Only the Lonely: the Expanded Screen Test

We posted this MoMA screen test on Friday March 18, 2011. It was removed then re-posted a few days later. It is gone again. Improvising on MoMA’s directions on how to “create a modern update on Warhol’s process, we recorded a photograph of Marina Abramovic held before a laptop webcam. The screen test was present.

View the Warhol-inspired screen tests click here

Screen Tests 1.0
In 2003, in a world without Flickr and YouTube, Andy Warhol: Screen Tests had a digital first life at MoMA QNS as DVD videos looping on recessed flat panel monitors. Like the current re-boot, the 2003 Screen Tests were bordered by black portrait frames. I attended that show and clearly remember the peculiar presentation with its emphasis on technological determinism. At the time, it was not clear what was gained from digital conversion aside from convenience. The digital playback was littered with noisy pixels and the silent spin of the digital discs was a reminder of the superseded mechanical clatter of film projection. I’m sure film purists could identify countless other sensory concessions.

Screen Tests 2.0
For the recent Screen Tests exhibition, MoMA was able to unearth a single free-standing screen and 16mm film projector for the entrance to the exhibition galleries. A large and enthusiastic crowd circled the projector to watch the image of Edith Scull flicker for four minutes at 16 frames per second. Besides pleasing audiences, the mechanical apparatus was a reminder of Warhol’s meaningful contributions to the development of structuralist film. In these early works, his subjects stare back in silence as shadows projected from a physical medium that advances loudly from one reel to the next.

Stripping away the machinery of corporeal co-presence is a fundamental reworking of these subtle films. If a museum can catalog and digitize 4,000 reels of film, then a few dozen projectors can be surely spared from obsolescence. Instead of an appraisal of cinema, most writing about the digitally enlarged Screen Tests has been concerned with drawing parallels to Renaissance portraiture and celebrity culture. Unfortunately, conventional treatments don’t account for the re-writing of (now digitized) historical work in contemporary open culture.

Two Bodies Connected
The transformation of the Screen Tests exceed the discrete concerns of preservation. In a MoMA blog entry, “Preserving Warhol,” Chief Curator at Large, Klaus Biesenbach, points to the scarcity of 16mm film projection equipment as a limitation to reaching “a large global audience.” So, as 16mm film cans gather dust in storage, the late artist’s work is reborn as a data stream bound for an afterlife of global circulation. In a 2004 catalog essay “Image Body Machine,” for Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, Biesenbach validates the digitized material because it retains the “filmic aura” of the original material. I will have to take the curator’s word that a filmic essence is preserved in the transubstantiation of a digital copy. After the pixels clear, the Screen Tests (and other early Warhol films) remain magically tied to the museum by the short-leash of copyright law (held by the Warhol Museum).

Our Blow Job intervention pointed to the incalculable Warhol video files floating on Youtube and other Internet file sharing platforms. MoMA has its “original copies” of the Screen Tests that were updated in 2003 and again in 2010 (as software) to parallel emerging digital culture. The DIY Andy Warhol Screen Test portal offers the historic Screen Test as a precursor for the ubiquitous computer screen image.

This phenomenon is detailed by Boris Groys in his essay Comrades of Time:
"Museums have become the sites of temporary exhibitions rather than spaces for permanent collections. The future is ever newly planned — the permanent change of cultural trends and fashions makes any promise of a stable future for an artwork or a political project improbable. And the past is also permanently rewritten — names and events appear, disappear, reappear, and disappear again. The present has ceased to be a point of transition from the past to the future, becoming instead a site of the permanent rewriting of both past and future — of constant proliferations of historical narratives beyond any individual grasp or control."

If a museum abandons historical accuracy in favor of a revisionist agenda, then what remains of the Screen Tests? The conceit is that the Screen Tests were a precursor to our contemporary (Warholian) condition. The social networks and the lives of others are primarily available as screen images. Contemporary life is a series of screen tests: From avatars to Apple’s push to communicate in Face-Time. The Factory has become The Cloud. Like occupants of The Factory, the internet crowd works for free.