Technology enables art, and artists push technologies to their limits. That’s just part of the long-running story that Mathieu Victor will tell in his salon talk on January 20 at The Interval at Long Now in San Francisco. It’s a story that features Bell Labs and Marcel Duchamp, Computer Numerical Control (better known as “CNC“) and, yes, lasers, too.
Artist Mathieu Victor at The Interval
Mathieu’s talk will survey centuries of fine arts practice as well as some of today’s most cutting edge work. Trained as an art and technology historian, he has hands-on experience in bringing ambitious projects into reality including his work as production manager for artist Jeff Koons.
Koons’ studio is one of the world’s largest purely fine arts enterprises, integrating a “factory” and “design studio” model and employing hundreds of artists and an international network of fabricators. In his more than a decade of work with Koons, Mathieu oversaw the technical aspects of this multidisciplinary practice, working with professionals ranging from fashion designers to aerospace manufacturers.
Jeff Koons, “Gorilla”, CNC Milled Absolute black granite, 2009-11. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images
In the course of his fabrication work Mathieu has run R&D projects with GE, Delcam, AutoDesk, M.I.T, and other industry leaders in creative and manufacturing technologies. He has collaborated with many of the world’s top creative entities including BMW, Stella McCartney, Taschen Publishing, Lady Gaga, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade, and lead some of the most ambitious efforts to date in applying manufacturing technology to the fine arts.
Through collaboratively and competitively describing objects from a range of possible futures, The Thing from the Future players confront questions about the near and long-term future from unconventional vantages that yield creative solutions. Each round of the game begins with a collectively generated creative prompt that describes the type of future a yet-to-be-imagined object comes from, as well as where it fits in a given culture or society, what kind of object it is, and what sort of emotional reaction an observer from the present might have when confronted with it. The player who comes up with the most compelling future scenario wins the round.
The Thing from the Future underscores how the constraints of generative systems can be used to inspire long term thinking. In their 02006 SALT talk Playing with Time, Brian Eno and Will Wright discussed the role of generative systems in their respective fields of music and game design.
“The power of generative systems is you make seeds rather than forests.” -Brian Eno, June 02006 Playing with Time SALT
Whether a game of chess, a computer simulation of a city, or a piece of music, from a simple set of rules, or “seeds,” complex futures emerge. Changing any one of these rules vastly affects the future outcome. In the case of The Thing From the Future, the constraints are the key to enabling players to break out of traditional patterns of thinking about the future. In that sense, The Thing From the Future evokes Eno’s Oblique Strategies, a card game of aphorisms that the artistically-inclined are encouraged to turn to in moments of creative blockage. For example: “Do nothing for as long as possible.”. “Repetition is a form of change,” reads another.
The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation – particularly in studios – tended to make me quickly forget that there were other ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach.
In much the same way that Oblique Strategies inspires “tangential” ways of thinking in moments of creative panic, The Thing from the Future grounds musings about the future and turns them into concrete scenarios.
The Thing From The Future, while intellectually stimulating, is at its core, fun, and meant to be played by anyone. You can buy it online here or stop by and ask to use the deck we keep at The Interval (open daily from 10am-midnight).
We have just announced our lineup of upcoming events at The Interval for 02015. The first four months of the year will feature talks on art, science, history, technology and long-term thinking. Tickets are on sale now for the first two:
Space is limited at these events and tickets will sell out. So get yours early. If you make a tax-deductible donation to The Interval you’ll be added to our list for early notice about Interval event tickets. More information on these events below.
When we opened The Interval in June 02014 one of our goals was to host great events in our cafe/bar/museum space at Fort Mason in San Francisco. It was important that these talks complement our larger format Seminars About Long-term Thinking series which we produce for audiences of several hundred in San Francisco each month and are enjoyed around the world via podcast.
So The Interval’s “salon talk” series events are more frequent (2 or 3 times a month) and intimate: fewer than 100 people attend and have the chance to meet and converse with our speaker afterward. So far we’ve produced 14 events in this series and all of them have sold out. They are being recorded and will eventually become a podcast of their own. But we don’t yet have a timeline for that, so your best bet is to attend in person.
