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Charged: Cory Arcangel's Art and Apparel

An interview with the artist who teamed up with the computer club to discover rare Andy Warhol digital works

by CH Contributor
on 11 June 2014

by Michael Slenske

In the early 2000s, Buffalo-born artist Cory Arcangel hacked the Hogan’s Alley video game and replaced the Nintendo gunslingers with silhouettes of Andy Warhol, Colonel Sanders, Flavor Flav and the Pope for a cheeky piece he called "I Shot Andy Warhol." Arcangel tells CH, “I think that was the first time I did something that directly evoked [Warhol's] image. For a lot of artists of my generation he is a constant influence because he’s omnipresent.”

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In a landmark feat of tech-sleuthing (helped along by the Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Mellon University Computer Club), Arcangel unearthed and restored the digital artworks that Warhol created in 1985 using Commodore’s Amiga software. After three years, the collaborative unveiled the findings last month, which included self-portraits, those of Debbie Harry and Marilyn Monroe, and his iconic Campbell’s Soup cans, attracting headlines around the globe. “They are digital born material, so they don’t really exist. It’s just a bunch of numbers on disks,” says Arcangel. “For the Warhol Museum to allow them to be downloaded from their website fulfilled all of my expectations. They went around the world in a day and that was exactly everything I could have hoped could have happened.”

During that same time, Arcangel was fulfilling some other, though arguably Warholian, desires in the form of a product-licensing agreement with Bravado, makers of gear for the likes of Drake and Katy Perry. The new line, dubbed Arcangel Surfware, features everything from gradient printed bedding to hoodies. This month, Arcangel showed the new wares alongside a suite of newer fine art works (sculptures, drawings, computer animations) in a pop-up exhibition titled, "You Only Live Once," at the business conference room of the Holiday Inn in SoHo, NYC. Though that idea might sound like a concept put-on for the youngest artist to ever command a floor at the Whitney Museum of American Art, for Arcangel (an avowed TGIF and Applebee’s enthusiast) the show was as much about looking forward as it was a return to his roots. “It was absolutely the perfect space for the work,” he says. We recently caught up with Arcangel to discuss what inspires his process of creation and discovery and what's next.

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Where did the Warhol project begin?

I’d been keeping an informal folder of Warhol’s research in both video and early digital stuff for a long time and when I did a site visit to Pittsburgh in early 2011 I knew that I wanted to follow-up on some of the things that I’d read about or seen, specifically the YouTube video of the 1985 Lincoln Center Amiga launch. It also had a lot to do with my own personal research on Warhol, which led me to follow-up with the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh on some of those items.

Once you got to Pittsburgh, how did things unfold?

The project took three years from the initial meeting with the Warhol Museum [in 2011]. I met with Matt Warboken, the museum's archivist, and he explained that they did have some Amiga disks of Andy’s and they were willing to let me propose a preservation timeline. I got in touch with the Carnegie Mellon Computer Club, and they just happened to be the world’s experts in obsolete computers and software. They write software for old computers and make hard-drives for old computers.

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They’re like your dream team in a way.

Exactly, they were my dream team. The funnest part of the project was interfacing with them. They have such a passion for these machines and they’re so talented. So many good vibes. It took a while, the whole process, because we wanted to do it right. I think it took until 2013 for the disks to be copied and for them to be looked at by the Computer Club. It’s probably worth mentioning that for the first couple of years we didn’t really expect anything to be on the disks, even though the disks were in very good shape.

What was the most surprising image for you?

That’s a really great question. The Carnegie Museum sponsored a documentary that sent a camera team to follow us and in one of the images is Marilyn Monroe. She’s kind of scribbled all over. For me, that was the best one, because it was just a really intuitive and beautiful use of the application. It was shocking to me how good [Warhol] was at it. Historically, he’s arguably the most important artist of the 20th century, but to see how quickly he understood computers was really, really incredible.

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Had you ever tried to use these programs?

No, I never tried to use Graphic Craft but a few weeks ago there was an event for the launch in Pittsburgh and they actually loaded the program on a computer and let people take their own photographs and paint on them. It was really fun to use that, just as Warhol had done with himself and Debbie Harry. I just scribbled over a photo of myself, but it was really hard, to be honest. It’s not easy to make things look as good as he did.

