Andy Warhol famously loved anything "new" in the way of gadgets. "If I had a good computer I could catch up with my thoughts over the weekend if I ever got behind myself," he wrote in his 1975 book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.
Obsessed with audio, Warhol used a Norelco Carry-Corder to record conversations and ambient soundscapes for his films and a Bolex 16mm for his famous "Screen Tests" in the 60s and a Polavision "instant" movie camera in the 70s. All three locations for his gathering place and workshop, The Factory, were wired for audio-visual-powered "happenings," and Warhol himself appeared in ads for Sony Betamax, TDK, and Pioneer "hi-fi" (high fidelity) sound systems.
But while Warhol might be synonymous with New York City, he's a Pittsburgh native, which is home to The Andy Warhol Museum. Opened in 1994, it's a collaborative project between the Carnegie Institute, Dia Art Foundation, and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and gives visitors a comprehensive examination of his life and work.
Housed in an 88,000-square-foot former industrial warehouse, it contains 17 galleries; The Factory education studio; a conservation lab; an archive of more than 350 of his preserved (8mm, 16mm) films; 4,000 videotapes; and 610 of his Time Capsules—ephemera he boxed up for posterity, some of which are on display.
Dezi Gonzalez, the museum's Manager of Digital Engagement, did her masters at MIT and worked at MoMA and the Whitney Museum of American Art before moving to Pittsburgh in 2015.
"In my graduate work at MIT, I examined the possibilities, afforded by new and emerging technologies, which give people an immersive experience and a new way to connect with art," said Gonzalez. "So here, at the museum, we use technology so visitors—either on-site at the museum, or around the world via the web—can experience Warhol in a way that's mediated through curation, or unmediated and self-directed, for a richer experience."
Warhol Museum: The Geek Tour
In partnership with Carnegie Mellon, the museum installed Bluetooth low-energy beacons throughout the galleries. Download the Out Loud audio guide app, and the location-aware beacons know exactly where you are in the gallery space to tell you about the artwork there.
Geeks should start with the Amiga gallery, which houses Warhol's Amiga Commodore 1000. It originally cost $1,295, though Warhol's was gifted to the artist by the manufacturer, and came with just 256KB RAM and a pre-Windows style graphical user interface.
You can't touch Warhol's machine, of course, but the museum has an Amiga 1000 interactive exhibit, which emulates the Amiga's interface and processing speed so visitors can interact with Warhol's digital art in the way people would have viewed it back in 1984.
Also under plexiglass are the original floppy disks used to install the Pro Paint program (just 4,096 colors; today's 24-bit LCD displays have 16.7 million) as well as Warhol's "digital experiments," which were lost until recently. As they were trapped in an obsolete digital format, it took three years for the museum to research, unlock, and restore them for public viewing.
In a nice touch, at the hands-on demo, the museum has even slowed down the digital rendering to circa 1986 processing speeds so you can get grateful about today's superfast CPUs.
In a bid to open up Warhol's work to those with low, or no, sight, the museum partnered with J. David Whitewolf of Tactile Reproductions LLC, to offer art you can touch. That includes over a dozen reproductions of classic Warhol Pop Art pieces, so spend a few moments tracing your fingers over the Coca-Cola bottle to see how he reimagined and transformed the object into art. Created using a CNC (computer numerical controlled) mill, each piece took up to 80 hours of machine time to deliver a faithful rendition of the art.
Are You Ready for Your Close-up?
The Screen Test gallery is a clever mash-up of celluloid history with digital make-believe. Inside a darkened anteroom, conceptually designed as part of The Factory, you can sit on a chair, be starkly lit by a single lamp, and face the camera. On the outside, the camera is a classic Bolex, but it's been gutted and re-fashioned inside, and now contains a digital camera.
It's a popular stop for museum visitors; 11 percent make a screen test, Gonzalez said.