Tuesday January 6, 02015: Scotty Strachan: Long Now’s Nevada: the Great Basin in the Anthropocene
Our first Interval salon talk of 02015 features geographer Scotty Strachan discussing the Great Basin region of eastern Nevada. Amonst his other work Scotty conducts research on Long Now’s Mount Washington property. Scotty has done extensive work with bristlecone pine trees which are amongst the oldest organisms on the planet often living for several thousand years. He will discuss his work in eastern Nevada and put it in perspective with climate science efforts worldwide.
Tuesday January 20, 02015: Mathieu Victor: Artists with Lasers. Art, Tech, & Craft in the 21st Century
A creator, art historian and technologist, Mathieu Victor has worked for artists, galleries, and leading design studios. Mathieu’s study of past practice matched with his experience in executing extraordinary contemporary projects give him a unique perspective on how art in the physical world benefits from the digital age.
Other highlights of the 02015 salon talk schedule that we’ve announced: The Interval’s architect/design team Because We Can and Jason Scott of the Internet Archive will speak in February; and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes will talk about his new book on the Spanish Civil War in March. More talks will be announced soon. We hope you’ll join us at The Interval soon.
It started with a seed planted in the mind of Scottish artist Katie Paterson when she made the connection between tree rings and chapters of books. Now several years in the making, Paterson’s vision will unfold over the next century in her artwork Future Library–an ambitious and evolving piece that will outlive Paterson and most of us living today.
Photo by Giorgia Polizzi
In the summer of 02014, Paterson and her team planted 1,000 Norwegian Spruce saplings in the forest Normarka, situated just outside of Oslo. The site is about a 25-minute walk from a metro station, yet according to Paterson, feels deep within the forest and has no city sounds.
Photo by Giorgia Polizzi
These trees will supply the paper for an anthology of books to be printed in a hundred years’ time, when the saplings are fully grown. In the meantime, one writer every year will be invited to add a new text to the collection of unpublished, unread manuscripts held in trust at the New Public Deichmanske Library in Bjørvika until their publication date in 02114. The text can take on any length, form, and genre. The only request is to have the work submitted by manuscript within one year of invitation. As the trees grow, so does the collection. Katie Paterson explained:
The idea to grow trees to print books arose for me through making a connection with tree rings to chapters – the material nature of paper, pulp and books, and imagining the writer’s thoughts infusing themselves, ‘becoming’ the trees. Almost as if the trees absorb the writer’s words like air or water, and the tree rings become chapters, spaced out over the years to come…This artwork will bring together the work of preeminent writers, thinkers and philosophers of this and future generations. It is an artwork that belongs not only to us and the City of Oslo now, but to these who are not yet born.
With the forest planted, the next key part of the Future Library is designing the Silent Room to house the unpublished texts in the New Deichmanske Library, which will open in 02018. In collaboration with the library’s architects Lund Hagem and Atelier Oslo, Paterson is specially constructing this room from the cut-down trees recently cleared for the Future Library saplings.
Photo by Giorgia Polizzi
The Silent Room will be located on the top floor of the library – the floor that houses the library’s special collection of books and archives. The small, intimate room will be geared for one or two people; it will face the forest, awaiting the growth of the trees and providing a view of where, in essence, the books are developing. The other aspect of the texts–the unpublished manuscripts–will be contained here with only the authors’ names, the title of their work and the year visible to visiting patrons. Katie Paterson explained:
The atmosphere is key in our design, aiming to create a sense of quietude, peacefulness, a contemplative space which can allow the imagination to journey to the forest, the trees, the writing, the deep time, the invisible connections, the mystery.
As is the case with any long-term project, questions of trust dominate the design of Paterson’s Future Library. Planning a project with a timescale of 100 years provides many challenges, such as the consideration of tree types, native Norwegian pests, climate, or potential fires; communicating across time; ensuring access to a printing press (one will be stored in Oslo and workshops will be held for the next generations in printing and binding books); and crafting 100-year contracts with lawyers. How will the library room be looked at and experienced in a century? How will the materials react over the decades to come? What languages will people be speaking in 02114? What kind of technologies will exist? What will be the status of the printed book, the written word? Paterson asked herself 100-year-timespan questions such as these with every decision made for Future Library. It involves thinking and developing on a timespan that transcends most conventional artwork. Paterson explained:
The works like Future Library really slow the pace down, to over a century. There is still constant movement within the artwork; inviting authors, the library room design, trust meetings, forest tending, yearly events, the writing, even the tree rings forming. Future Library will evolve and live over ‘long time’ and over ‘now’ simultaneously…I like the idea that time is substance, that can be manipulated and invented. I certainly see time as non-linear – reaches of time, webs, loops, networks, holes – and visualize time growing and existing like a cell or a wave, expanding and contracting. Future Library is marked out by yearly demarcations and these ‘chapters’ keep it fluid.