You had the Surfware line happening at the same time. What prompted that?

Well, that’s been another longer term project. It started when I was approached by Bravado, this global merchandise company who does merchandise for Drake, Justin Bieber, Lil’ Wayne, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. They approached me about doing a line of merchandise with them in 2011.

What was your initial reaction to that offer?

Oh, I was waiting for an opportunity like that to come along for about 10 years. I used to sell things off my website that I had made over PayPal, like posters and records and stuff. And I had just gotten so tired of going to the Post Office all the time, and I knew that I would eventually open up my webstore again, but if I did do it again I wanted to partner up with somebody who could deal with all the fulfillment and stuff like that. So as soon as they asked I expressed my interest with great fervor. It took a few years to figure out what I was going to do and I didn’t just want to do merchandise. I wanted to start my own activewear line. Bravado does Lil’ Wayne’s line Truck Fit, so I thought I should do my own brand. It might not actually make sense but that’s what I did.

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Is the iPad gradient the same as the gradient work you showed at Frieze?

All the gradients are unique, but it is a similar pattern. It’s important to mention that some of the products feature motifs that are in my fine art. The sweatshirts, iPad and iPhone covers, and the bedsheets are all patterns that are from a series I’ve done called Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations. The other items are just the logo and newer artworks like these magazines and a record I made. It’s kind of part surf clothing, part merchandising of my own artwork, but also publishing. It’s a very scattered assortment of stuff.

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How do you feel the Holiday Inn pop-up turned out?

I think the whole event went over pretty well. It was a real art show for me and I spent as much time on it as I would with any other art show. The only difference being we set up the day of and we took it down that night. It was really a true pop-up. But I was really happy how all the products looked with the art and how it all looked together with the Holiday Inn. It really felt complete to me.

Can you tell me about the newer studio pieces.

Some of the pieces were made specifically for the Holiday Inn conference room and others were shown because I knew they’d fit really well in the Holiday Inn. One of the pieces was called Euphoria and it was a multi-channel Christmas light animation in the style of how people make these in the summer set up to music. So I made one using the same kind of software you’d use to do this on their house. I had like 32 strands of Christmas lights.

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Were there any new gradients?

No, the gradients were on the bedsheets, iPad and iPhone covers. But I wouldn’t say there was any difference in how I showed them in the exhibition. I also showed this work I made years ago called Sports Products. It’s a bronze sculpture that looks exactly like a pair of Oakley sunglasses. I showed a sculpture that’s just a bowl of soggy cereal.

Like actual soggy cereal?

[laughs] Yeah. Soggy Cornflakes. There were also two television sculptures called Express Yourself Clearly, which are these televisions Wal-Mart was selling for a while in the shape of polar bears, and on their screens is a flipbook animation of video taken of Bill Clinton jogging in Korea during his presidency. That’s a series I’ve been doing for a couple years.

What was the feeling you wanted to create in there?

I had seen a term somebody wrote on the web,“non-aspirational,” which I kind of liked. All spaces exert pressure on artwork and I wanted to use the feeling of the Holiday Inn. I grew up in the suburbs, in places like the mall and TGI Friday’s and Applebee’s, and those are the places I feel the most comfortable in. There was also a triptych of the facade of the Applebee’s, which I’d made a couple years ago, but never had the right place to show it.

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Are you working on any new music now?

Yeah, I just did this new record called 24 Dances for the Electric Piano. I was playing with the Korg M1, the famous digital keyboard from the late '80s, early '90s. It has a bunch of famous sounds on it and the composition I made uses the piano sound.

I can’t see what direction I’m going in right now, but it’s getting more and more dispersed, which I’m excited about. We’re talking about an apparel brand, the preservation project, music compositions, so I think in the future everything is going to get more and more dispersed and non-related. I think that feels comfortable and exciting, a lot of new stuff, new challenges.

Warhol images ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visuals Arts, Inc., courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum, other images courtesy of Cory Arcangel

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