Between 1964 and 1966, Warhol used a similar, stationary, 16mm Bolex movie camera, always on silent, to capture black-and-white "screen tests" of famous people (Susan Sontag, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, beat poet Allen Ginsberg) as well as Factory regulars (Edie Sedgwick and Nico). They were all archived on 100-foot rolls of film but projected in slow motion to stretch from 2.75 minutes to 4 minutes or more. There are 500 screen tests in the archive (if you do a screen test it won't end up there, though, just so you know).
However, while you wait for the digital output from your 15 minutes of fame, lounge in the main gallery and watch the originals blown up on a massive screen. You never know, the museum might take a shine to yours and put it on the website.
"One of the responses I hear a lot, is a sigh of relief when it's over," said Gonzalez. "People tell me: 'Wow, that 3 minutes felt like a really long time!' Because that level of concentration and intimacy with a camera is really compelling."
Silver Clouds: a Bell Labs Collaboration
In a side gallery, you'll find "Silver Clouds," the 1966 collaboration Warhol did with Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver. As we gazed at the partially helium-filled space race-style textile pillows float around the room, buoyed by fans, Gonzalez gave us the backstory:
"Bell Labs was very interested in bringing technologists together with contemporary artists to create something new, with the latest materials. Billy showed him Scotchpak, from 3M, and ultimately they landed on these pillow-shaped clouds which—filled with less than a fourth helium, the rest air—float, using the heat gradient in the room and circular fans."
It's utterly hypnotic and beautifully staged, with the fans delivering a bouncing dreamy motion.
"Scotchpak went on to be used, in a more prosaic manner, as the wrapping for boil-in-the-bag food," Gonzalez explained. "So there's something perfectly mundane, yet artistic, about this piece, which reminds us of Warhol's obsession with Campbell's Soup and other everyday products in his art."
Before you leave the museum, head to the basement. There's a black-and-white photo booth, the sort that, if you're not too young to know this rite of passage, was where teenagers in railway stations and shopping malls documented their changing "looks." Yes, there was life before Instagram selfies.
Here's how it works: Sit inside, close the curtain, adjust the swivel seat so you're at eye-level to the camera behind the screen ahead. Insert three singles and wait for the flash. Each session has four separate shots, so you'll see four flashes. Modify your pose accordingly. Finished? You'll hear a massive creaking inside the machinery, which is your film being processed (for real).
Wait outside (it takes four minutes) until you hear one last groan from the booth. Then lean over, and carefully remove your photo strip from the dispensing slot behind the small grille.
If you happen to
What's Next for Warhol (Digitally)?
What of the future? Is the museum ready for XR? Gonzalez, having studied at MIT, is realistic about what technology can actually deliver, and doesn't go for hype.
"I always try to keep my eye on what's big, or what's happening right now in terms of new technologies," she said, "With a view to whether it's a good fit for us."
"I also attend tech events regularly, like the Eyeo Festival, where artists are thinking critically about digital in a transformative way, often using technologies and strategies like machine learning, virtual reality, physical computing, and creative coding," she explained.
How about A.I.? In partnership with the three other Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh here in the city, the Warhol museum just launched a chatbot, which allows museum members on- and off-site to have a conversational-type experience with "staff." CarnegieBot guides visitors through the Summer Adventure, a series of programming in which members visit the museums and attend special events to earn stamps and win a prize. The chatbot answers visitors' questions, delivers activities like trivia and polls, and allows members to check into the museums and collect stamps.
It's a pity Warhol pre-dated hologram capture (as we saw at USC Shoah) and natural language processing so we could have a conversation (although he was notoriously monosyllabic). And there's probably not enough high-quality imagery to stitch him into a responsive 3D volumetric experience (as we saw at 8i in Hollywood). It would be fab to sprawl on one of the reproduction sofas, pushed back against The Factory-style silver bricks in the museum's lobby and hang with Warhol awhile.
But there's plenty of Warhol geek moments to enjoy if you find yourself in Pittsburgh as the museum gears up to celebrate his 90th birthday this month.