Future Library was conceived by Paterson, is commissioned and supported by the Bjørvika Utvikling urban development project, and produced by the Bristol-based arts producer Situations. A Future Library Trust has been established to help sustain Future Library for its 100-year duration. It consists of seven members, including the literary director of the Man Booker Prize. Its members will change decade by decade, and they are the ones to invite the 100 authors, whose names will be announced year by year. The authors are being selected for their “outstanding contributions to literature or poetry and for their work’s ability to capture the imagination of this and future generation.”
Photo by Giorgia Polizzi
This month, award-winning author Margaret Atwood was named as the first contributor to the Future Library. The author of novels such as Daughters of the North and Oryx and Crake (both of which will be included in Long Now’s own Manual for Civilization) is in many ways ideally suited for a collection like Future Library: much of Atwood’s work explores human lives and lived experience in a variety of possible futures. As Paterson explains,
[Atwood] is incredibly perceptive, continually writing about prescient subjects and her work speaks across generations, across time. She writes about time and catapults her readers to a future time and place, projecting unsettling, strange, dystopian worlds. Her work has so much to say about us alive now and futures we are building as a species.
Atwood has already started writing the tale that only she will read during her lifetime.
When asked about the content of her story in an interview with the Louisiana Channel, Atwood stated that wild horses could not drag it out of her:
I think it takes us to that period of childhood when we used to bury things in secret locations and hope that somebody would come and dig them up. Or that other period when we put messages in bottles and put them into the ocean. But essentially that’s what writing is anyway, so publishing a book is like a message in the bottle and throwing it in the ocean because you never know who will read it. And writing and publishing a book is also like time travel because the book is a vehicle for the voice, and it doesn’t turn into a voice again until somebody at the other end reads it. So in this case, the filament between the launching of the book and the turning of the book back into voice just happens to be longer than usual.
On a cosmic timescale, a span of 100 years is fleeting and insignificant. “However, in many ways the human timescale of 100 years is more confronting,” Paterson explains. “It is beyond many of our current life spans, but close enough to come face to face with it, to comprehend and relativize.”
What can help us confront and comprehend this short-yet-long timespan is, perhaps, a sense of hope and optimism. The Future Library project, for its part, tries to encourage these perspectives. In her reply letter to her Future Library invitation, Atwood wrote, “This project, at least, believes the human race will still be around in a hundred years!” Paterson expands upon Atwood’s statement in her own words:
In its essence, Future Library is hopeful – it believes there will be a forest, a book, and a reader in 100 years. The choices of this generation will shape the centuries to come, perhaps in an unprecedented way. Inside the forest time stands still. This place could have existed for one hundred, one thousand, one million, or even one hundred million years. I take comfort in the natural processes that have unfolded over such enormous expanses of time. Imagining the plethora of living beings that have evolved in its ecosystem. The earth itself has a predicted lifespan of another few billion years, and there are millions of other planets and galaxies. Life in this universe will continue to exist.
About two years ago, we shared with you a set of enhanced photographs that visualized the transformation of World-War-II-era Leningrad into contemporary St. Petersburg.
We recently came across a similar photographic experiment in picturing historical change. The temporal lapse is similar: this interactive series compares 1940s images of European sites that played an important role in World War II history with their contemporary counterparts. There is no stitching together of old with new in these images; instead, your mouse performs the magic of time travel, revealing the new in place of the old as you drag it to the right.
Nevertheless, these photos have the same effect of making visible, even tangible, the radical transformations that a locale can undergo in the fleeting span of a half century – while simultaneously highlighting the endurance of its sense of place.
On Monday, October 20th, Larry Harvey speaks for Long Now on “Why The Man Keeps Burning,” as part of our monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking. Each month the Seminar Primer gives you some background about the speaker, including links to learn even more.
