Explaining why I pursued the 24 Hour Empire project and what it means to me requires a short narrative spanning a three year obsessive interest in the works of Andy Warhol. I’ve taken the time to document this narrative because I think there is a lot to learn from it for artists of all disciplines. If you’ve taken the time to read this, I hope you enjoy it and that it inspires further exploration of the artists who inspired my work in this show.
It started with a question
A few years ago I attended a panel on digital art at SXSW. After half an hour of discussing the standard topics, one of the panelists posed a question that started my exploration. The panelist turned the question of "is this art" on its head and asked an equally fundamental question - whose art is this?
"Take a given Instagram photo. Who is the artist? Is it the person who took the photo? Or is it the creators of Instagram? You can see Instagram as millions of artworks by millions of people, or one big piece of art by the creators. What is Instagram except Andy Warhol's Factory expanded to Internet scale?"
If you ask the creators of Instagram they would see it as millions of artists. However, there are many similar products where the intention of the creator is absolutely to create a factory for their artwork. Among the most prolific is Franky Aguilar, whose apps such as Catwang have generated literally billions of artworks in Franky's unique style.
As I struggled with this question I began researching Andy Warhol, who prior to this I was only vaguely familiar with. I wanted to really understand what that metaphor meant and to do so I needed to really understand how Warhol worked. I was almost instantly intrigued as many of the questions I was wrestling with personally Warhol had struggled with decades earlier.
As an artist I've struggled to gain credibility in part because the bulk of my work would be considered "commercial art." Warhol struggled with the same thing and there was a lot for me to learn from his story about how to deal with it.
Warhol also pushed the issues of duplication, repetition, and appropriation. The Brillo Boxes can be seen as a starting point for dealing with many of the core issues that digital and electronic artists struggle with today.
Introduction to Warhol
At this point I should pause and say that the fastest way to familiarize yourself with Warhol is with this documentary available on YouTube. I will assume a general familiarity with Warhol’s work throughout this narrative but almost everything I reference is covered in this film.
- Andy Warhol Documentary Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQXpqQO4vaE
- Andy Warhol Documentary Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r47Nk4o08pI
If you're into computers and you're studying Warhol it won't take long before you encounter the work of Cory Arcangel. This prolific New York artist is the most recognized fine artist whose work is primarily electronic and digital. He is highly inspired by Warhol and can be seen as a modern analogy. I like to think that if Warhol was alive today his work would look a lot like Cory Arcangel’s.
Arcangel recently completed an inspiring effort to recover digital artwork from Andy Warhol’s old Amiga floppy disks. This effort is documented in a wonderful short film “The Invisible Photograph Part II” which you can watch online here: https://vimeo.com/92583299.
Through this film I discovered an installation that Arcangel had done at the Warhol Museum where his Mario Clouds art was projected onto/next to Warhol’s Silver Clouds. To me this seemed like the absolute most perfect piece of artwork. It mixed new and old in a beautiful way that Warhol would have been proud of.
After seeing that installation I felt an absolute drive to make something comparable. I wanted the satisfaction that would come with creating something that could be put next to work by Andy Warhol. While I didn’t really expect that to ever be possible, I knew that the only way it would be is if I pursued a project that would make sense next to a Warhol original.
Arriving at Empire
For the past five years I have been working on a project codenamed “Sundial” that is centered around 24-hour photography. Through this effort, my crew has created a process for capturing 24 hour long photo sequences and displaying them such that they are synchronized with the current time and day. Originally the concept for this show was simply to show a set of these 24 hour photographs.
2014 was the 50th anniversary of Empire and it was through discussions of this that I discovered the film. Empire and the other long-duration films that Warhol made are very close in nature to the time-lapse photography work that is at the core of my practice. While the equipment used to film Empire was different than anything I’d ever used, the experience of filming it must have been quite similar.
This sparked the concept of creating a 24 hour long version of Empire. It would meld together the project that I was currently most passionate about with a concept of Warhol’s that was very close to my heart. It was by far the best concept yet that could imaginably, one day, end up presented next to a Warhol original.
One of the first philosophical questions I wrestled with was when to do the filming. The original Empire was filmed on July 25th, 1964 and it seemed appropriate to film on exactly that day. However, the weather or other conditions on that day may not be optimal. Furthermore, even on the same day the state of the moon would be different and thus the lighting not consistent.
In the end I decided that it would be best to have a window of time for filming and to pick the optimal day in that window from a weather perspective. I arranged for a total of three weeks’ stay in New York during which I attended the School for Poetic Computation’s summer Code Poetry program and waited patiently for the right day to film.
My crew and I ended up doing the filming during the middle of the third week with little time left to spare. We started filming on August 12th at 11:00AM and completed two days later on August 14th at 11:00AM. Video filming completed at 6:00PM on August 13th. In total we captured 32 hours of video footage and 48 hours of time-lapse footage.
Finding a suitable location to film from was one of the first challenges I had to overcome. The first place I checked was the original location that Warhol filmed - the 41st floor of the Time Life building. To my amazement, it was open and available as office space. It was hard to comprehend that this place that seemed so special in my mind was just empty cubicles.
Exploring the space through the “3D Tour” on the property website, I was able to actually view out the window that Warhol had. Sadly, there were now multiple buildings in the way that blocked the view of Empire. The original location was not going to work.
The next thing I did was use Google Earth for scouting. This software allows simulated views from any tower in New York. So I went tower to tower looking for a suitable one, cross-checking with the property websites for space availabilities.
The most promising lead was the Grace Building, which is one of the ones constructed in the way of the Time Life view. Again, amazingly, the exact space I’d want to film from on the 41st floor was available to rent. But the overhead involved in doing this was prohibitively high.
