You’ve seen Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s soup cans. But you’ve probably never seen them like this.
That’s because, until Thursday, Warhol’s pixelated “computer art” had been lost to time — saved on obsolete Amiga floppy disks from 1985 and forgotten in the Andy Warhol Museum’s archives in Pittsburgh, where they were only recently rediscovered. The pieces, which include the above Campbell’s soup can, a portrait of singer Debbie Harry and a pixelated take on Botticelli’s Venus, were commissioned by the long-defunct PC company Commodore International to show off the “graphic art capabilities” of its Amiga computer.
The Amiga, for those of you born after 1985, was an early mainstream computer famous for its audio and graphic capabilities, particularly in Europe. Files saved on it are, needless to say, no longer compatible with modern machines. And that’s a serious obstacle for curators and preservationists. Archivists at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities trawl eBay for antiquated devices — such as film reels, Vectrexes and VCRs — in order to preserve their collections. The University of California at Los Angeles, for example, is in the process of retrieving and preserving 15 years of e-mail and other digital relics from the late writer Susan Sontag’s computers.
“Perhaps in your attic or basement there is a box of papers … inherited from a grandparent or other relative who’s passed on,” reads a recent, and fascinating, NPR story on the challenges of digital preservation. “But what if that box isn’t a box at all? What if it’s an ancient laptop? And if we are starting to leave behind an increasingly digital inheritance, will it die as soon as the hard drive does?”
It’s a good question — though in Warhol’s case, the answer is, finally, no. These rediscovered works were saved through a collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University’s Computer Club, which specializes in obsolete hardware and software. Club members have since extracted and backed up the files, so they’ll still be around even after the floppy disks fail.
“One of our responsibilities is to preserve the museum’s collection,” Amber Morgan, the Warhol Museum’s collection manager, said in a statement. Not just the tangible paintings, it turns out — but the digital files, as well.