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25 April 2014updated 05 Oct 2023 8:24am

Recovering lost Warhol artworks and Nasa moon photos is part of keeping digital heritage alive

As more of our lives ends up locked away in digital formats, what happens when we can't read them any more?

By Ian Steadman

Andy Warhol was commissioned in 1985 by Commodore International to create a series of artworks using the company’s brand-new Amiga 1000 computer, which – if you remember 1985 – you’ll know was an extremely good computer for the time, particularly in the graphics department. Digital artist Cory Arcangel, a fan of Warhol, found a video online of the artist “painting” a portrait of Debbie Harry, and naturally wondered where these Amiga pieces might have got to.

Here’s the footage, by the way:

It turns out, Warhol’s Amiga works were sitting on old floppy disks all this time, forgotten among his collections of notes and works that were left behind after his death. Arcangel contacted the Warhol Museum‘s chief archivist, Matt Wrbican, in 2011 to ask for permission to search for the Amiga works in the museum’s collection – and, working with the Carngeie Mellon University Computer Club’s experts at recovering data from antiquated computers, found them. Here’s the Verge‘s Rich McCormick:

The images they found include doodles, photographs, and experiments with Warhol’s existing artworks. One image is a crude recreation of his world-famous Campbell’s soup can, its proportions skewed and its colors drawn in scratchy, MS Paint-esque lines. Another piece is a three-eyed doodle on a pre-rendered version of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

The images will now appear in Trapped: Andy Warhol’s Amiga Experiments, an exhibition opening 10 May at the Pittsburgh Carnegie Mellon Museum of Art. It’s not the only incredible example from this week of artefacts of great cultural heritage being rediscovered, though.

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There is an awesome feature by Doug Bierend over at Wired called “The Hackers Who Recovered Nasa’s Lost Lunar Photos“, about some of the American space agency’s first photographs of the Moon, how they were forgotten, and how they were saved two hackers in a disused McDonald’s:

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project has since 2007 brought some 2,000 pictures back from 1,500 analog data tapes. They contain the first high-resolution photographs ever taken from behind the lunar horizon, including the first photo of an earthrise. Thanks to the technical savvy and DIY engineering of the team at LOIRP, it’s being seen at a higher resolution than was ever previously possible.

“We’re reaching back to a capability that existed but couldn’t be touched back when it was created,” says Keith Cowing, co-lead and founding member at LOIRP. “It’s like having a DVD in 1966, you can’t play it. We had resolution of the earth of about a kilometer [per pixel]. This is an image taken a quarter of a fucking million miles away in 1966. The Beatles were warming up to play Shea Stadium at the moment it was being taken.”

Between 1966 and 67 the five Lunar Orbiters that Nasa sent to the Moon managed to map 99 percent of it, transmitting the raw data back to Earth to be stored on large tape reels. The images were used to map out possible landing sites for the Apollo missions, but viewing them at the highest resolution meant hiring out warehouses or churches and projecting huge photographs onto massive sheets of paper, where they could be traced out. Those tapes became unloved archive pieces once the projections were finished, and passed around from person to person until Nasa engineer Keith Cowing and space entrepeneur Dennis Wingo heard about them and figured it might be worth recovering the data, seeing as we’re now in a period of time where viewing digital images is pretty commonplace and easy. They found the tapes in a chicken shed in LA, and went to work.

It took a lot of ingenuity and effort – including tracking down or jerry-rigging some quite antiquated equipment – but the results have been spectacular, bringing in Nasa funding in 2008. The full tapes have recently been completely digitised, and the resolution of the images is superior even to that produced today by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the Moon since 2009. Think about that: humanity’s best, most-complete photography collection of the Moon’s surface had been left to sit in a shed. It would still be there, if the LOIRP hackers hadn’t been so determined to recover them.

Both the Moon tapes and the Warhol disks show us the importance of preserving our digital heritage, and the difficulties that can arise after only a short amount of time if archivists, fans or corporations aren’t careful with their artefacts. Think of how quickly floppy disks went from ubiquitous to obsolete, and how changing file systems can make drives that were commonplace a decade ago unreadable on today’s computers without a bit of jiggery-pokery. What is a pain to recover five years later becomes difficult after ten years, and perhaps impossible without specialised equipment after maybe even only twenty.

We are used to books, properly-stored and looked after, lasting for centuries in libraries and museums. CDs and DVDs last for maybe two hundred years, at a push, if they’re kept safe from threats like disk-eating mould. USB flash drives last for between five and ten years. Large cloud companies like Google still use magnetic tape backup systems because they can last as much as 50 years with reasonably consistent reliability, but it’s still not perfect. Discovering an old piece of digital storage doesn’t guarantee it to be readable, or recoverable -and even if the string of 0s and 1s that make up the binary data can be read, it could be like trying to interpret Ancient Egyptian without knowing which Rosetta Stone to use.

Since so much of our lives is now cloud-based, and human cultural artefacts are so much more mediated by digital technology than ever before, it might be a bit worrying to think that so much of humanity could be lost forever. Every recovery of a lost artefact is encouraging – and the LOIRP’s next project is a doozy. They’re going to try and establish contact with the ISEE-3 probe, which Nasa launched in 1973 on a mission to study the solar wind’s effects on the Earth’s magnetic field. It’s been travelling along Earth’s orbit, just slightly ahead of us, on standby. In August 2014 it will get close enough for us to contact it again and tell it to turn on, but it was launched so long ago that Nasa no longer has the equipment or programs to make itself understood. Nasa has said that reopening communications with ISEE-3 is impossible. LOIRP disagree, and think it could be repurposed for new scientific missions. Fingers crossed they’re correct.

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