take strategies from conceptual and performance art and apply them to hacking and the digital world, Arcangel’s work has always existed in realms which, by their nature, are constantly facing obsolescence and the need for documentation. In a series of interviews by phone and email, Arcangel discussed—with excitement bordering on total giddiness—ideas of digital conservation, cultural karma, and our disappearing culture.
Nathaniel Smith: Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?
Cory Arcangel: I have an opening of my new merch/lifestyle line, Arcangel Surfware on May 17, a pop-up shop titled You Only Live Once. Under the Arcangel Surfware brand, I’m making linens, tees, hoodies, iPhone covers, and a bunch of other stuff. It’s “everything you need to chill in bed all day and surf the internet.” LOL. The pop-up will be half exhibition, half shop. I’m collaborating on the brand and pop-up with the same company that did the Kanye pop-ups, Bravado, so I’m pretty pumped. It’s been a lot of work though, because I’m showing all these new open-edition things, but also showing a ton of new fine art(ish) things. It’s gonna be 40-plus objects—all in a Holiday Inn conference room.
Smith: A funny place to follow up your last show in New York, which was at the Whitney [laughs]! Busy times, especially considering the debut screening of the documentary Trapped: Andy Warhol’s Amiga Experiments just happened. One of the main things I wanted to speak with you about is the recovery of works Warhol made in 1985 on his Amiga 1000.
Arcangel: Yeah, definitely. It’s been a wild few weeks with all the attention, but fun, of course. What I liked about it was the Kryoflux, the USB-attached drive controller used in the effort to make low level virtual copies of the disks, has gotten so much attention. Also, I’m glad a lot of the coverage really forced a discussion about digital preservation which I think is important and will become more and more important as more of culture gets virtually “lost” due to obsolescence.
Smith: This kind of conservation is obviously an interest of yours. I immediately recall your Creative Capital Grant to publish the computer source code for your entire body of work…
Arcangel: That’s right! The first four issues of that series are actually finally finished. After eight years! They can be bought at my pop-up store for $19.95 after May 17. They are part of the Arcangel Surfware brand. LOL. They are printed on 300-year archival inks and papers, so yeah, they definitely are an intervention into the “conservation” of my own work. These product shout-outs are striking me as very Warholian. Very on topic. Ha.
Smith: What is it about conservation that is important to you, particularly in a fluid format like web or digital files?
Arcangel: It’s all—and by all, I mean culture—gonna disappear! As long as it is all in the cloud, or something like it, that is. So conservation is essential. Both with stuff that people think is important and stuff they don’t. So, that’s my main angle. Also, of course, I like mucking on old computers. Can’t seem to get away from that. Funny, though, what were new computers in 2000 when I started making fine art(ish) are now really old computers. So there is always lots to work with, even my own work, at this point.
Smith: Do you remember the first time you saw the YouTube clip of Warhol painting Debbie Harry, or the time that you began to wonder if he had worked on other digital works?
Arcangel: I don’t remember the first time I saw the YouTube video, although I’ve seen it several times over the years. Jason Kottke tweeted me, though, and asked if I saw it on his blog for the first time, which is possible. But, I have read Warhol’s diaries, and there is lots of stuff in there about technology. It always had me wondering.
Smith: When you contacted the Warhol Museum about the Amiga equipment, were you aware of the previous two searches?
Arcangel: I was not aware of them. I was aware of all the tech stuff Warhol did, though: recordings, early video, etc. I had been to Pittsburgh so many times over the years—the city has played a big part in my art life—so I knew if I ever went back, I would try to ping the Warhol Museum about his old video tapes and Amiga disks… just out of curiosity.
So, Tina Kukielski, the curator of my 2012 show at the Carnegie Museum, and I set up a meeting at the Warhol Museum when I visited in 2011. For that meeting, I had brought with me—prolly like a nerd—all of these clippings and random articles I had collected about Andy Warhol and the various tech stuff he did. Anyway, in regards to the Amiga stuff, I asked head Warhol archivist Matt Warbican three questions: Did Warhol actually have an Amiga? Do you have any of that stuff? Did he have any floppy disks? It was “yes” to all three!
After that we approached Golan Levin at the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, which is an organization that pairs artists outside Carnegie Mellon to resources inside Carnegie Mellon, and that’s how we got hooked up with the legendary and totally amazing Carnegie Mellon Computer Club.
Smith: When you saw all the equipment, what were your expectations? I mean, did you actually expect to find anything in particular?
