PITTSBURGH — Andy Warhol made his mark as a pop artist throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, but his pioneering spirit and appreciation for inclusiveness would be right at home in 2018 — especially at the museum that bears his name in Pittsburgh, where technology aims to heighten everyone’s appreciation for his celebrated work.
A tour of The Andy Warhol Museum this week, 31 years after Warhol died, was a deep dive into the many forms of media and art that made him a household name. It showed how technology can fully immerse visitors in the Warhol experience, whether it’s through an app-based audio tour, or by filming a screen test video to mimic how the artist would have captured visitors to his Factory studio more than 40 years ago.
There is also a relatively new and interactive experience at the museum based around Warhol’s use of the Commodore Amiga personal computer in the mid 1980s. He demonstrated, just two years before his death, a willingness to create art on new technology that was an innovative departure from the painting and screen printing for which he was famous.
Using the technology of today, staff at the museum are highlighting Warhol’s appreciation for the technology of his day. They even say that if the artist was alive now, he’d likely have an interest in augmented and virtual reality and be posting images on Instagram.
And they’re dedicated to making a space that is inviting to all people, as they say Warhol would have done.
“Inclusion has been a really important touchstone for us,” said Danielle Linzer, director of learning and public engagement at the Warhol Museum. “We see technology as a way to really make the museum a more inclusive space for people of different abilities, backgrounds, experience levels.”
Linzer said visitors who are blind, for example, or who have autism spectrum disorders, can often come to art institutions and feel marginalized or alienated. Warhol created an atmosphere through his work where lots of different people were interacting and mixing, mingling and engaging in creative practice together, and in Pittsburgh they want their native son’s museum to capture some of that spirit.
“We have a lot of dreams,” Linzer said. “And we’re fortunate to be in Pittsburgh, which is a relatively small and friendly and accessible city, but also has a pretty rich tech infrastructure that we’re able to kind of play with at times.”
Here’s a closer look at three digital initiatives that GeekWire experienced at The Andy Warhol Museum:
Warhol signed on as a brand ambassador after being give an Amiga 1000 personal computer by Commodore in 1985. A fascinating video exists in which the artist takes part in a performance to promote the machine, along with Blondie singer Debbie Harry, at Lincoln Center in New York.
Using an early digital camera and the software ProPaint, Warhol created a portrait of Harry in front of an audience. He later made a digital drawing of a Campbell’s soup can as well as Boticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” and more.
When asked in the video what computers he had worked on previously, Warhol replied, “I haven’t worked on anything. I waited for this one.”
The artworks he created using the machine were never considered until 2014, when the Warhol Museum teamed with Carnegie Mellon University and Carnegie Museum of Art to reverse engineer software and extract Warhol’s work from original floppy discs.
A wonderful documentary film called “The Invisible Photograph” deals with the discovery of the digital work.
While Warhol’s original Amiga is behind glass at the museum, a replica allows users to interact with a machine much the way the artist would have, clicking on folders and opening files containing artwork. When we visited, small children were using the machine, which museum staff said was built to mimic the slow processor speed of the mid-80s PC. “They keep wondering why it’s taking so long,” a mom said, as kids raised in the smartphone age grew impatient.
Desi Gonzalez, manager of digital engagement for the Warhol, said she has spoken to staff at Paul Allen’s Living Computers: Museum + Labs in Seattle, about how the Amiga is being incorporated.
“I’m fascinated by their approach,” Gonzalez said of Living Computers, “because computers are meant to be interacted with.”
For more on the Amiga display at Warhol, check out this new Facebook video in which curator Jessica Beck discusses the exhibit.
Tactile displays and ‘Out Loud’ guide
“I think one of the things museums largely are grappling with, is how do you integrate technology in a way that doesn’t interfere with the experience of art and other people and ideas and concepts, but rather help you go further in connecting to that,” Linzer said.
That ability to connect with Warhol’s work, through both highly descriptive audio guides — keyed to users via an app and Bluetooth low energy beacons — as well as unique touch displays, further enhances the experience at the museum. And while the intention may have been to help people who are blind or who have low vision better appreciate Warhol’s work, the result has been a plus for all visitors.
The initial implementation of the “Out Loud” guide is taking place on the seventh floor of the museum, with plans to expand, and covers Warhol’s birth through his early pop art. In-depth descriptions of the artwork, via the app’s “Near Me” functionality, allow someone who doesn’t have sight to get a sense of the composition and the different formal elements of a piece. And by running fingertips along raised lines, tactile art reproductions use 3D imaging technology give users an even better sense of what a piece of art looks like.
As a sighted visitor, I was amazed by how the displays gave me a greater appreciation for work that I had previously seen, such as one of Warhol’s famous Campbell’s soup can screen prints. In an age where we’re all so media saturated, we’re encouraged to slow down and listen to the visual descriptions.
Audio tutorials go beyond what would be found on a wall placard, and include curators and interpreters talking about why a specific piece is a significant work.
“You’ll see things you never saw before,” Linzer said. “You take your sight for granted. You look at things for a fraction of a second and move on, and often you’re relying on a mental imprint of the original object. You’re like, ‘Oh, there’s the soup can. Check.’ And so here what we’re doing is really encouraging you to slow down, pause and actually examine some of those formal elements, some of the technical stuff that’s showing through, because we have the original stuff here.”
The interaction is fully realized when you watch a little kid get his hands on a version of Warhol’s Brillo box artwork, spinning and touching the 3D piece.
“You really get to handle it!” Linzer said.
Screen test machine
During his career, Warhol created more than 500 short, silent films as part of his screen test series, in which friends and famous people sat in front of a camera and basically showed off why they were worthy of stardom.
At the Warhol Museum, visitors get to take part in a screen test of their own, in an exhibit that transports them back to Warhol’s 1960s Factory studios. The room and the lighting are made to look the same, and the old Bolex camera is, too, except its insides have been replaced with modern digital recording equipment.
Videos shot over a 3-minute time period are slowed down to last more than 4 minutes, and the resulting artwork is emailed to the subject. Last year, more than 15,000 Warhol visitors shot screen tests.
“I think that the screen test machine is a really great example of how we’re using technology in almost an immersive way in this experience,” Gonzalez said. “We’re placing you in Warhol’s Factory studios in the 1960s, allowing you to understand his process behind a series of work that he did. And you get something that you get to take home, so you become a part of that museum experience.”
Who wouldn’t want to go back in time to become a superstar subject of the late, great artist? I couldn’t resist, and sat for my video (below), wondering whether I should talk or blink or spin on the stool in front of the camera. The resulting video piece was a nice reminder that Warhol was much more than a painter.
“We all know about his silk screen work, and the subject matter like Campbell’s Soup and Marilyn Monroe,” Gonzalez said. “Warhol was also a filmmaker and made a wide variety of films, including these screen tests.”
I left the Warhol museum feeling re-energized about an artist who I had admittedly taken for granted over the previous 30 years or so. Seeing Warhol’s famous originals in person, in Pittsburgh where he was from, was certainly invigorating, but being able to interact with the work in unique ways through technology definitely heightened the experience.
“Because museums are about these kinds of authentic interactions with real objects and ideas and history and art and community, sometimes it feels like screens can get in the way,” Linzer said. “Some museums have tried to keep it outside their doors — ‘this is a contemplative space and you’re leaving technology outside’ — and I think we’ve taken our cues from Warhol and the way that he, throughout his lifetime, was engaged with new technology as a means of art making, as a means of identity.”