Hacking Vintage Technology to Simulate Time Travel

While he’s best known for his analog work, it’s no secret Andy Warhol was interested in and experimented with digital technologies. Warhol’s digital experiments took place in the mid-1980s in partnership with Commodore International, which commissioned him to appear at the product launch for the Amiga 1000 and use the device to create a piece of artwork the company could use in its advertising campaigns for the desktop computer.

Because Warhol’s contract with Commodore specified that only hard-copy versions of the work would be considered art, the digital origin files remained Warhol’s property. For nearly 30 years, Warhol’s Amiga experiments were locked away on floppy disks stored in the museum’s archive. The discovery and release of several of these digital experiments last year, as chronicled in the video Trapped: Andy Warhol’s Amiga Experiments, brought to light a new angle on Warhol’s artistic practice.

Chief Archivist Matt Wrbican on Warhol’s computer use:

Warhol had never used a computer before and was completely unfamiliar with the use of a mouse. By 1985, he had spent 50 years drawing and painting directly with a pen, pencil, or brush, which requires an entirely different coordination of the hand and eye.

This new born-digital work inspired some great conversations among museum staff about how best to present the experiments to on-site visitors. Everyone quickly agreed that, if we could pull it off, displaying the files on the creation device would be the most appropriate and authentic. So with a loose desire to put an Amiga 1000 in the gallery and allow visitors to manually explore the origin files, we called on our brilliant friends over at IonTank. Thankfully, they were up for a challenge.

Over the past few months, we’ve been working closely with IonTank to create an Amiga-based interactive that visitors can actually operate to navigate a selection of 10 origin files created by Warhol and his assistants as they learned to use the Amiga 1000.

Chief Archivist Matt Wrbican and IonTank's Craig Scheuer discussing the project.

Chief Archivist Matt Wrbican and IonTank’s Craig Scheuer discussing the project.

Designers and developers started by sourcing an original Amiga 1000 and then reverse engineering it to figure out how to make it work from both software and exhibition-grade hardware perspectives. The shell and innards have been modified to allow for constant, ongoing usage, but all the 1980s details remain. The mouse is jumpy and doesn’t track tightly, and the files open much slower than we’re accustomed to these days, but the authenticity of the operating experience goes a long way in conveying the blunt, primitive nature of the digital tools available for artists at the time.

Amiga

Version 1.0 of the Amiga interactive is truly an object of vintage technological beauty. Unfortunately for us, it’s shipping out shortly for a multiple-venue tour of South Korea lasting through 2016. However, we’re already working on a version 2.0 with a new Amiga. This next iteration will include some new participatory user features. That unit is scheduled to make its debut later this year, and the museum’s galleries here in Pittsburgh will be its permanent home.

Jeffrey Inscho

Jeffrey Inscho is the Manager of Digital Engagement at The Andy Warhol Museum.