Burning Man started with humble beginnings in 01986 with 20 people on a beach. Twenty-eight years later, it’s one of the premiere arts festival in the country, with over 66,000 people attending annually, dozens of satellite events, and a vibrant international community. In one sense, Burning Man is an event that only happens for one week per year in a remote desert in Nevada. In another sense, it’s a massive global phenomenon that supports thousands of artists, causes, and technologies.
What sets Burning Man apart from other large-scale festivals is its focus on participation. The organizers set up the infrastructure of “Black Rock City” (including roads, portapotties, ice, DMV, medical, post offices, etc.) and then attendees become the citizens and bring life to the desert through hundreds of art pieces, mutant vehicles, and theme camps. This personal investment of time, money and creativity by participants far exceeds what the the festival organizers could do if they were planning the Burning Man event in the traditional sense.
How does something as outrageous as a temporary city of art built in the middle of the desert come about? It all began on a small beach in San Francisco and an “event” organized by Larry Harvey and a group of his artist, prankster friends. In 01986 the first wooden figure they built was only 8-feet tall. The attendees were all members of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, a group of artists and mischief makers also associated with Santarchy, urban exploration, and Art Cars. The beach version of Burning Man became an annual event, but was subsequently shutdown by local authorities.
Harvey and others made the decision to relocate the event to the dramatic but inhospitable environment of the Black Rock Desert in Pershing Country, Nevada. This changed the scale of the event and opened up a world of possibilities for Burning Man to become the festival it is today. It has grown in size, budget, ambition, and notoriety virtually every year since moving to Nevada. Along the way it went legit, fully permitted and coordination with county governments and the Bureau of Land Management.
And through it all Larry Harvey has been a part of steering and scaling up this arts oasis in the desert. He serves as Burning Man’s Chief Philosophical Officer and authored the Ten Principles in 02004, guidelines which reflect “the community’s ethos and culture” and assure Burning Man a reference point as it grows in Black Rock and all over the world. Harvey continues also as founding Board Member of the Burning Man Art Project and Chairman of the Board of the Black Rock Arts Foundation.
There have been rough spots along the way, as the man has grown from eight to over 100 feet and a 20 person party on the beach has become 60,000+ paying hundreds of dollars per ticket. Over the years much has changed and many issues have stirred concern in the community that the festival could be destroyed by some new policy or other development: “Scaling up will kill Burning Man.” “That new rule will kill Burning Man.” “The Bureau of Land Management will kill Burning Man.” “Selling tickets that way will kill Burning Man.” “Board infighting will kill Burning Man.” “Upscale turnkey camps will kill Burning Man.”
It turns out none of these things killed Burning Man, and Burning Man shows few signs of slowing down. The Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF) gives hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants every year to Burning Man projects as well as public art projects in San Francisco and around the world. The “regional burns” have created strong communities globally based around smaller satellite festivals which take cues from the Ten Principles.
A few examples of the art that BRAF has helped make possible:
Since the beginning of the 20th century, artists have been moving away from an idea of art as something finished, perfect, definitive and unchanging towards a view of artworks as processes or the seeds for processes—things that exist and change in time, things that are never finished.
Both projects were in the early planning phases at the time, but they took form four years later on New Year’s Eve 01999. The first working prototype of The Clock marked the turn of the year at the Presidio in San Francisco by bonging twice, while Longplayer started running on a computer at the 19th-century Lighthouse in Trinity Buoy Wharf at the same time on midnight Greenwich Mean Time of the year 2000.
In 02002, Jem Finer expanded the Longplayer with a Graphical Score that transformed its six-part source music into a composition for human performers. The result was Longplayer Live, a 1,000-minute slice of the millennial composition that debuted at London’s Roundhouse, and was presented by Long Now at the Yerba Buena Center for the Artsin San Francisco in 02010.
The next step in Longplayer Live’s evolution highlights this human role. The project is Longplayer for Voices, a choral adaptation of the Graphic Score. You can listen to an early test of a 1,000-second excerpt of the score for human voice in this video.
Over the next four years, Jem Finer, conductor Peter Broadbent, and composer Orlando Gough will work with a 240-person choir to develop a 1,000-minute version of Longplayer for Voices. While human voices will be needed for the performance, human generosity is needed to make the project a reality. The Kickstarter campaign will allow Longplayer for Voices to complete the score and recruit the choir in time for a performance at the Roundhouse in the fall of 02018. The Kickstarter campaign runs until August 15, 02014.