Arcangel: Initially we didn’t think anything was on the disks; they all looked like commercial software disks. So, yeah, for a few years, the project moved ahead without any expectations, which was fine by me, and I was just interested in the gesture of such a project, not the outcome.
Smith: This may sound strange because it seems so immediately obvious, but: what do you see as the value of the recovered images?
Arcangel: What is their value? [pauses] I don’t know if anyone has asked me that before. Do you mean, like, the cultural karma?
Smith: Do they have value as actual images, in a way a painting does, or are they given value through the story of their rediscovery?
Arcangel: I would say three things about their value. One, it’s cool to show that he was fluid and super sick in a medium which most didn’t know he worked on. Two, they raise people’s awareness about the digital conversation. And three, they are valuable because people can learn about clubs like the CMU Computer Club, which was incredible to work with. There is nothing cooler than a retro-computing hacking club in my mind! Especially at a place like Carnegie Mellon.
Smith: You mentioned over the phone that Warhol was not the first major fine artist using a computer to make work and that in his diary he mentions that young people, artists like Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, were using computers. What was different about the equipment that Warhol was using, both from an art historical perspective and from a tech-history view?
Arcangel: At the time Haring and Basquiat were probably using Macs, thus working on black and white. So, Warhol had a jump on them, because he got his Amiga so early and it was in color. His Amiga was so early, in fact, it had stickers on it which said the FCC hadn’t approved it for sale yet.
Art historically, I’m not exactly sure, but, you know, computer arts go back quite some time, but that said, Warhol was definitely on the earlier end of things. Also, just from an art perspective, it’s worth pointing out, he was pretty sick with the paint bucket tool, so he definitely saw 30 years ahead on that one. I’m still trying to catch up.
Smith: Can you take me through the technical details of rendering an image from the Amiga 1000 to be viewable on a modern computer, but also perhaps the philosophical differences of altering an image to modernize it? What changes in this transformation?
Arcangel: Well, as you know, with digital born material, this is no “is.” Every manifestation of the work is a real-time expression of code. Even an image on your cell phone is code executing. So, it’s not helpful to think in terms of original or master. It’s more helpful to think of this real-time expression of code being like a live music performance. After all, instruments are technology designed to execute code—aka notes and silence. So the same way a band tours playing the same song every night, an image will appear in different contexts, on cell phones, browsers, newspapers—each performance slightly different, none “realer” than the others.
For the Warhol project, the Amiga images were rendered for modern computers. The files themselves can’t be shown as-is because of their obsolete format, but even with this out of the way, another snag is they were made on the Amiga, which had non-square pixels, meaning, they look squished on modern computers. So they had to be “rendered,” aka stretched for modern machines which have square pixels. Not to mention CRT monitors and LCD are not similar.
Smith: Your work has always blended the two aspects of this recovery project, basically breaking down any separation between the art world and the digital hacker world. Can you tell me a bit how these overlap so cleanly sometimes—or about your term “ghosting”?
Arcangel: Well, in the project my role was as a translator. I was able to both speak the language of the Warhol Museum and CMU Computer Club. Or, maybe “glue” is another way to put it. Also, I’m lucky to be an artist. Artists have the ability to “ghost,” or float through walls and different disciplines, in a way most other professions are not allowed. In this case, the Warhol Museum was generous to let me and the club in for a visit/project. They were incredibly welcoming! Shout out to them!
Smith: An important aspect of the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry’s summary is the possibility of further exploration of Warhol’s equipment. How involved might you be in such an effort? What is most exciting to you about these continued explorations?
Arcangel: Oh man, this project that has taken three years. So, I just haven’t thought about what happens next. I need a break first!
Smith: Before you go, are there any last things you would like to say about the project?
Arcangel: This project was really the combined effort of four groups: the Andy Warhol Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the CMU STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, and of course, the awesome CMU Computer Club. It was really just a crazy coincidence that Warhol’s Amiga stuff was only miles away from one of the best retro-computing clubs in the world. And again, one last thing I wanted to say is that the CMU Computer Club, they were, amazing.
Smith: Since we talked on the phone the first time and this wasn’t possible, this time could you sign off with some of your signature emoticons?
Arcangel: Had no idea they were my signature. :/
The documentary Trapped: Andy Warhol’s Amiga Experiments can be viewed for free at nowseethis.org, Hillman Photography Initiative at Carnegie Museum of Art as Part II of their Invisible Photograph series.