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  • Disco, Cybernetics, and the Migration of Warhol’s Shadows into Computation
  • Tan Lin (bio)

[A]nd now we have a band, the Velvet Underground, who will belong to the biggest discotheque in the world, where painting and music and sculpture can be combined and that’s what I’m doing now. …

—Andy Warhol, “Andy Warhol: My True Story” (1966)1

Now you have nightclub art, video art, late night art.

—Andy Warhol, “Q & A: Andy Warhol” (1985)2

[C]omputer graphics provide the logical space of which any given perspective painting forms a more or less rich subset.

—Friedrich Kittler, “Computer Graphics” (2001)3

The image comes to us from an essentially symbolic creation, that is from a machine, that most modern of machines, far more dangerous than the atom bomb, the adding machine.

—Jacques Lacan, “The Circuit” (1988)4

The medium is extremely forgetful.

—Niklas Luhmann, “The Medium of the Art” (1990)5 [End Page 481]

Disco as Medium

Andy Warhol’s Shadows, a series of 102 paintings that Warhol completed in 1978 and first exhibited in 1979, is notable for marrying an abstract, somber serial painting sequence to a somewhat incongruous popular cultural format: disco. Warhol said, “Someone asked me if they were art and I said no. You see, the opening party had disco. I guess that makes them disco décor.”6 Given the offhandedness of Warhol’s remark, it is not surprising that little commentary has been directed to the work’s links to technical media—notably strobe lighting, the cathode ray tube (CRT), and computing technologies—media that would prove instrumental in the expansion of what Warhol called “nightclub art, video art, late night art.” In spite of Warhol’s stated desire to be like a machine, little attention has been directed to the connections between the Shadows’ imagery distribution patterns and a species of machine-based imagery grounded in what Benjamin Buchloh has termed an emerging aesthetics of information administration and delivery.7 This essay examines two favored Warholian devices—strobe and CRT—whose flicker effects bear the hallmarks of a new media system and its attendant logic—coupled to the slower, analog, and antecedent medium of painting that Warhol was, not surprisingly, and after Marcel Duchamp, tethered to in various stages of abandonment. Such medial devices had two main consequences: they facilitated the infusion of digital or ur-digital imagery into painting, thus aligning painting with postwar developments in information theory, and they supplied Warhol with an updated, machine-based logic of image production with which to recalibrate the New York avant-garde art scene along specific medial lines.

Executed in 1978, Shadows ushers from a technological order radically different from Warhol’s earlier photo silk screens. In referencing the mathematically precise generation of imagery achieved by measured voltage passing through a strobe lamp as well as the compositing of an image along horizontal and vertical axes that marks the raster scan in TV’s CRT, Shadows embodies a new media logic, one instrumental in revising Warhol’s earlier claim to want to be, and presumably paint, like a machine: “The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.”8 Like Warhol’s 1960s’ work, grounded in newspaper halftone photos, [End Page 482] Shadows is no less about platform-specific modes of data transmission. In particular, the Shadows’ closest medial precursor remains the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI), which marshaled film, television, music, and strobe to create an expanded-scale, intermedia environment. As Branden Joseph notes, the EPI’s variable strobes, spots, pistol lights, mirror balls, and loudspeakers engendered an intermedial, electric space,9 one singled out by Marshall McLuhan for its utopic, participatory dimensions, but which participants typically found aggressive, chaotic, visceral, and dissonant. A mere eleven years separates EPI from Shadows, but the differences are telling. Shadows, implicated in similar lighting technologies but an altogether different music, adopted the more delimited and regulated features of the strobe, generating an environmental work whose funereal silences and somber abstractions are aligned less with the avant-garde’s disruptive tendencies and...


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pp. 481-523
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