In Understanding Comics, which Stewart Brand described as “a seminal work at the level of Edward Tufte’s Envisioning Information,” Scott McCloud defined comics as “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” Using this definition, McCloud proposed several examples of the earliest known comic: the 11th-century CE Bayeaux Tapestry, which tells the story of William I’s conquest of England; the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, an illustrated 14th-century CE Mixtec manuscript that narrates the life of Lord Eight Deer Jaguar Claw; and Egyptian tomb paintings like the harvest scenes in the Tomb of Menna, or this example from the Tomb of Nakht.
Older than all of these, though, are the Kanozero Petroglyphs in northwestern Russia, which were carved between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago. On an expedition in 02012, Jan Magne Gjerde and his colleagues from Tromsø University Museum peeled layers of sod from the ancient stones, revealing images of boats, moose, beavers, and harpoons.
One series of images depicted a solitary hunter on skis, tracking a bear uphill. According to Past Horizons, “The ski tracks are just as one would expect for someone going up a slope with a good distance between the strides. The hunter then gets his feet together, skis down a slope, stops, removes his skis, takes four steps – and plunges his spear into the bear.” Describing the find, Gjerde said, “This is the oldest example of a cartoon petroglyph we know of, at least in Northern Europe, so it was utterly thrilling to get the chance to be part of this discovery.”
In their ten days at the site, Gjerde and his team colored the petroglyphs with chalk, covered them with plastic sheeting, then traced their outlines onto the plastic with felt-tip pen. Although it was a cumbersome procedure—especially when unexpected rainstorms drenched the plastic sheets—it produced a portable record of the carvings that could be taken back to the museum and studied at length.
As Gjerde noted, the petroglyphs add a layer of understanding to the archaeological record at this site. “We can excavate a settlement or find arrowheads but we usually don’t have direct evidence of what sort of animals have been hunted with such weapons.” At Lake Kanozero, the comics carved into the rock not only show what animals the ancient residents of the area hunted, but also how they hunted them. As Gjerde put it, “These people, at this spot, documented part of their lives and I was fortunate to be one of the first people in 5,000 years to see it.”
Over the past decade, Sussman has been searching the planet to photograph continuously living organisms that are 2,000 years or older. She begins at year “0” and travels backwards from there, capturing millennia of living past in a fraction of a second. She writes in her book:
These ancient survivors have weathered the millennia on every continent, in some of the world’s most extreme environments, enduring ice ages, geologic shifts, and humans’ spread across the planet. Many are so small that you could walk right over them, none the wiser. Others are so large that you can’t help but stand in awe before them. I’ve photographed thirty different species, ranging from lichens in Greenland that grow only one centimeter every hundred years, to unique desert shrubs in Africa and South America, a predatory fungus in Oregon, brain coral in the Caribbean and an 80,000-year-old colony of aspen in Utah. I journeyed to Antarctica for 5,500-year-old moss, and to Tasmania for a 43,600-year-old clonal shrub that is the last individual of its kind, rendering it simultaneously critically endangered and theoretically immortal.
Sussman’s project also explains what it means to be in the year 02014 and the temporal tension that comes with photographing Deep Time. She uses the analogy of being in deep water–just like deep water, it is a battle to stay in Deep Time:
“It’s difficult to stay in Deep Time – we are constantly drawn back to the surface. This vast timescale is held in tension with the shallow time inherent to photography. What does it mean to capture a multi-millennial lifespan in 1/60th of a second? Or for that matter, to be an organism in my 30s bearing witness to organisms that precede human history and will hopefully survive us well into future generations?”
This 5,500-year-old moss bank lives right around the corner from where the Shackleton Expedition was marooned 100 years ago on Elephant Island, Antarctica. It was a victory simply being able to locate it. These days it’s easier to get to Antarctica from space. (Rachel Sussman via Time)
She has long been interested in the relationship between humanity and nature and expressed that through making landscapes. Contrary to what the book title may suggest, Sussman does not look at her subjects as “things” but over time came to see them as individuals. Instead of focusing on the aesthetics or the composition of landscape photography, she found herself creating portraits of these individuals. Her task became to capture their essence and spirit in order to better connect with them and through them to connect with Deep Time:
I approach my subjects as individuals of whom I’m making portraits. There’s a way to anthropomorphize the experience of these ancient organisms that have bore witness to millennia, which is something that is so outside of our human understanding of what a life span is–it is so outside of our temporal comfort zone.
