AI and the Andy Warhol Photography Archive. Contact sheets as big data.
When explaining why the Andy Warhol Foundation selected Stanford as the home for a collection of more than 3,600 contact sheets Peggy Phelan notes Stanford’s history with photography, citing the experiments of Edweard Muybridge, Stanford’s interest in researching and developing the technologies of big data, and Stanford’s commitment to interdisciplinary teaching and research. The exhibit at the Cantor Arts Center and the book Contact Warhol: Photography Without End were both interdisciplinary projects that Phelan, who works in performance studies produced in collaboration with art historian Richard Meyer. When the Stanford Libraries host Peggy Phelan and Maneesh Agrawala on March 4, we will be attempting to bridge an even greater disciplinary divide in support of this collection, between the arts and engineering. (See event details and registration.)
Agrawala is particularly interested in how cognitive design principles can be used to improve the effectiveness of audio/visual media. His work crosses the fields of computer graphics, human computer interaction, and visualization. We will explore how Phelan’s and Agrawala’s research interests complement each other, or at least come into contact, through the challenge of visualizing digital photography archives in support of research. The contact sheets and the individual exposures have been digitized, carefully curated by archivist Amy DiPasquale, and stored in the Stanford Digital Repository. They are searchable through two interfaces: one at the Cantor Arts Center website and the other hosted by Stanford Libraries at exhibits.stanford.edu.
The Andy Warhol Photography Archive, Contact Sheets 1976-1987 presents a particularly challenging case study because it is big and multi-dimensional. These are some of the ways Phelan has described the project:
The collection: constant photography
Phelan describes Warhol’s practice of photographing and documenting the moment as anticipating the ubiquity of the camera and photograph today. Warhol took his camera with him everywhere, taking at least 36 exposures each day in the last decade of his life. The collection of Andy Warhol's contact sheets amounts to about 130,000 individual exposures. Each contact sheet records the exposures from a roll of film. For Phelan, the archive as a whole is a record of his performance practice.
The contact sheet: rehearsals for the final artwork
In the archive, as Phelan and Meyer have defined it, the contact sheet is both a document and art object. Their research reveals how the contact sheets tell the story of Warhol’s working method. First, they reflect his sensibility in terms of what was worth photographing. The contact sheets are also marked up with grease-pencil indicating the choices he (and collaborators) made from the captured images. This is a record that is all but lost in the digital age where the selection is instead the result of an act of deletion. Phelan also sees Warhol’s use of the contact sheets reflected in his work, like repeated series of images that retain a frame around each image much like the exposures on the contact sheet. Or his use of white space in works that include multiple images that are much like the unused film which, in the contact sheets, appears solid white or black.
The frame: stem cell
While the collection as a whole has stories to tell, the individual frames, too, require careful attention. Phelan expresses the generative quality of the collection by referring to the contact sheets as stem cells from which a single exposure leads to photography without end. As stem cells regenerate themselves, the individual exposures in this collection were the seed of final artworks produced by Warhol such as the pop portraits and silkscreens. Warhols practice included recyling images, blowing up prints, using multiples, and serializing them. Phelan and Meyer also selected exposures from the collection to include in the exhibit—photographs that Warhol did not choose to print or show in his lifetime.
We will hear from Peggy Phelan about Andy Warhol, his use of the camera and his thinking about human-machine relationship and from Maneesh Agrawal about developments in artificial intelligence that outsource cognition to the machine vs augmenting human intelligence. We will hear from Maneesh about his explorations with digital media and how he thinks our experience of digital media will change with new technology. For example, since similarity and affinity algorithms reveal patterns that humans do not see, will algorithms become integrated cognitive prostheses?