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technologyFigment, Virality, And The ‘Real World’

Andy Warhol's gravestone, decorated with flowers and Campbell's soup cans by visitors.

On August 6th, 2013 – the anniversary of Warhol’s birth – The Andy Warhol Museum launched a new project in collaboration with Earthcam called Figment, A 24/7 live camera of Andy Warhol’s grave. The project’s title references a quote from Andy:

I never understood why when you died, you didn’t just vanish, and everything could just keep going on the way it was only you just wouldn’t be there. I always thought I’d like my own tombstone to be blank. No epitaph and no name.

Well, actually, I’d like it to say “figment.”

As simple and seemingly mundane as this project may be, it represents a truly successful digital project for the museum. On the day it launched, the webpage received more traffic than any other in the history of our website, and the museum’s social media channels spiked in activity. It hit major news outlets around the world from Huffington Post and Slate to the AP, and tech sites like Buzzfeed and Gizmodo.

But what I find vastly more interesting is how since launching, the project is facilitating the creation of a seemingly self-feeding cycle between ‘the digital’ and ‘the real world’. Since Figment launched we’ve noticed a spike in visitation to the grave site and a proliferation of media created at – and broadcast from – the location. The site is no longer just a place of pilgrimage for contemporary art lovers, inspired artists, or historical buffs: it is now also a place to be seen and create content.

Visitors are now doing things that usually don’t happen in a cemetery: waving at the camera, shouting to loved ones, or, in more involved examples, using the grave site and project as a platform for their own art making. Cases in point:

Pittsburgh-based music group Suits and Ukes performing a cover of The Velvet Underground’s Pale Blue Eyes, referencing Warhol’s grave and the Figment project as well as the recent yarn-bombing of The Andy Warhol Bridge in Pittsburgh (more on that project here). According to the Suits and Ukes team:

When the Suits & Ukes team first heard about the Figment project, we were inspired to revisit our childhood neighborhood where Andy is buried and share a song that wouldn’t have been possible without him.

A second example:

Artist Riley Harmon‘s special Poser performance at the grave site. The video for which is simply a screen grab of the Figment feed.


Some more examples: still images taken from the live feed:

This visitor shows of a large collage to audiences at home.
This visitor shows off a large collage to audiences at home.
Here, the man in the blue shirt is painting in between the grave site and camera.
Here, the man in the blue shirt is painting in between the grave site and camera.

As an optimistic technologist, I’d like to think that the next big wave of consumer technologies will push value back to real-world experience. This is already evidenced in a plethora of new products and technologies that leverage location-based tagging or tracking to augment an overall ‘experience’. It’s in this space that I think Warhol’s grave site and Figment are perfectly positioned to shine.