Do-It-Yourself Celebrity| Warhol's "Screen Tests" Updated

A screen grab from the Museum of Modern Art's Warhol: Motion Pictures Exhibition
featuring stills from the DIY Screen Test project.
With all of the discussion of celebrity artists and artists as celebrities in the contemporary art world, I was very intrigued with the Museum of Modern Art’s interactive component “Create Your Own Screen Test” as part of their popular Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures exhibition. Referencing the iconic Warhol project which captured hundreds of motion picture “living portraits” of famous and anonymous visitors to his studio between 1963 and 1966 (including the likes of Dennis Hopper, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Edie Sedgwick, and Allen Ginsberg), the do-it-yourself screen test featured on MoMA’s website provides everyday virtual visitors an opportunity to participate in what is described by the museum as “our modern update on Warhol’s process.” The four steps (outlined with very clear instructions) consists of 1) staging your film set; 2) recording your screen test; 3) uploading your screen test to Flickr; and 4) submitting it to MoMA.

Edie Sedgwick, a famous subject of one of Warhol's
screen tests and one of the artist's "superstar" creations
Warhol’s process of course was all about interrogating the means through which the camera helped construct representations of celebrity. Screen tests had been used (and continue to this day) as a method through which directors tested the suitability of actors for particular projects in the process of casting their movies. As a tool through which to judge, it is also a tool to help determine the “marketability” of performers for major studio productions (you can check out these screen tests of famous actors to see this process played out).  Most of Warhol's screen tests consisted of placing his subjects in front of a 16mm Bolex camera without any direction (he often left the room) and shooting two and a half minutes of silent black and white footage that was wholly determined by the 100-foot rolls of film used for the session. Through this set up, the artificial conventions of the director’s instructions were removed freeing up his subjects to be relived of the pressure to “perform” for the camera. As film historian Tony Rayns argues in his discussion of the tests, “The resulting films drastically reduced the roles of director and viewer alike. The director’s function was limited to choosing the subject, setting up the shot, turning the camera on and off and deciding whether or not to exhibit the result. And the viewer, for the first time in the history of the commercial exploitation of persistence-of-vision, was relieved of the obligation—perhaps even a large part of the desire—to pay attention to the screen."

For Warhol, the mechanisms of the camera lay at the heart of the proposition—the ability of film to capture something “special” that the naked eye could not make out. In a famous passage from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, he ponders how the mechanisms of perception shift when an audience is confronted with a photographically based representation: “Beauties in photographs are different from beauties in person. It must be hard to be a model, because you’d want to be like the photograph of you, and you can’t ever look that way. And so you start to copy the photograph. Photographs usually bring in another half-dimension. Movies bring in another whole dimension. That screen magnetism is something secret – if you could only figure out what it is and how to make it, you’d have a really good product to sell. But you can’t even tell if someone has it until you actually see them up there on the screen. You have to give screen tests to find out.”

Seeing Warhol's Screen Tests in a museum setting is very different than viewing
the DIY Screen Tests on the MoMA website or in their original setting at Warhol's Factory.
(Image courtesy of ArtObserved)
In today’s media and celebrity obsessed culture, the opportunity to stage screen tests has grown exponentially with the birth of social media formats like YouTube. Every day it seems as if we are introduced to someone who has been plucked from obscurity to experience the 15 minutes of fame Warhol promised each of us. Indeed, as I looked through a number of the (now 646) screen tests on MoMA’s website, I realized just how far from the original proposition and purpose of Warhol’s screen tests this project had come. Within the new media context, the elements of speed, boredom, and distraction allow audiences to click through the tests in a completely reconfigured way, transforming the experience of duration, banality, and timeless presence of Warhol’s original screen tests. Much like the MoMA project accompanying Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, we are left wondering just how indifferent people are to the camera recording them. In either case, I think Warhol would have been pleased with the evolving conversation about photographic seeing and the perception of celebrity in today's technologically mediated world. As Warhol famously asked, "Isn't life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?"

See below trailer for 13 Most Beautiful... Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests, a DVD release featuring 13 of Warhol's classic silent film portraits. People in the trailer in order of appearance: Paul America, Edie Sedgwick, Richard Rheem, Ingrid Superstar, Lou Reed, Jane Holzer, Billy Name, Mary Woronov, Freddy Herko, Ann Buchanan, Susan Bottomly, Nico, Dennis Hopper.

Further Reading:

McCabe, Colin et al. Who is Andy Warhol? British Film Institute, 1997.

Warhol, Andy. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol Mariner Books, 1977.

Uhlin, Graig. "Sound and Speech in Andy Warhol's Films." Quarterly Review of Film and Video 26.4 (2009): 322-328.