With the best leads out of the way and commercial space seemingly unaffordable, I turned to AirBNB. This was another great way to scout, as I was able to browse all sorts of apartments available for rent that could be used for this purpose. While I identified several candidates, nothing was perfect.
Then by pure chance, I met another artist who had a space in Midtown with a perfect view of Empire. The space hosted a picnic for the School for Poetic Computation, and as alumni of the program, the hosts were happy to help make the filming possible.
Sometimes the problem you think is going to be the hardest turns out to be the easiest if you’re just patient.
Recording Equipment & Medium
Filming a 24-hour long time-lapse and a 24-hour long video are completely different things. At the time I decided to pursue this project, I only vaguely understood just how different. It took months of experimentation, research, trial, and error to come up with a rig that could film a quality 24-hour long video.
Neither video cameras or photo cameras were designed for shooting long duration video. Digital SLRs, such as the Canon 5D & 6D that have been adapted to capture video, overheat when used to capture video for longer than 30 minutes. The problem of overheating applies to mid-level digital video cameras as well, which Eric Doeringer experienced when filming his homage to Empire in 2012. So despite early hopes none of the cameras I own or have access to were suited for the job.
The most modern video cameras are mechanically capable of operating for indefinite periods of time but are not designed to store large quantities of video. 4K cameras in particular are optimized around filming short clips and typically can not store more than 30 minutes of video. More modern 4K cameras with hot-swappable storage solve this problem but at extraordinary cost.
As the potential cost for this filming rig spiraled past $25,000, I had to pause and ask myself “what would Andy Warhol do?” There is no way that Andy would spend that kind of money on filming equipment. In fact, it turns out that Empire was filmed on 16mm film even though 35mm was the increasingly dominant format at the time. That seemed perfectly analogous to the choice between filming HD (1920x1080) and 4K (3840x2160).
So I had to overcome every technical instinct in my mind and accept that the technically best and most authentic way to capture this shot would be with “less than modern” equipment. As someone who is forced to obsess over perfecting every pixel in every photo and video for modern applications, this is very challenging to accept.
The final setup was designed to be highly redundant to ensure that no matter what went wrong technically, the overall capture would not fail. It consisted of the following equipment:
Rig #1 - Video
The video rig enabled simultaneous 1920x1080 HD digital recording and VHS recording. The VHS recording was considered a “tape backup” and was not originally intended to be the primary way the film would be displayed.
Input: Sony A7s. This camera was used as the input source for the video. It was chosen because it had the best low-light performance of every camera we tried. Mechanically it is a video camera adapted into a photo camera, and as such it does not overheat over long durations. Attached was a Canon 70-200mm 2.8L lens (this was a long shot).
Digital Recording: Apple MacBook Pro 2011 w/El Gato Game Capture HD. While not designed for this application, the El Gato device offers an HDMI pass-through that was used to get the video signal to the VCR from the camera unmodified. This was the key to enabling the dual recording setup with the equipment we had on hand.
Analog Recording: JVC SVHS VCR - Purchased off Craigslist from a kind woman in Chelsea.
Rig #2 - Time-lapse & Still Photos
The photo rig captured one picture every 30 seconds. The output from this was used for the interactive piece, the prints, and the lenticulars.
Canon T4i camera with 40mm 2.7L Prime lens - chosen because it is more resilient over long periods of time than the 5D or 6D cameras.
The camera was wall-powered and had enough memory that in theory it did not need to be touched or adjusted in any way during filming.
While setting up to film, I realized that the setup was fully dependent on wall power. I had not purchased a UPS backup or other device to ensure that everything would stay on even if the power went out. The cameras were wall powered so any power drop meant the whole rig went down. I made this observation out loud and maybe I shouldn’t have.
About three hours into filming, the VCR stopped suddenly and one of the cameras reset. It wasn’t immediately clear what had happened and my initial instinct was that the tape had just reached its end. After some investigation, it seemed like the power had momentarily dropped, but no one could explain why that would happen. No one had ever seen it happen at this location before.
An hour later, it happened again. The rig had to be quickly restarted after a flash power outage. We rushed to figure out what might be causing the issue and debated stopping filming to go purchase a battery backup. Still, no one could explain why the power was dropping.
Later, when it was dark enough that the room was illuminated by interior lights, the power dropped again. This time we knew the second it happened, which revealed the cause. An electrical outlet on the other side of the room had a short and when a laptop was plugged into it or unplugged from it the whole room went down for a second.
After getting the rig back on-line, anxiety was high as the rig required constant attention under the circumstances. We put duct tape over the electrical outlet with the short, put a sign over it, and continued filming. We did not experience another power drop.
Lesson: For long duration filming always have backup power.
In the end the SXSW panelist’s question about who Instagram photos should be attributed to did not have a clear answer. Both perspectives are valid and worth considering. The question did however offer a unique way to consider electronic art in the context of Warhol and gave me a great launching point for this exploration.
There is a tendency to assume that problems that we deal with related to technology are new and do not have prior analogs to learn from. However, this exploration made it clear to me that many of the most modern challenges in Art have been around for a very long time. Their form may not be instantly recognizable, but again and again it’s the same story with different names.
This project was only possible with the help of an amazing set of people:
- Hal Bergman - Photography Support & Mastering
- Dimitrii Pokrovoskii - Interactive Installation
- Mark Flider - Software Support
- Daniel Bendjy - Documentation/Photography
- IRL.place - Filming Location & Support
- Moises Sanabria - Host at IRL.place
- Ben Purdy - Studio Space & Technical Assistance
- Lippe Manufacturing - Sony A7s Camera
- Upfor Gallery - Supporting Gallery
- School for Poetic Computation - Inspiration & Support
- Babycastles Gallery - Inspiration & Support