What Andy Warhol can teach us about immersive storytelling

Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, the electric chair, Mao Zedong.

Without the images and headlines that Andy Warhol repurposed over and over again from tabloids, newspapers and publicity stills we might have a completely different collective memory of the 20th century. His influence on pop culture is clear; Warhol is on everything from socks to wallpaper. But beyond the iconic images he’s most famous for, Warhol also had a striking influence on how we see and experience art, photography and film that feels extremely relevant as we experiment with new technology in storytelling.

As a JSK Fellow at Stanford, my project focuses on using immersive technology to make stories about inequality more accessible. I’m taking a course titled Warhol’s World, taught by art historian Richard Meyer, who curated the exhibit Contact Warhol” at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center(on display through January 6). Since spending time with Warhol, I find myself shifting away from thinking about the nuts and bolts of headsets and equipment and more towards the actual storytelling process — using nonlinear formats, thinking about how and where stories live, and who the audience is. Learning about Warhol’s extreme visual intelligence and experiments in large-format silkscreens, film and photography sparked ideas for me about how the storytelling we’re trying to do as journalists isn’t as far apart as we might think from art and experimental film.

Andy Warhol, “The Witch” (1981), on display at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford. Photo: Laura Hertzfeld

Before coming to the fellowship, I spent the past two years creating an ecosystem of immersive storytellers at Journalism 360. I saw the tech innovation in the space and spent time with virtual reality and augmented reality companies. But in studying Warhol, I learned that we don’t have to completely reinvent how we tell stories to take advantage of these new tools.

Remember the power of photography

Warhol took from journalism by liberally applying fair use statutes and by working alongside photographers for access to images. For his “Death and Disaster” series, Warhol forged relationships with photo agencies to obtain the gruesome angles that tabloids weren’t publishing, using his role as artist to force people into seeing unsettling things — like plane crashes and car crashes. “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect,” Warhol told ArtNews in 1963. Warhol was making a statement by showing the same photos over and over again — he was purposely taking away their power.

[“Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)”, 1963. Source: The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.]

Today, we’ve done Warhol’s work for him. We’re bombarded with images constantly and the role of photo editor has been eclipsed by Google image search. The power of a single image is constantly diminished. But there are more creative ways to tell a visual story and help events stick in our memory.

By using immersive technology, exploring user-generated content and images in new ways, empowering photographers in local communities, and using platforms like Instagram to elevate other voices rather than repeat the same things over and over, we have an opportunity to use technology for good and avoid the repetition that desensitizes us to the traumas happening around the world. Projects like JSK Fellow Benjamin Petit’s #Dysturb and Peter DiCampo’s Everyday Africa are doing just that — using photography to expand our collective mindset about the world, rather than repeat what’s already out there.

Put the viewer in the story

In “129 Die in Jet!” (1962), Warhol repurposed a tabloid front page, repainting it by hand at 100” x 72”, making the tragedy inescapable for viewers. It puts the viewer at eye level and brings them into the scene. He turns the newspaper front page into a billboard — big, bold, unavoidable. Warhol also focuses on the people who are alive in the photo — the witnesses and investigators — causing the viewer think about what they would be doing in such a situation, rather than showing details of the people who died in the crash.

“129 Die in Jet!”, 1962. Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Before VR headsets existed, Warhol understood that to put yourself in someone else’s shoes the story needs to be tangible — and one way of doing that is to make it lifesized. The technology we have available to us now makes an even more immersive experience possible, which studies are finding helps create empathy.

Research from the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab’s recent project “Being Homeless” found that people who did the experience were more likely to have a “positive attitude” towards the homeless.

“Experiences are what define us as humans, so it’s not surprising that an intense experience in VR is more impactful than imagining something,” said Stanford communication professor Jeremy Bailenson about the lab’s research findings. “What’s special about this research is that it gives us longitudinal evidence that VR changes attitudes and behaviors of people in a positive way.”

There are many ways to be in someone else’s shoes. VR is one of them. It may not be appropriate for every, or even most, stories, but we have a responsibility to think about how to translate some of the stories we are telling into experiences that can have a lasting impact on our audiences.

Learn to tell stories that aren’t linear

Warhol became obsessed with filmmaking in the late 1960s and 70s. In “Chelsea Girls” (1966), Warhol breaks the boundaries of traditional filmmaking by showing two films side by side, each with a story that has no linear plot, loosely connecting the lives of friends living at the Chelsea Hotel. While it was panned by the film press, “Chelsea Girls” was a commercial success.

We are just scratching the surface of the storytelling possibilities using virtual reality and augmented reality. But the first lesson in using any of these new media is being able to tell a story in a nonlinear fashion. In a headset, the viewer controls what they see next and where the action takes place. New innovations in data visualization are also forcing us to think beyond telling a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. While it means giving up some control as a reporter to guide the reader or viewer through a story, perhaps our audiences will uncover nuance and meaning to stories that we didn’t even know were there by allowing them greater control.

Create a connection between online and offline

The most successful immersive pieces create a clear connection between online and offline experiences, cleverly combining storytelling with technology and creating space for people to share the experience together.

While the internet was not available to Warhol, he understood the difference in experiencing content in a museum compared with seeing objects in your own space, like at his Factory, or out in the world. With Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Warhol explored the idea of the live experience, launching “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” a live show that assaulted the senses, with various projections, a live band, dancers, speakers playing records, and mural paintings.

Today, Meow Wolf, an immersive theater and art project based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is leading the way on creating connections between experiences, using a physical installation that pairs with documentary and VR projects. As journalists, we should be thinking about how we can bring people into the stories in different ways: does the user who skims an article online get as much out of the story as someone who has had a headset experience or delved into a dataset or listened to a podcast? Who are each of these users and how can we serve them better?

I have been thinking about how we can use public spaces like schools, libraries and even laundromats to bring immersive stories to more people and broader audiences. What are the narratives we can share — both within the technology and beyond it — that provide a range of experiences for a wide variety of users?

Listen more

Warhol loved taking assignments; it’s probably why he was so successful as a commercial artist; there was always a subject to work from. Writer Fran Lebowitz recently spoke with The New York Times about her relationship with Warhol. “He didn’t talk. Andy, what he wanted to do, was get you to talk. He was a vampire. He wanted to take things from people. I could talk. That’s what he could take from me,” she said. Warhol’s first concern was whether something would look good. That marriage of ideas coming from the people around him combined with his talent for making it work in different media made his art successful.

As journalists, we could do a lot more listening. We don’t need to control every conversation to tell a good story. Particularly when it comes to creating in VR and AR, we should be thinking first about the audience — asking what people want to see, understanding the gaps in coverage and letting stories emerge organically.

My husband, Rich, and I were inspired to dress as Andy Warhol and his pop art Marilyn Monroe for our fellows’ Halloween party.

In the coming months at Stanford, I hope to continue to build on what I started thinking about in Warhol’s World to explore the variety of ways we tell stories through art, film, science and history and distill what we can take from these disciplines — which have been exploring immersive storytelling for longer than journalism — into our daily work. I often wonder what Warhol would create in VR or what his Twitter feed would look like, but I’m sure he’d agree that the opportunity to have the kind of impact we see from VR and AR is too big to pass up.