This 9,950-year-old tree is like a portrait of climate change. The mass of branches near the ground grew the same way for roughly 9,500 years, but the new, spindly trunk in the center is only 50 or so years old, caused by warming at the top of this mountain plateau in Western Sweden. (Rachel Sussman via Time)
The end result of Sussman’s 10-year project is an archive; one that is part art and part science. Her book contains 120+ photos of the thirty subjects. Accompanying the photographs, Sussman writes of her personal journeys searching for these ancient organisms with insights from scientists who research each of them. Her essays weave together scientific explanations with artistic portraits, and invite the reader to understand and partake in her experience. The multiple layers of her work interconnect to help conceptualize the experience of being alive for thousands of years.
Lichens in Greenland that grow only one centimeter every hundred years.
Sussman writes about her experience photographing The Senator, a now-deceased Bald Cypress whose 3,500-year life was ended by a man-caused fire. In another adventure she had overcome her fear of deep water and learn to scuba dive (while injured) in order to photograph the 2,000-year-old Brain Coral, the first member of the animal kingdom she encountered to surpass the two-thousand year mark.
The Siberian Actinobacteria (pictured above) is believed to be the oldest continuously living thing, dating somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 years old. It lives underground in the permafrost where the colony was found by planetary biologists who were looking for clues to life on other planets by investigating one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.
Over the course of their investigation, they found that these remarkable bacteria are actually doing DNA repair at temperatures below freezing, meaning that they are not dormant; they have been alive and slowly growing for half a million years.
This puts the life of a 5,000-year-old Bristlecone Pine into perspective, which is also featured in her book as the “oldest unitarian organisms.”
Sussman’s approach evolved as her work spanned multiple years, disciplines, continents and personal struggles.
I don’t think it would be the same if I had just used a checklist and went around the world and was done in a year. There is something about over the years wanting to do justice to this work. I realized I needed to keep myself in the story and to be vulnerable. It’s not an overly personal story but just that I’m a character in it. People need to have an entry point where they can connect. That’s really the point of looking at these organisms as individuals. But also the window is partially being pulled open by me as a person who is trying to communicate something that I’ve experienced, or learned, or some philosophical musing, or just how hard it was. I think it’s a way to remind people that nature and this idea of Deep Time are not so distant from our everyday lives. All of these things are intertwined and you bounce back and forth between the here-and-now and long-term thinking. The longer I’ve spent thinking about Deep Time and these old organisms, I find it now easier to connect with that.
Artist Rachel Sussman (photo by Victor G. Jeffreys II)
In 01985, Andy Warhol used an Amiga 1000 personal computer and the GraphiCraft software to create a series of digital works. Warhol’s early computer artworks are now viewable after 30 years of dormancy.
Commodore International commissioned Warhol to appear at the product launch and produce a few public pieces showing off the Amiga’s multimedia capabilities. According to the report, “Warhol’s presence was intended to convey the message that this was a highly sophisticated yet accessible machine that acted as a tool for creativity.”
In addition to creating a series of public pieces, Warhol made digital works on his own time. He was given a variety of pre-release hardware and software. This led him to eventually experiment with digital photography and videography, edit animation and compose digital audio pieces. The Studio for Creative Inquiry’s report states:
All of this (digital photography, video capturing, animation editing, and audio composition) had been done to limited extents earlier, but Warhol was an incredibly early adopter in this arena and may be the first major artist to explore many of these mediums of computer art. He almost certainly was the earliest (if not the only, given several pre-release statues) possessor of some of this hardware and software and, given their steep later sale prices, possibly the only person to have such a collection.
Decades later, artist Cory Arcangel learned of Warhol’s Amiga experiments from a YouTube clip showing Warhol at the launch altering a photo of Deborah Harry by using what nowadays would be considered basic digital art tools, such as flood fills. (shown in the above video). This scene set in motion what would become a 3-year-long quest of technological feats and multidisciplinary collaboration to recover and catalog the previously-unknown Warhol artworks living in degrading 30-year-old Amiga floppy disks.
