Culture Shock’s pivotal role in the digital preservation of over 500 films by Andy Warhol – “MoMA’s largest effort to digitize the work of a single artist in its collection.”
Warhol’s contribution to contemporary culture is immense. He is remembered for his iconic pop art images but he also made films, foundedInterview Magazine, managed The Velvet Underground, directed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable events, had two series in the early days of MTV, painted Debbie Harry on an Amiga computer in 1985, ‘wrote’ a novel with a tape recorder and was in an episode of The Love Boat. His combined output across multiple media is monumental but has not been appropriately recognized.
When Hugh McGrory, Chief Innovation Officer at Culture Shock, New York, a strategy and innovation consultancy, first contacted The Andy Warhol Museum in 2011 to discuss the possibility of helping to realize the museum’s long-time goal of digitizing Warhol’s film work, he discovered the epic scale of the collection. “I knew there were many films that remained unseen by the public, films I had read about,” commented McGrory, “But I had no idea at the time that there were hundreds of films and thousands of videotapes.” Patrick Moore, The Andy Warhol Museum’s Deputy Director stated in a recent New York Times article that “the films are every bit as significant as Warhol’s paintings.”
McGrory understood that a project accessing over 1 million feet of decades-old 16mm film created by one of the most important artists of the 20th Century would require a partner with the necessary technical know-how, infrastructure and insurances, and that this meant approaching an industry leader beyond the art world. Culture Shock had curated Projection, a series of moving image digital artworks from the website Vimeo at Volta NY Art Fair in 2011 and had come to the attention of Justin Brukman, Managing Director of MPC NY, an Oscar-winning family of VFX studios and a Technicolor company.
“We’ve always believed that VFX can be presented in a fine art setting and I liked Culture Shock’s passion for work at the intersection of art and technology,” said Brukman, “After several years of joint project development we’re now on course to digitize one of the largest bodies of film work by a single artist.”
McGrory sees this as a first step in the right direction. “I’m obviously feeling a sense of accomplishment for initially helping to facilitate a project of such historic importance. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. Warhol influenced art, film, music, fashion, photography, illustration, design, advertising, publishing, technology, and television. He was the first artist to exhibit video. By looking at each of these elements as an instance of transmedia storytelling we can begin to understand how the story being told shaped the culture it represented.”
Debra Anderson, Chief Executive Officer and Founder at Culture Shock, adds that “Warhol moved from idolizing celebrity to creating it. We now live in the world of the cultural producer where famous people don’t just endorse products but have enormous business empires across multiple markets built around their personal brand. Andy made this happen.”
McGrory sees this as much more than an exercise in art history. “It is very important to understand the past in order to examine the present. Warhol was a mirror to the culture of his time. By using that mirror to reflect our world fifty years later we see that we now live in Warhol’s imagined future. It can be argued that Warhol’s lasting legacy is a society painted in his own image, where everyone can be famous for fifteen minutes.”
Credit: Andy Warhol Museum
Press release contributors: Culture Shock, The Moving Picture Company, The Andy Warhol Museum
Read the featured article in The New York Times:
Andy Warhol wrote lovingly of his ever-present tape recorder. (“My tape recorder and I have been married for 10 years now. When I say ‘we,’ I mean my tape recorder and me.”) But for almost a decade beginning in the 1960s, his real boon companions seemed to be his 16-millimeter film cameras, which he used to record hundreds of reels, many of which are still little known even among scholars because of the fragility of the film and the scarcity of projectors to show them on.
Now the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the Museum of Modern Art, which holds Warhol’s film archives, are beginning a project to digitize the materials, almost 1,000 rolls, a vast undertaking that curators and historians hope will, for the first time, put Warhol’s film work on a par with his painting, his sculpture and the Delphic public persona that became one of his greatest works. It will be MoMA’s largest effort to digitize the work of a single artist in its collection.
Patrick Moore, the Warhol Museum’s deputy director and a curator of the digitization project, said that the goal was, finally, to integrate Warhol’s film work fully into his career. “I think the art world in particular, and hopefully the culture as a whole, will come to feel the way we do,” Mr. Moore said, “which is that the films are every bit as significant and revolutionary as Warhol’s paintings.”
Warhol began using his first film camera, a 16-millimeter Bolex, in 1963. He spent more than two years shooting what became known as the “Screen Tests,” hundreds of short filmed portraits of celebrities, fellow artists, acquaintances and members of his inner circle, like Lou Reed and the socialite Edie Sedgwick, before moving on to longer, more narrative pieces. He made some 600 films of varying lengths, but only about a tenth of those have been available in 16-millimeter prints through the Museum of Modern Art.
While a few of Warhol’s movies are well known — among them, the feature-length “Chelsea Girls” from 1966 and “Empire” from 1964, a single-shot “antifilm” showing the Empire State Building for eight hours — the great majority have not been shown for years or have been available only through bootlegs of varying quality. Several years before Warhol’s death in 1987, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art joined forces to preserve and study the films, which often use the movie screen as a static canvas, a confessional or a window onto the seeming banality of everyday life. But the films’ visibility, even in the art world, increased only up to a point.
“A lot of people feel like they know Warhol’s films but only because they’ve read about them,” said Mr. Moore. “Fewer and fewer people have the ability to show 16 millimeter.”
Frame-by-frame transfer of the films, which is expected to take several years, will begin this month and be conducted by MPC, an Oscar-winning visual-effects company that is donating its time and services to the project.
(In connection with the project, a few pieces of unseen film will make their way into theaters well before the transfers are completed. “Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films,” a project commissioned by the Warhol Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Centers for the Art of Performance at the University of California, Los Angeles, will screen digital copies of 15 never-before-shown films in October and November, along with newly conceived, live musical accompaniment by musicians, including Tom Verlaine, Dean Wareham and Eleanor Friedberger.)
Film purists will undoubtedly mourn the migration to digital. In a review of “Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures,” a show of part of Warhol’s film work at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, Ken Johnson complained in The New York Times that seeing Warhol films digitally was “like seeing a movie on television, and that casts in doubt their status as works of art.”
Rajendra Roy, the chief film curator at the Museum of Modern Art and a self-described “unexpected analog guy,” agreed, saying that the right way to see Warhol’s films should always be on film, in part because he helped revolutionize the medium by upending or undermining so many of the conventions of moviemaking.
“I get really grumpy sometimes when things can’t be shown on film, but that said, these will become inaccessible very quickly if we don’t digitize them,” he said. “There are still many discoveries to be made, and that’s the exciting part of this project. Folks are looking at work in boxes of some of Andy’s film that probably hasn’t been seen since he shot it.”
Warhol documented so much of the New York art world of the 1960s that the films could also fill in crucial art-historical gaps about who was doing what, when and where. But curators hope that a more important benefit will be an awareness of how, long before phone cameras brought the quotidian and the personal fully into the realm of media, Warhol was already forging his own kind of YouTube. (He once deadpanned in an interview: “I think any camera that takes a picture, it comes out all right.”)
“He filmed everything around him,” said Geralyn Huxley, a curator of film and video at the Warhol Museum. “He went to people’s houses and filmed the dinners. He was basically a workaholic and the amount of film is unbelievable.”
But she added: “For all of the film out there, there’s very little of Warhol himself in any of it, actually. You get the sense that he didn’t really like to see himself on camera.”