According to the contract with Commodore, Warhol owned the rights to any hardware given to him and all the work he created with the machines. After his death, his files and machines were stashed away and unpublished in the archives at the Warhol Museum. The collection contained two Amiga 1000 computers, one of which was never used, parts of a video capturing hardware setup, a drawing tablet, and an assortment of floppy disks of mostly commercial software in their original boxes:
It was immediately clear that this was an exciting window into history given that several pieces of Amiga hardware had shipping labels directly from Commodore, others had internal Commodore labels warning that the components were not yet for sale lacking FCC approval, and that the drawing tablet appeared hand-made.
In December 02011, Arcangel approached the Warhol Museum with the proposal of restoring the Amiga hardware and archive the contents of associated disks. In April 02012, he teamed up with the Carnegie Mellon Computer Club, a team of experts in obsolete computer maintenance and software preservation, to retrocompute and forensically extract data from the roughly 40 Amiga disks. 10 of those disks were found to contain a total of at least 13 graphic files they think to be created or altered by Warhol.
Cory Arcangel (Center), and CMU Computer Club members Michael Dille (Left), Keith A. Bare (Right) during the data recovery process at The Andy Warhol Museum. Photo: Hillman Photography Initiative, CMOA.
With a lot of hacking, sleuthing and extensive Amiga knowledge, the CMU Computer Club figured out how to examine the contents on Warhol’s disks. In a simplified explanation, it boils down to a two-tier process–first creating copies of the disks in a standard filesystem-level disk image and then looking through those files to see if any were in known graphic formats. Some were, some weren’t. It took months of retrocomputing the GraphiCraft software to convert the unknown graphic formats into a file that could be opened today.
To extract data and generate an archival dump, the Computer Club used a USB device called KryoFlux. This device attaches a floppy drive to the modern day PC and reads and writes standard-format floppy disks. But its real advantage is its ability to capture a very low-level picture of the disks. The KryoFlux created raw dumps as close as possible to the original floppies and standard filesystem disk images (ADF files). These ADF files work with Amiga emulators. Using the KryoFlux also allowed for better handling of degrading and fragile disks (many had magnetic materials coming off the substrate) and it generated standard ADF files for floppy disks containing non-standard encodings or copy-protection schemes.
The following day after making copies of Warhol’s disks, the disk images were loaded in the Amiga emulator in the basement of CMU Computer Club member Michael Dille. The disk hand-labeled “GraphiCraft” contained files with names like “flower.pic,” “campbells.pic” and “marilyn1.pic,” a clear sign that something was on that disk. The .pic files were unrecognizable by modern software and would later require the club’s resident Amiga expert Keith Bare to do deeper hacking and reverse computer engineering in order to crack the GraphiCraft format. But on that day, two files on the same disk named “tut” and “venus” were in a common format used on Amigas, “Interchange File Format” (IFF). These two files were readable by using the software ImageMagick to convert the .iff files to PNG–a format modern software can understand. On the evening of March 2, 02013, Warhol’s Venus displayed on the screen for the first time in 30 years.
Warhol’s digital works are proof that the Amiga 1000 was highly impressive for its time. The first of the Amigas, it already had better sound and graphics abilities than its competitors. It had a 4-channel stereo and up to 4,096 colors and 640×200 pixels. In comparison, PCs had “beepers” and up to 16 colors, while Macintoshes had 22.5kHz mono audio and monochrome displays (Studio for Creative Inquiry’s report).
These recovered images give insight to the workflow and capabilities of early computer art. In the above photo, Warhol used clip art to create the three identical eyes on Venus. The digital reinterpretation of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup, pictured below, was modified with a line tool. It shows Warhol’s willingness to experiment and adapt to a new medium.
Earlier this week, the Carnegie Museum of Art released Trapped, the second of a five-part documentary series by the Hillman Photography Initiative to “investigate the world of images that are guarded, stashed away, barely recognizable or simply forgotten.” The short documentary gives a detailed look at the techno-archaeologists’ process of decoding the obsolete file types. (Minute 8:47 shows the copying of Warhol’s disks.)
The forensic effort and process of studying the disks contents sheds light to the impermanent nature of digital material and the need for digital preservation. “In a way, a lot of the data and things we work with almost seem like it’s imaginary,” explained Bare in Trapped, “It’s electrons in a machine. You can turn it into photons if you use a display, but in some sense it’s almost like it’s not even there.”